We once believed that all good books found publishers
The assumption was, if your book was good, someone would publish it. If no one wanted to publish it, it was probably a mediocre manuscript at best. But that of course wasn’t true. Publishing has always been first and foremost a business, so many things besides the quality of the manuscript, go into the decision to accept or reject. J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter Manuscript was rejected more than 10 times before it was accepted. I think it’s safe to say, that the reason for those 10 rejections had nothing to do with the quality of the writing.
The truth is, lots more people write books than there are publishers willing or financially able to publish them. Some of those rejected books are poorly written or poorly developed, but some of them are good, very good or even great, and just didn’t meet the right publisher at the right time.
Back in the day, self-publishing was such an expensive option, that it was usually referred to as vanity publishing. Since the odds against success were so low, it seemed to be a self-indulgent or vain option. Authors paid very high off-set printing costs and had to buy a huge print-run of books. Then they had to store those books and either sell directly to readers, or try to get the books in a bookstore, one store at a time, usually on consignment (bookstore distribution is an ongoing challenge for self-published books). Many writers sold their books from the trunk of a car, on self-funded book tours.
In roughly the last 15 years, the increasing quality of Print-On-Demand (POD), the popularity of Ebooks, and the endless platform and distribution options on the internet, have changed self-publishing. The editorial boards at the publishing houses, for years seen as gatekeepers by would be authors, no longer hold the only key to the gate. But the reality is; they do still hold access to instant credibility and status.
We’re in a bit of a weird place with the old self-publishing stigma. Many self-published authors have large readerships, and some are even seeing their books turned into movies, but if someone told you she had a book coming out soon, you would probably be more impressed if it was being published by Random House, than if she said she was self-publishing. Why? Because what makes self-publishing great is that there are no gatekeepers, and what can make self-publishing awful, is that there are no gatekeepers (no one stopping the publication of unpolished work). Which is why, self-publishers have to think like traditional publishers and hold their work to a high standard. That means having a well-designed cover, a properly formatted interior, and content that has been developed and polished.
A contract with a traditional publisher still holds an allure for many writers. Creatives fight an ongoing battle between self-doubt and confidence, and validation of their work is like a drug. But if your attempts to find a home at a publishing house come up empty, don’t for a minute assume that your publishing dreams are over. Self-publishing is not a lesser option, it’s an alternate choice. It comes with challenges, but also rewards such as creative control. (Tweet that) It’s great to have someone believe in your work, greater still to truly believe in it yourself.