Confidence and the Creator: A Lesson from the First Week of Self-Publishing

Article headline, and four stock photos of people looking upset, cradling their faces in their arms.
Article headline, and four stock photos of people looking upset, cradling their faces in their arms.

This past week I learned an unexpected lesson about e-publishing. An important lesson! But a tricky one.

Some folks bee-line for self-publishing because they think it’s an easy way to make money and become an accomplished writer. They know in their guts that their work is good enough, irrespective of how much they’ve read in the industry, and anyone who says otherwise simply doesn’t understand their genius — or maybe is intimidated by it?

They also know that This One Guy Got Famous off an agent reading a random self-published story, so why can’t they be the next diamond plucked from the rough? Again: they know they’re good enough. So surely, if they put their work out there, readers will know it, too.

Others who take the independent-publishing path are a little more pragmatic, and industrious. Some recognize the immense amount of work that self-publishing requires to be successful… and they’re willing to do that work. They release products on a consistent basis. They establish a compelling author brand. And they choose a niche market that’s always hungry for new content.

But most of us writers go about the hunt for publication the old-fashioned way: by seeking the acceptance and support of a pre-existing literary community. By reading the work that’s out there. By submitting stories to magazines. By pitching novels to agents and small presses. By participating in something larger than ourselves, and learning from the wide range of other work in the genre.

Up until these last few months, I was only ever in this last group. I submit to, and see stories published by, traditional sci-fi venues (e.g. Clarkesworld and Analog). I shopped a first novel to around 60 agents before putting it to bed and writing a second, which I’ll start querying to agents in earnest this January. And I’m scaling up my volunteering within the SF&F community: I’m on an award’s committee for 2021, I’m part of SFWA’s backend team for editing and layout (after serving as a mentor in its 2019/2020 iteration), and I recently proposed a Self-Published eBook Roundup for a publication with volunteer reviewers. I write paid reviews for Strange Horizons, too, and I generally seek to champion good work and encourage full participation from writers I see worrying about whether they “belong” in our sphere.

But as of December 14, 2020, with the launch of Third Planet Fall Down, the first of four novellas in my Menagerie Mysteries series, I’ve also declared myself to be someone in that second group. With that first novella, and with these posts (in which I’ve striven to be open about every step of the process), I’m now seeking to establish myself as someone who also approaches self-publishing — like traditional publishing! — as an enterprise that takes work to achieve any positive outcomes.

Why? Because unless you married or were born into the right publishing circles, there are no short-cuts in publishing. All you can do is to keep exploring new options, and to keep learning as you go.

And in this first week of my novella’s launch, I’ve learned firsthand — felt firsthand — perhaps one of the biggest differences between independent and traditional publishing. And because that lesson sucked to learn, I’m sharing it with the rest of you now.

Ready for it?

Here goes:

When you self-publish, you really are doing this alone. Meaning, the buck stops with you, the quality control stops with you, and there’s no team that has supported you all through the production journey, to reassure you if and when things go wrong.

With traditional publishing, on the other hand, people have your back. You give your writing to an editorial team, and that editor/team takes on a body of obligations and responsibilities to curate and maybe even defend your work from that point forward. When the work eventually goes up, you can be nervous about it, you can be disappointed in it, you can even agree with the negative reviews that come out roasting it… but all the while, you know that someone else chose that piece. Paid you for that piece! Wanted that piece to be part of what their production stands for.

This is why I’ve never felt as thankful to the editors I’ve had the privilege to work with in SF&F (editors I listed in my book’s acknowledgments section!), as I do now that I’ve experienced what it’s like to publish solely on the strength of my confidence with every facet of process.

Because the alternative?


The alternative is tough.

Now, to be clear: I stand by the content of my first novella. I stand by the world I’ve built, and which I’ll continue revealing to you folks over novellas two and three in January and February.

But when I first uploaded my final version to Amazon, which requires book versions to be locked in four days before publication, I discovered a typo within hours, and that left me feeling crushed. I felt like I’d failed before I’d even gotten my new project off the ground.

