Monday, October 25, 2010

What You Need to Consider BEFORE you SELF-Publish

I was going to write up a big, fancy post on this topic, and then I found this site, which pretty much said everything I wanted to.

Ok I lied. I wrote up a big, fancy post anyway. ;)

You'll notice a LOT of references here -- and that's because there are a LOT of different things to consider about self-publishing. No one agent is going to be right about it (meaning, disclaimer: I do NOT claim to have the answer to or know everything about it!). Generally, it's a case-by-case basis whether or not someone should self-publish, and whether or not a self-published book can be picked up by an agent or bigger house.

But, some things to think about:

Why Agents are Cautious of Representing Them
Because it is a tough sell. A self-published author can no longer be listed as a debut author, which means that a publisher is going to have to base the advance they can offer (if any) on the author’s sales history. A publisher offers an advance based on a projection of how many copies they can expect to sell – and if the self-published book sold only 500 copies…

Why Publishers are Cautious of Acquiring Them
It’s all about numbers. The number of copies the self-published book sold, and the number of copies bookstores can expect to sell. Guess what? The latter is based on the former. What this means is that if your book sold 500 copies, bookstores aren’t going to expect large sales. Which means they won’t want to stock the book. Which means the publisher won’t make sales. Which means they won’t recoup their advance, or even enough to pay overhead for the aquiring editor’s time spent on that book.

So what if you self-publish and sell 10,000 copies? Awesome. Just keep the statistics in mind.

Why Reviewers are Cautious of Reviewing Them
There’s no indication of quality with a self-published book. A book that has gone through the traditional publishing route has made it’s way past an agent, an editor, an ed board, and a copyeditor (in the simplest example) before it reaches the reviewer’s hands. A self-published book never made it past an agent. With so many books to choose from…yeah, they’re going to review the ones they can expect will at least be free of typos.

Why Publicists are Cautious of Publicizing Them
It’s hard enough to publicize fiction from a traditional publisher. Fiction is so subjective; imagine saying to someone: read this. Why? Because I like it. Just trust me. If that book is self-published, that trust level goes way down, again, because you have no idea of the quality. A publicist is hired to promote a book – so just hearing “it’s good” from one isn’t enough to make reviewers or buyers trust that it is.

However, this IS different for non-fiction. Read more here.

Lastly, READ THIS POST by Nathan Bransford.

Finally, please keep in mind: if you self-publish, YOU ARE THE PUBLISHER. Period.

I think it’s incredibly arrogant to self-publish your book and then expect someone else to pick it up and do all the work for you. Simon and Schuster doesn’t acquire a book, design a pretty cover, send it to a few buddies, and then submit it to Random House to get sales. If you don’t think you can get the distribution and sales you want from self-publishing…it’s probably not the best option for you.


  1. I think self publishing is a matter of being heard. One thing clear when looking over the history of publishing, many good books are never heard. Harry Potter almost didn't end up being heard. It was pure luck that Arthur A Levine found it. London Publishers had already given it up for dead. With so many people out of work and writing books while publishers are cutting back, it is very easy for a good book to drown. So for people who are looking to be heard but not make a living, self publishing is definitely an alternative. But from what I have seen, to earn money from it, you have to have deep pockets (to hire the good editor, to hire a good artist, ...).

  2. What I have been wondering about is this:
    I self-published a historical novel that had been traditionally published in my home country. I did it solely for the benefit of some friends who do not understand the language the book was first published in. I never promoted the book, so sales figures aren't high.
    If I write a different book and approach agents with it, would I still be considered "burned"?

  3. BRAVA. Thank you, Natalie! I constantly receive pressure from very well-meaning friends, co-workers, family members, baristas, etc. to self-publish. Because "Wouldn't you rather just have your book in your hands than wait for an AAAAGENT to take forever to do it for you? And then have to pay them 15% of everything? And 20% on foreign sales?"

    No. I would not rather just have my book in my hands. I want a viable career, not three hundred and fifty half-sheets of paper and a couple pieces of cardstock.

    Next time I get the screws tightened on me to self-publish, I'm just going to email the person a link to this post.

  4. Rusty -- but the HUGE majority of people who self-publish are only heard by their immediate friends and family. That's great, but if they just want to be heard they can email a copy of their book to people they care about for free. Save themselves and their friends a little scratch.

    In my experience with talking to fiction writers (it's different with regards to nonfiction) who choose to self-publish, the overwhelming percentage of self-publishers got sick of playing the waiting game that is required to get in with a good traditional publisher. Or they took umbrage with the idea of outside meddlers (that is, professional editors) telling them to make changes to their baby. They chose to self-publish because they wanted to do it their way and do it fast, which is just fine as long as they go into it with eyes open. However, most of the self-publishers I know end up burning out because they payoff isn't anywhere NEAR what they expected, and they'll have to put in a hell of a lot of time and money to get even close to the kind of payoff they imagined, whether it be money or notoriety.

  5. Hi Cat,

    Tricky question - I'd say the best answer to this would be: sell as MANY copies as possible of your self-published book.

    No, it's not impossible to sell your NEXT work, but yes, you are going to have challenges. I wish I could be more optimistic, but even authors who are published traditionally who don't have good sales find it difficult to sell their next book. That doesn't mean someone won't take a chance - it just may be a smaller press who doesn't care as much about numbers. You'll essentially have to find someone who is willing to overcome that history -- and again, certainly not impossible, just difficult.

  6. Great points here. Thank you for breaking it down. I was actually considering it since my current ms is about the effects of bullying and it's such a hot topic right now. But losing the whole "debut author" label sounds really harmful, so I think I'll just keep querying while I work on my next ms.

