Publishing: Advocate or Be Damned

Self-publishers or traditionally published—what are we really advocates of?

There are those in the traditional world of publishing who believe self-publishing has the potential to tarnish an author’s book. Usually there are a myriad of under-the-surface reasons for this view, but, at least as far as tried and trusted publishing practice is concerned, their valid argument is that an author who chooses to first self-publish their book gives up their first publication rights. When an author or agent tries to sell a book that has been published before—no matter how obscure or whatever format, print or e-book—it removes one of the single biggest selling attractions to an editor at a publishing house—exclusiveness. Publishers may be businesses, but they are not entirely soulless—they love having something they consider unique, different or better than what is already out there, but still a quality and saleable work to market. Better still, they were the first to view and consider it for acquisition ahead of their publishing rivals. Perhaps in this regard, we can understand how the agent has leverage, and a number of publishers can get into a bidding war when far too many eyes see the potential of a winning manuscript.

Believe me, there are many editors and publishing houses who have got themselves into such a situation, like hungry NBA teams bidding for the next great star or English Premiership soccer teams bidding for the next Ronaldo or Rooney, they finally sign the contract and cheque, but still wake up the following morning, gulf deeply, and think to themselves, ‘OH FUCK!’ Now we really do have to make sure this hot shit sells!

There is no doubt, self-publishing does make it harder to sell a book to a mainstream publisher—if it wasn’t already hard enough. Sure, if you or your agent can tell Editor X from Mainstream House that your book was downloaded 1500 times in the last two months on Smashwords—of course it is going to make a hell of a difference. But…has your book actually sold 1500 downloads on Smashwords in the last two months…?

No… I didn’t think so either. Let’s get back on track and the real world for most of us.

Publishing is not a world of absolutes—that much I have learned. Whether you are an established or new author, I believe the reading public is fickle enough to accept the hyperbole presented by a heavy marketing campaign, and equally fickle to turn their noses up at what a publisher believed and marketed as the next big literary or commercial thing.

It is simply not true to say a book is done and dusted if it is self-published and that any wide recognition and commercial success is beyond its reach. Self-published books continue to be picked up by mainstream publishers. A. J. Healy, author of Tommy Storm, who self-published his children’s novel in 2006, sold 3000 copies, and got picked up by Quercus UK. Quercus, in spite of Healy ‘using up first publication rights’ went ahead and re-published their own edition of Tommy Storm. In 2009, Quercus went on to publish the sequel book. In the USA, William P. Young published The Shack through his own supported self-publishing endeavours through Windblown Media. In some ways, a self-publishing phenonema like The Shack, owes a lot to Kinkos where it first saw the physical light of day. It has racked up 2m in sales, and remains a Windblown Media title. Hodder UK bought the publishing rights in the UK.

Is this an exception to the rule? Of course it is, and when you are talking million of copies, it is an extraordinary exception. A few thousand self-published units has long stopped being an exception to the general publishing world. That perhaps says more about how self-publishing has come along over the years, than it necessarily says about the remaining pervading attitudes towards it. The rules will always get broken and publishers are becoming a lot more open to self-published books which prove to be successes. When Quercus took on A. J. Healy, they didn’t go, ‘sod you Healy – that’s 3000 books we’re not going to be able to sell’. Instead, they took the view, if Healy on his own can shift 3000 – imagine what we could sell.

As it stands, mainstream publishing is, and should be, the first port of call for any author. I enjoy and love the work I do at POD, Self Publishing & Independent publishing. It has been suggested here on the site through comments and in my everyday life meeting authors and publishers alike that I am a ‘self-publishing advocate’. It is a phrase I have been tagged with many times. I am not entirely comfortable with the term; simply because it suggests I see the publishing world from one perspective. Anyone who has sought a consultation with me or who has avidly followed this site knows this is simply not the case.

Yes, I am an advocate—absolutely!

