When you probably shouldn’t self-publish (and when it might be best)

When is self-publishing going to be more trouble than it’s worth, or downright counter-productive? Here’s when:

#1 You just want a single book to share with friends and family

Everyone tells me I should write a bookLet’s say you’ve written a memoir about your long and interesting life, and you want to be able to share it with people you love. Everyone tells you that you’ve really had a fascinating life, and you really have. But you don’t plan to make a career out of writing, and you don’t want to make a career out of publishing, either.

Unless someone who does have some knowledge of publishing (traditional or self) gets excited about your book and wants to get it out there, you’re going to be better served just getting some books printed up and understanding that this is really vanity publishing. Which is okay. That’s exactly what it exists for.

Yes, you can do vanity publishing cheaply through self-publishing outfits like Createspace or BookBaby, and you may want to take advantage of some of the extra services they offer to help you create a nice book. But since this isn’t going to be your career, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need to research the market. You don’t need to study up on everything, or buy your own ISBN at $125 a pop. You just need a physical book friends and family can read.

For many people in this situation it might make more sense to use a local vanity press. In my area, the folks at Troy Bookmakers know what they are doing and can guide you towards a nice paper book. You’ll pay more than you will going to a big online firm, but you’ll get more personal help along the way. They’ll stock it in the two related independent bookstores, and you can have a signing in one of them. A lot of local bookstores are developing this kind of service.

Unlike some other operations — Author House, iUniverse, etc. — they won’t try to sell you over-priced or fraudulent services or suggest that you could experience great publishing success. (Tip: Any time you’re asked to put significant money into a publishing undertaking, check Preditors and Editors to see if there are complaints about that company or individual, and evaluate other books that entity has published.)

And although most presses and publishing services will make it an option, maybe you shouldn’t create an eBook. Think about it: If you’re someone who doesn’t have any social media marketing savvy and has never even read an eBook yourself, trying to sell one is going to require a tremendous learning curve. Is that something you want to undertake for one book?

#2 Your fantasies include book tours, bookstore signings, or seeing your book on the shelf.

That isn’t going to happen with 99.9% of self-published books, except perhaps in your local bookstore with a kind and supportive bookseller. It doesn’t always happen even with traditionally published books.

So if this is what you really want, your best bet is to slog through the traditional publishing process. Revise and polish that novel (or novels, if required), build your platform, network in your genre, get an agent, get a contract, and work like a demon to promote the book so that you can continue writing and publishing that way.

And no, as Jane Friedman has explained quite well, self-publishing is not a shortcut to traditional publishing. Not an easy one, anyway.

#3 Literary status matters to you.

Untitled design-1Maybe you’re secretly competing with that guy in your writing group who got a three-book deal, or maybe you need publications in order to get that teaching job you want, or maybe you just really, really want some official affirmation of your talent. Self-publishing will not serve your purpose. The stigma associated with self-publishing is not as bad it once was, but it’s still there.

If this matters to you, but you’ve had no luck getting published mainstream after a heroic effort, you might find your goals can be met by a university press or well-regarded regional or small press. You won’t always need an agent to sell to them, either. (Some previous literary publications may be required.) Just be careful out there.

#4 You don’t want to give your creation to those blood-sucking “Big Five” publishers and agents.

This is where we find people pointing out that self-publishing pays a higher royalty rate than traditional publishers pay, or asking why they should give an agent 15% of their writing income, or bringing up bad contract clauses.

And some of the people saying these things are published midlist authors and they may have some legitimate complaints, but what you need to remember is that if they were at any time midlist authors they were by definition already doing better than the vast majority of self-published authors will ever do.

Both agents and traditional publishers bring substantial expertise to the publication process. They will usually help you publish a better book than you can publish on your own. An agent will also usually get you better placement and a better advance than you would have gotten on your own.

Second, earning 70% on an eBook is no substitute for a good advance, especially since most self-published eBooks sell fewer than 200 copies. Even with a bad advance, your publisher is better positioned to sell your debut novel successfully than you are. (Remember, advances don’t have to be paid back.)

Publishers make money by putting out a bunch of new books each season, a few of which do very well and keep the lights on, a few more of which do well enough to keep that writer publishing, and a good many of which fail. They try to pick the best bets. It’s a tricky business, with low margins, and the pressure to meet corporate and individual goals doesn’t exactly foster risk-taking. But it’s not, in fact, a conspiracy to defraud authors of all the fruit of their labor (not that this means authors should be willing to put up with some of the more egregious contract terms). Most people go into publishing because they love books.

And only traditional publishers can easily distribute to bookstores, which still drive a lot of the book business. (Bookstores also exist because people love books.)

It’s a no-lose situation, because having a traditionally published book or two to your credit is an advantage if you eventually choose to self-publish. Those traditional titles are a badge that says “This author doesn’t suck.” (Just make sure your contracts don’t bar you from going indie in the future.)

But yes, there are still some GOOD reasons to try self-publishing

Just understand the #1 requirement for all of them:

You are comfortable either doing or supervising every step of the publishing process, from writing to editing, cover design, interior design, proofreading, distribution, sales, promotion, and finance. You have reasonably good knowledge of the genre you are publishing and how readers find and purchase those books online.

Furthermore, if your goal includes making money from it, you must be willing to keep doing it on a steady basis until you have published enough books in the same genre to reach a critical mass and begin to gain some traction in the market place. (This actually applies to traditional publishing, too.)

Beyond that, maybe you fall into these groups:

  • You already have a base of readers who appreciate your work as a consultant or speaker or blogger, and your book will complement that area of expertise and sell alongside it. Ideally, you also already have a nice long list of email subscribers. Furthermore, you couldn’t find a good traditional publisher for this book even with that excellent author platform.
  • You’re passionately writing types of books that traditional publishers have no interest in because the market is too small, or they think it’s too small, but you are certain it could find an audience online. (Think Amish science fiction.)
  • You write for a voracious niche of the eBook market. Furthermore, you write and publish good books fast. Ideally, you write highly addictive series.
  • You have a whole stable of out-of-print traditionally published books you’ve regained control of, and you want to give them a second life as eBooks.
  • You’ve had one or two failed books in traditional publishing and nobody will talk to you anymore, so this is your only option unless you change your name, and you don’t want to change your name.
  • You want to take your time building an audience instead of feeling under pressure to succeed with that first book or two, because you know that if they fail you’re probably done. (Of course, if all your eBooks fail, that won’t help.)
  • You enjoy publishing in itself (I thought this was me, but I no longer fantasize about publishing other people’s work. This is mostly because I’ve discovered I hate accounting. I already put it off until tax time for my own books. That won’t fly if I’m publishing other people.)
  • You don’t have the years that it may take to find an agent, get a sale, and wait for publication. Maybe you’re ninety, or you have a degenerative illness, or your book is extremely topical and truly won’t interest people a year from now. All good reasons to just get it done.
  • You’re more interested in gaining readers than literary status or income, and you won’t fret about your sales rank or compare yourself to other authors. You’re willing to give books away to gain more readers, and even after a bad review or two, you consider it all great fun. (This is what I try for on a daily basis, though I won’t claim to have reached quite this level of Zen contentment yet.)

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