Thursday, May 6, 2010

Prithee, Convince Me: Self-Publishing

I've written more posts than I can count on the tragical comedie of ye olde self-publishinge, and some of you have not been afraid to tell me what's what when it comes to printing and selling your own books.

So, prithee, convince me, dear self-pubbers: why are you so sold (pun intended) on self-publishing, and why (or in what specific cases) do you think it should be considered a viable alternative to traditional (Big Six, indie, or otherwise) publishing?

Have at it!


  1. I've not self-published, but I am tempted to do a little investigating with a short story collection on Kindle. JA Konrath's blog and numbers he consistently shows make me think that it's not entirely out of the question to make a living (note: I did not say make it big) off the new 70/30 split that Amazon gives for ebooks.

    I intend to go the traditional route if at all possible, but it's nice to know that there is even the slightest possibility of making some kind of income--even if it's just partial--using new technology and a side of the industry that has yet to be fully exploited.

    My fear, though, is that even if I self-publish a collection of shorts via Kindle/Smashwords, I would lose credibility to potential agents or publishers. As in "why didn't you submit those to literary publications instead?"

    The stigma's still there, unfortunately, and I'm stuck in the middle.

  2. As someone who's active in several clubs and organizations, I wouldn't mind using a service like LuLu to publish things intended for members of one of my communities. A regional body I'm part of just put out a new manual of procedures, and printed it through lulu or somesuch because it turned out to be cheaper per copy than going to Kinko's.

    I've also seen other types of publications distributed this way, like cookbooks, poetry, narrative nonfiction, etc--stuff you'd think of as the kind of thing to publish traditionally (unlike manuals), but where the author really was only trying to get it out to club members.

    Other than that... self-publishing seems like a heck of a lot of work, especially if you want your manuscript to reach a big audience. I think I'll stick to the lazy route of trying to write something a traditional publisher will take.

  3. In response to Professor Beej -

    From what my agent tells me, while placing your work on Kindle or Smashwords is technically "self-publishing" there is no ISBN assigned to the work and consequently no way for publishers to track your sales, should they even want to. So, by going the ebook route, you're not sullying your sales history and ruining chances with major publishers, should they be interested in you at a later date.

    I know an author who had a major publisher, in this case TOR, sitting on his second novel manuscript. They liked it, but were reticent to move for an unpublished author. He placed his first novel that had run the publishing gauntlet - a polish from his agent, self-garnered blurbage, more polishing, rejections from 20 major houses - on Kindle for $.99 and sold thousands of copies. His agent went back, showed TOR his sales record and they bought his second novel. And the first novel has now been picked up by S&S in the UK and AmazonEncore (yes, they're ramping up) in the states.

    Obviously, this author has writing chops and used self-publishing in a very specific, and targeted, manner. Self-publishing your work because you can't get an agent isn't a good idea. Work harder. Fail better. If you have to, lower your sights and go for a small, indie press. There are a lot of good ones that accept non-solicited manuscripts. Having a team behind your work not only feels great, but produces a better product and generates a lot more buzz.

    Self-publishing for established authors - and by established, I mean previously published in the traditional manner - seems to be much more common now, at least in the ebook realm - probably for the reason I mentioned above - no ISBN. Author's whose work's rights have reverted to them are cropping up in a variety of places. I don't know if that boondoggles their relationships with major houses or not. That's something our host might be able to answer.

    Whatever the case, if you self-publish, get an editor before you release.

  4. well, it might be the only option...esp for specialized nonfiction topics, poetry, family histories, diaries, and letters, local cookbooks, artsy stuff that's too edgy, fanzines or fan fiction, your autobiography and your company's biography (we did the autobio of the president of one of the "Stans"--not exactly bestselling material). Just because you couldn't convince a agent or editor to take it on doesn't mean it has no worth--it might have some worth on a smaller scale.

    I can't see self-publishing fiction, but I'm a snob that way--some writers might end up proving me wrong, esp in specialized genres, e-books etc.

  5. I don't have the time at my age to spend years looking for some to deign to read a few pages of my ms. then send me on my way.