Then, once the first version was launched, I realized that I’d also forgotten key names from my acknowledgments. I revised and uploaded again.

By this time, too, I knew that I’d probably seen the upper bound of sales I was going to get from my first book — and all sales from people that I knew, because of course they were. That’s how this business goes, for the vast majority of self-published products.

And so, no, there was no rush from folks to review it or sing its praises, so I threw myself into production work for the second. I told myself that one needs to produce literary product consistently, if they’ve any hope of establishing a brand and seeing sales growth through these platforms; and so the correct application of my energy now lay with moving on to Book 2.

Later this week, though, a parental read the work and couldn’t help but inform me that there were more typos in it. Six more, in total. (At first I thought it was seven, but one of their supposed typos wasn’t that at all.) And… when I say that they “couldn’t help” it, I mean that I told this parental not to mention typos on Book 1 while I was focussed on getting Book 2 ready. Nevertheless, they were clear about this just being who they are. Uh huh. Well, so it goes sometimes.

In any case, that intel completely threw off my workflow for Saturday. I got nothing else accomplished after this news, save reading through Book 1 again to make sure there weren’t even more errors, resubmitting it everywhere, and writing to buyers to let them know they could access a tidier version if they wanted. Seven typos in 36k made me feel like a complete and utter failure, unable to do the work I needed to do to get this series off the ground.

And I also pushed back release of Book 2, to January 12, because after that conversation with the parental my confidence was utterly shot. I’d tried too hard to get too much off the ground during my literary sabbatical, and I was convinced that I just going to make a fool of myself in the attempt if I didn’t slow everything down a bit more.

(Oh, to have the overconfidence of that first group of self-publishers some days, no?)

Today, though, I’ve had time for reflect, and because I’m finishing off two children’s stories for Christmas presents, I’ve gained perspective on that overwhelming sense of failure. These stories are also works that speak to my inventiveness: two little chapter books that show the same general events from different POV characters — the older sibling, and the younger — to teach an important lesson to both. And I know my audience will enjoy them, because the kids get such a thrill out of seeing themselves in the work.

The rewards for today’s labour are easy, then, and concrete.

For self-publishing, though, the rewards are not easy; and if they’re concrete, they’re concrete only in the few dollars and sales most e-books hope to earn.

When you fail within traditional publishing, conversely, you fail within a team, a community, a context where someone else liked the work well enough to vouch for it, and you.

And so, when I was agonizing over seven typos in the first edition of my first professional ebook, what I was really agonizing over was the dread realization that everything I’m doing now, with this series, only reflects on me — my standards, my commitment to quality in the work — for better or for worse.

Now, yes, this is an emotional load that I had certainly imagined might be part of the process. Living through it, though, is a whole other kettle of fish. But — I will! And having named it for what it is, I’m now in a position to learn from it, so as to get better at this side of the craft.

My next book, The Moon Is Not My Name, now launches January 12, 2021, which gives me ample time to space out final revisions before the January 8 upload deadline. An updated version of Third Planet Fall Down is also available now (see links below), for those interested in an SF mystery involving Pax Murillo, the 2040s big-screen detective who’s gradually coming to realize that he’s been rendered as an AI by the aliens who slaughtered humanity to put up an amusement park. It’s a rough “life” for Murillo — and it doesn’t get any easier in Book 2!

If you love the creative work you do, then, and you’re keen to develop a professional practice around it, I’d like to impart just this one lesson from my first week as a professional e-book author:

Know why you’re doing what you do the way that you do it.

Because on those days when you feel fully responsible for everything related to your creative practice… you’d best have enough inner momentum to carry you up and out of the inevitability of making mistakes along the way.

Third Planet Falls Down released on December 14, 2020, on kindle (35% author take, better reach), Kobo (70% author take, decent reach), and Gumroad (100% author take, lower reach). Book 2 of the Menagerie Mysteries, The Moon Is Not My Name, launches January 12, 2021.

M L Clark reflects on lessons from the first week of self-publishing, and especially on issues of confidence that can emerge from the process


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