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Self Publishing: Be Informed

March 4, 2012

I know, I know, I promised this post two weeks ago. But these past few weeks have been a total rush. Seriously – life punched me in the face a few times, hit me over the head with a bottle, and then ran over my unconscious body with a Ford 4×4.

Don’t get the wrong impression, though. Life’s been pretty awesome. I’m enjoying school, I’m enjoying work, and I think moving apartments was a good idea. I just haven’t had the time or energy to do anything extra-curricular. So you’ll take your late blog post, and you’ll like it.

I want to talk about self-publishing because this is a topic I’m somewhat conflicted about, and I’ve had a lot of conversations about it lately.

I’ll try to keep this short and sweet. But I make no promises.

The Pros:

  1. Get your writing out there. Most writers just want to be read, and self-publishing can appear to be the easiest way to achieve that. There are hundreds of success stories from famous, published authors (Jim Butcher, for example) that start with “I was rejected over and over again.” A lot of factors go into deciding whether to accept a book for publication, and publishers aren’t always correct about whether or not something will sell. If you can’t find a publisher, it may be that your book isn’t high enough quality or marketable or whatever, or it could be you just haven’t asked the right person. Or you may simply not want to deal with a publisher, you think you don’t need one, or you want to build up your list of published work before submitting work elsewhere.
  2. Self-publishing can lead to a publishing deal. Most writers have heard of Amanda Hocking, who made millions by self-publishing her previously rejected novels. If you haven’t heard of her, read this article. You can also read this article, about Michael Prescott’s e-publishing success. I’ve also spoken to a few writers who informed me that it can sometimes be a good idea to self-publish first, so you have sale numbers to show a potential publisher.
  3. Develop a fan base. Once you get people interested in your writing, doors can open for you. Obviously, this ties in with the previous two points, but it’s a little different. Having people who are vocal about appreciating your work can be very helpful, not to mention encouraging. And sometimes opportunities arise simply because you are known. Actually, this happens a lot. It’s all about knowing someone, or being noticed. If you’re Mr. Nobody, publishers are going to be less willing to take a risk on you, even if you have a good manuscript.
  4. The pride of having a work published. For some writers, this is all they want. They don’t care if they sell, they just want one of their stories professionally bound and sitting on their book shelf. For others, self-publishing is simply a first step, more about self-encouragement than victory. It’s sort of the same idea behind NaNoWriMo, proof to yourself that you can finish something, and motivation to then move on to that novel you want to try to sell.

The Problems:

  1. It’s a big risk. Getting your writing out there is only a good idea if your writing’s good. If your book turns out to be a flop, it can work against you. This article talks about a woman whose book was rejected thirteen times, and then accepted for publication almost immediately after she changed her name on it to a pseudonym. Why? Because her manuscript was good, but her previous book didn’t sell well, so the publishers didn’t risk it. She wasn’t self-published (I believe), but it’s something to think about. What if you do self-publish, and then your book gets terrible reviews? Publishers often look that stuff up.
  2. There’s no guarantee of success or a publishing deal. Amanda Hocking’s story is inspiring, but let’s face it, it is highly unlikely the same thing is going to happen to you. There were articles published about her success because it was remarkable and unusual, not because it’s the norm.
  3. Self-publishing has a bad reputation. I have to admit, in some cases, I have a bias against it myself. In the writing group I was in for awhile, one “published author” brought her “published book” to the meeting to show to everyone. We all “oohed” and “ahhed,” and I flipped through it, and dear god, it was like a ten-year-old had written it. We asked who her publisher was, and guess what? Yep, self-published. Of course, not all self-published books are like that. The trouble is, a lot of them are. Here’s an article that sums up why self-publishing is often thought of with suspicion, and this article, called “Monday Morning Marketing Tip – ‘Self-Published Does Not Mean Published Author,” highlights one of my main problems with self-publication.
  4. Self-publishing usually works the best for previously established writers. This is something I’ve noticed directly, and I’ve taken part in. If one of my favorite authors says, “Hey, just wrote a little thing on the side for $3.00,” I’ll rush to pick it up. If Joe No-Name says, “Hey, I just self-published a book for $3.00,” I’ll go, “Ehh…maybe not.” That doesn’t mean it won’t work for you, of course, but it is something that I’ve noticed, and I thought I should mention it. And it kind of sucks, honestly. You’re self-publishing because you haven’t found a publisher yet, but the market favors people who already have publishers and are just self-publishing because hey, why not?