I am an advocate of publishing (self-publishing is a part of that – like it or not) and the right of the informed author to choose their own publishing path. I am an advocate of supporting authors once they have made the choice of path. I am an advocate for associations and organisations who support an author once they have made their choice in publishing. I am an advocate for publishing information and advice. I am an advocate for anyone, author or publisher, who challenges and presents innovative ideas to write, edit, deal and trade in an industry which changes by the month.

Most importantly, I am an advocate of the reader. They include the best writers, reviewers, editors, agents and supporters the world over. But singularly, the reader is the most powerful force in publishing. Each day, throughout the world, they put their hand in their pocket, and they make book publishing work. Dismiss, fool, confuse, ignore or treat them lightly, and they will in turn reward us with what we fear most – prosecuting written but unheard voices in the wilderness.

The first question I ask any author who contacts me and asks me for advice on self-publishing is – ‘why have you decided to self-publish?’ If they have not engaged with the tried and trusted channels of mainstream publishing first, then, of course, I will strongly advise them against going the self-publishing route. Would you buy a house if you knew fuck-all about finance and mortgages??

Here is my advice for authors looking at self-publishing I give out day in day out.

1. DO NOT self-publish and then think its ok to submit to mainstream publishers. It is not a good idea, and books already published elsewhere (by whatever means) are normally sold to publishers by skilled and experienced literary agents who do sell subsequent publishing rights.

2. For the most part – self-publishing provides only very modest financial rewards at best, even when an author can place books into physical stores. The personal rewards will most always outweigh the financial rewards. You must decide if this is to be your pleasure or your bitter destruction. I can deal with bitter self-published authors who are disillusioned—I have little time for traditionally published authors who are disillusioned but won’t try any other path.

3. Fiction is the hardest kind of self-published book to sell and does not best suit this type of publishing. Fiction is ephemeral and just doesn’t sit still like non-fiction which you can better nail down with a good marketing plan.

4. There are self-publishing successes, though, there are some who don’t like to focus nor highlight attention on these. These successes are the exception to the rule. There are some very common denominators with authors of self-publishing successes. The books, if non-fiction, already have a known and reachable audience, and most often, the author has a very high degree of business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. They have usually worked building up their own business and know a great deal about marketing. Fiction…? Yes. It can also find self-publishing success – but far less often than non-fiction, though, in my experience, I have found the same set of skills operating in the business world, as well as bucket loads of determination and resilience.

4. Exhaust every conceivable avenue of mainstream publishing before you consider self-publishing. You must understand and take on board any feedback which helps and guides you to perfect your book, rather than running to the self-publishing hills after a few rejections.

5. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing provided you have followed the above and understand why you are considering self-publishing and crucially you know what it entails and tailor your expectations to a reasonable and realistic level.

I have not include links where might have been expected—I considered it free-flowing and without the need of qualification.

  • Well said Mick. You are always spot on.

  • klcrumley

    Not everybody has the luxury of time to try, and try, and try with mainstream publishers before self-publishing. For example, those who are elderly (as the first self-published author I ever met was) or terminally ill.

    For the older woman that I know…Yes, that was part of her logic. She didn’t have the luxury of time to keep trying, and trying with mainstream publishers at her age. And as she wasn’t famous, she didn’t think anybody would be interested in publishing her testimonial/autobiography so she did it herself.
    It wasn’t a big bestseller…and she never expected it to be.
    She approached it realistically.

    Aside from that, not all books are suited for the mainstream….
    a book that’s too artsy/unique or a different blend of cross-genre might not fit into any publishing company’s current plan.
    This was part of my reasoning for publishing Wishful Thinking myself. It’s fantasy/mystery. It’s also not long enough to be considered a novel…more like a novella.

    Not only that, I want to learn about publishing…I want to start my own small press, and self-publishing my first book was an incredible learning experience…

    I’m a short fiction writer mostly…(I have yet to write a full-length novel).
    Plus, I’m currently laying the groundwork for my first magazine. To submit one of my own short stories to a fantasy magazine would be like giving my own business to the competition…(lol)

    Regardless: I wouldn’t consider the same book to a mainstream publisher after publishing myself…
    I’d submit ANOTHER, altogether different title that MAY be more suited for the mainstream.

