If you’re a writer—or connected in some way to the writer scene—then you’re probably aware that November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). A time where pen-monkeys of all ages and skill levels come out of the woodwork to try and churn out 50,000 words in a single, marathon-month of word-smithery. As you might expect, many newer and first time writers are interested in what happens after you finish said novel: namely, should you publish it?

Ultimately, that question is for each person to answer, but while perusing the NaNoWriMo forums, I ran across a post from a first-time author who was considering taking the self-publishing path and wanted to know whether they needed to get their book edited before releasing. After reading through the thread, I felt like there were a lot of misconceptions that popped up, which mostly revolved around not getting your work edited because writing is art, and people should just be cool with your art because it’s art. That people really shouldn’t care if there are mistakes because you did your best and because, again, ART. Upon which I loudly declare shenanigans. What follows is a response I thought I’d share, because maybe you—the person reading this right now—just completed NaNo and are considering whether to self-publish or not. If so, hopefully this will help you out.

First, let me saying writing is art. But publishing? Publishing is business. Publishing is about money. About marketing. About target demographics and sales copy. Publishing can be a harsh, difficult world; a sea, chock-full of hungry, bloodthirsty sharks and terrible Cthulhu-krakens waiting to drag you down into the watery depths.

Writing is unicorns and rainbows. Publishing is invoices and spreadsheets and more Cthulhu-krakens (taxes and the IRS).

When you write a novel or a story, do it for you—it’s just you making your art, exploring your mind, reflecting on your soul, all of which is great. And if you want to write simply for writing’s sake, that’s awesome. And if you want to share that art with someone else, that’s great too and there are lots of places where you can share your work for free (Royal Road, Wattpad, a thousand other online forums). Those are great places to practice and get valuable feedback, which will grow you as an author. But, when you start asking people for their money, your art has, to a large degree, stopped being art and instead has morphed into something new … something different … It has become, a product.

It is something you made with the intent to sell to someone else.

And that’s business.

Customers expect businesses to act professionally and create professional products. If I bought a blender at Target and took it home, only to realize it sucks and doesn’t blend things, I wouldn’t be like “well, someone probably worked really hard on this blender, so it’s fine that it doesn’t work.” Nope, I’m gonna be grumpy that I bought a piece of junk blender. If I email the company with a complaint, and they reply by saying, “It’s expensive to make quality blenders, so we cut some corners—we replaced the blades with Styrofoam and the buttons with Legos—but I’m sure you can understand, what with the sad state of the economy …” I can assure you I won’t be understanding. I will be a very unsatisfied customer.

If I order a supreme pizza—and I love pizza—which shows up at my door with no toppings and no cheese (just basically red sauce on Wonder bread) things will get ugly. ‘Cause I get hangry very quick and I paid money for a supreme pizza.

Likewise, a reader who buys a book is expecting a professional product that’s worth the money they spent on it.

They still may not like your book, which is cool—there’s an art component to a book and art is highly subjective and will not appeal to everyone—but they shouldn’t dislike it because it is poorly made, badly formatted, or riddled with typos. They should not like it because the story didn’t click or the characters didn’t resonant. Whatever. Traditional publishers invest money in books (which is why they only take on certain books, because they want to recoup their investment and then some), in order to produce a quality product. When you choose to self-publish, you take on the business role of publisher. At that point, you are no longer doing art, you are doing business.

So, if you want to be successful as a professional author (and by that I mean make money), there are two possible ways:

  1. Work hard, hone your craft, and go the traditional route. A traditional publisher will invest time and money into your work to make it shine. They’ll do the business stuff on your behalf (and you’ll pay them a huge chunk of your earnings to do so).
  2. Work hard, hone your craft, and start your own business. You will need to invest the money in your work to make it shine. Treat the publishing side as a business. Get a professional cover. Hire an editor. Leave money for a marketing budget. Also, know that even if you do all that your book might still flop (traditional publishers diversify their investments, because even when you do business right, a product still might fail). When you fail, pick yourself back up and do it all again.

Hopefully, this didn’t come off as too harsh. But I would hate for anyone to enter into the publishing world unprepared for the often-times harsh realities waiting there. Now, here’s a picture of a funny-eared squirrel, to 1) remind you not to take yourself too seriously, and 2) to remind you not to get distracted by reading stupid blog advice instead of writing your book. Enjoy the squirrel, then go write!