Traditional or Self-Publishing: Defining Your Dream


"dream wheel"
Photo by H.T. Yu

So I planned on blogging on something else this morning and then agent Rachelle Gardner tweeted this post by Phil Cooke on How Much Did It Take To Buy You Away From Your Dream? Go read it. It's not publishing specific, but really can be applied to anything.


He sites the line in the movie Up In the Air where George Clooney's character asks someone he's firing that question: How much did it take to buy you away from your dream? (Because the guy at one time wanted to be a chef and went into whatever he business he was getting fired from instead.)

We all at some point probably give up on or modify our dreams. I know I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school--even started college with a double major in English and Psychology. But then as time went on, I decided I needed to be more "practical" and focus on the psychology so I could have a stable, decent-paying job. I absolutely DON'T regret that decision. I loved what I learned and enjoyed my masters program in social work. The jobs and experiences I had were invaluable. I wouldn't have been able to write CRASH INTO YOU without it. So I got to my dream, albeit via a convoluted path.

But once you've decided you're going to pursue that dream of being a writer, you now have a couple of different versions of "the dream" to choose from. Once, not too long ago, you had one option--get an agent, pursue traditional publishing. But now you have traditional publishing, small press, digital-first publishers, vanity publishing, and of course, the hot topic of the last few months--self-publishing.

So what's the right path for you? Obviously there are success stories in each venue. And one method isn't mutually exclusive of the other. You may pursue digital publishing first with the intent to eventually move to a more traditional publisher. Lots of people have used digital (especially in my genre) as a stepping stone to a NY contract.

How do you figure out which to pursue? And here's what I think--you need to define your dream.

What is it you are seeking from being a writer? When you let your mind wander, which parts get you all giddy inside? Big readership? Big paychecks? NYT Bestseller lists? Getting fan mail? Holding your book in your hands? Seeing it on a shelf?

And then consider which method of publishing feeds the core of your dream.

Here's what my dream consists of:


  • The chance to share my stories with others and (hopefully) entertain them.
  • The ability to at least make a similar salary writing books as I was making as a  management recruiter (The job I had before I had my son.)
  • Validation from professionals that my writing is good and marketable.
  • To hold my book in my hands and see it on the shelves of bookstores.
  • Okay, and having some fans and a big readership wouldn't suck.

So when you analyze the main components of my dream, you can probably see why self-publishing an ebook wouldn't have been the total fulfillment of my dream. I could have accomplished some of these, but not all of them. And some people may scoff at the validation piece, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could land an agent and a big publisher. Maybe it's bad to look to others to measure if I'm "good enough" but that's how I'm built when it comes to my writing.


Now if you don't need that validation and your main goal is to get your stories out there in whatever format you can so that you can get in front of readers, then putting your book up on Amazon may be a great option. It may fill your personal dream well to the brim. Or maybe you want that validation, but holding the book in your hands isn't that big a deal--then maybe an digital publisher is the best option.

The key is figuring out what is going to fulfill you. If traditional publishing is where you've hung your hope, then fight for it. Don't query a few agents, get a few rejections, then throw your hands up and say "Oh I'm going to self-publish this as an ebook.  Some people are making all kinds of money doing that. Screw New York!" Because then what will you be able to say if someone were to ask you that question in a few years: How much did it take to buy you away from your dream?

Did you sell your dream for instant gratification or lack of patience? Did you sell it so you wouldn't have to tuck away a book and start something new and keep working to get better? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you've gone on to be an ebook millionaire. I don't know. But it is something to think about.

I don't think there is anything wrong with alternatives to traditional publishing. Obviously, it's going to be a huge part of the future of publishing. But I think it's important to know what's going to feed your writer's soul and work as hard as you can to accomplish whatever your personal dream is.

So what do you think? What are the essential components of your dream? Which method of publishing do you think is the best fit for you?

WINNER: Thanks to all of you who asked me questions and entered the contest last Friday. The winner of the 5-page critique is Strickland! Congrats!