Self-Publishing: Best Idea Ever

On Pimp my Novel, there was a very terrible post called Self-Publishing: Great Idea… or Worst Idea Ever? I have reached a point where I no longer feel the need to defend self-publishing any longer. And recently I’ve had some pretty long dialogues on the subject – I figure that’s my last word on the subject. The detractors are just so wrong, it’s not even worth arguing. Eric, who says he works in “the sales department of a major trade book publisher,” wrote age-old criticisms such as,

99%+ of the time, however, these books are either written by the functionally illiterate, are tangled messes of inane plot and one-dimensional characters, do not appeal to the vast majority of readers, are way too long or way too short, or some combination of all of these. In short, most self-published novels are crap.

He’s so wrong that it’s not all that necessary to defend against this kind of misinformation.  His point of view is just tired and old-fashioned. Thankfully, there were people there who were more willing to take him on.  This comment is from Leigh Cunningham, author of the soon-to-be-released Glass Table, an “eco fantasy thriller with a gentle message about protecting our freshwater lakes and rivers.”

Here’s her comment in full:

As a lawyer who does not get to do much lawyering these days, I cannot resist this opportunity to present the defense.

Eric, a publishing house pays your wages – you have a vested interest in this issue and therefore lack the objectivity required to present an unbiased argument. This possibly explains why, when presenting the reasons authors choose to self-publish, you make a joke of it, make it sound vile, implausible, or condemnable. This strategy – to ridicule a threat, competitor or opponent – has been tried and tested in the past, and history will show that most often this strategy will come back and bite one long and hard on the proverbial.

Arising from your need to undermine self-publishing, you neglected to include in the reasons authors choose this path, a critical reason, in my view, and that is, time to market. The traditional model takes approx two years for a book to hit the bookshelves, and this partly explains why a lot of books published the traditional way, fail to sell – they were hot when sold, but cold by the time they hit the marketplace.

There are other valid reasons for choosing to self-publish, as Erica says in her post – it can build a platform, and is very rewarding. Not all writers will be successful at marketing themselves, but this is true no matter which course is taken since authors can no longer expect a traditional publishing house to fund their marketing campaigns, and marketing, in my view, is more of a defining factor for success than the way one is published.

In your response to Levi, you say, “You need someone to filter out the crap …” Impliedly, the crap filtering is done by traditional publishing houses. Are you dreaming? Spend some time in bookstore bargain bins – there you will find plenty of crap produced by traditional publishing houses. Read book reviews of traditionally-published books – it’s not all roses. Given the rigor of the process however, it surprises me that there is any crap produced by traditional publishing houses. Perhaps this is because the wisdom and expertise of editors is often over-ridden by the sales team.

No doubting there is an enormous amount of self-published crap out there – a primary reason being that many self-published authors do not have the resources to devote to the necessity of editing and appraisals. It is horrendously expensive. So if a failure to invest in professional editing is the reason many self-published books are crap, what is the excuse for all those traditionally published crap publications? I mean, they made it over numerous hurdles, but still, the output is crap.

[Enough of the ‘crap’ and my apologies for it]

I recently viewed a clip by two authors published by two of the preeminent publishing houses. They stated that if you need/want to earn money from the sale of your books then self-publish because you will be disappointed by earnings from a traditionally-published book (excepting a minority of celebrities/big name authors). This contradicts the point you make in your summary. The point is further contradicted by Nathan Bransford’s blog this week, which appeals to everyone to buy books to help those authors who did make it to the summit (traditionally published) but discover it’s quiet, lonely, and chilly when one gets there – it’s not a moment necessarily filled with euphoria, success, or wealth, as we tend to assume. Some authors make money, many do not; some self-published authors make money, many do not. Either way, there are no guarantees.

You say in your summary, “If you’ve tried and tried and done absolutely everything humanly possible and still can’t sell your novel, it’s probably not very good.” This is not reality. Numerous editors and agents over the years have commented that they have often encountered brilliant writing and wonderful stories that they simply cannot place/sell because they are deemed un-commercial for a market at that point in time. I know writers who have made it through the multitude of stages within the publishing process only to be bumped by sales people at the finish line – their work is hardly “not very good”. I know writers who have had editors desperate to take on their work, but again, it does not get through the sales barrier. It should never be assumed that because someone has failed in a bid to gain a traditional publisher that their work is “not very good.”

The pros and cons for each side are no longer clear-cut. The dichotomy that was good (traditional) and the bad (self-published) has blurred, and even more so in the past year or so. The exponential growth of self-publishing has not been enabled by disheartened writers, but by technology, which will continue to improve and drive this growth further. This is good for consumers – more choice.

