On Self-Publishing

What do you know about publishing?

Do you know what the traditional path to publication is?

Do you know what self-publishing is?

I’ve run into a lot of people over the years who truly believe that self-publishing is the norm for books that later become successful.  What non-writers (or just people who don’t research) believe is that all a writer must do to become “published” is write a book, have it printed and bound by a service (or just down at the copy shop), maybe register a copyright and get an ISBN/barcode if they’re sort of sophisticated, and boom, set up book signings and become famous.

They have no idea that bookstores won’t suddenly start carrying their book.  That all of the hype surrounding their book will be generated by them and whoever they have on their team.  That there aren’t a multitude of shrewd, kind “publishing scouts” wandering the bookstores and shopping malls looking for the next big thing.

You might as well make a plan for becoming a movie star by moving to Hollywood and walking around dressed in your best, expecting a talent agent to discover you and put you in a movie.

I’ll never forget the time during my bookstore-working years when an elderly gentleman walked into the store carrying his “book”—which was literally a sheaf of stapled-together paper with a piece of card stock as a cover—and wanted to know what he was supposed to do for us to put it on the shelves.  The shocked and dismayed look on his face when I told him that’s not “publishing” will stay with me forever.  A woman at his church had told him she could “publish” his book for him, and that stapled booklet was what she gave him.  He was so proud.  And facing me, he was crushed beyond belief.  “I don’t understand why she would lie.  She was from my church!” he protested.

I’m so sorry, guy.  But she probably wasn’t trying to take you for a ride.  She probably did think that stapling it together for you was good enough to get it into bookstores.  People don’t know anything about publishing unless they do their homework.

Self-publishing services can do great things for you if you just need to produce your project, but first you should know that they do not have any content standards at all. NONE. You have not “gotten a book deal” if you hire a vanity service like Publish America or Trafford or AuthorHouse. These companies often deliberately poison writers’ minds against mainstream publishing by claiming it’s too difficult to break into the field; that the writer doesn’t get to keep enough of the profits; that unreasonable compromises will be requested to make the material marketable; that their work is no longer their own and will now be ripped from their precious hands only to be twisted into something they hate. Conversely, they say, a completely equal and legitimate path into the world of published writing is to send your book to them and get started promoting your own stuff. Sounds great, huh?

Well, not really. See, what they don’t tell you is that you have basically hired a fancy printer. You have “achieved” what you could achieve by having a local copy shop bind your novel, after which you will be entirely responsible for selling it. And did you know that bookstores don’t carry or order self-published books, almost 100% of the time? Unless you go out of your way to personally send it to them, make individual arrangements, and keep the quantities stocked yourself (if anyone actually buys it off the shelf)?

Gosh, they don’t tell you that part at all. They don’t tell you that this isn’t a case of “get published with us and suddenly your masterpiece will be on bookstore shelves.” They don’t tell you that you’ll be stuck peddling it yourself, or that some traditional publishers and literary agents will now consider you, as a self-published author, to bear the kiss of death. Oh no, they don’t mention that some people in the biz tend to look at self-published authors as though they chose that option because they had no choice. Sure some self-published authors manage to get the big bookstores to include their book in the inventory they can order from–though many times that option isn’t offered to people who haven’t sold a lot of copies on their own–but you won’t see bookstore buyers or bookstore management on the store level facilitating sales of self-published books, and you won’t see marketing campaigns designed to put the book in front of its intended audience.

I will say that things are changing slightly with digital publishing—and if you honestly just want to bypass all the quality control and distribution with professional marketing and prestige that goes with landing and deserving a traditional contract, you’re welcome to forge ahead bravely into the world of social media promotion and trying to avoid looking like a spammer as you spread the word. Most people are not marketers, so most people will not be successful at this (though usually the “successful” are only marginally successful). Furthermore, most people who want to be writers will have a good chunk of their time taken away from them in pursuit of getting sales and trying to promote themselves. Some people get carried away and embarrass the hell out of themselves, but that’s neither here nor there.

First, there are a few good reasons to self-publish, in my opinion.

  • Do you want a small run of personal material to give to a few family members and friends, like an original poetry collection or a family history? Self-publish.
  • Do you have an extremely time-sensitive nonfiction book whose material needs to be produced immediately before the need for it passes? Self-publish.
  • Do you have something extremely controversial and non-traditional, like your personal manifesto about a conspiracy theory which would never, ever be picked up by the mainstream? Self-publish.
  • Do you have no delusions of widespread accessibility, and are you satisfied with the idea of marketing yourself on a small scale? Self-publish.
  • Do you love your content and absolutely can’t bear to take any criticism, editing, or advice to heart and would rather have it your way than compromise at all? Self-publish.

