Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Last November I did a thing that I didn't think I had the courage to do. I self-published my first book. It's a young adult sci-fi/fantasy that I did not publish under the name Weslie Ashe. I had worked on that book for four years. It was beta read and critiqued and revised and revised again. I hired a copy editor to make sure it was technically perfect, found a teenager in my target audience who illustrated a really cool anime-style cover for me, and I spent hours formatting it. That book is superior in almost every way to the romance stories I write and publish.
And it is not selling.
Well, that's not totally true. I did manage, mostly in December, to sell 47 copies to my friends and family. I gave away another 88 in an Amazon KDP Select promotion, and something like three Amazon KDP readers have gotten through the whole thing. I currently have six (five star, thank you very much) reviews on that book, and the last person who ordered a copy was my husband.
That's the equivalent of pity sex.
Do I regret the decision to self-publish rather than continue to seek out an agent or, perhaps, as a few of my more successful friends suggested, put it in a draw?
No. Not at all. Not one single bit.
Because if I hadn't published that book, I'd have spent the rest of my writing career trying to write the perfect story. I'd have spent the next six years trying to write a better book. I'd have gone to hundreds of critique group meetings, and every single time someone told me to "show not tell" or "use active voice," I would have scoured my current manuscript, searching for all the ways in which I could improve that manuscript. And perhaps that book would have been better. But it might not have sold either. Because almost for sure, I'd never have learned the single most important lesson that self-publishing taught me:
While you're busy trying to write the perfect book no one will ever read, someone else is out there, writing imperfect books and publishing them. And it doesn't matter if your book is better than theirs, because your book is invisible.
If you never risk putting yourself out there, you never know what would have happened if you fail, and you also never stand a chance at success.
And I'm going to tell you an embarrassing secret. I hardly ever manage to do anything courageous as myself. Not in the first instance. Almost every time I've ever done anything really brave, I've had to fake it first. I've had to pretend that I was someone else. Someone with more nerve. Someone with more confidence.
Almost always, when I take a risk, I am doing it while reciting a motto: What Would a White Man Do? (WWWMD?)
You know what a confident, privileged white man with a manuscript he thought was amazing would do with it if an agent didn't want it? He wouldn't say, "Well, maybe if I just revised it more, it would be perfect." He wouldn't say, "Maybe it really isn't that good. Maybe it would be better never seeing the light of day." He wouldn't say, "Maybe if I could just get it in front of the right person, someone would like it." He would say, "I have written something great, and it deserves to be printed, so if no one else wants it, that is their loss. I'm the only one who needs to validate this work of art. Me. So let's get it out there and see what happens." If that manuscript succeeds, the man will then say, "See?"
But more importantly, if, in the more likely event, it fails, the man will still say, "See?" He will view that failure as success. "Look at how many people loved that book!" he will tell himself. "Look at those amazing reviews!" He won't be discouraged by any sign that a critic might say shows that this man has no talent. Oh no. The truly privileged white male doesn't even understand that kind of talk. He'll hear someone say, "this is trash," and he will interpret that as "they're jealous." He will know he is amazing, he will expect to succeed, he will tell himself that his next book is going to do even better than this genius work of art. Then he'll get to work on that next book, and because practice helps us all learn, the next book really will be better. Furthermore, that man will have networked and made friends and gained advocates. So the next book will be better and more successful, and twenty books down the line, that guy is a popular, prolific full-time writer.
Meanwhile, his less confident, but more talented, female colleague will still be going to critique groups, where other less confident writers (even if they, too, are more talented), will be telling her all the ways she needs to "polish" her current manuscript before she might even be ready to send it to an editor that she pays to perfect that manuscript even further before she gives up on it.
And did I want to be that woman?
Oh. Hell. No.
I wanted to be braver than that.
And the thing is, this isn't the first industry I've seen this "women have less confidence than privileged white men" success bias. As an ex-lawyer, and also in my business consulting, I've seen exactly this phenomenon happen over and over again. It is well-known and well-researched that men (at least privileged white men) tend to overestimate their own value, while women underestimate theirs. Men expect to get paid more. Men expect to be more successful. Men take more risks with less skill to back it up. They apply to jobs they aren't qualified for. They speak up when their opinions are hardly educated. They don't send "I think" "maybe" "have you considered" emails to their colleagues. They unapologetically believe in themselves.
Is this a bad thing? I don't know. Does it matter? The point is that men are almost always more likely than women to take a chance on themselves when no one else will. He may also fail more often, but he won't let it hurt him (much) and because he tries, he will be more likely to succeed one day. At least when it comes to business, that strategy works, and frankly, it probably IS superior to what a lot of women do when it comes to trying stuff they aren't sure they can do.
Ask yourself "WWWMD?" and the answer will almost always be "he'd take the risk his female colleague would never take."
I think what makes this even more frustrating is that we as women idolize that power that the white privileged man has. We (or at least some of us) are turned on by an alpha male's naked confidence and willingness to take risks. I think it's why the trope of the alpha male falling for a woman without any confidence is so popular. We want to see him worship her as a goddess because we have been those women without confidence. We've felt weak. We've lacked confidence. We have feared that we will never be anything of any worth. And it is incredibly, dizzily addicting to imagine your own weak self overcoming the powerful steel mantle of the alpha male. We want to take him down, and if the only way we can imagine doing it is via seduction, then so be it. We'll take what we can get.
But what if we can be more?
I am really glad that I took that WWWMD? risk on my self-published young adult novel, but I don't want to have to live my whole business life by that motto, and I don't think I have to. Because I just might have some better role models these days.
The most powerful thing I saw this week was this picture, of the female Democratic House Representatives at the State of the Union Address, all wearing white:
It was an amazing moment. Women, more women than there have ever been in the House of Representatives before, celebrating themselves. Wearing white to honor the women who had come before them and paved the way. All women who refused to be quieted by critics or subdued by perfectionism. Women who said, "I'm here, and you're going to see me, whether you want to or not." Women who stood up and stood for themselves and stood for other women and believed they were worthy of taking risks.
The women wearing white are women who believe they are worth enough to risk failure, and they are women who have seen success because of that.
And it occurred to me looking at that picture, that probably a lot of those women have lived by the WWWMD motto that I have lived by when I need to be brave. They've acted like men because they wanted to be more than the invisible women they were raised to be. But now, is it possible that maybe there's a motto that's even stronger? What if instead of WWWMD, we, the women who need to take more risks and believe in ourselves more, cried, "What Would a Woman Wearing White Do?" the next time we needed courage? What would Nancy do? What would Hilary do? What would AOC do? Would they sit it out? Would they shut up? Would they decide they weren't worthy of the position they wanted? Would they stick that manuscript they know is good into a draw? Burn it for fear of someone not wanting it? Or worse, for fear of someone not liking it?
Or would they risk it all to go for the thing they know they deserve? Knowing that at the very least, they deserve it as much as the privileged white guy standing next to them who isn't nearly as well prepared.
I think it's a lesson for us all. I do not regret the risks I take as a writer to put myself out there. But the next time I need courage, I'm not going to say, WWWMD? I'm going to say, WWWWWD?
WWWMD? No. New motto. WWWWWD.
Love and courage,