    My interest in publishing is not wealth and fame! I’m too shy for fame, and I don’t go into anything as a get rich quick scheme. In fact, even people who try the mainstream publishing path shouldn’t see it as a get rich quick scheme. If you’re writing to get rich, then you’re writing for the wrong reasons. You should write because it is your passion.

    As far as fiction vs. non-fiction: Things have changed. Technology has opened up new venues for self-published fiction with ebooks, etc…and the internet has helped indie fiction writers reach a broader audience.

    Other than that I’m tired of the “Self-publishing success stories are rare” thing…
    No kidding. So are MOST success stories. Not every traditionally published writer is the next JK Rowling, either! Some publishers drop a title if it hasn’t sold X amount of copies its first year. Some fall into obscurity.
    Regardless, “Not every SP writer is the next Paolini” is a rather dumb argument, because it is one many artist face…
    When I was a dancer I heard success stories like Gelsea Kirkland were rare….does that mean I should never audition because I was not Gelsea herself?
    Not every snowboarder is Shaun White, not every film actress is Kate Winslet, not every guitar player is Jimmy Page….
    Doesn’t mean that everybody else should just give up?
    I love writing. I love publishing. I love the freedom of doing it myself.

    Okay, I’ll get down off my soap box now….

  • I took the advice of an English book-blogger (Grumpy Old Bookman) before I went to self-pub for all four of my historical fiction books – polish it until it gleams and give it your best shot with traditional publishing for a year, then figure out who you’re going to sell it to, and how you’re going to do that … then self pub. No, you won’t make a mint overnight, but if you focus on who are the natural readers for your book, and work at marketing, methodically … well, better than waiting around for someone to pick it out of the agency slush-pile, eh?
    Part of my strategy was to research so carefully that I could pitch to various museum bookshops – which has worked, and also to do talks for regional libraries and book-clubs who have selected my books, especially the Adelsverein Trilogy, which has the distinction of covering local history in an entertaining and very readable format – which also works.
    I think before you self-pub, you MUST think about how you are going to get your book in front of people who would like it, and who will tell their friends. You can’t just write it, and hope for the best.

  • This is a great article!

    I self published my debut novel. It has gotten some great reviews, I’ve been able to get it placed in Barnes & Noble–and recently I’ve had interest from a mainstream editor. But on the first post of my blog (cheapindieauthor.blogspot.com)–even though I have experienced some level of success–I still advise everyone who asks for my opinion on self-publishing to try the traditional route first.

    I’m highly driven, almost to the point of insanity, and I have an MBA, so I have some idea of the level of marketing it takes to be successful. I also have some idea of the quality of packaging it takes to sell a book to a wide audience. It’s not easy at all. It takes a lot of time, energy, and, frequently, more financial resources than many indie authors have available to them to make a quality product and then market it for broad success.

    Also, as a self-published author, I’ve found that I can do many of the things that a traditionally published author can do, but it takes a lot more energy…a lot more begging…more letters and more phone calls. This takes away from my writing time, and I’m passionate about writing.

    Definitely, seek traditional publishing first–especially for fiction. But if you decide to indie publish, then do your research and understand the energy, time and financial investment it’ll take to be really successful. Most importantly, be patient and put out a quality product because this first product will follow you if you ever decide to try the traditional route in the future.

    • klcrumley

      “Also, as a self-published author, I’ve found that I can do many of the things that a traditionally published author can do, but it takes a lot more energy…a lot more begging…more letters and more phone calls. This takes away from my writing time, and I’m passionate about writing. ”

      Well, I am passionate about writing too…(just because I chose to indie publish AND become a publisher doesn’t mean that I don’t have passion for creative writing) but somehow I always manage to find time to write. I keep a good schedule, and I take a tablet and pen with me at work so I can work on my next book or short story during my “down time”

      “Definitely, seek traditional publishing first–especially for fiction.”

      I’ve already posted my arguments against that. You can read that above statement if you will. I won’t bring a sob story to this forum…I’m above playing on sympathy and too proud.

