Picking between Indie and Trad Publishing

So, I have been looking into the difference between independent and traditional publishing. I’ve had my work in front of agents time and time again for months at this point. I’ve subbed it to non-agented places and still get rejects. And on top of that, it doesn’t help that there are obvious issues traditional publishing has about putting out Black writers, especially for speculative fiction (Sci-Fi, Fantasy). Both traditional publishers and literary journals alike have this very, exact issue: they’re not interested. They talk a lot but they do very, very little outside of rudimentary tokenization. I mean, traditional publishing is roughly 80% White and as far as literary journals, they only publish 4.3% of Black authors, a small jump from less than 2% of Black authors  – which I always translate to myself: “I basically have roughly a 4% chance of getting published, lower for especially somewhere considered noteworthy.” This gives me obvious concern. These are some awful numbers if you’re a Black writer in speculative fiction. Because you still have over a 95% chance of failure.

To folks who are not Black, it’s a problem to wax poetic over and mull about, to me, these are very real issues that sincerely barricades me from the regular channels of publishing. It’s one thing to not get published because you suck/over-saturated market/etc etc, it’s another because of someone’s prejudices clouding their thinking. I’m not saying I’d go from 4% chance to 100% but at least I’d have the same standard likelihood as everyone else. Otherwise, they might as well say “Negro writers need not apply – we’re not publishing you anyways”. They’re already implying it by what they put out.

I would like to be published traditionally because that’s what I always wanted. But it appears that it’s not all that I would like. There’s the whole thing about possibly losing creative control. I don’t like that. I have friends in the music industry so I got to see first-hand what that looks like, it isn’t fun. The company makes you do all these changes, even if you don’t want them, and if fans don’t like it, guess who they direct all their vitriol to? The artist. Not the execs or producers or writers behind the scenes that told the artist to make the changes or get shelved (meaning your album will never be put out) but the artist, who had to make the changes thanks to contractual tie-ups. Then you have the fact that you’re self-esteem is fed through a wood chipper to the point you honestly feel like the least knowledgeable person in the room about your music. Several of my friends described that. It affected a good chunk of them to the point of severe depression. That’s why they escaped their majors*. I don’t want that in book publishing form.

Then there’s indie publishing. Which my brain always thinks of “self-publishing” – like, the old school “we take your money” types. I used to work in the Library of Congress. The first division I worked in is the Cataloging-In-Publications (CIP) division. Long story hecka short: every book in the world pretty much landed on my desk. Literally. I saw some really nice books – and some very crappy ones. The self-pubs around 2014 always took the lion’s share of the “crappy” territory. Always. Terrible covers. Terrible editing. Terrible everything. It didn’t help that LoC CIP had a rule to pretty much throw out all self-pubs because, frankly, they’re not traditional pubs. Granted, that view is changing a leeeeeeeeeeeeettle bit, the LoC Acquisitions Division (which CIP is under) recently put out a new thing last year in regards to “Independently Published and Self-Published Textual Materials” because they basically went “lolz, turns out that traditional publishers tend to publish White, straight people, this totally skews what we’re trying to do in terms of preserving American history and not simply White American history.” No, seriously:

“Self-publishing is an important outlet for the stories of ordinary people and reflects the voices of these multiple cultures, struggles, and experiences. Self-published books can be excellent primary source material … Self-publishing provides a valuable and often irreplaceable window into political, social, and economic movements and into popular culture.

Self-published material has historically come into the Library via established channels, yet, for whatever reason, some publishers of controversial content or content produced by and for minority communities may not have been sending their publications via Copyright or as gifts.

*koff* some folks would worry that their material would leapfrog from the LoC’s desk to the FBI’s desk (if you accompany your book with a death threat to the president (Obama, when I worked there), yah, you were some visiting agent’s lunchtime reading. Otherwise, you’re fine). And then there’s perceived lack of access and the pervasive myth of “poor man copyright” (it’s not real, y’all)*kaaaaaaaaaaaawf*

The Library is interested in acquiring publications of specific groups or communities which have been overlooked, some of which are mentioned below. Recommending Officers are encouraged to widen the circle, to look beyond the types of material that come to the Library routinely, and to consider a wider variety of material for inclusion in the collections. However, as the universe of self-published materials, both analog and digital, has exploded and continues to grow, Recommending Officers must be selective and exercise judgment in their recommendations.

Examples of groups that are underrepresented by mainstream publishing houses, and thus often turn to
self-publishing:

• People of Color (African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans,
and Spanish-speaking Americans)
• Immigrants to the U.S. who write in their native languages or in English
• The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community
• Non-mainstream religious communities
• Political dissidents

I had to include the “However ….” bit because it is so, well, such an LoC bit to say, ha. Basically, in layman, it means “We know we don’t have much but that doesn’t mean turn on the fire hose of gods-know-what is out there”. And working in CIP, I have personally seen some doozies. And some came from the trad pubs.

Either way, this is certainly a change from the previous “blindly chuck most self-pub literature”. They are even reaching as far as considering putting some in the Vault (permanent collections):

The Library does not acquire most self-published works of literature for its permanent collections. In addition to the exceptions noted above, Recommending Officers and selection officials may select self published literary works for the Library’s permanent collections that meet any of the following criteria:

• The self-published work is written by an author with at least one traditional commercially published work

• The self-published work is subsequently published, in a new edition, by a traditional commercial publisher

• The self-published work has garnered a significant readership (determined by sales rankings, bestseller lists, and other criteria deemed appropriate by Recommending Officers)

• The self-published work is of demonstrable literary merit or captures the expressions of an underrepresented culture or community (determined by review sources, nomination for literary
awards, and other criteria deemed appropriate by Recommending Officers)

This is some significant change (not much but some) because previously, that access was fairly locked shut for self-pub. Granted, I agree that not everything self-pub should be in the Vault but it is nice to open the doors for works that particularly reflect marginalized communities but have been iced out due to artificial gatekeeping in traditional publishing. (“Artificial gatekeeping” because works from historically marginalized communities aren’t being selected by trad pubs, not because they’re not good works but because the people doing the picking personally believe, consciously or not, that literary works from these groups aren’t as good as works from White writers). So, yay, something?

Back to me, individually. I know I still hold biases and stigmas about self-publishing/indie publishing because I remember how it was from the 90s and at the LoC. The running joke was “you’re only self published because you weren’t good enough to get traditionally published”. I’m certain that would be truer if it weren’t for the whole bias thing but unfortunately, that bias plays a role. But I still have that “not good enough if self-pub” stigma. So I am not exactly too sure if I want to do indie pub everything or still chase after traditionals for the works I really wanted traditionally published.

Which causes a different problem all on its own: it stagnates what I can and can’t share online. Since I’m always going “waaaaaaaaait, I could probably sub this” towards my works, I don’t really post them. That and I despise online formatting, as evidenced by my experience with Wattpad. Here’s the thing: if I post the works online, I lose first publishing rights for other places to use, thus, I cannot really submit it anywhere. But I have little to nothing to show as a result of it. It almost feels like being shelved but not. I certainly do feel like my hands are tied because of this because A) That rights thing and B) I have literally no clue when my works are going to be accepted so it throws me off to post things for stuff that may not be seen in full for months or years. And it makes me start to sound like friends in music who have been shelved: “I’d like to put it out to the world but I can’t, hasn’t been picked up yet.” That’s not good.

I already have a particular “order” of what I would like my publish output to look like but I want to at least try to shop my works around – even though I pretty much get “no” literally everywhere. Why? Because in my head, it’s a validation thing and an “official” thing of “yay, my works are in some random press”. Because they are a literary magazine and I am a writer. Do I read or listen to any of them? No, I don’t. On the reader side, I find most lit journals boring, stuffy and have way too many stories told from first person POV. Every time I have tried, I felt like I was back in school, I would be dulled numb. But they are supposed to be important to writers so I submit stuff – but even that I’m starting to lose grip with because, again, the number of Black folks published in them is artificially low and that is a major problem. There is little point submitting to people who are already dedicated in some way, aware or not, to barring or pigeon-holing Black writers for nonsense reasons.

So yeah, at a crossroads because I would like to be traditionally published but I also would like to retain as much creative control as possible. Especially given traditional publishing’s poor history with picking up and supporting pretty much anyone who isn’t White.

*Majors – Major record companies (Atlantic, Epic, etc)

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