Self-Publish or Not: Advice from a Traditional Publisher
If you are wondering if you should self-publish your manuscript, or know someone else who is considering this? And I have watched as self-publishing has boomed over the past five years, thanks to the application of digital technology to the publishing process. This has made it easier, or at least cheaper, to self-publish. But I have grown increasingly concerned that people sometimes choose to self-publish for the wrong reasons, or self-publish when they aren’t ready to do it successfully.
Why do people self-publish instead of working with a publisher? If you don’t see yourself as making a career from writing, but want to create a book for a very specific or limited market, such as a local market, or your family, or for a small niche market that you know exactly how to reach, then self-publishing the 100 or 500 or 1,000 copies of a book that you want may be the best approach. The only question you have to settle is what the best way to go about that is, as there are more options to choose from. Careful research is needed.
On the other hand, some choose to self-publish out of frustration with the traditional route. As you may have learned elsewhere on my site, it can take years to get published in the traditional way, and many never get published at all. So why not self-publish in that situation? Unfortunately, if a book has a national audience, it’s extremely difficult to publish it effectively unless you publish it traditionally. The media publicizes self-publishing successes (such as Christopher Paolini’s Eragon), but for every one of them, there are hundreds and hundreds of failures and partial failures. Self-publishing is difficult and a lot of work—and this news story about Paolini’s success may give you some sense of what was involved with his book.
The reality for most people is that self-publishing won’t even get your book into bookstores. Companies providing self-publishing services often proclaim that their books are “available” to Barnes & Noble, Borders, other chains, and wholesalers. That doesn’t mean that their books will be on the shelves in bookstores. It means that their books are listed in databases from which those companies can order. Since there will be thousands of titles from the big self-publishing companies listed in those databases, their books won’t get to those stores unless someone orders them. Can authors then persuade bookstores to carry their books? Probably not—stores get so many self-published authors pitching books to them that don’t sell and are often non-returnable that they have learned not to stock them and won’t order them except for a paying customer.
Alright, but what about self-publishing an ebook? That question is answered in this thoughtful article by an agent, which I will let speak for itself: What about self-publishing via Kindle? Or if you have been reading about Amanda Hocking’s success, please read what Amanda Hocking has to say about it: Some Thing that Need to Be Said. It’s not easy, in other words.
My advice is that you do not consider self-publishing until you have spent at least a few years working on your writing, making submissions, and learning about the business of publishing. That won’t be wasted time, because even if you don’t get published, if you do decide to self-publish later you will be much better equipped to do so successfully. You will have a more polished manuscript or manuscripts. You will also have learned something about what you need to do (which is, very briefly, get your book edited, illustrated, designed, promoted, reviewed, and distributed—things a publisher routinely does, but which are difficult and expensive for an individual to do. See also my article on what a publisher does).
If you haven’t even tried the traditional route yet, I urge you to do so. Go to conferences, get some books about writing, get into a critique group, read Publisher’s Weekly at the library. If you are writing in another area, the same general advice applies; you’ll just need to find the right writer’s organization, and the right how-to and reference books for your area.
If your travels in traditional publishing lead you only into a dead end, then look again at self-publishing. It can make sense to self-publish a book with a national audience once you have acquired considerable knowledge of publishing, and know where to find the design, editing, illustrating, marketing, promoting, sales, etc. help you will need. You will also need considerable self-confidence, and probably a year to dedicate to the project.
For now, make your life easier and your chances of success better: pursue the traditional publishing route.