    I am investing in what is termed a 'joint venture' publishing contract (translated: you send us money, we publish your book) and will work my a** off for a year selling it.

    If I can make respectable sales I will send my work to an agent with a two line query: "I sold xxx thousand copies of this book by myself. Do you want to take it to the next level, along with the two other completed companion novels in the trilogy?"

    A simple yes or no will suffice, thank you.

  6. @Robert

    A few questions to consider before you send anyone money:

    How is this publisher going to get your book into brick-and-mortar stores? Can you go to the bookstore nearest you and find at least five books published by this company?

    Who is going to give your book attention? There are more than 2.5 million books for sale on Adding your ISBN will not, in and of itself, create a ripple. If you self-publish, no mainstream publication will review your work. I have been reviewing for glossies, newspapers, and trades for 9 years and I can tell you it's not going to happen. The receptionists at these places know when the book is printed by a vanity press, and they never make it out of the mailroom--they literally go straight into the trash.

    If your book is not in bookstores, not in newspapers, not in magazines, not on the bigger (Salon, Bookslut, Maud Newton, Elegant Variation) blogs, HOW are you going to sell it? You can build a web site, but how will anyone know to visit? Are you in a position to hand sell (e.g. you teach at a prestigious college or own a chain of coffee shops or already have 5000 hits a day to your web site)? If so, agents will want to hear from you.

    The vetting process, while flawed, is extraordinarily important to anyone who wants to sell books. If I walk over to Borders and tell them my book is good, they have no reason to listen. If my publisher's distributor hands them a catalog and my book is given a two-page spread inside, Borders will order my book. If they have my book, they might invite me to host a reading or sign stock. Which is to say, I'll have the opportunity to work my ass off.

    I'm not trying to bust you, but these business over-promise and under-deliver, and usually prove a greater waste of time than editing the hell out of your novel and then querying.

    Finally: look at your own bookshelves. What percentage of the titles are self-published? If you don't buy self-published books, what makes you think other people will?

    This is not about the quality of your manuscript. It's just business.

  7. For myself, I'm in a unique position that my business (writing is currently a hobby) is graphic design and marketing. I chose to self publish my novel mostly because I am relatively familiar with all the stuff that comes after you type "The End." My feeling was that even if I found an agent right away, it would still be at least a year, probably closer to two years, before the book saw the light of day. So, as a test and challenge to myself, I decided to see what I could do on my own in that period of time.

    I would not recommend this for everyone by any means. I did hire a professional editor to go through the manuscript. I designed the cover and did all of the layout for the pages in the print version and worked to get the eBook versions to view correctly. I also created a video preview and plan to promote the book once it's available at the major outlets in the next couple of weeks. It will be a lot of work, but work in something I'm familiar with and enjoy.

  8. I'd only self publish through Kindle. And then only if I'm published and have some old manuscrips lying around that might get me a few extra bucks. Why? Because I read a great post about POD and vanity presses. The bottom line is that vanity presses make you sell your book at a higher price than other paperbacks and who is going to buy a higher priced book from an unknown author when they can get a lower priced book from a known author? Not me.

    I've thought about test publishing some books through Kindle to get some reviews, kinda using it like market research to see what people think of my ideas, but I don't know if that's such a good idea if I want to sell my ms after.


  9. I'm still convinced self-publishing is probably a bad idea for those wanting to have literary careers. But I can see how publishing on Kindle (& similar merchandising/delivery methods) could have value and who knows, maybe launch careers and lead to more traditional publishing deals.

    Authors who have a traditional publishing track record can probably experiment with self-publishing without harming their careers, as Steve Almond has just done, and perhaps will teach everyone else something useful.

    What I wonder about are what I call the more-or-less-self-published books from "real" publishers. The ones by writers who, for an obvious lack of craft, would not otherwise get a traditional publishing deal, but manage to get "published" by a teeny tiny "publisher", usually which offers no advance, poor or non-existent abilities to put the book into physical retail shelves, no PR support, little or no editing, miniscule royalties, etc. Yes, the publisher pays the printing bill, but it's typically a very small press run and the author only "earns" an exceedingly small percentage after/if that run sells out. What makes that substantially different than self-publishing? Because one person at one obscure entity said yes? Is it just so the author can say they've been traditionally "published"?

