DIY publishing

Let me be clear right up front: I've never self-published and never thought I would. The closest I've ever gone is the short story I write once a year to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

It's hard enough to get a shred of respect in the publishing world as a) small press, b) a woman and c) a horror writer who dared to put sex in two of her books. Every time I've pitched a bookstore on carrying my stuff I've had to prove (practically by blood oath) that it wasn't self-published. I've had my bio changed to call me an "aspiring author" after I had two books on the shelves at Borders, I've been sneered at and mocked to my face at conventions, and naturally, I'm broke.

But there was a panel at Dragoncon that has been weighing on my mind lately (and yes, I know I'm almost a month late in doing a DC write-up; I was deathly ill, sue me). It was the panel on the future of publishing, and I was going into it yawning because at every show I've done this year, every panel has degenerated into "the future of publishing." I've started to call it "run in circles scream and shout." We're all panicked, the world is changing, midlisters are being bumped and bookstores are dying. Help!

Michael Stackpole and I have met many times, and I've always admired his adaptability to the changing nature of the fiction market. Stackpole was the first author to sell short fiction on the iPhone/iTouch, and he talked about it to a halfway-receptive audience. I think I asked him more questions than the audience did, because I was fascinated. Not just about selling via iTunes and his web site - though that is fascinating - but the sea change it represents in fiction.

Ever since, and especially as I've worked to get up and running, I've been thinking about it. If Michael Stackpole can earn $2 a short story hawking his fiction online, why can't I? Why can't my fellow writers, who do such wonderful work and spend months - years - trying desperately to get their stuff published?

I currently have two short stories making the rounds, not including reprints. One of them is on its seventh submission. That's six magazines that have rejected it for various reasons. If the current magazine rejects it, I'm pretty much out of markets. It's been making the rounds since May 2008, folks. That's pretty quick, to tell you the truth. I believe it's a good story. It's kind of a departure from what I usually do, but I really like it.

The other one is a little newer. It's only been rejected once. That's because it's a weird science fiction/horror/fantasy mix that doesn't quite mesh with any particular magazine. Currently it's sitting on my sub board because I can't think who to send it next. That sf mag won't want it because of its graphic violence; that fantasy mag won't like the time-travel setting; that horror mag wants a more realistic premise.

Why not sell it myself?

If I were to land it with a top-notch mag, the most I can hope to get is 5 cents a word. I'd get about $250. That's a nice chunk of change for a short story. But to be honest, I rarely make the top mags. I'd probably have to settle for 1-2 cents a word -at most, $50. For a novella-length work, I've been paid as little as $20. Nobody makes a living on that.

I might make a better living selling it for $2 a pop off my web site. And I bet I could scrounge up a few other authors with those unsalable short stories who wouldn't mind earning some extra bucks. Free money, right? Design a nice cover, email PDFs in return for actual dollars. Stackpole has to share 40c to $1 per sale with Apple; I can do it myself.

But then there's that whole "self-publishing" thing.

I asked Stackpole about that. He said something interesting: if there are members of the writing fraternity who are going to sneer at the money he makes off the iTunes deal because it's technically self-pub, he doesn't give a damn what they think. They're being snobs. Now, you do need editing, he said - nobody should just rip and read to the public. Pay someone or bribe an editor friend, but get a second (third, fourth) pair of eyes on the work. But if this is the way the world is going - and it's certainly looking that way - might this not be the savior of short fiction?

I mean, I could wait the rest of my life for someone to come up with a horror/sf/fantasy anthology about time-traveling murderers. Or a magazine editor who likes me.

I'm finding it hard to convince myself to send out my stories yet again, to wait six to eight months for what is usually a gigantic NO, all so I can earn $20 to $50 and the slim hope that somebody gives me... respect. Yeah, that doesn't pay the hotel bill. I scrounge for reasons not to do it, and I can't seem to find them.

I am thinking very hard about this.


  1. Or we could work something out with Succubus Productions... Hence technically NOT self-pub, but 40% royalties. Maybe even a chapbook.

    Or if you do the anthology, we can run it through createspace and have paper copies. I make $11 on every copy of Into Dark Waters that I split 50/50 with Naomi.

    We put out Into Dark Waters because none of our publishers is doing reprints right now. We're hesitant to go .pdf because of theft.

  2. In response to your "sue me" comment, it would be pointless. Just before you commented about being broke. Any suit against you would be a moot point. As a recent convert from the printed market to the electronic market, I would gladly give my two dollars. As long as you do not chase after people like the paperboy in "Better Off Dead" yelling "I want my two dollars."

  3. Anonymous5:05 AM

    Have you looked at omikuji_project or talked to Catherynne Valente about it? It could be another way to go with your short fiction.

  4. I think you are absolutely right. I haven't said anything, but I've wondered about this ever since I started reading Cory Doctorow.

    I know you can't afford to give your stuff away like he does, but he releases everything via Creative Commons at the same time it is published, and people still by his books. I don't think the risk of people "stealing" your stories is as high as everyone seems to think. If your stories do get passed around, you may lose one $2 sale, but you may gain a new fan who buys more $2 stories or $10 books. That's what makes me love this idea. Just make sure your literaryunderground URL is built into the .pdf so people know where it came from if it does get sent on to friends.

  5. Spud31 brought up Creative Commons, (Thanks, a very useful tool.)

    You and I have talked about this in the past. There ARE new business models coming. And the numbers are looking more right every day.

    Yeah, I'm thinking more about it again.

  6. I am thinking very hard about this too. For quite some time I have felt that the iPhone and similar platforms were the perfect vehicle for short work fiction. Not just from the eye strain factor involved in reading long form fiction on such a device, but because the most likely place such reading will take place is during the commute. Just enough time to sneak in a short story.

    There is also the growing sentiment that for writers of the future to land a publishing contract they will have had to proven their worth by having preexisting fan base built via self publishing.

    It's a wild time to be a writer.


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