    Thanks! :)

  7. Hi Libby H. - Self publishing is a business. In terms of doing a business, it's probably about the cheapest one to fail at. Most people fail at starting a business. But some people succeed. A number of self published books on Amazon have higher sales rank than ones put out by large publishers. To build up readership, a self published author will likely only recoup expenses at best on the first book. It's got to be so cheap, that someone will say, "Why not?" and read it (probably on their ereader). So I think the question to answer on self publishing is "do you already have a large following" or "are you willing to give away your initial books". If the answer is no to both, then self publishing is probably too risky.

  8. Thanks for answering, Natalie. What if the second book is a totally different genre (I'm writing kid-lit in English, not historical)?

  9. I think someone hit it on the head for me in an earlier comment. career. I want a career in the industry. So, I'm taking the longer slower route- and in so doing, I hope to establish a foundation where I can launch a career. Self publishing can be tempting when you want to get your book out there, but in haste you may do more damage than you realize. I think the key for those who decide to self pub is to do the research and make an informed decision, so there are no regrets or headslaps later.

  10. Thank you for posting this great info. I'll keep on querying. Someone must want a fiction book with no sex, swearing or bleeding.

  11. Hi Cat - if it's a totally different genre, it won't really matter then about your previous book. It still might deter some, but in general, whenever ANY author switches genres, they are starting over.

  12. Great, concise post! I have to agree with the part about reviewers being cautious--I edit a sorta-big nonprofit's publication and received some self-published books to review...and honestly couldn't say much that was nice about them. They may have been enjoyable for other audiences, but I know our readership's expectations, and the kinds of problems in the books...ah, it wouldn't have been pretty. I had to go with a "no unsolicited books to review" policy because I felt so terrible either printing a crappy review or just not printing anything. And I'm, clearly, very small potatoes.

  13. I do not understand why self-published is branded as bad. When I self-pubed, I never intended it for a wide audience, only for the family whose history I had told in my story (roughly 15 people). I sold ten times that number which surprised me a lot but which will be nothing to a publisher. I am truly annoyed that a publisher will hold against me that I did my friends a favor. But I'm glad that they won't mind so much when I write in a different genre. I'll see how it goes and let you know if/when I learned more.

  14. Hi Cat,

    This is why it's very important to do research before jumping into self-publishing (an option you could have taken was to go to Kinkos and making a bunch of bound copies). NO ONE is saying that it's bad; as I tried to say, it's PURELY a numbers thing in publishing. It's a numbers thing for traditionally published authors as well as self-published authors when they want to sell their next book.

    No one's holding it against you, but when a bookstore looks up previous sales history numbers to base their order for the new book on, all they see is numbers -- not the book, not the person, not even the publishing company. They don't get the history behind it, and say, oh, well, it was self-published so... An ISBN is an ISBN. And that's it. It is NOT because they think it was poor quality; just numbers. Just business.

    I'm sorry it's frustrating, and like I said, there are ALWAYS exceptions. I hope you are one of them! :)

  15. I couldn't go to a copy shop. Shipping the books to the US from Germany would have made them way too expensive for any of the people who wanted them. Nonetheless, thanks for all this information. I will make the best of it, and if I keep improving my craft, I am surely find a agent and/or publisher who doesn't mind. Thanks so much for your answers.

  16. I think this is a wonderful post that more people need read. I know that when I started looking up agents, or anything on writing, a ton of vanity presses and Self-publishing places popped up. Those ads are enticing and had I not done research and read the fine print, I could have harmed the LONG career that I want. What people want out of writing is different and self-publishing is great for lots of people, but I think others just realize the cons you listed. When I've talked to other writers considering it, they certainly didn't know.

  17. This is a fantastic post--really frank info on an interesting subject. Thank you so much!

  18. Thanks Natalie, for this post. Let me make a confession, I used to have a different view of self- publishing before I started blogging ( as my books have gone through the traditional publishing route in India).

    But few of my blogging friends have self published and their books are doing quite well: both in terms of awards and sales. I had the chance to read and review two of them, and I found them very good. But I feel once they take that route it becomes difficult for them to break into the traditional publishing scene as publishers are wary of self published authors.

  19. For fiction-writers, I think any individual who's considering self-publishing should start a blog first. After building up a readership, he or she will know:

    A) How much work goes into building up a readership

    B) A bit more about how to motivate people to keep reading (albeit not directly transferable to novel-writing, as the form is much different, there are some skills that will carry over).

    C) More about the publishing industry as one is likely to attract other writers as readers and comment-leavers, and possibly agents and editors as well.

    D) Whether the work involved is enjoyable as opposed to just working on the next novel

    Plus who knows, the blog might attract the interest of an agent or it might attract enough readers to be a helpful platform in marketing a self-published book. It is likely to make a writer new acquaintances or friends as well.

    My 2 cents. Thanks Natalie for a comprehensive post most well-articulated on the subject.


  20. Not every self-published author does so simply out of impatience. Nor is every self-published book poorly written & riddled with typos. Yes, many are. But an author must be professional in all aspects of his/her work. If you are going to self-publish, you must be willing to do it well & not on the cheap. As Natalie said, you are the publisher. I just recently released my debut novel after it received numerous rejections full of glowing comments about my writing, my voice, my storyline. I decided to publish it myself because I believe in it. By far, the greatest expense is publicity. I would advise anyone considering self-publishing to go into it knowing you have to spend money to nake money. It is a business after all.

  21. Amazing! My sister and I (both published authors with smaller presses) have been debating this very subject in the last few weeks. For me, it's a question of what I want in the long run--a possible quick few thousand sales or a long term career as a solid commercial author with a large publishing house. Personally, I favor the long term career over quick money since I do take this seriously and don't want to try and handle all the facets of publishing myself and scatter my actual writing resulting in less quality work. Some writers have reported larger self sales but I'm not a sales person.

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