    Please, I'm not dissing very small publishers -- in fact, I have the greatest respect for small, independent publishers who DO have high editorial standards and make serious efforts to get the books sold. But when someone is legitimized by a publisher such as the one I described above, and the publication of that book puts the author into the same category as someone published by a major house, simply because that's "traditional publishing," well – something is upside down about that, too.

  10. Hi, Eric,

    I am not self-published, but did some research on it, and found your posts on the subject really useful.

    My findings suggest that one (1) should not self-publish anything one ever wants to see picked up by a real publisher, and (2) should not expect to get profit or fame from a self-published book. Yes, there are examples to the contrary, but the odds are not worth considering.

    With this in mind, it may still be a good idea to self-publish if one is a published author with an established but small fan base and books out of print (possibly also with completed and unpublished sequels). While it may be a better use of such author's time to write and market something new, self-publication may allow this author to keep the fans satisfied in the mean time and possibly prepare ground for a bigger release.

    Another case when self-publication may be warranted concerns work targeted to a small niche market.

    In each of these cases, outside professional editing and design are a must. If this is done properly, it is my understanding that such self-publications should not reduce an author's chances sell something new in the future. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  11. In the main, I see two sorts of folks talking seriously about self-publishing: 1) the folks who aren't willing to wait for a real publisher to recognize their genius, and 2) folks who have already been published, and are taking older manuscripts and putting them up on Kindle, and once they've got a fan base there, putting up new work.

    The former know nothing about publishing a book; they think it's all about writing it and having your name on the cover. The latter know a whole hell of a lot about publishing, and have decided to forego an advance in order to get a larger share of the sales price (and hold on to the rights as well). For those folks, the return is much faster--no waiting around months for an advance check which is split into two, three, four, or even five divisions! Publication within minutes of submission, not months! No reserve against returns! No fighting over CEs! For those writers, it's hard to see a downside.

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  13. I'm with Lisa on this. Having researched a whole slew of small publishers, I've found that the vast majority of them (and this is no slight to the good small presses of which there are many) are as bad or worse than the worst self-publishers. Poor cover design, no editing ability, no real understanding of PR or marketing, and no clue about distribution. Many of them also have to real taste in manuscripts either and it makes me wonder exactly what possessed them to become a "publisher" in the first place. I've seen people jump up and down, so excited about being "published" but in reality, they are no better off than had they done it themselves.

    It's a brave new world out there and all sorts can make it and some will. There's going to be a lot of trash from the self-publishers and perhaps just as much from the small presses. As always, the cream will rise to the top one way or another - whether it's a talented self-publisher with the smarts to get their book out there and make sales or the talented writer who goes the traditional route. The rules will need to be re-written at some point. Let's just hope there are still buyers of books. They seem to be a vanishing breed. :-(

  14. Eric -

    I haven't self-published, but recently suggested to a friend that she consider it. She has a built-in audience of readers who already appreciate her work (numbering in the thousands), and some fraction of them would certainly be willing to pay $ to read her work, especially if it was well priced. I was careful to explain the pitfalls as well (from many sources, including yours). I don't know if she'll pursue it or not.

  15. I've had books published by big (Doubleday) and small traditional publishers, and was not satisfied with the book quality or my income.

    In 2008 I formed my own publishing company, and have published seven books so far and I'm much happier.

    If a traditional publisher offered a $100,000 advance, I'd think about it. But I prefer the control, speed-to-market and income I have when publishing my own books.

    More detailed reasons to self-pub:

    Michael N. Marcus
    -- Independent Self-Publishers Alliance,
    -- "Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,"
    -- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

  16. Mr. Horner, tell your agent to do a little more digging on that issue about Kindle and ISBNs because he's wrong. You can publish for Kindle and have an ISBN purchased through Bowker or CreateSpace or Lulu. Ebooks are given their own ISBNs. Now, having said that, you can sell a book for the Kindle and not receive an ISBN but Amazon will assign a dummy ISBN that is certainly trackable for sales. It's just not "official" in the eyes of other vendors.

