We usually do Q&As on Thursdays, for paid subscribers, but this one was big enough that I wanted to share it with the whole class.
A reader asks: How do I know if my book is good enough to self-publish?
I have a YA novel that has been seen by multiple beta readers, has had multiple professional critiques, and has won/been shortlisted in a couple of prizes for unpublished books. I've sent out over 80 queries and haven't had much luck - one full request from an agent who then turned it down, and an independent publisher who seemed interested but who can't seem to make a time to connect.
When I won an award for the manuscript in August, I decided that if I didn't have any interest by the end of the year, I'd self-publish. But I'm worried that it isn't good enough - if it was, wouldn't someone have shown some interest? (One of the main reasons I wanted to get traditionally published was for the validation, and now that I might be going ahead without that, I'm a bit of an anxious mess.)
Oh, Reader. I know this is such a tough road. Your path here is familiar, which I know is frustrating to hear, but I hope it makes your feel less alone. Look at all you’ve accomplished! You wrote a book! You sent it out to 80 people! You won a bunch of awards/prizes! That is so much and so good and you should be proud of yourself for this, hands down.
I know you didn’t get The Thing you want. It is ok to want that, regardless of what I say here. I don’t have an answer to your question, though. There is no way to tell if you’re “good enough” to self-publish because there is no “good enough” for that. And lots of “good enough” books aren’t traditionally published, too. Your book could be very good and not have been picked up for many reasons—most of which are bullshit, unfair, and out of your control. This is because publishing is a retail industry and not a meritocracy, or exempt from systemic injustice. I know! I’m sorry! Capitalism is horrible!
I think what you’re really asking is “how do I know self-publishing will not break my heart just like traditional publishing has?” and you can’t know that either. Your book can be the absolutely best in the world, and/or best you can do, and you can publish it traditionally or via self-publishing and it will still break your heart.
Because publishing—either way—is not here to validate you. It’s not here to fill a hole somewhere. You’re not going to be much different the day after your book is available than you were the day before, except someone out there can exchange money for your book. I know that sounds harsh and this is the tough love section of my answer. You have to divorce your self-worth from publishing. It’s not going to solve that for you.
Can you derive pride and a sense of accomplishment from publishing, via either route? Yes. Can you be thrilled your book did a thing/reached a milestone/made X sales? Yes. Can you be sad that it didn’t do whatever thing you were hoping for? Of course. But try not to give it much more power than that. You can’t control it. It’s about as fickle as the weather. It’s like saying I’m only good at my job if it’s sunny outside. I hope you don’t live in Portland, OR or London or some other notoriously rainy place.
You have to give publishing up to the fates. You can try to do the thing you want—traditional or self-publishing, whichever you choose—and if that doesn’t work invoke our friend ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and try something else. It’s all trying! The results are out of your control. Again, there’s no “good enough” to self-publish. You might put it out there and people might buy it or not. It takes a lot of work to market ANY book, and you can do all that and still ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. (I personally do not know what the self-pub market looks for YA, so maybe do some more research there. Do you buy any self-pub YA novels? Do your friends?) I know this all sounds hopeless and you might be thinking why bother? and if everything you get out of writing and making books hinges on a certain publication scenario and certain outcomes of that scenario, then yeah, your experience might suck, a lot. You can have literally everything go right (big agent! big auction! big publisher! big reviews!) and it’ll be crickets in the bookstores when it comes to sales. Publishing is cursed and infuriating!!! I’m sorry!!!! But that’s how it is.
Find your validation elsewhere, preferably in ways you have more control over. Immersing yourself in research or art or form or function. Try a tricky narrative structure and absolutely rocking it. (Who gets to say you’re rocking it? You do.) Beautiful turns of phrase. Supporting your fellow writers. All of the above. But not the physical or digital printing of books. That’s just a machine run on money producing a product for sale. It’s not validation. It’s not self-worth. You’re already worth more than that.
Should you self-publish your YA novel? Maybe. Look around at other self-published novels akin to yours. Maybe reach out to those authors to chat about their experience. Really think about what you want to happen as a result of publishing it that way, and if those expectations are reasonable. Then make your choice. There’s no right answer. There’s no guarantee. There’s no guarantee for anyone ever, so it’s not just you.
You’re doing a great job. It’s hard and it sucks. Keep going, on whatever path YOU want to. Your writing career is not just this book.
I’m teaching as part of the FutureScapes workshop (about writing and money and revenue streams!) in January, 2023! Apply here!
Love this! Sometimes I feel bad that one of my self-published books only has 9 reviews on Amazon, but then I remind myself, I’ve finished and published two books!
And all nine of those reviews were five stars. Celebrate the success you do have!
I’ve also gotten an agent, then was rejected by all the big publishers! What fun that was... not. Hence, an agent does not always lead to validation. That book remains unpublished.
Keep writing! Keep loving yourself.
Thank you so much, Kate, for your honesty and positivity! And thank you to the reader who submitted this question -- how awesome to win prizes and be shortlisted! In addition to the larger publishing houses and self-publishing, there's also a ton of excellent indy publishers, and I think you might find a great one that doesn't look only at agented writers. If you're like me and can't imagine doing the marketing, this might be another possibility!