Self-publishing as Meaningful Work

There is a passage in Malcolm Gladwell’s amazing book Outliers that, at its heart, speaks volumes about why writers should self-publish.

[T]hree things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our works fulfills us. …Work that fulfills those three criteria is meaningful.

Over and over again on websites and in personal correspondence, I hear writers who have chosen to self-publish talk about how energized (or re-energized) they are. While there’s the inevitable grousing about low-sales numbers or promotions gone haywire, rarely are there complaints about the work itself. I know I find myself ready to write every day, eager to get to the page and get my latest words down.

That’s because, according to Gladwell’s definition, self-publishing is meaningful work.

The vast majority of would-be writers get up in the morning and write for a faceless agent at an unknown agency. They write so they can add their manuscript to a growing pile of manuscripts so large that at some agencies the interns can sit on them like chairs. That manuscript may be rejected for any number of reasons that, in most cases, will never be communicated to the author, leaving no opportunity for improvement.

The self-published author writes for himself or herself and sets the standard for quality, content, and length. There are no bosses—or, they are the best kind to have: readers and fans. Writing for yourself means there are no barriers or go-betweens. The relationship consists of you and your audience, and that’s it.

How many traditionally-published authors get to write in more than one genre? Or more than one format? Or write something that deviates from the norm in approach or tone or voice?

I’m simultaneously working on three short stories, a novella, three novels, and two non-fiction articles. The short stories are fantasy, the novella is horror, and the novels are crime fiction. I’ve got a trunk full of literary fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction ideas. Nothing’s going to keep me from publishing them when I feel that they meet my standards of quality. If I feel like publishing poetry next year, I’ll do that without batting an eye. And if I decide a book with a mixture of verse, prose, and hyper-links is the next thing that lights my creative fires, I have the freedom to do so.

A Connection Between Effort And Reward
I can’t recall reading an account by or talking to a traditionally published author who has sung the praises of their publisher in terms of promotional support, career advancement, or financial probity. I can, however, think of a half-dozen authors who have complained about little or no advertising support, minuscule advances, a paltry 17.5% royalty rate, terrible covers, and being dropped when sales numbers didn’t beat (often unrealistic or handicapped) expectations. These same authors understood that they were expected to produce at the top of their abilities, regardless of the actions of their publishers.

Even if I never make a cent off my writing, I still feel the direct, immediate reward of work well-done—work I’ve done–when I write a story, format the content, create the cover, and publish my title myself. I understand instantly the ramifications of a poorly edited manuscript, or a lousy cover, or a rushed blurb. More importantly, I can affect the outcome directly. Responsibility, effort, blame, and accolades all rest with me. Money I make from the sales of my work is gravy, but even then I have instant access to my earnings and can adjust my promotional efforts accordingly. Someday I want to make a living off my words, but for now it’s a thrill just to see others interested in my writing.

Meaningful Work
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why, after years of trying to catch an agent’s eye and writing in futility, self-publishing agrees with me and so many other writers. But I have Gladwell to thank for putting the feeling so succinctly. The idea of writing as meaningful work fits so perfectly, like a key in a lock, that I think I’ll print it out and hang it above my desk.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Craft, Tips for eAuthors
9 comments on “Self-publishing as Meaningful Work
  1. I liked this article quite a bit. Creative freedom has never been this unrestricted, commercially speaking. Similarly, excuses for failure have now fallen to the wayside. As a writer your responsibility is to put out there the best possible product that you can create and to try and enjoy the process as much as possible. By continuously focussing on producing the best, you keep improving your skills and that is never a bad thing.

    At the end of the day it is just you and the reader. I heard someone say that there is a reader for every writer. They just have to find each other.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Thanks Woelf – Wonderful point about excuses for failure. I count myself as a great procrastinator and the agent/trad pub system ironically aids and abets anyone who has a penchant for falling into a “woe is me” mindset: after twenty or thirty rejections, the temptation to believe that your writing is just an exercise without a goal begins to take over.

      Self-publishing takes that prop away and pushes you out of the nest. The feeling is scary and exhilarating at the same time, but to paraphrase something someone once said, “the greatest growth occurs at the point of the greatest adversity.” With self-publishing, I’ve never felt more responsible for both the work required and any (hoped for!) rewards that may come.

  2. I think meaning in work is far more important than the financial rewards for most creative people. For me it’s about staying true to yourself; writing what you love. That in itself is meaningful. I’d love to make a living from it one day, but for now, I’m happy to find a few people who like my stories and follow my blog.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Narrative – Thanks for stopping by. I agree, most creative minds will find rewards in the work itself.

      I think the recent success of e-publishing has shown, however, that traditional publishing as it exists today artificially stood/stands in the way of any other rewards, as well. When the channel by which the vast majority of people see your creativity is controlled by people only interested in monetary gain, a lot of creative freedoms go out the window. Taking back that control allows us to have our creative cake and eat it, too. 🙂

  3. I agree totally, I gave up a well paid but unsatisfactory job to carry on with my writing, I have never been happier, I Illustrate as well as writing short stories for children and poetry, Self Publishing gives you the freedom to do as you please, hence enriching your life and others around you. I am officially self-employed and loving it, the money is coming in slowly, but I don’t do it for that, it is a labour of love, extremely beneficial.
    Thanks for the great post….

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Baarbara – Thanks for dropping in! It’s great to hear you’re doing something you love and are realizing some of the fringe benefits (enriching your life and that of others), as well.

  4. char says:

    Great post…once again. I just attended a writing conference over the weekend and this issue came up. Most of the authors and agent there of course “poo-pooed” self-publishing as the worst thing a writer could do. However, the oldest author there (with 63 books under her belt with a publisher–Gloria Szurzinski–I probably just massacred her name there) was all for it. One of her writing friends has got their rights back from their publisher and is loving self-publishing. She encouraged it (which I thought was very open-minded of her; of course, she was a pretty progressive writer even with publishers, writing in different genres and getting away with it). She said she is looking into self-publishing (she sounded tired of certain publishing houses–National Geographic for one).

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Char – While I don’t agree with those who denigrate e-pub/self-pub, I understand it’s a fashionable and natural thing to do for those on the other side of the fence. If you think about it, for most of them it would represent a complete defection, an admission that the way they chose to write (or, in the case of agents and editors, the career they’ve chosen) is inherently flawed at some level.

      It takes someone who’s been around the block multiple times–like your 63 book veteran–to stand up and say, “Hey, this is just a new way to sell books. It empowers the writer, cuts out middle-men, and benefits the reader. Get over yourself.”

      It sounds like she has the wisdom and experience to keep from personally identifying her writing with the method in which it’s published, which I think too few authors slamming e-pub do (see Dave Gaughran’s recent post about Jodi Picoult). To paraphrase a comment of mine on that post, how you *publish* your work is not what determines if it’s junk, it’s how you *write*.

      • char says:

        True. It was nice to see one on the other side of the fence promoting self-pub though. You could tell she was kind of fed up with the ‘system.’

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