What disturbs me most about this repetitive and futile debate is that we live in market-driven economies – there is no need for those in traditional publishing to fear self-publishing to the extent that they (and agents) feel compelled to ridicule it at every opportunity. There is room in the marketplace for everyone. Success or otherwise will be determined by the market, irrespective of the vehicle used. Blowing out someone else’s candle will not make our own glow more brightly.

  • [stands] [applauds]

    Well said, Leigh. The “repetitive and futile debate ” needs to end. Amen!

  • Kiiind of unfair to attack Eric for having a vested interest in traditionally published books on a website called Self Published Review. You have as much of a vested interest as he does (and, for that matter, I do).

    But let me just come out in favor of not calling any books crap. One person’s crap is another person’s favorite book ever.

  • Good post. I have noticed that many blog posts about self-publishing, pro or con, fall into two camps:

    1. To justify decisions the poster has taken previously with his or her own work. (for example, “I self-pubbed, and it was a great idea.”)

    2. Blatant self-interest. (For example, the literary agent who ridicules self-publishing, hoping you’ll ignore the conflict of interest — that the agent is out of a job when you self-publish.)

  • Steve-

    Actually, I’d also like to point out that agents aren’t necessarily incompatible with self-publishing. Do you need an agent to work out a deal with iUniverse? No. But that’s just one area of self-publishing. There’s also the type of self-publishing where authors who have built in audiences contract the printing on their own and need someone with expertise to work out distribution deals to get them into bookstores. Or the type of self-publishing where an agent works out e-distribution deals with the major e-book publishers/vendors. Or there are the agents who help their clients self-publish and then try and take those books to the next level by finding them a publisher after they’ve enjoyed success and attention after self-publishing.

    This is probably going to become more and more common, and I’m always open to self-published authors. I don’t doubt that there are agents who are down on self-publishing, but I find that shortsighted.

  • I think Leigh brings up an interesting point that one rarely sees mentioned in this context: time to publication. I have had 12 non-fiction books published by mainstream publishers and have now just self-published a small novel. It was turned down by a number of publishers on the grounds that it was ‘too unusual to categorise and thus difficult to market’, although my first editor called it “One of those unique and wonderful manuscripts that come one’s way all too rarely”. I finally threw it in the cupboard.

    Then the digital revolution came, and I moved countries, and it seemed an opportunity to resurrect it. The prospect of perhaps years trying to find a publisher, followed by even more years turning the ms into a book, was simply too much to bear, especially at my age! Some simple research enabled me to prepare PDF files of the content and cover, which I emailed to my local printer and two days later I had a stack of beautiful books under my desk! And there they are, achieved, even if no-one buys them (although I have already covered my costs). The satisfaction of producing book, website and blog has been enormous. Now I must sell them: yet another exciting digital adventure, with a prospective internet audience of millions, and many years headstart over a traditional publication in which to woo them. For all its challenges, the self-publishing road just boils with such exciting potential that I would not consider any other way.

    PS Have a look at my blog for an interesting take on the question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ books – ‘J K Rowling is ‘not a good writer’.

  • Since my own self-pub is selling enough for me to make a profit, I’ll go on the side of self-pubbing.

    As for being functionally illiterate, I guess I’ll have to refund the several hundred thousands of dollars I’ve earned as a technical writer over the years. So far, my plots (completely original), characters (lovable and smart), or whatever hasn’t appealed to agents. Their loss in the pursuit of the teen vampire audience, erotica, or self-serving autobios by “famous” people. Hey, they have to earn money, too, even if it means selling what the biggies THINK the market wants at this point in time.

    I’m close to closing the book on the publishing industry as a major waste of time. EBMs and ebooks will eventually turn the majors into a smoking wasteland. Maybe not in my lifetime, but soon.

  • Awesome post. The “time to market” issue is a critical one. I’ve been able to publish two novels this year, and am well along with another. It’s satisfying as heck, especially when I get a phone call, email, shout on the street, or FB post every week from someone telling me how much they’ve enjoyed reading my work.

  • BookWhirl.com

    Thanks for bringing up the reality. I agree with you that it takes more than a good novel to reach a high niche in the market. Although book sales are not everything, it is something.

    You have the book…We have the Marketing Resources.

  • Mark Lord

    Perhaps as a reality check it’s worth looking at some numbers – I’d recommend the excellent posts (45 in total) on self Publishing at How Publishing Really Works – http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/search/label/self-publishing

    It might be right for some people, but in most cases authors really should beware!

  • In my opinion Nathan has opened the door on the future of the industry a crack and has invited us all to peek in. His words ” agents aren’t necessarily incompatible with self-publishing.” should be read and re-read until the veil is lifted from our eyes. Agents are about selling, about knowing the industry they are also capable of moving fast.