But you absolutely must understand that self-publishing is not the necessary first step to becoming a popular author. It’s unfortunate that every once in a while there is a very weird success story that makes people think it’s what you’re supposed to do first. Christopher Paolini was originally self-published and he became a bestselling author. If he can do it, why can’t we?

Well, because we can’t arrange for his situation to happen to us; nothing he did through his own talent and drive was responsible for a famous and established published author accidentally wandering into the store where he was doing yet another of his tiny local book signings, after which this established author got impressed by a teenager who’d written a whole book all by his little self, bought a copy and made his stepson read it, and then recommended it to his own editor without reading it himself on the strength of his son’s endorsement.

Does this sound ridiculous? Does this sound like it can’t really be how it happened for Chris Paolini? Well, that’s because things like this almost never happen, and you can’t arrange to be in the right place at the right time. Without that serendipitous “discovery,” Paolini would have been just like every other person who jumps into self-publishing without exploring other avenues. He probably would have languished in obscurity.

I do not recommend self-publishing for commercial fiction if you actually want lots of people to see it. You may, with quite a lot of effort and some marketing skills, be able to drum up some modest interest for your self-published book, and if you’re happy doing that and satisfied with bookstores not carrying or promoting your book, then to each his own. But if it surprises you that authors aren’t automatically supposed to get copies MADE of their own books and try to sell them on the path to traditional publication, you may have already talked to the wrong people or gotten sucked into a misunderstanding. It is to these self-publishing and vanity publishing companies’ advantage that publishing is sort of a maze to most people and it’s difficult to figure out how to approach it.

I’ll lay it out here:

Most mainstream publishers refuse to deal with authors directly, and if they actually do accept unsolicited manuscripts from unknown authors, they go straight into the slush pile and are subjected to extremely long response times; waiting more than a year for a response is not unusual. This is because most of what they receive is crap, and they are businesses. You want them to be businesses, because if you land a publisher, you want their resources and know-how to mostly be poured into promoting and distributing your book. They are highly selective because they want to make money, and they are the business side of things working on your behalf because they know what they’re doing. Sifting through mounds of crap to possibly find a new author worth taking a chance on is not high on their list of things to do.

This is why most authors in the know try to get an agent.

Agented manuscripts do get read by publishers, and agents know which publishers are looking for what and what the marketing trends are like. Agents are also very picky about what they represent, so aspiring authors must query them by letter (many accept e-queries now). If you introduce agents to your manuscript and they are interested, they request your material to sample, and may even sometimes read the whole book. If they like you, they sign you to the agency, then begin shopping your book.

But agents work for free until they sell your book to a publisher (at which point they take a smallish cut of the profits), so they are extremely selective. All of this pickiness amongst agents and publishers means you have to be good. And you know what? THAT’S GOOD FOR YOU. Because that means if you get agent representation and/or a publishing contract, you probably deserved it.

You do not have to go through an agent.  You do not have to go with a big publisher.  You can try submitting your book yourself to a smaller independent, or a large publisher that is apparently masochistic enough to have an open submissions policy (though that guarantees response times of a year or more), or self-publishing, or taking your chances however you like.  There’s a certain idealistic glee in being able to say “I don’t CARE what’s marketable, and I don’t CARE if any professionals will ‘accept’ my work.  I refuse to bow to The Man.  I will take my ball to the self-publishing arena and play my own game, by my own rules.”  Well, good for you.

But if you think your writing has the potential to be commercially successful and you’re NOT planning on relying on luck to be in the right place at the right time for an astronomically unlikely scenario to benefit you, consider researching the agent submission process and give traditional publishing a try.  It’s long and difficult and requires lots of patience (and probably some tears and an ulcer or two), but it might just be worth it.

4 thoughts on “On Self-Publishing

  1. Thanks. Excellent post, and info that so many people don’t know or are mislead about (grammar nazi alarm!) 🙂

  2. Thank You for the truth!, I want to be a writer and I thought self-publishing was the way to go. Does entering writing contests like the ones’ on Good Reads help or is it just a futile exercise?

    • Edyth, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing if you decide it’s for you based on what I outlined—I don’t want to suggest that it’s always a bad thing (though I think a lot of the people who jump into it are misled about it).

      I don’t know what kinds of writing contests they have on Goodreads, but there are lots of legitimate contests that let you get critiques, get your stuff in front of an agent, or get a chance at a publishing contract. Just read the rules closely and don’t let anyone sucker you out of money beyond certain ones having an entry fee or charity collection.

  3. You might as well make a plan for becoming a movie star by moving to Hollywood and walking around dressed in your best, expecting a talent agent to discover you and put you in a movie.

    I used to hear stories from my mother about people actually trying that in the Thirties and Forties. It never worked.

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