Andrew Ladd

*the author, not the hockey player

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What writers really want: counterpoint

March 20, 2024

The last thing I wrote here basically boiled down to: writers write books either because they want the world to read their writing, or because they want the status of being a published author, and if you're a writer, you should pursue a different strategy depending on which one you care about. If you just want to be read, self-publish; if you want the status, do the hard work of finding a conventional publisher.

Re-reading that first paragraph, I'm kind of embarrassed by how many hundreds of words it took me to make the same point in the original post.

But anyway, the reason I'm returning to it is becuse, since I wrote it, I've encountered what in my day job I would call "an edge case". So I thought I'd better equivocate.

What happened since then is that my friend Joe self-published a book. He approached me last summer to say he'd written one, and to ask if I had any advice, and I ended up working with him as an editorial consultant getting the manuscript into shape.

My initial advice to him, though, was that he was really going to struggle to find a conventional publisher. It's a great book, but its topic — how to build an effective sales strategy for selling event tickets — is too niche to be worth a mainstream publisher's time. This is not me being mean or pessimistic; it's just me being someone who's married to a sales director for a mainstream publisher. You absorb a little commercial publishing ruthlessness after a while. (And incidentally, when Joe queried a niche theatrical publisher, they said it was too niche even for them. So I feel vindicated.)

We chatted about ways he could broaden the audience and add mainstream appeal, but that would have meant turning it into a very different book than the one he'd sat down to write, so instead he settled on self-publishing. To his immense credit, he also hired a professional cover designer to make the book look its best, and, self-publishing being what it is these days, the book itself — now that I've got a finished physical copy in my hands — is really not all that distinguishable from any other book. It's a nice object. I would pick it up in a store.

That was my argument in my original post, of course: if all you want is a book, you can make yourself a book without having to jump through all the hoops of conventional publishing. But what has really struck me about Joe's book launch — which seems to have been very successful in the niche corner of the live entertainment industry that he was targeting — is that sometimes it's also possible to get the status of being a published author without having to jump through all the hoops of conventional publishing.

Because the response to Joe's book has been overwhelmingly positive and heart-warming and inspirational, even for cynical old colophon-chasing me. He's got people showering him with praise and congratulations and sales, and deservedly so. He's produced something that has authority and merit and gravitas. He's produced something that people want and need, that conventional publishing would never have been able to do.

Does this mean I've stopped sending out query letters? Absolutely not. (I sent two last night.) For my quiet literary fiction, I still feel like the imprimatur of an agent and established publisher is crucial. But if you're a member of a niche community and you have writing you want to share with that community, then self-publishing will give you the best of both worlds. So don't listen to the grumpy old gatekeepers — and certainly don't listen to me.