    Publishing houses are entrenched in a 18 to 30 month gestation with a broken business model (returns, advances, discount percentages). I believe canny agents will embrace self-publishing and use this wonderful tool to find, hone and eventually sell that author and his/her product to sales streams. Streams that the author otherwise could not easily enter or would obtain an inferior deal.

    Also part of this future is the opening up of the mid-list, low volume sales targeted via new mediums to consumers that have been poorly serviced by the legacy system because they were too diverse. As the ‘volume is best’ model crumbles, the sales (not printing) opportunities expand.

    There will be change and self-publishing will be a key part of it.

  • Beware of what exactly, Mark Lord? The numbers to which you refer? They may sound seductively frightening and convincing to a salesman, but they are quite meaningless for an author. The fact that only one codfish survives from a million eggs should not be an argument against reproduction.

    The choice often comes down to: ‘publish it yourself now, then spend years trying to sell it to readers; or spend years trying to sell it to a publisher, then be told to market it yourself anyway’. If your self-published book sells a few copies you will probably earn as much as if a publisher sells many. If it sells many you will earn far more, and the publisher may come to you. If you sell none, so be it. What have you lost? And you have a book. I have yet to hear a convincing argument against self-publishing, other than the constant gripe about poor editing, which is an easily resolved technical detail that has nothing to do with self-publishing per se anyway.

    I think Nathan Bransfield has his finger on this particular pulse, as it seems to me that an agent has far more to offer than a publisher now that the author himself can so easily manufacture the actual books. He covers the author’s blind spots – editing and marketing – but does not stand in the way of publishing the book. Even after publication he can suggest quite major changes and have them implemented with a click of the mouse. The relationship between self-published writer and agent promises to be healthier and more evenly balanced than that between author and traditional publisher.

  • Part of the “beware” must be about risk. In traditional publishing, the publisher bears the risk. However, the risk in self-publishing is small, much smaller than in the traditional model which was waste-intensive and distribution-inefficient.

    The other notion is that gullible authors are getting ripped off. Again, the exposure is much smaller nowadays.

    So, what should I fear?

  • Fascinating thread going on here. As a self-pubber, I haven’t paid any iUiniverse or PA to do anything with my books. I’m strictly DIY. As for the need for an editor, I send my writing through an excellent critique group on-line. I try to run through at least twice and a third if the traffic will bear. It takes awhile, but you end up with a pretty tight product if you’ve got good critiquers.

    I don’t have a firm count, but my first self-pub has sold close to 800 copies in various formats. That’s not bad. Not exactly the 5000 or so I need to get for publisher attention, but certainly way more than the 50 average stated for self-published.

    I don’t market aggressively. Yeah, I blog and have a nice website, but I’m not knocking on doors or trying to get my book into bookstores. Recently, I’ve realized that getting a major publishing contract would land me in just about the same place I am already.

    I did write a technical book way back in the dark ages of computerdom and didn’t earn out my advance. I only got a buck or so per book. With my self-pub, I’m getting $2-$4 per book in royalties. Hmm. The advance was nice, but the technical book is totally outdated and won’t earn a penny more. My self-pub? It’s good for the long run.

    When I come up on an author who’s thinking of self-pub, I warn them away from the ones who grab your money. Without too much effort, anybody can prepare their own files and covers. Why pay several hundred for what you can do yourself?

  • Nathan, Andy, and SleepyJohn have brilliantly foreshadowed the new era in agenting (for those agents quick and sharp enough to see it). Self-publishing in fact presents an enormous opportunity for agents, offering agents more freedom and control in their businesses which previously was dependent on whether or not they could sell their client’s work to a publishing house. Agents will no longer have to pass on writing and stories they love, and given the streamlined nature and expediency of the self-publishing model, will have time and energy for more clients.

    I would also venture to propose that self-published authors, on the whole, would be less demanding, since they realize at the outset that the success or otherwise of their work is solely up to them, and their expectations tend to be more moderate than the author who has secured a contract with a major publishing house believing that is it – they’ve reached the top and success is imminent, but are most often disappointed with the process and the outcome.

  • As someone who’s looking to self-publish a novella before the year is over, I haven’t read the comments (should I?), but I must say: Bravo, and kudos, for writing something bold-yet-genuine, true-yet-risky. This was good. And, yes, call it selfish, but it was also encouraging for me. Thank you for sharing.

  • Great discussion here. The major publishers are great for people already known to the masses, but self-publishing suits man people. You just need to do your homework and be realistic in what you are capable of and willing to do.

    My little book has been fun, but it won’t make me rich. I don’t care, I’ve sold copies to many people and as I said, it’s been fun.

  • I have just realised with red face that I got Nathan Bransford’s name wrong! I do apologise Nathan. I trust everyone else knew who I was referring to. And thank you Leigh for your nice comment. It was Nathan’s observation that made me suddenly realise just how valuable the relationship could be between an agent and a self-published author.

  • Self publishing is taking on a new shape. As one who makes a living as a self published novelist I can say that the benefits of having direct control over your work, your marketing and how you communicate with your partners can outweigh the drawbacks if you take some time and build relationships with good people who believe in what you’re doing.

    It’s slow. People frown when they discover you’re “one of those self published authors” and you’re left to do most of the marketing work on your own.

    It’s rewarding. I don’t pay a penny for self publishing. Not one penny. Every day after I’ve finished writing I go to work on getting the word out to more people about what I’m doing. As I’m working I discover book reviews, emails from readers, and sometimes there even a terrible book offer to turn down. I’ve had two, they were both, well, terrible.

    I’m at the point now where some success in Europe, a place I’ve never visited but would like to someday, is starting to cross over into the USA. The work continues and I absolutely love my job. I’m an eBook author, less than 3% of my income comes from print and the few hundred readers who patiently wait for each volume have only experienced my work on screens. They like it that way, the print books are out there, and they’d rather not heft the paper.

    Final point: I like going around the publishers. I like making a living on eBooks while the industry can’t find a way to make money on them, or so they say. I enjoy having a decent book out to market in less than 6 months. I also like being directly accountable to my readership. If I put out a bad book, I don’t eat. That’s more critical than any rejection letter I’ve ever received.


  • I really really like the idea that agents could wedge themselves into niche distribution agents as opposed to sales agents to major publishers.

    My question is: Would these types of agents be just another incarnation of the agents now who say, “I like it but I don’t know how to sell it?” If so, then there is still no reason to use one. If not, then great.

    I have read four times in the last two weeks on agent and editor blogs that self-publishing is becoming the farm team for traditional publishers. I’d be interested to know, as a percentage of acquisitions, how many of those self-published-turned-traditional novels fared financially versus traditionally acquired manuscripts in, say, the last two years.

  • Excellent post! If I had listened to all the naysayers, I would have missed out on the most profitable year of my entire life. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that for non-fiction books, self-publishing is the ONLY way to go. The ONLY way! I just wrote a book on self-publishing non-fiction using Print-On-Demand. You can publish now for less than $1,000– why not at least TRY? And I don’t think that “most self-published books are CRAP”.

    I think, instead, that most writers are too afraid of promotion and marketing to do it right. They are embarassed. I just talked to a writer yesterday that was too afraid to post her bio. Why?

    You can’t just publish a book and expect it to sell. You have to get your name out there and Promote, Promote, Promote!

    Most authors find the marketing side of the business distasteful, and THAT is why they fail.

  • Thanks for an excellent post. As Christy Pinheiro points out, many non fiction authors are great candidates for self-publishing. This has been true for many years. Serious self-publishers know they will have to compete in the marketplace and typically hire professionals to put their books together and get them to market. These self-published books are indistinguishable from books from any major publishing house, and the authors are often in the best position to promote them. Niche non fiction is the best match with self publishers who are willing to produce a quality product and promote it through their own networks and activities.

  • This was an excellent article post. I’m new to the publishing industry altogether and literally JUST self-published my first novel. So, I’m seriously green. I queried agents to no avail. I got lots of positive responses from some pretty popular agents toward the end of my querying effort (after taking the feedback from previously queried agents and doing many rewrites). So, getting my manuscript accepted eventually was probably just a numbers game. But I just realized that I didn’t want to let an agent or publishing house dictate my career as a writer. I didn’t want to query another six months, to maybe get picked up by a house who might not publish my book for another 18 months–if that. Will my novel be a bestseller? Only heaven knows. But it will allow me to start building a platform so that, should I decide to try again with agents and traditional publishers, I’ll have something else to offer except a good manuscript.

    I’m prepared to do the marketing necessary to get my career off the ground. I started marketing my book 3 months before I released it and I probably should’ve started earlier than that. I have an MBA so I know what kind of marketing it takes to sell a product and have a marketing plan in place. But I’m an introvert, as I think many authors are, and the thought of getting in front of people and pushing myself to do readings and signings and festivals just makes me want to crawl under my bed, close my eyes, and go to my happy place. But I know I’ve got to do it if I want to build my platform so I’m getting over myself and I’m just going to do it. I do think there is a propensity among some self-published authors to want so badly to see that book in their hand, they forget about the marketing and some just can’t afford really good editors–and I think that’s why many works fail to take off.

    Self-publishing offers many of us a great opportunity. While there very well may be self-published novels out there that are poorly written and/or poorly edited, there are so many that are just the opposite. Eventually the cream will rise to the top. Each of us has to just ensure that we care enough about our product to keep it creamy–so to speak.