Knowing Your Worth: Finding Value in Self-Publishing
Why writers shouldn’t let industry validation determine the value of their work“I need to find out if my book truly has value,” the author sitting before me said, by way of explaining why she’d be shopping her second book to traditional publishers. Her comment struck me like a blow, coming as it was from a former client and student, an author on the She Writes Press roster who I thought should know better. Or perhaps I felt I’d failed her, because I aspire to free the authors on my list from the mentality that industry validation equals legitimacy.
Of course I understand any author’s desire to get published traditionally. After all, the seduction of going that route is strong. To be chosen, to have one’s work paid for, to have someone else shoulder the risk—these remain goals and dreams and ambitions that most authors continue to carry, even after they’ve independently published one or countless books.
But value and its cousin worth are sneaky little beasts. I have my ears well-tuned for the ways in which these words show up in conversation with women writers in particular. Value and worth are tricky because they’re words that connote money and finances, yet they encompass so much more than that. After all, it’s rarely the material things in life that top the list of things we most value or that make us feel most worthy.
The press I run, She Writes Press, attracts entrepreneurial authors because of its hybrid model; once they go through a vetting process, authors pay to publish in exchange for royalties much higher than the industry standard. The press also attracts authors who are savvy about the business of publishing. These authors have oftentimes gone through the rigmarole of submitting to agents and editors, only to get what I call the “glowing rejection letters,” letting them know how amazing their work is, but in the same sentence explaining how and why the book isn’t salable.
In order to have a good publishing experience, the authors who publish on She Writes Press must come to terms with the publishing landscape such as it is. I call authors who take their publishing journey into their own hands “green-lighters,” and I admire the tremendous courage required to take this step. A writer must have enormous strength of conviction to come to that moment of determination to say to oneself: “I’m good enough and I’m going for it.”
Before, during, and even after one becomes a green-lighter, the money conversation looms large. Because She Writes Press publishes women only, I have conversations with a lot of women about money. In these exchanges, women express anxiety about whether their books are “worth it” and whether they can move ahead if there’s not a full return on their investment; they confess to me that their husbands don’t want them spending so much money on a “hobby.” They feel selfish for spending money on themselves when they have kids’ college funds they’re saving for, when there are repairs that need to be done around the house that will benefit the whole family. Women feel shame around not having the money to pay to publish, and sometimes they even feel shame around the very conversation of paying to publish. Yes, they buy into the myth that if the work was good enough, they would have been offered a traditional publishing deal. And this vicious cycle clearly doesn’t end just because an author has published nontraditionally, because the money itself is tied to a false principle: that authors are better or more deserving if they’re paid an advance, or if they’re deemed worthy by gatekeepers who vet manuscripts for a living.
She Writes Press was recently written up in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Is It Worth Paying $7,500 to Have Your Book Published? Maybe.” Maybe, indeed. Because the only person who can determine an endeavor’s worth is the person paying, and the value of the experience and its outcome varies from individual to individual. For some writers, $7,500 is a drop in the bucket; for others, it’s outrageous. And it’s not only the actual dollar amount; it’s also about what value a person places on the experience, the product, and the means and methods by which said product—in this case a book—gets out into the world.
I don’t begrudge my dear author who told me she needs to traditionally shop her book. I champion every author who wants to pursue any kind of publishing opportunity, and I always wish them the best. What triggered me during our conversation was the notion that discovering whether or not the author’s book had value would be inherent in that experience. Authors must determine for themselves whether or not this is so before they shop their book to agents, editors, and publishers. Shopping a book traditionally is a lot like a dating app: an agent swipes left for the lack of an author platform; an editor swipes left because the sales of the author’s first book weren’t so stellar; another agent swipes left because the author doesn’t seem all that mediagenic, so she’s not worth the risk.
Authors would do themselves a giant favor by approaching the traditional shopping experience a lot like they would that app. To play the field and see what happens is a fine approach, but to allow the rejections to say anything about the actual work is truly self-harming. Authors are deeply vulnerable when shopping their manuscripts, and when deciding whether or how to publish. And questions of worthiness plague nearly every author I know.
For debut authors, I advise them to be in it for the long haul and to celebrate the small victories, such as moments of connection with readers, a glowing review from a stranger, and the potential that these victories will have to propel the next book. When shopping to publishers, or deciding whether and how to publish at all, consider the qualities inherent in worthiness: the quality of being good enough and the quality of deserving attention or respect. The biggest win for authors, even bigger than an advance from a big house, is to be able to access those qualities and believe them to be true, regardless of the publishing outcome for their work.