Self-Publishing to Success in the Internet Age
Scores of new authors are launching careers—with help from the Internet—and changing the publishing industry for good.
By Sarah Watts
When people dream of writing books for a living, the imagined path to success usually looks like this: You write a book, land an agent, secure a high-figure deal at a big-name publishing house, and—hopefully—spend the rest of your career churning out best-sellers.
A select few might follow that career trajectory. But for more and more authors—both new and established ones—their careers look starkly different. Thanks to the Internet, along with the rise of various self-publishing tools, platforms, and communities, writers can now carve out a career path for themselves as published authors, independent of traditional publishing houses or media gatekeepers.
The self-publishing industry has no sign of slowing down anytime soon: On Kobo, an e-reader platform, one in every four books in their directory is from a self-published author. Since 2014, a full 30 percent of recorded book sales in the United States were from self-published (“indie”) authors.
But why would an author willingly self-publish, rather than submit through an agent and (possibly) land a huge advance for their book? Helen Scott, a paranormal romance author based in the Chicago suburbs, launched her career as author in 2016, choosing to forego an agent and a publishing house so that she could have more control in what she published. Backed by the power of an Internet connection, this type of flexibility was a real option.
“I knew as a newbie author that I might not get the support I wanted with a publishing house, since they have so many other authors to worry about,” Scott says. “With self-publishing, I have access to more [immediate] data and can pivot more easily toward things that are trending or that my readers are looking for.”
Since publishing her 2017 debut novel The Siren's Son, Scott has gone on to complete two additional paranormal romance series, seven series co-written with other authors, and several more standalone books. One co-written series, Once Upon a Rebel Fairytale, landed on the USA Today best-seller's list in 2018, an achievement Scott says is largely due to the freedom that comes with self-publishing.
“I've been able to do things for my career that I just wouldn't have been able to do through a publishing house,” she says. “I've been able to write whatever I want, however I want, and see the data firsthand as to whether or not it's successful.” Additionally, she says, self-publishing allows her to produce work on her own schedule rather than waiting to fit into the schedule of a larger publishing house.
While self-publishing allows plenty of freedom, Scott says, it also comes with risk. Like other self-published authors, Scott fronts the costs of publishing herself—not just putting the words on paper, but editing, designing covers, proofreading, advertisements, promotion, and more.
Zetta Elliot, a Canadian-American Black feminist author who has both self-published and gone through the traditional publishing route, says that, like Scott, although she enjoys the autonomy with self-publishing, it's also a lot more work. “You're completely on your own with self-publishing,” she says. “You don't have an editor giving you feedback, you have to verify you've gotten the historical facts right, you have to do everything the publishing team would do on your own. You have to hustle pretty hard.”
Elliot broke into the publishing world with her debut picture book Bird, in 2008. A lifelong teacher, Elliot worked in community centers and after-school programs to supplement her stipend from graduate school throughout the early 2000s, all the while writing and submitting her own work. Bird landed a deal through the publishing house Lee & Low, but despite it receiving critical acclaim, Elliot had difficulty generating interest in her other books. Elliot decided to self-publish her second book, a young adult novel entitled A Wish After Midnight, and has self-published much of her writing since then.
“There tends to be a lot of anti-Blackness in traditional publishing,” Elliot says. “There's an appetite within the industry, because it's dominated by one group, for stories about Black pain and trauma. They don't want fluffy bunny stories from Black writers—they want slavery narratives.” Self-publishing has been a way for Elliot to publish material she wants, rather than the trauma narratives that publishing houses are clamoring for.
Additionally, Elliot says, self-publishing can be a way to help her serve her community.
“When I was teaching at a creative arts center in upper Manhattan, I had a young student who came into our after-school program, and she was always upset and angry. When I took her aside to figure out what was going on, she said that the kids were teasing her because her mother was in prison,” Elliot recalls. “I tried to find a book about a little girl whose mother was in prison, and I couldn't anywhere—even though close to three million children in this country have an incarcerated parent.” Years later, Elliot self-published the book An Angel for Marequa, based on her student's story. “Self-publishing is a way to make sure we're meeting the needs of kids who are considered not a good commercial market for corporate publishers,” she says.
To date, Elliot has self-published over 30 books, with dozens more manuscripts on her hard drive. She makes a steady living from her work, which includes both self-published and traditionally-published books—but like a lot of people who decide to self-publish, making money isn't the most important result of her work.
“I come from a culture where stories are ways to pass on lessons and preserve traditions,” Elliot says. “I think for that reason I see self-publishing as an act of resistance—not just giving the middle finger to the publishing industry, but to say that our stories matter.”