      But aside from that, chosing SP first isn’t necessarily a bad decision of the uninformed.
      Jeremy Robinson CHOSE SP FIRST, because his book (like mine) did not fit neatly into one specific genre…
      And, he eventually got picked up by an agent…

      And, look at the success stories of Eragon, and A Time To Kill…both originally self-published.

      “But if you decide to indie publish, then do your research and understand the energy, time and financial investment it’ll take to be really successful. Most importantly, be patient and put out a quality product because this first product will follow you if you ever decide to try the traditional route in the future.”

      Oh, on that I absolutely agree. Give your book your 125 percent…even 150 percent…Make a book comparable to what you find in book shelves before you approve it.

      I did make some mistakes with my first book…but they were ones I learned from (and actually helped me develop the concept(s) for my magazine).

      I don’t think trying TP first is necessarily a bad thing…
      I just feel that TP is not for every writer, or for every book…

  • The idea that you must seek trad publishing first especially for fiction just makes me bristle. Sorry, but anyone has the right to publish their work, with or without permission. Any author willing to assess the risk, weigh their options and what’s right for them, and take the risk, has the right to get out there and try.

    I don’t subscribe to the “oh noes, self-publishing is dire and world-in-peril stuff” It’s not a kidney transplant. It’s just publishing a book. No one’s likely to die.

    The idea of being on someone else’s midlist has never appealed to me, and being any higher than that is such a long shot that if you really have THAT much of “it” (whatever ‘it’ is) then you’d succeed just as well with self-pub provided you had a good business head. (And the reason I say that is, you’d get picked up by a publisher if you have “it” combined with a business head. It’s just cause and effect. Every publisher wants a sure thing and so far a self-pub success is the only sure thing playing.)

    However, the more I got into the whole landscape indie authorship, the less I could see myself EVER wanting or taking a deal. I like what I’m doing. I believe self-publishing is a scalable business model. The only reason it HASN’T scaled in any meaningful way is that people always sell when a trad publisher comes calling.

    But what if authors refused to sell? What would happen then?

    I think we’re going to find out at some point as more indies stubbornly hold onto their rights and keep doing what they’re doing and learning the business of publishing.

  • Look, I’m self-published and I self-published fiction. And I’ve been pretty successful given that I only released my book, officialy, in October. I am certainly not against self-publishing first in ALL situations. But for the vast majority of people, I would say so.

    I’m on forums with self-published authors allllll day long. Many of them self-publish thinking that it will help them catch a traditional publisher’s eye. More authors than I care to imagine say, “Boy, I can’t wait until B&N picks my book up and starts selling it.” But when you ask what they’ve done to get it there, all they’ve done is list it with Ingram…and so now B&N is supposed to find their book among millions of books and say, I’ve got to have that! No, it doesn’t work that way. But you would be surprised at how many people think it does. I can’t tell you how many self-published authors listed their book on Amazon and then darn near cried when it didn’t get any sales. And when you ask them about marketing, they say, “Marketing?”

    So many self-published authors are so in a hurry to see their name on the front of a book, they don’t take time to get the necessary editing and book design. So their books look like crap.

    Too many self published authors are going into the situation and lack the understanding of the full range of activities it will take to make their book successful. For those going in with rose colored glasses on, I encourage them to try traditional publishing first. But if someone has done the research, understands the pitfalls and the effort it will take to be successful, I say go for it.

    I did. I went for it…with fiction I might add. And many others have done it successfully. But they understood the business of selling books as much as the business of writing books.

    As for the writing issue, I’m a single mom, I’m a real estate agent, I’m a govt contractor, and I’m a writer and, oh by the way, I published my book that needs promoting. And during the day, I’m an editor. LOL So, it’s hard to squeeze in my own writing time. I’m not complaining because that’s my life and it’s the one I’ve chosen. But what I’m saying is that when you have so much going on, balancing promotion and writing isn’t always as easy and simple as carrying a notebook around. And a lot of people don’t understand that either. You make sacrifices because there’s never time for everything.

    As for going the traditional route, because of my jobs, I have to give it consideration if it’s a good deal–but only if it’s a good deal. I’d be stupid not to. Some people may not have all the responsibility I have or they may have the financial resources to offset those aspects and still devote the time necessary to be successful in self-publishing. So, I wouldn’t consider myself or any self published author selling “out.” I’d consider it selling “up.” 🙂

  • K.L. I don’t understand why so many writers refuse to research and learn. I find that appalling. I can’t respect someone who thinks they’re going to do something the “easy way” and won’t put the work in and I highly resent that those people call themselves self-publishers making the rest of us have a higher uphill climb.

    Also, I am in that very fortunate position where I don’t have a day job. I agree self-publishing is hard work, and while I never want to discourage someone from following their dream, it makes me shudder thinking of the people hopping in without even the most basic business plan.

    You TELL them “okay you need to do this and this and this” and they just smile and nod and half the time I think it went in one ear and out the other while they’re sitting around daydreaming about their interview with Oprah.

  • klcrumley

    “But you would be surprised at how many people think it does. I can’t tell you how many self-published authors listed their book on Amazon and then darn near cried when it didn’t get any sales. And when you ask them about marketing, they say, “Marketing?” ”

    I know exactly the types of people you mean…but I don’t consider them self-publishers. I call them “self-printers.”

    They haven’t done any real pubishing, or marketing or promoting…in essence they haven’t “gone public” with their book. They just printed up copies, and are sitting around waiting for something to happen.

    ” I can’t respect someone who thinks they’re going to do something the “easy way” and won’t put the work in and I highly resent that those people call themselves self-publishers making the rest of us have a higher uphill climb.”

    Zoe, I know what you mean. We have to work twice as hard to gain credibility due to the hacks giving self-publishing a bad name.

  • I am laughing so hard at Zoe’s comment because it’s true. So many people have that “First stop, Oprah. Next stop, The World” mentality. Just doesn’t happen like that.

    And K.L.–it really does give self-publishers who took the business seriously a bad name. That’s why I encourage people like that to stay in the traditional process as long as possible! *she says with a sinister smile* lol

    • KL (DUDE, how am I supposed to have a conversation with two different K.L.’s?)…

      I think the answer for indies isn’t necessarily to stick with trad. I absolutely am not wired to run in that hamster wheel and I know many other indies who would say the same. Being indie “is” a last resort or not the first preference for many, but there is a growing number of indies who love being indie and doing things this way. For them, trad publishing just is never going to scratch that itch. It’s a square peg in a round hole.

      I think the real answer is for serious indies to band together to create a united front of non-suckitude. And also for sites like indiereader.com to gain further ground where only indie books of higher quality are allowed in. (I realize some indie authors are against things like that, but that’s okay, they don’t have to sell in those venues. There will always be non-vetted venues like Amazon.)

      I think places like Self-Publishing Review attract a lot of savvy, serious, and talented indies and that can only help break down stigmas.

  • I agree. A coalition of authors who adhere to certain quality standards would be great, but I fear it would largely be viewed as subjective unless there were some set quantitative measures. And that’s hard to do.

    But one thing I do is run my blog which is intended to help indie authors understand how much work it takes, but also gives them tips on putting out a quality product without breaking the bank…and without having to buy YET ANOTHER book on self-publishing that doesn’t provide half the detail that you really need. That’s my little contribution to the problem. And when authors ask me my opinion, and many have, I give it to them straight with no chaser. “You need a new cover…” or “You need another good edit…” Offering that kind of support can only work in the favor of all indie authors.

  • We kicked around the notion of doing that at the IAG (Independent Author’s Guild – http://www.independentauthorsguild.com) – perhaps some kind of ‘stamp of approval’ for books that meet a certain criteria – but at the end, I think we kind of mutually decided to be a support group for ourselves, sharing encouragement and expertise, rather than see every indy author go around inventing the wheel again. How to market, how to operate as your own publisher, how to scrounge legitimate (and effective) reviews, the necessity of a good cover and a website,and the absolute, absolute necessity of getting a good and exacting editor. There are all sorts of skilz that we have shared over the last two years – and all in the service of writing better and (hopefully) more successful books.