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To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish

The question of choosing to self-publish for an author is better understood if the question is turned on its head. An author should always ask themselves the question rhetorically.

‘Why do I want to self publish?’

I mean have you not heard all the bad press self publishing gets? That it is just pure vanity and any author solution service you choose will just take your cash, as much as they can wean out of you, then take you for a very short ride down the self-publishing boulevard of broken dreams. I have been researching author solution companies for my website and for my own book publishing projects for some time now and I have yet to meet a self-published author who was anything but drained, but very much grateful for the experience – even when that experience was less than what they expected, whether through using a poor author service company or simply finding out that they were less prepared than they should have been.

I have met many traditionally published authors who were as equally modest as their self-published counterparts. But the only vanity I have experienced was from a few traditionally published authors who gushed hopelessly and shamelessly about their books at every moment I encountered them. They were usually the ones who spoke about self-publishing as if it were a modern viral ailment in the industry and any afflicted author should be pitied, but of course from a safe distance.

You see, our perception of something comes from what we hear about something and not necessarily what we have experienced of it firsthand.  Commercial publishing houses do not feel threatened by the explosion in self-publishing if they themselves do their job well and execute an excellent service for their listed authors. The idea that publishing companies might be threatened by self-publishing is a complete myth. However, authors are a different story. Put the business aside and true human emotions and ego kicks in. Authors who have followed the traditional methods to publishing their work, honing their craft, getting a literary agent and finally landing that contract feel a deserved sense of fulfillment and achievement, and they should. But every so often a Jeremy Robinson or G. P. Taylor comes along and spoils it. It is a reminder to the traditional fraternity that perhaps there is actually another way of doing this ‘elite’ book publishing gig. And for a few traditionally published authors it is once again the story of the emperor’s new clothes. They are stripped naked and all they worked so hard for is dashed in a moment. It’s like Edmund Hillary getting to the top of Everest and finding the fat kid he knew at school sitting on a picnic rug and saying to him, “Hey, Ed, what took you so long to get up here?”

The perception of self-published books is that none of them would have ordinarily seen the light of day had the author stuck to the tried and trusted methods of publish a book. The inference is that all self-published work is of poor quality, badly written, badly printed, or at best appealing to a quirky niche readership. This is simply not true. What is true is that the landscape of publishing has changed considerably over the past few years. Many strong independent publishing companies have fallen by the wayside and the means books are marketed, sold and read is also changing by way of the Internet and electronic reading devices.

The fact is that a good book is a good book whatever means it reaches its reader. We have all read deplorable traditionally published books, just as there are deplorable self-published books. The amount of traditionally published books vastly outnumbers self-published books. So look at this way – there are more poor quality traditional books in our world than self-published books. Bear in mind as well that traditionally published books get better distribution, promotion and prominence in the world. Without doubt it is the commercial publishing industry which sets books apart from their self-published counterparts. They get rigorous and professional editing and marketing even before their release to the world. A self-published book gets what its author can afford. Professional editing and marketing are the cornerstones of the book publishing industry and I believe this is the most critical difference between the two, and indeed, where self-published authors fall most dramatically short.

The greatest expense for book publishing is not the 5000, 10,000, 50,000 or 500,000 copies printed, but the design, editing and marketing of a book. Traditional publishers for the most part still use offset print methods for their books allowing a -£2 cost per unit, whereas a self-publishing author is more often contracting an author solutions company using digital print on demand methods which result in a +£3 unit cost. The more offset printed books on a single print run the less the unit price. Whether you print  1 or 1000 on a digital print on demand machine, the unit cost will still be +£3 per unit. The advantage of the offset method is clearly an ever reducing unit cost dependant on print run quantity. The advantage of the digital print on demand method is that no print run commitment needs to be made and there need only be the required physical quantity and it also removes warehouse inventory storage costs. Consequently, POD books are often sold at a higher retail price, making them uncompetitive and the margin and scope for wholesaler discounts and author royalty can be limited. Few wholesalers will list POD produced books for return which is a core contractual agreement with many large high street retail outlets. These are some of the reasons why authors choosing self-publishing methods can be up against it in attaining real physical bookstore shelf space.

Let us return to the perception of self-publishing and try not to rest the blame with disgruntled traditionally published authors. I think some of the above comparisons are the reasons why so many self-publishing authors try to skimp on professional editing and marketing. Yet, these are necessary tools in the writing and pre-production of a book which can help to give it the best possible chance of success and welcome reception on its release.

  • http://marvadasef.com Marva Dasef

    I self-pubbed and was satisfied with the result. Reason: I went with a do-it-yourself POD (Lulu). I did everything else myself, so I didn’t have to hire anyone to edit (with 35 years in technical writing, I think I can edit a bit), layout the book (Word is easy to use), or design the cover (I had the advantage of wanting a rustic look).

    I’ve sold more than the standard 50 attributed to self-pubs. Around 600 or so, but I haven’t kept track. I have, of course, sent out freebies for reviews and such.

    So, my initial cost was 0 and my on-going cost is the wholesale price I pay for copies I’ll sell myself.

    As to the question, Why do I want to self-publish?: My self-pubbed book is a thin volume of 20 short stories based on reminiscenses from my father’s boyhood growing up during the Depression in West Texas. Talk about your niche audience! No agent or publisher would touch such a book. I tried a few (very few), then figured out that it was impossible to go the traditional route and still have the book out while my father was still alive.

    I’ve switched most of the printing process to CreateSpace. Cost per book is $3.00 (including postage) as opposed to Lulu’s $7.00. I still have a large trim size with Lulu since CS doesn’t handle it. No reason to waste a perfectly good ISBN.

    99% of my sales are through Amazon. I do attend a few “events” where authors show up to pitch their wares. Even traditionally published authors have to do that. I’m booked for three events this summer. Cool. I hope I make some money,.

    My current work is an entirely different genre and I’m still plugging away at the agents. But, I’ have no intention of stuffing my books under the bed with the dust bunnies. I have self-publishing as my fallback position. And I’m not afraid to use it.

  • Squid

    I need more opinions about this as well. Marva Dasef – I do understand because my genre isn’t the kind that publishers would touch either. It’s a market that’s very thin and narrow and most literary agents don’t know enough of the subject to want to represent it.
    It’s why I thought about self-pub. Another reason is because of the timing. I have to get this book out by 2011 – very important year for my book because of some historical attributes.
    I don’t mind paying heavy services for editing, but I would like to publish my book before I die.
    True, though. I do fear of losing out on marketing and distribution, but hey…Self-publishing is like YouTube. New, unheard of talents still get recognized even in a non-traditional sense.
    But I would like more opnions and people’s experiences on this subject.