Self-publishing Lies and Myths: Short Fiction and Poetry


Every couple of months I open a search list on my Tweetdeck for “self-publishing” and let it run for a few weeks before cutting it off again. I do this because it’s difficult to stomach the lies, misinformation, and overly optimistic nonsense that tends to flood that channel. I’m in another one of my phases and an article over at the Self Publishing Review grabbed my attention: “Self-publishing For the Short Fiction Writer

I have a lot of problems with this article, most of which has to do with the author’s lack of information about her experiences with publishing. For example:

As a short story author, usually you are paid on a cents-per-word basis and a couple free copies. Unless you sell your story to one of the bigger, well-known publications you won’t make more than 1-5 cents per word. Some pay nothing (and I do have a whole separate rant on non-paying markets; One of several pet peeves.)

I’ve made a whopping $20.00 off of my shorter works. WOW! I really got rich doing things “the traditional way” didn’t I?

For anyone who knows something about short fiction markets, this raises a lot of red flags. Where was this author submitting to? Why was she rejected if she submitted to major markets? What places did she get published in? Were they low-paying, but prestigious locations, which sometimes bring more to the table than money anyway? We have basically no information about this, and her post, thus, seems like more of a bitter “I could only get published in the lower end stuff because nobody liked me” rant than any sort of legitimate discussion about the short fiction market. Not to mention that there is no mention of how much she has made from the self-published collection of her work, which seems to me to be a very important thing to mention when you’re complaining about the pay rates of traditional venues. How many copies has she sold? No idea. My guess is “not that many.” She says she has made more that way than she ever had going the traditional route, but I have no idea how much that is on either end. Her argument is as devoid of substance as most anything I have seen in this anti-traditional vein.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t stop there. She then gets a little uppity about the fact that her work is no longer in print, which, again, raises red flags. There are reprint markets out there. Lots of them. And many of them pay. Why didn’t she attempt to get them reprinted? I don’t know. She doesn’t say. Maybe she didn’t know (which raises another red flag, because anyone who wants to talk about the faults of traditional publishing should at least know how that system works).

Perhaps the only grain of truth in the whole post is her very brief discussion of poetry. While there are good paying markets for poetry, it’s not unheard of, nor necessarily a bad idea, for poets to create their own collections and do “well.” By that, I mean that they may sell some copies, may get a little notice, but that might be the end of it. Self-published poetry collections don’t have an influence within the broader academic literary community, as told to me by a friend in the creative writing department at the University of Florida. If you’re wanting notice from academics, you really have to find a traditional publishing or an academic publisher (that’s not universal, but close enough to it). But poetry tends to have a better relationship to self-publishing than other form, and I think that works well enough for that particular literary genre. You won’t get rich either way, but I don’t think anyone becomes a poet to get rich.

But where do the myths and the lies come in? Well, first things first, the post is disingenuous. By leaving out contextual information, the post is little more than a “you’re going to get paid like crap so you should do it yourself” myth. Maybe you won’t get paid like crap. Maybe you’ll sell a story to the New Yorker or Subtropics or one of the top genre markets like Clarkesworld or whatever. You don’t know. She doesn’t know either. Nobody knows. Likewise, getting paid $20 for a short story isn’t something to scoff at. That’s money you didn’t have before and now you have a publication under your belt.

But the most pressing issue here is the assumption that not getting published by major avenues should act as the catalyst for self-publishing. The author is creating a very skewed and ridiculous picture of reality, one that discourages you from trying by intentionally leaving out seriously valuable information about traditional publishing (i.e. actual pay rates, which are sometimes in the thousands, depending on the market). If you care about your craft and the magazines you’re submitting to, then it should do the exact opposite. You should ALWAYS be working on your craft. Period. A rejection should never stop you. If you truly care about writing and having your work in print, then you should keep working at it, and hard, until you get there. Getting $20 at a smaller market for a work that didn’t cut it at a higher paying place isn’t something to be upset about. Use that as the vehicle to push you forward. Keep trying. And if you still can’t get published, reassess. Maybe your work is good and you’ve come a long way, but it’s not what XYZ publishes. If so, maybe self-publishing is okay, but don’t jump to that path just because you’ve failed or because you’re afraid you won’t get paid well. Get there by working hard and becoming a better writer. Rushing is stupid.

The problem I have always had with so many self-publishers is the defeatist attitude: so many of them couldn’t take the rejection, on any level, and decided that somehow they’re too brilliant to not be in print. Maybe you’re not brilliant yet. Work on it. Ray Bradbury had over 800 rejections before his first sale, and look where he is now. He has more clout than any 100 self-publishing authors combined. His books are classics; they’re in schools, in almost every bookstore, in movies, and so on. He didn’t get there by twiddling his thumbs. He worked and worked and worked. So many classic SF/F authors did.

Can self-publishing do your short fiction some good? Maybe. It might do nothing whatsoever, or maybe make it worse. The one thing I do think is great about short fiction is that it is so easy to share with people, and now with online magazines playing a prominent role in the short fiction community, that is even easier than it ever was before. But any time you leave out reality, you’re producing a myth–one that gets recirculated like Washington’s cherry tree, but does more damage than it does good. Self-publishers need better arguments and a lot more reality.

P.S.: If you wanted to add more missing contextual information, then just try to figure out how much time and money she spent to self-publish. She doesn’t say. Time is money. Stephen King tried the self-publishing route, and while it was moderately successful, he stopped because he would rather spend that time writing than doing marketing and so on (presumably because he was making more money from his actual writing than the other path). That’s something to always think about.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

4 thoughts on “Self-publishing Lies and Myths: Short Fiction and Poetry

  1. It's a little weird for her to be talking about publishing short fiction in the light of making money at all. If someone told her that short fiction was the way to get rich (any writing, really), then she was duped. Do any short fiction authors nowadays make a living solely from their short fiction? I ask because I don't know, but I'm doubtful.

    In general, for every self-publishing success story, I would guess there are at least (probably many more) a thousand stories of failure.

    The article seems like an exercise in the author trying to convince herself that she's made the right choice.

  2. Jon: Well, yes. That's something I probably should have addressed. Thanks for bringing it up. There are almost no writers who make a living on short fiction alone. There are some (I don't know who they are, but they're likely not genre writers), but they're few and far between.

    I wouldn't be surprised if she was duped either. With the kinds of things flooding the net about self-publishing (and its relation to traditional publishing), it's incredibly easy to be misinformed about such things. Just look at Twitter.

    I agree with your last point too :).

  3. This is a little OT, but I wasn't aware of that about Bradbury. I'm going to read my first ever Bradbury: Dandelion Wine, and it's always nice to know little things like that about an author. So thanks.

  4. Well, I hope it's good. I've only read Fahrenheit 451, so I don't know what his other work is like. Still, 800 rejections shows true dedication and I imagine all of his work reflects that.

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