    Now, having said answer The Pimp's challenge. Convince you? I doubt I can do that but I can certainly give you my reasons for choosing--and those folks I've interviewed for my column as to why they chose--self/subsidy publishing.

    1. Higher royalty rate--I got 20% when I pubbed through iUniverse. I get 10% from my trad publisher.

    2. Control over pricing--When I pubbed my first book, pricing was totally outrageous for self/subsidy press books. That's since come down and CreateSpace allows me the ability to pick my own pricing. Gives me a higher royalty rate and I can choose a fair price.

    3. Control over content--I can decide what my cover should be, what the story needs to be to be entertaining, I choose my own editors and I work with them quite well since they know my style and how I "speak. I'm a bit of a control freak, thanks. I admit it; there it is in the open.

    4. I don't have to worry about hitting some mythical sales figure or be kicked to the curb. I hit my sales, I'm happy. I don't, I'm still writing.

    Yes, I realize that I must work harder to make sure my books are edited and clean of mistakes. But just because I pay someone to set it up and then print copies doesn't mean I wimped out or I have no talent or patience to dance the dance. I write a damn good story, thank you. I also have a cult following. And I've seen plenty of crap put out at the large traditional publisher level. It's all the same to me. Besides, I can sell more books and get more fans by going self/subsidy pub, going pure digital, and riding the wave of the Kindle/iPad/Nook/etc future. And as Michael said, I can get my stuff put out in weeks as opposed to months.

  17. Because indie publishing = speed + efficiency.

  18. A good question to ask is, where will your book be in a year? I've had traditional publishers in Malaysia/Singapore where's I'm based, and a year later, can't find them in the stores. I've had S&S published authors in the US tell me that six weeks after their novel finally came out, because it didn't take off right away, the book got remanded. Six weeks! Books no longer in the stores and they're out of a major publisher. It's like they're back to square one, even less than square one because the history of that first novel that didn't sell may prevent other publishers from looking at your work.

    Since you never get a second chance to make a first impression (or even undo that first impression) make sure your first step is a wise one. Make sure your novel is damn good by going over ever line again and again, and get outside help, a trained editor, to point out writing and story flaws, and then get it judged at contests (are you winning them, making the finals, or not even close?) The more that qualified people can say that your novel is good, then an agent might listen to you a little harder. Good story, good writing and you can back it up because you've been working your ass on it already and you're willing to work more to help promote so it does take off.

    Yes cream rises to the top; just be that cream. Then look in the mirror and ask yourself, are you really doing all that you can to make your book better, to promote it, to convince an agent to take it on, or is it all lip serve and ego? I'm asking myself that very question right now. Hell no will I ever self-publish my novel -- I don't want to have to live with the fact that I couldn't cut it or gave up too soon or didn't really try. Who knows. A friend of mine in the US just broke out big time this year, Graham Brown, Black Rain. A friend in Singapore, from Malaysia, got a two-book deal with Little Brown for a series character, "Inspector Singh Investigates" and then another two book deal, extending the series. It happens and that gives me hope, even writing from Borneo.

    Excuse me, I need to get back to rewriting my novel...I enjoyed the break and you've all convinced me to hang in there, too. Thanks!

    PS. I'm in The Writer, May 2010, p24 Nothing brilliant, but it gives me hope that I'm on the right track. Good luck with your writing dreams. Love this blog!

  19. Total cost of self-publishing my novel in eBook and hardcopy editions: $30

    Profit from sale of one hardcopy book: $2

    Profit from sale of one eBook: $3

    Breakeven point: 10 eBook sales or 15 hardcopy sales, or a mixture of both.

  20. Interesting how this debate rages on, yet little is gleaned from new debate.

    One route is not necessarily better or worse than another. Traditional publishers have long served - and will continue to serve - important functions in bringing quality works to market.

    However, to presume that all self published works are inherently inferior to those of their traditionally published counterparts is to be ill-informed at best.

