Self-Publishing on the Fringe of Fiction

By Amy M. Vaughn

Contributing Editor

Thinking about self-publishing? There are a lot of reasons why a writer might decide to do it themselves, especially for those writing bizarro, surreal, and experimental fiction. For one thing, there just aren’t enough presses to go around. But not everybody who goes the DIY route can make it work. Good publishers do a lot of things: they know their market and acquire content suited to it; they coordinate or undertake the editing, formatting, and cover art; they determine distribution channels, costs, and royalties; and they are always optimizing their marketing networks. To self-publish means taking on all of these tasks for yourself.

In order to learn more about self-publishing on the fringe of fiction, I asked three seasoned veterans what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s most important when just starting out. 

The Good

Let’s start with the positives. Frank J. Edler, author of six self-published books (and host of the Bizzong! podcast), says the best things about going it alone are (1) maintaining full of control of the rights to your creation, (2) releasing the work in a shorter timeframe, and (3) having a larger sense of accomplishment beyond writing the book.

Julia Platz-Halter, who has self-pubbed five books, agrees that the most positive thing about doing it yourself is “retaining total control of one’s work and not having to compromise with editors, publishers, and, most importantly, markets.” This isn’t just abstract what-ifs for her either. “There was a time when a publisher showed interest in a book of mine, but not without substantial changes. Having previously self-published, I was confident I could do so again, and was thus able to maintain the artistic integrity of Moby-Penis.”

The third author I talked to was Duncan P. Bradshaw, who has seen ten titles from birth to market. He made it three-for-three saying that control was the predominant positive factor in publishing your own books. For Bradshaw it’s especially important when it comes to how a book looks. “[A] fair few indie presses don’t put the love and attention required into the presentation of their books. . . . Putting out a book like Mr Sucky, which is produced on A4 [8 1/4 x 11 3/4 paper], with a faux photocopied theme throughout, including fake [vacuum cleaner] instructions, is something that not many (if any) small presses would do. By doing it myself, I can ensure that the book in people’s hands is close to my vision of it.”

While each has their own take, all three authors agree that self-publishing grants creative control at every step of the process. And since we’re talking about the most wildly creative genres, that’s no small consideration. 

The Bad

But it isn’t all sunshine and daisies. When asked what he finds negative or challenging about self-publishing, Edler’s quick to point to the expense. Shouldering “100% of the cost . . . editing, cover art, layout, marketing all fall on the self-published author.” Marketing is an issue unto itself. It’s “harder to gain a readership without the backing of a press. Self-published work [is] not held as high in regard as books vetted through a publisher.” 

Platz-Halter also talks about marketing. “The negative side to self-publishing, what I struggle with, is that a book will live and die by the force of one’s personality. As independent authors we are already responsible for most of our promotion, but even if the only thing a publisher does is Tweet about a book, that’s still more eyes on it than there would be otherwise.”

Bradshaw adds to the chorus. “Pimping it out is on you, getting it to reviewers is on you, all the things that a small press might help out with is, you guessed it, ALL ON YOU. It’s the thing I hate the most.”

The Most Important

I asked each of the authors what advice they would give people who were just starting out in self-publishing. Platz-Halter got right to brass tacks saying, “Find a good template. While it is possible to format everything yourself from scratch in a word processor and have it turn out fine, it’s actually impossible to do that, and you’ll regret not using templates later.”

Edler and Bradshaw came at the question from a broader angle. The former admonished writers to remember what they’ve signed on for: “You must get your work edited by someone other than yourself. You must retain decent book cover art. And you must learn book layout and design. ALL those skills are learnable. The information is out there on the internet.” He also recommends learning a new skill or technique with each book, making each release better than the previous one.

Bradshaw wants you to make darn sure you want to do it this way. “If you don’t fancy spending hours formatting your work, editing it long after your own editor has gone through it (you DO have an editor, yeah?), finding cover artists, putting it all together, shoving your hand in your pocket to pay for things, and if you hate public reading or trying to pimp your work, don’t bother. It really is something that you have to enjoy, nay, LOVE doing. If your heart is just in writing, good on ya, stick to finding small presses and the like. But if you think that your work, and your vision, is something that most would struggle to create, then do it yourself. It is hard work, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but opening that box up from the printer, holding that book in your hand, and seeing how it looks, is something that makes the effort worthwhile.”

Self-publishing, then, can be both challenging and rewarding, frustrating and fulfilling. Only you can say if it’s right for you. Hopefully, hearing from these experienced DIYers has given you information you can use in making your decision. Good luck with whichever path you follow!

Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books like Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel and Skull Nuggets. She’s also the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space and a contributing editor at Babou 691.