So, is self-publishing generally a terrible idea?

Yes, if you do it wrong. Here’s how to do it right:

  1. Get an editor. Just because you don’t have to have your manuscript approved to self-publish doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to self-publish unedited crap. If your plot is amazing and your characters are relatable and your novel is riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, I’m going to give it a bad review. Also, why, why, WHY would you publish something that’s not polished? If you want to get your writing out there, you’d better put effort into it. Real effort. And it had better be polished until it’s gleaming, or else yes, it was a mistake to self-publish it.
  2. Be smart about it. Don’t just write your novel, make your own crappy book cover in a trial version of Photoshop, throw it up there on, charging $9.99 for a digital copy, and then cry when no one buys it. This is a product that you’re trying to sell. Draw people in. Develop a strategy. You want to publish a book of short stories? Maybe make one of them free, to give people a taste. You want to publish a novel? Have a website, talk about the characters, make the first chapter available, I don’t know. But realize that it’s going to take work on your part to get people to buy it. That means you need to know what you’re doing. That means RESEARCH IT FIRST. The next point also has to do with this.
  3. Market it. And no, I don’t mean just tell your Facebook friends to buy it. But I’m no marketing genius. This or other articles can give you some good tips on this. Don’t come to me. I’ll just link you to more articles.
  4. Realize that it may backfire on you. Don’t expect a miracle. Things aren’t just going to fall into place for you, unless you’re one of the Amanda Hockings in the world, in which case I’m extremely jealous and why are you even reading this anyway? Go spend your millions of dollars on a yacht and leave my blog be.

To sum up, here are the three golden rules of self-publishing:

  1. Be smart.
  2. Be informed.
  3. Be realistic.

Now, I haven’t tried self-publishing. This all comes from research. I have friends who have self-published, with varying success rates, but I can’t speak from experience, myself. So, would I ever self-publish? Maybe, actually. I’m considering it. If I did, it would be a small side-project. I actually have an idea for a short story project, pitched to me by a friend who has often encouraged me to seek publication. And I’m making strides in that direction. Once I actually get to that point, though, I don’t know if I’ll follow through. Honestly, I’m terrified. It could backfire. It could be a nightmare. It could be a disappointment. It could crush my self esteem into teeny, tiny bits. And part of me is still biased. Part of me winces when I hear the term “self-published author” because I remember Ms. Published Book in my writing group, and all of the terrible stereotypes surrounding the market. “Vanity publishing” is another phrase that makes me shudder. And I feel like I would be selling out, giving up some of my own dignity, if I joined that group.

But the truth is, self-publishing can be a great tool when wielded properly. And you don’t have to be one of those stereotypes. And sure, it’s risky, but publishing your writing is pretty much always risky, no matter what medium you use. Just know what you’re doing, be smart, be informed, and be realistic.


A few more articles:
Self-Publish or Not?
How to self-publish a book … and who should be doing it



From → Publishing

  1. I’m still debating on self or traditional publishing, but your article makes a lot of sense and gives me a number of things to think about. Thanks for all the info.

    I had to laugh when you mention the woman in your writing group with her “published” book. I too ran into someone with an awful self-published book. Of course, I told her that was great, but avoided comment on what I’d read.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      Yeah, I almost laughed out loud when I flipped through her “book.” But thinking back on it, the problem wasn’t that she had her novel vanity published, though. The problem was that she was treating it as though it was the same as being traditionally published. I think you can only make that claim if you sell thousands of copies. I suspect she sold five.

      I bet that most writers who talk a lot with other writers have a similar story, and it’s one of the reasons self-publishing’s reputation is so bad. I have to keep reminding myself it’s not inherently terrible, you just have to do it properly.

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