    An author may elect to self publish for a variety of reasons. They may want to retain control over the direction and content of their works. They may prefer how quickly and efficiently their works can get to market. Or they may have a great work that doesn't suit the market at the time of submission (I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for a YA fiction writer to penetrate the market a couple years ago without a sensitive vampire as its main character).

    Having self-published, I can state without doubt that I face two daunting tasks: "bias barriers" and advertising. While going the traditional route would mitigate both of these, I would lose control over my work.

    That said, I propose a similar question to this article's author: if you created a work on par with the best traditional work, would you sell your soul to achieve the title "Traditionally Published?"

    Ed O'Dell
    Three Minutes More

  21. I'm commenting on this very interesting string but I'll never try to convince Eric of anything. It would be silly to try to convince someone of the viability of self-publishing when one uses a phrase like THE TRAGICAL COMEDIE OF YE OLDE SELF-PUBLISHINGE.

    What I found fascinating about this comment string was how few self-published authors chimed in. Of the twenty comments I read today, I think I only saw five self-publishers . That could be because we were referred to in rather derogatory light, but more likely it’s simply because self-published authors don’t read this blog much. Though I must say, dear Eric, if you really want to know what self-pubbers (or people in general for that matter) are thinking about anything, it’s best not to start the conversation, “Hey idiot…”

    BTW - I am a self-published author and if you're interested in self-publishing beware that this comment string includes both true and false info.

  22. I mentioned this post in on my blog -

  23. I've published six novels in NY, with a couple of book club sales, and I published two on my own. Yes, I can get an agent if I wanted to give someone 15 percent, and I may do that for one of my projects. I have no interest in "making a case" either way. All I care about its what works for me, because I don't know what works for you or anyone else.

    I put up ebooks in January, a few collections (which sell way faster in ebook than they ever did in paper), one backlist title, and two original novels. One of those, an agent liked but never sent out. Lose lose. One, I realized my sales numbers weren't strong enough to get a decent deal in the genre. I've always believed in my vision. I may never be a star or bestseller, but I have other considerations in my writing journey.

    But based on sales so far, I believe I will make more per year self-published than I ever did while under contract. I get the money in two months instead of 18 months later. When Amazon goes to 70 percent royalty, I will have a hard time ever accepting 25 percent from a publisher unless they can show me they can sell three times more copies than I can. (More and more I hear editors and agents say, "You have to build your own platform. Sell your own books, build your own audience." So why should I expect them to sell more than I can?)

    The other advantage is I can competitively price my work so I don't have to go toe-to-toe with Koontz and King. At the same price, you SHOULD buy those writers instead of me. But I am happy with less. Not that I'm worth less, but in my working-class market, a few bucks is plenty for me, and at a much higher royalty rate, I still make far more per copy than I did in mass market.

    I have a YA series I will shop under a pen name. I might take an offer, but I have a better idea what my work is worth, and I trust readers to be able to find the types of books they want without wholly relying on a handful of companies. I'm not counting on bookstores being significant in five years--our local CD and video stores closed with stunning rapidity when their time came. Take that away, and all the publisher can offer is prestige and an advance. I don't care about prestige. How much is the advance?

    But what I do may not work for another writer. It's harder to be happy than sell a million books. I choose to be happy. Good luck.

    Scott Nicholson

  24. I am a firm believer in printed words and in independent authors - since I am one. Indie authors are a necessity for the future. When Manet, Monet, Degas and Renoir were sick of painting what they were told to paint, there was a flurry of new work made in rebellion. Impressionism is now seen as the best art movement of all time. Last week, I read an independent novel in 2nd person. It was amazing. Publishers won't take that risk. But we as authors and readers can. No one is there to stop us.

    My novel, The Book, takes place in a paperless, dystopian future where everyone accesses their information (and books) from a government issued digital reading device. There is one publishing house. And they control everything. I never tried to get it published and it has gotten an outrageous response from schools across the country. People want to believe in keeping their freedoms. And freedom to read without being deceived is a powerful thing that can be taken from us if we aren't careful.

    If you want to check out my novel - here's the link: