Publishing as a Business Decision

I want to add something to the discussion which states that self-publishing is a business decision. April Hamilton ends her post Not Your Father’s Self-Publishing with:

And given that self-published authors have access to the same distribution channels, quality production methods, marketing and promotion methods, and audiences as their mainstream-published peers, it should be very clear by now that the choice of whether or not to self-publish is, to quote Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, a business decision. Period.

I would make the argument – as others have in the comments – that traditional distribution is superior to self-published distribution. Even if you’re on the shelves for two weeks, it’s better than nothing. And though the profits are better with self-publishing, it’s harder to sell books so it evens out.

But that’s not what I want to write about. For me, self-publishing is absolutely not a business decision. In fact, it’s a piss-poor business decision on my part. I know if I went the traditional route, I could possibly get a book deal with an advance. Better for my bank account. But I didn’t even try to go the agent route with my latest novel. I wanted to be free of that system.

I see posts like this one by Janet Reid and I get physically ill:

Just plain not good enough: 21 (a novel needs to be in the 99th percentile-these were closer to 90%–not bad, but not good enough)

Good premise, but the rest of the novel didn’t hold up: 11

Not compelling or vivid, or focused; no plot/tension: 10

Slow start or the pace was too slow: 9

I didn’t believe the narrative voice: 5

Structural problems with the novel: 8

Interesting premise, but not a fresh or new take on familiar plots/tropes: 7

etc. etc. Why do I trust the opinion of someone who I’ve never met to determine if my book is worth selling? Certainly, I can look at an agent’s list to see if he or she represents like-minded authors, but still, the odds that you will be able to fit into that agent’s very narrow criteria is very small. And then, once that’s over and the agent takes it on, you need to pass through the criteria of an entire editorial staff at a publishing house. This can take years. Years that can take other years off your life in frustration. I’m done with it.

I am at the point where I’d rather not deal with this aggravation any longer and just put out the book – even if it means selling fewer copies. So for me, self-publishing isn’t a business decision but an emotional decision. If I can publish and reach an audience on my own terms and then get a book deal from that, then great. I’ve created my own future. But I’m very glad to never have to go through this process again.


Finally, I think there’s too much of an impulse to emphasize success in publishing as the number of books sold. This isn’t just rationalization for a limited # of books sold, but an actual principle. I’ve written a couple of novels attacking the vapidity in Hollywood and some of the same impulses show themselves in publishing – i.e. if a book sells a lot, it’s a success. That’s a Hollywood mentality, in which movies are judged by their grosses. In this climate, Stephanie Meyer is a “better” writer than virtually everyone.

Publishing is about self-expression – throwing your words out to the world and seeing what happens. My first two books take aim at Hollywood and celebrity culture. My most recent novel takes aim at the corruption of religion and government. I like to think my books are anti-establishment. The way I’ve published the books follows that mold.  That’s why self-publishing is so attractive to me – not because I can potentially make more money, but the way I’m releasing the books is a statement in itself.

Defining self-publishing only as a business sucks the art out of an artistic project. For me, I guess, self-publishing is a business decision, in that I want to be free of the traditional system of publishing. I like things that are non-traditional. But am I a perfect self-published businessman? Hardly. I’m a writer first, publisher second.

I don’t want to diminish the notion that a self-publisher needs to know the ins and outs of the business end of publishing.  But to say that self-publishing is purely a business decision is talking in the same language of corporate publishing: i.e. publishing=business. Not exclusively. Publishing also=expression.

  • Cellophane

    Alas, the difference is legitimacy. I had a recent discussion with a vanity-published writer. He thought he’d gotten a terrific service from a well-known vanity press. He mentioned the quality of the editing. I took a peek at the Search Inside on his book and found three errors in the first paragraph. This is what makes self-pubbing for decent writers such a challenge. The self-delusion of so many people who think their writing is top-notich when, in fact, it sucks. Others see the suck-worthy of some vanity books and tar and feather the whole lot of us because so many deluded idiots can get “published” simply by sending their nondescript and/or horrid manuscripts to the vanity presses.

    This is why I do not want to self-pub any more. For all I know, I’m as delusional as the person I described above, except for one very minor little detail: I have thirty-plus years experience writing technical documentation. My writing skills are solid. Is my imagination good enough? Maybe that’s what I lack, but you’re not going to read poorly-written, grammatically-incorrect garbage, just unimaginative, poorly-conceived garbage.

    What do I know? I’m just a stupid, deluded self-published nitwit.

  • robertcnelson

    I have to agree with you 100% on this. Selling an enormous number of books would indeed be gratifying, but my main concern is getting a well written story in the hands of my readers. I don’t wish to go into the poor-house while doing it, but a huge monetary drop in my lap is not my first concern. My first book this year is very personal and any profits of mine will go to charity,anyway. That doesn’t mean I won’t work hard on the business end: I want my charity to make some real money on it, so i’ll work my ass off for that to happen. For me, too, this is an emotional decision.

  • Yup … It was a piss-poor decision for me too, but, writing novellas, it was my only decision outside of e-publishers. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all indie all the way. I love the challenge, love the anarchist mentality, and I love all the backend bullshit, but between you and me, I am a writer: I couldn’t market myself out of a wet bag.

    And that would be why I have a successful career outside of the writing. The “day job” allows me to write and publish and not worry about anything else. I can focus on the craft without the industry static, and that makes me a very happy artist/writer. I can make my statement and write what I want to write, when and how I want to write it. If it takes me a year+ to write/edit a 40k novella, then that’s how long it takes.

  • Rather than “business” or “emotional,” I prefer to call the decision “philosophical.” One personal philosophy at work here is that artistic ownership and integrity are more important than sales numbers. I don’t want an agent or even a commercial-minded editor turning my stories into something I never intended.

    Another philosophy is that, for me, publishing does not mean aiming to please that vast, oppressive “mainstream,” but rather to create my own public — to find or build a small (but growing) community of people who share my worldview and appreciate my work.

    On the purely practical side, I’m feeling pain at how difficult it is to grow that public, so I’m learning patience (another philosophy). And gratitude that I too have a day job to pay the bills.

  • Great, great post. As much as I know the agents are not (usually) in the biz for the money, I can’t exactly expect them to give an unbiased review of a practice that is in direct competition with their livelihood. I’m glad there are some writers out there who are doing it for the creative control, in the spirit of counter-culture, etc. I may or may not self-publish, but I don’t want to sacrifice my voice in order to make money.

  • Henry, I really enjoyed this post. When authors decide to self-publish they frequently get very wrapped up in the whole “business of publishing” and all the tasks that need to be done, the new stuff they need to learn, the marketing plans, review packages, mail lists, blogs, and on and on and on. It’s awfully easy to forget why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.

    I totally agree that there has to be some drive aside from “making money” to propel you into publishing your own book, particularly for novelists. There are certainly self-published non-fiction writers who publish more from the economic motive, or by making a “business decision” but that really seems to me to be a horse of a different color.

    It was also interesting in the Janet Reid piece that, after requesting 124 complete manuscripts, she only made an offer on 2. Now that’s amazing.

  • “I want to add something to the discussion which states that self-publishing is a business decision. April Hamilton ends her post Not Your Father’s Self-Publishing with: [QUOTE]” – Henry

    There is a whole multitude of things going on here. Firstly, April Hamilton who is quoted above, and some of the commentators here are have not entering self-publishing by the channels the vast majority of authors enter so-called self-publishing, that is, by using an author solutions service – some are happy to simply label these author solutions services as simply modern-day vanity presses. For the discussion to have any perspective – we need to consider that fact and the many authors who visit here and follow the discussion; otherwise we are in danger of misleading many authors. I think April, for the most part, in her article quoted and many more she has written, is reflecting on a side of self-publishing which takes authors into the true model of self-publishing – setting up your imprint, owning ISBN’s etc, etc. From that perspective and approach, I do agree with her that self-publishing is a business decision. There’s no two ways about it. The most successful business people often are the most passionate and emotive in their chosen field, not because they are driven by profit, but instead by ideas and innovation.

    If doing it the wrong way by having your eyes closed and paying out thousands of dollars for a crappy solutions service, as opposed to registering an imprint and taking on so many of the responsibilities and tasks of getting your book out there isn’t a business decision – then I really don’t know what is. There is an undertone in the debate that making sound decisions as to how you invest what finance you have and making the right informed publishing choice must somehow be devoid of passion and emotion. That’s what the worst author solutions services prey upon.

    In short, self-publishing is not initially a business decision for the vast majority of authors [because of their lack of understanding of self-publishing/publishing], but make the wrong practical choice and it will quickly result in a financial reality never factored in to your publishing experience – emotions and dreams aside.

    By making the distinction between self-publishing, and publishing in general, we are setting apart authors as if their philosophy and motivations were different. They aren’t. We are developing into a recent trend of referring to self-published authors as ‘indie’ as if it were some badge of utter distinction – ‘I went over Niagra in a wooden barrel’ – ‘I sucked the juices of a thousand lemons when I wrote my last novel’ – ‘I told Penguin to get lost when they offered me a deal on my last novel’ – ‘I’m very bold and I’ll do exactly as I like’. The truth is every author whether they self-publish or choose a traditional route to publishing are filled with the same passions, motivations and dreams.

    “I’ve written a couple of novels attacking the vapidity in Hollywood and some of the same impulses show themselves in publishing – i.e. if a book sells a lot, it’s a success. That’s a Hollywood mentality, in which movies are judged by their grosses. In this climate, Stephanie Meyer is a “better” writer than virtually everyone.” – Henry

    It may be a Hollywood mentality, but it’s also a business reality. Hollywood is a movie business, and the studios there are part of the global media conglomerates who own the largest publishers in the world. So, if we take the Stephanie Meyer analogy – more units sold, she’s must be a better writer – we can shoot it rightly down and conclude that she just has had more exposure and people somehow identify with her. Equally, we can take the self-published author who has sold 500 copies and conclude that their smaller network think just as highly of them and are open to the same cajoling and friends of friends. We can be equalled cynical of both scenarios and attribute no greater or lesser value to the books involved.

    I’m not sure how this debate progresses things other than again outlining both paths are valid, have their place, whatever the passions and motivations of the author, be they borne from profit or dream. Tagging either with ‘indie ‘or ‘traditional’ is not going to change the value of a book when we sit down to read it and make up our own subjective minds.

    • Mick, I used Stephanie Meyer as an example not because she’s popular, but because she’s a bad writer and popular. One thing that I didn’t let enter this post is my divorce from the publishing world because I have lost a fair share of faith that I could make it through the traditional process given what becomes successful in publishing. This piece from The Onion read my mind:


      I’m pretty misanthropic when it comes to the state of literature in general. Sentimentality, once a dirty word, is now normal. Sort of like selling out used to be dirty. So my exile from traditional publishing is not just because I love alternative methods of publishing, it’s because my hybrid pulp/literary writing that takes on a different genre with each novel is going to have trouble. I don’t think all writers have the same motivation – many are writing purely for the market. I don’t think my writing is unmarketable, but I do think it’s probably confusing to marketers.

      Maybe not entirely appropriate here, but I do think the “vanity” published writers have gotten too bad a rap, and so they’re smeared with the label of being bad businesspeople. Sure there are a lot of clueless people who get suckered in by vanity presses and pay too much money. But I see a lot of writers who go the iUniverse route because it makes sense – you see a service that offers to design the cover, distribute to Amazon, for one fee, and you think that’s how it’s done. Maybe they’d do it differently the 2nd time, but first time out I can totally understand looking at those packages and going for it. Doesn’t make them dupes. $400 is not a terrible package deal, when it can cost $800 just for a cover designer.

      That’s not entirely a separate argument because there’s been so much talk recently about the “right” way to self-publish. There are certainly better ways, but the book itself transcends all those concerns. By smearing Authors Solutions-published writes as “bad businesspeople” it has come to the point where people are smearing the books themselves as “vanity” and illegitimate. This is why I think emphasizing business over craft is a dark alley because it equates the amount of money you’ve paid or make with the quality of your book.

      Certainly there are business concerns with self-publishing, but I think these should be second tier to the book itself.

  • I cannot speak for anyone else but myself; but for me self-publishing is two-fold. But in that, I’m speaking of two completely different projects.

    I always jokingly say “it was either this or sell avon” but I’m partially serious. I was looking to go into business for myself anyways….

    For my novella I enjoyed the freedom of expression, enjoyed the cover design (and yes I do have experience with graphic arts, layout and design…plus my sister is an artist and I utilize her expertise whenever I can…)
    I liked not worrying about whether it was “trendy” enough, or fits in with what is on the market today…
    Letting my freedom of expression just pour out, and doing what makes me happy….Letting my creative spirit soar.

    But in addition to all of that, I realized I could also go into business for myself by operating my own small press and/or publishing my own magazine(s). I don’t care if I make ten dollars, or ten million dollars…I’m going to give it a go.
    yes, maybe in that way it is also just as much as artistic endeavor as publishing my own book.

    I’m a non-conformist free spirit as it is…I don’t believe in selling out just to sell X-amount of copies.

    Henry, It’s funny how you talk about the Hollywoodization of the book industry; I was just thinking similarly that it’s almost like the fashion industry…so trend-oriented and “who are you wearing” being almost like “who publishes you” …really, who cares. I have a mother who won’t carry a purse unless it’s coach or Louis whats-his-hame. (However, I doubt anybody will ever start to say “I won’t read a book unless it’s published by Daw or Del Rey.” that would be stupid).

    Cellophane–There is a big difference between true self-publishing and vanity publishing; and a lot of ways to “legitimize” yourself…
    IF you do it the right way. Saying that a self-pub book is not a “legitimate” book is like saying a punk rock cd put out by the bands own indie label isn’t real music or a real CD…
    and that’s just wrong. I hate conformity. LOL

    Brent–I agree with you. I feel pretty much the same way.

    There will always be crappy TP books (like twilight) that will make us cringe and only prove that the true artist are indies…
    just like there will always be crap on the top 40 radio stations.
    I’ve decided to nickname books like Twilight, etc “bubblegum fiction” further comparing it to bubblegum pop music…
    Thereby making Ms. Meyers the Britney Spears of Music….LOL

    • K Crumley

      Doh! I meant the Britney Spears of books.

  • Lots of good commentary. Self Publishing is definitely not for sissies. It requires mental gymnastics and exertions that authors of the last generation never dreamed of. Yet even mainstream pub is putting more pressure on authors to flesh out the marketing as never before, and it is just smart, for authors to know the business they are entering — even with full representation, advances and publicists.

    The economic times converging with the tech trends will change everything — I believe much faster than most of us will be able to follow. eBooks are taking over the future of publishing, and IMHO, we will all be dragged, kicking and screaming (in my case)to our screen tablets if we want to read the newest work — or any classic work.

    The brightest spot, however is the light shining on the improved possibilities this means for all authors, in a way similar to the music business, which had to learn to allow the creatives to control their work and have a hand in distribution, in order to survive. April Hamilton makes a strong point for thinking in alternative business models — just be sure you know all the implications and are ready for really hard, time-consuming work, AFTER you’ve polished your book ’til it shines.

  • cynthia

    I heartily concur that the onus on self-publishing is the issue of quality of writing. Everyone has always thought they had a book in them. And now everyone can publish it. This isn’t going to get better as the costs of self-publishing go down and the word gets out. The general quality of self-published books, which is pretty bad now, will get much worse over the next few years.

    My objection to the post is in that “same distribution channels” bit. Not even close to the truth unless you’re talking online distribution only. To mask the self-publishing for my book husband and friends created a little consortium and formed an imprint. They have a web page, joined the IBPA and other independent publishers associations and have spent a LOT of money promoting my book and trying to buy some legitimacy. The reviews for my book have been excellent, both the paid and free ones. Online sales bounce around but show potential. Unfortunately, no distributor that they have found will carry it because the publisher doesn’t have enough titles to make it worth their while. You can’t even buy your way into a catalog without a distributor. Getting into the Indie’s means going door to door. Who’s got time for that? They’re hesitant to trust you for buybacks and don’t like the paperwork of consignment.
    The only hope I think for self-published authors to break out is through contests, those websites that are popping up to support us and separate the wheat from the chaff, and social media and community advertising.
    I’m thrilled with the production quality of my POD book. People gush over the cover design. I’ve found only one justification error in the interior file. What I need is readers!

  • Mick Rooney is right when he says I am the sort of self-publisher who’s doing everything myself. However, that doesn’t mean that when I say the decision of whether or not to self-publish is a business decision, I am saying that a desire to turn a profit is the only legitimate reason to publish, by whatever means.

    If someone wants to put into print any sort of content for any reason, who am I to say it’s not “legitimate” publishing?

    The point I was making there is that regardless of your reasons for publishing, and regardless of whether or not you expect to earn a profit on it, there will be a substantial investment on your part in the endeavor. Whether we’re talking years of your time, frustration, paper, ink and postage for query letters and mailing manuscripts, writing classes, editor fees, conference expenses, etc., or expenses associated with getting a book produced and made available for sale yourself, or paying a fat chunk of change to a ‘vanity’ press to do all those things for you, make no mistake: you will pay. In that sense, the decision of whether or not to self-publish—and *how* to self-publish—is a business decision.

    It’s also a business decision in that one should approach it as such: crunch the numbers, compare and contrast to see what you stand to gain or lose with each of the various options for getting your work into print. Even if you don’t care about ever turning a profit on your book, you don’t want to end up angry and bitter with a closetful of unpublished manuscripts, a heart full of venom and years worth of time and expenses paid into a dream that never came true, nor losing your shirt on your self-publishing project and not even knowing how it happened, like this guy: