Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why I'm Not Self-publishing (right now)

Seriously.  I've got a great platform, lots of potential readers.  Self-publishing (at the very least e-publishing) seems like a potential fit.

But for me, right now, it's not.

Long-time MSFV readers probably already know that, long ago and far away, I did self-publish a book.  Not full-blown "self", mind you--I used a reputable POD publisher who gave all rights to the authors (which is what I wanted).  It was heady at first, because this particular publisher rejected over 90 percent of the manuscripts sent to them for consideration.  (This was their way of elevating themselves above the dime-a-dozen vanity presses out there.  It worked.)

My book was non-fiction for a strong niche market.  At the time, I ran an online community for this particular niche (surprise, surprise), so I had a very-small-but-loyal base for book sales.  It could have been a great launchpad for a successful sales run.

It wasn't.  Because I knew absolutely nothing about marketing, and I didn't have the time (or money) necessary to peddle my wares the way I really needed to.  The book piddled along and, despite its glowing Amazon reviews, faded into the nether regions.

(One day, when I reveal myself, you can all skip over and look at it.  I let my POD contract expire several years ago, so it's no longer available to purchase new, but it's still sitting on its Amazon page, smiling sadly.)

Aside from the marketing difficulty, though, I've got other reasons for choosing to stick with traditional publishing right now.  (And anyway, all authors need to market their books, so that's a moot point.)  Namely:

Lack of distribution.  When my little book finally flew into the world, my poor dad could not understand why he couldn't walk into the local bookstore and find it on the shelves.  My book was distributed by Ingram, so it was actually available in any bookstore across the nation--but you had to order it.  Because, yanno, I didn't have the means to whip up a regional bus tour (a la Patrick Carman) or hard sell my itty-bitty-book-among-millions to all the big scary booksellers out there.  And this is important to me.

Inability to produce the book RIGHT.  If one wants to truly self-publish, that means doing everything...well, yourself.  Page formatting, cover art, sales, everything.  And I don't have the money to do that sort of thing right.  Good cover art is expensive.  Bookbinding is expensive.  And even from an e-book standpoint, the thing needs to LOOK GOOD and BE DONE RIGHT.  And, frankly, I don't want to spend my time formatting a document for a Kindle, and I don't want to spend my money paying someone else to do it.

When I self-pubbed my non-fiction, I hired a graphic artist to produce the cover (it was whimsical and quite perfect for the book, but it wasn't the sort of thing I'd use now), and I paid an English major friend $500 to copyedit for me.  So, yes, I took the whole thing seriously.  But my standards have evolved, and it would take a lot more money (a lot) to produce a book the way I'd like to produce it today.  And I'm simply don't have the means to do it.  Not even close.

I write fiction now.  This isn't to say you can't self-publish fiction--you absolutely can.  I have colleagues who have successfully done so.  But my personal take on self-publishing is that it's an especially effective way to get a non-fiction book out there.  Especially when you've got a strong niche audience.  If I were to write another non-fiction (and I've actually got one up my sleeve), I would absolutely consider self-publishing over traditional.  Especially today, with the exponential growth of e-books and e-readers and e-everything.  I wouldn't hesitate to self-publish another non-fiction.

But for me, fiction is a different animal.  (I've written both, so, yeah, I can say this.)  I don't want to spend 50 or 75 percent of my work time on all the non-writing aspects of getting (and keeping) a book out there.  I want to write.  And while going with a traditional publisher means I don't own the rights to my book, and I don't have final say over the cover, and a dozen other "I don'ts", to me it's worth it because I will be able to spend my time writing while someone else does all that stuff.  Someone qualified.

Marketing, of course, is still my responsibility.  Any author, whether self- or traditionally-published, is going to have to also become a marketer.  That's just the way the game goes.  And I'm okay with that.

I love my agent.  This goes without saying.  And it's not actually a reason for choosing traditional publishing.  But Josh makes it possible for me to concentrate on my writing while he does other hard stuff (because writing is hard, too).  He's actually quite progressive, and we've discussed less-than-traditional approaches to publishing as well as the Big Six route.  It's one of the things I like about him--he's growing and changing along with the industry.  Always open to new possibilities.

But ultimately, my relationship with him allows me to be the writer I want to be, working hard to break into the traditional market without having to worry about the how.  That's Josh's job.  My job is to write good stories.

In a way, it's dichotomous; I'm a fiercely independent person who likes to do things her own way.  Self-publishing, in this light, seems like a perfect fit.  But it's not.  Not for me, not for now.

That's just me.  You may be different.  Or you may be the same, but change your mind six months or a year from now.  Really, it's all good.  The most important thing is for each of us to understand what we want and why we want it.  And then to grab it with both hands and hang on for dear life.

Good dreams die hard.  So keep dreaming, and keep working hard.  Really, really hard.  Because that's what it will take, regardless of what your path to publication ultimately looks like.

We're all in this together.


  1. What are your thoughts on small presses/e-pubs? I'm waffling on whether to go that route if the trad route doesn't work...

  2. Because you got it stuck in my head and I want to return the favor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbrbUfYSt0E

  3. Your thoughts align almost perfectly with mine.

  4. I'm with a small press, which helps with dealing with a lot of the issues you note here, but the big one that leads me to really want to land with the big 5 for my next book is the distribution one. Trying to get into bookstores? Pulling. Teeth. And who has time for that? I'd rather be writing :)

  5. Interesting. I've done the self-pubbed route, hiring a cover artist, editors and someone to format it to Kindle/Nook and I've done small presses. The distribution aspect of small presses is what I find frustrating. I need an agent to go to the next level. I feel like I've done all I can to promote my books within my budget, which is small and I don't have the funds to hire a PR person. I thought about self-pubbing again but the cost stops me. I'm okay with someone else doing the cover, trailer, edits and even changing the title. I feel like, even though self-publishing is not as big of a no-no as it used to be, it's not the way I want to go at this point in my writing career. Great post, BTW.

  6. Another stellar post. Miss Authoress, you have a knack for expressing what so many of us feel. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. I too would much rather write, and I can’t afford a production and marketing team to take on the other aspects.

    I too had a non-fiction book published by a small publisher, and yes, distribution, marketing, all of that, plays a big part. Sales for my book absolutely tanked. But here’s the thing, my book looked self-published, lacked sophistication. And I’ll be honest, unlike yourself, my writing was lackluster.

    Self-published can often mean “invisible” in the ocean of other self-published titles, and that ocean grows larger every day. We aspiring authors read about one self-published success, and a magical thinking comes about. “Why, if “Fifty Shades” started out fanfiction and self-pubbed, I can do it, too!” These self-pubbed phenomenons are extremely rare, yet somehow, we think we can easily replicate that.

    My husband once pointed to a baseball stadium here in Chicago and said, “Think of the 40,000 or 50,000 people when it’s seated to capacity. Now multiply that times 50 to know how hard it is making it as the next Madonna or Kelly Clarkson.”

    That really resonated with me. To be a J. K. Rowling, a Stephen King, an Evanovich, it’s really rare.

    As writers, we’ve got to also look at the market and how tastes change. How our culture changes. An art teacher once told me to look at an artist’s paintings in terms of the ‘time’ or era in which he lived.

    Because we creative types don’t work in a vacuum.

    Reading habits are changing. High school lit teachers tell me, “I can’t assign a longer novel to read. Kids don’t have the attention span to read them.” Magazines resemble coloring books, especially “People,” oversized photos and very little text. For a meaty article, we look to “Vanity Fair,” but I bet even those stories are shorter than they were a decade ago.

    Oh, shoot, I know – we’re told to write for ourselves, not the market. Still, I do that crazy analyzing thing. I see a lot of romances that reflect a post “Sex & The City” world – glam settings, heavy, clever dialogue, light on setting and plot, constant sex and the writing is pretty basic. It’s not a sophisticated “Gone Girl.” But it seems to be what readers want, an entertaining, light read that’s a breeze to consume. For someone like me, who’s inspired by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Francine Rivers, Linda Howard’s mid-1990 novels and “Flowers from the Storm,” I’m not sure what I’m writing will suit the present-day romance reader.

    But I also believe in the storytelling power of Pixar, that it defies the animation standard, and hope there is a chance for my stuff.

    Some of it is luck, too, as to whether the spark catches – and then spreads via word-of-mouth recommendation. I still believe word-of-mouth, that friend or colleague saying, “Man, you’ve got to read this, I stayed up all night!”

    I too would love to find an agent. Gotta keep trying, and gotta keep improving as a writer. The improving part is the one thing I can control.

    Thanks again for all your sensitive, thoughtful posts.

  7. I feel the same. There's so much involved with self-publishing, that obviously you need to understand what you are choosing, but I love that you focus on the why. We each have our own needs, and that doesn't make either choice wrong. You express your thoughts so well! Thanks for sharing. :)

  8. I'm with you on this one. I just don't have the time or money to self-publish well. So I'm holding out for a traditional deal, albeit with a small publisher or a bigger one.

  9. This mirrors my own thoughts and I'm thinking of printing this out and handing it to all of my friends and family members who keep bugging me to give up on traditional publishing. Besides, as you mentioned you can do both.

  10. I'm glad I found this blog. I appreciate your thoughts.

    I was thinking of going Indie. I decided that right now, I'm too new to the whole publishing industry. So I'm going to concentrate on learning and going Traditional for now.

    For those that are wondering, there are agents that specifically WANT to work and represent Indie authors. One I know of has a pretty fair contract too.

  11. I loved your post, especially the ending. :-)

  12. Amen AND Hallelujah! I recently checked out an acquaintance's self-published book and was shocked at how amateur it looked. Just because you can desktop publish on your computer doesn't mean you should.

    I will freely admit to being a book snob. I want my books to be the best quality they can be, which means someone else should be writing them. :) It's like how I feel about voting- I want people smarter and more knowledgeable than me in charge of my city, state, country, and I want people smarter and more knowledgeable than me in charge of publishing my books.

    If I have to up the quality of my writing to be accepted into traditional press, then so be it. Of course, I'd have a lot better chance at it if I'd just query someone!

  13. I remember a woman at a writers' conference who said a friend of hers had self-published. He was even hauling copies in his car to sell to people. What frustrated her was that he was no longer writing -- all his time was absorbed in the self-publishing.

  14. You do what is right for you.

    David King and Michael lose publishing deal: http://www.davidpowersking.com/2013/08/unwoven-how-one-word-lead-to.html

  15. "But my personal take on self-publishing is that it's an especially effective way to get a non-fiction book out there."

    This is a belief that is at least 10 years out of date. It was true at one time. Now the opposite is true and fiction does better than non-fiction.

    And NO ONE does things like hauling print copies to cars any more in Indy Publishing. Not if they have even the slightest clue what they are doing. Indy authors generally spend no more time on publicity than traditionally published authors. Is someone out there still buying the old myth that if a publishing company publishes your book, that they will do all the publicity? Tell me another joke.

    For print, traditional publishers still far and away have the best distribution. And Indy Authors do indeed have to pay for their own covers and editing. However, we also get the lion's share of the profits and don't have to wait 6 months to a year to even receive a royalty report.

    There are arguments on both sides, but it is a good idea to make the REAL arguments and not fake or outdated ones.

  16. Actually, I wasn't arguing. I was sharing my personal reasons for deciding to go traditional.

  17. It is important that each author make her own decision about what is best for her own career. I've done both and they each have their pluses and minuses.

    However, I do need to say something about setting expectations. This is true whether you self-publish or go traditional. That is that your ability to sell books and make it big is based not on marketing, but on your ability to put out more books. I have a lot of friends who are traditionally published, with advances at 10K and more per book, who do not find their books in local bookstores. So, don't expect that unless you have a much larger advance and marketing dollars behind you.

    The reality is the vast majority of traditionally published authors did not make great money on their first book, or second book, or fifth book. The same goes for self-published authors. The mistake, IMO, is putting out one or two books and spending lots of time marketing in the hopes of getting more sales and then being disappointed on the returns.

    Yes, you might get a $1500 or $3000 advance for your novel, but it will take two years from the contract signing to be available and you likely will see nothing more past that advance. In e-publishing, you get no advance and it is 9 months to a year to see your novel out there. In self-publishing you get no advance, but you get a huge lead on getting it out there.

    In both cases, the key is having another book, and another book, and another book. If you can continuously sell to traditional publishers (and that is iffy in itself), and get two or three books out every year, you might be making $30K per year if you are putting out three books a year with $10K or more advances. You see, advances are based on what the publisher believes you will earn in royalties that first year. They are usually right too, because they have a long history of knowing how it works. Royalties beyond the advance? Unlikely--particularly in fiction.

    In my non-fiction, traditionally published career, I made about $15K over four years, with four books out. In my fiction self-publishing career, at the end of this year I will have made the same over 3 years with 5 books out. I'm hoping that next year, with a total of 10 books out I will double that.

    Which one will prove the most lucrative? I don't know for sure, but based purely on per book profit I'm betting on self-publishing.

    So, whatever way allows you to produce more books and get them out there, the better chance to make the money you need to make this a career. If that is traditional publishing, I think that's great.

    Just don't pin your hopes on traditional publishing making you a bestseller. Yes, there are people who make it on their traditional first book (about 1 in 500,000). There are also people who become bestsellers on their first book in self-publishing (same ratio).

    It's all hard work, and consistently hard work over time, no matter which way you publish.

  18. Excellent points, Maggie! I think the whole "expectations" thing is another topic entirely.

  19. I think when I tell people that I write, around 90% of them ask me if I've considered self publishing.

    When I tell them I have, but it's not for me, about half of those people say, 'But so-and-so made millions doing it!'

    Yes, 50 big-name authors each made millions with their novels.

    And millions of no-name authors made $50 or less with their novels.

    But no one hears about the latter category in the news.

  20. I respect all of these reasons for attempting the traditional route. The one thing I would point out is that the choice isn't to "go with self-publishing" or "go traditional."

    You can choose to go with self-publishing. All you can choose otherwise is to query agents, hope you land one, and then wait and see if a publisher picks you up. And how much muscle they put behind your work. And how long booksellers leave you on the shelf. And how long bookstores stay open.

    Every author should do what feels right and best for them, but there is no choice between being self-published and being on an endcap in a major bookstore. One of these is in your control. The other is up to a whole host of people, many of whom are looking for the next Snooki.

  21. "Good dreams die hard... regardless of what your path to publication ultimately looks like." -- I seriously love that. Thanks for the inspiration as much as the information :)

  22. Check out Lucky Bat Books, an online publisher that will do as much or as little of the legwork that you want on any book at very reasonable cost. I've used them on all my novels and highly recommend them.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Peddled your wares, not pedaled them (unless your wares are a bicycle). :-)

  25. Ahhhh thank you! I KNEW that looked wrong! *goes to fix*

  26. I'm not sure I get the sentiment that there's "so much involved in self-publishing." Let's look at the steps:

    1. You write the book
    2. You hire an editor to edit the book
    3. You make changes as needed

    So far this is no different than traditional publishing except you're paying for the editor yourself—which is surprisingly reasonable, even for a great one (some of the same editors the trad pubs farm work out to).

    4. You format the book or have someone format it for you. Formatting is extremely easy, however, and can be learned in, say, an hour or two.

    5. You hire a cover designer. This can range from $100 to $1500, depending on who you go with. And believe it or not, you can find excellent designers in the lower price range.

    6. You upload your book to Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes and CreateSpace (for print copies)—all of which costs you absolutely nothing.

    7. You market your book. No different from traditional publishing. And let's get past the myth that publishers do much more than send review copies out.

    8. You sit back and collect a 70% royalty on each book sold.

    So the only extra steps here are hiring an editor, hiring a cover designer and formatting/uploading your book.

    That doesn't seem particularly taxing to me, especially when you consider the benefits of self-publishing (like the potential to work full time writing—something that's not a reality for most traditionally published authors—thus giving you more time to handle those extra chores).

    As far as money goes, your investment is likely to be about $1,500 or under, depending on your choices/circumstances. And a $1,500 investment in your own business is chicken feed. How many other businesses can you start for that little money?

    Answer: hardly any.

    So, again, I'm not sure what all the hand-wringing over self-publishing is about. I've done it several times now and am happier and making more money than I ever did when I was traditionally published.

    Obviously, you're all free to make whatever choice you want, but if the fear of having to do a tiny bit of extra work is holding you back, that fear is largely misplaced.

  27. I came here through Digital Book World, which tends to link to places that confirms DBW's particular role in the universe.

    Having published in multiple methods (trad, self, small press, and with two Amazon imprints), I can say that self-publishing is the only one that has allowed me to do this as a full-time job. This post largely seems fixated on print books and bookstores, which is fine if that is your passion (I always say go for your passion) but it's certainly the most inefficient system possible for earning an author money and the method by which the author is guaranteed to earn the least money per copy and as a percentage of the book's price (I wouldn't be surprised if the person who drives the truck of books to the store makes an equivalent amount as the author per sale.)

    At any rate, I agree it's a personal choice that no one will ever know was the right one. I look at it this way: if you work under contract, you are a temp employee working at the pleasure and willingness of a master, and as a self-publisher you own a small business. Not everyone wants to run a small business, nor are they qualified (because if they don;t WANT to, they will surely resent learning every necessary task.)

    I look at it this way: A contract worker's job is to write books, a self-publisher's job is to sell books. Good luck on your path!

  28. Self-publishing is really hard. I was kind of kidding myself, thinking maybe it wasn't that tough if you had some good advice, but I've been hand-holding a few friends lately, and I'm completely overwhelmed. There's just so much that goes into it. On one hand, if a person has a book in the drawer and wants to just get it out, it can be so rewarding to see it get in readers' hands. On the other hand, hearts break daily on the self-pub forums. Do what's right for you, always, and good luck! :-D

  29. Arguments, points, contentions, whatever you want to call it, I felt that a couple of your points were at least out of date. Obviously, being Indy isn't for everyone. I'm not going to tell anyone who makes a different choice that it is wrong for them, but as someone who has done both I do bring a certain knowledge to the table about the differences.

  30. After years of submitting books to agents, finally landing one, then making the rounds with the big 6 and being told repeatedly your voice is stellar but I just don't think this book is marketable enough I decided to just try and self publish. Just give it a go. See what I could do, I knew the odds of being discovered amidst the hundreds of thousands of others was going to be a near impossibility, but I believed in my books and just wanted to test the waters, see what real readers thought.

    My first book cost 100 dollars to put out. Which made me nervous as all heck, it was a serious risk for me because money was definitely tight. My husband and I decided that we'd give it a shot, but if there was no profit by the end of three months we'd pull out and just stop.

    Because I didn't have money, I had to get creative with things. I traded my services with the services of others on writers forums. I read books for a literally agent and have a very good eye when it comes to continuity and consistency in a story, so in return for beta'ing books for others, I was able to swap out my skills for a formatter and a professional editor. The only thing I had to pay for was my cover art.

    With a wing and a prayer I put the book up there and did no promotion. That first month I made roughly 134 dollars. So I made that hundred back, I was officially in the black. But I realized that I needed to at least promote it a little. So I took that 20 dollars of profit and purchased an ad on GR. That was all I did as far as promotions. The rest of the time I spent writing the sequel. That next month I made close to 400 dollars. When I released the sequel I set the first title to perma free, again, a very effective method of promoting without spending money. What wound up happening was that the free title led readers to discover my second book. That month I made nearly 2k. I did no other promotions beyond that except for write the third title. (I should note that these books were novella length stories, so it took about 2 weeks of writing, plus two weeks of thorough editing before release). With the third book my sales exploded. I went from making 2k a month to 5k a month. Last month, thanks to a much anticipated release of my fifth book in that series I was able to net 23k for the month.

    In July of this year I hit my one year mark self publishing and this year I'm on pace to make six figures. I'm not a big name author, I'm nowhere near a Huge Howey or Bella Andre, but I do all right. I have 11 titles out, many of which were books I'd written that publishers and agents loved but told me there was no market for. Thankfully I have found a market, and discovered that while NY isn't so keen on paranormal romances or UFs anymore the reading public still gobbles them up.

    I have no way of knowing whether this will all just stop one day or if I'll continue to see such a dramatic upswing in sales, but that's my story. Self publishing might not be for everyone and that's great, it's good to know that. But it's not as scary as maybe you might think it is either. I say I spend about 30% of time promoting, the rest is writing. I write strictly genre fiction and most of what I do as far as promotions go is entirely free. My family and I now have a sizable nest egg for retirement building up, we're not as scared about the job market when my husband retires from the military and at least for me, self publishing was the best career choice I ever made.

    I'd also like to note that I did eventually get a NY contract, I'm published through Grand Central and while I'll agree that the editorial process and cover art are first rate, I make a tenth with them of what I do on my own.

    But believe me when I say, I know and understand that the choice of where to publish and with whom is very personal and to each their own.

    Thank you for sharing your story, Authoress. :)

  31. Chro said... "Yes, 50 big-name authors each made millions with their novels.

    And millions of no-name authors made $50 or less with their novels."

    You are ignoring the many thousands of us who simply make a living with self-publishing. No, I don't make millions unlike Mr. Howey who commented below you. However, I do pay the rent, but groceries, and put gas in the car working full time as a fiction writer. And I know many, many, many self-published authors who do the same.

    Hey if it's not for you, that's fine. But you are presenting a false dichotomy.

  32. Self-publishing is nowhere near as difficult or as time consuming as this post suggests. Delegating tasks to formaters, editors, cover designers, etc., leaves most of your time for writing, and if you research the best avenues for promotion you can keep your non-writing time to a minimum.

    And it doesn't have to be expensive. I see astronomical figures thrown around for editing and cover design, which only act to scare people away from SP. Yes, you can spend $1000 on a cover, but you can also get a workable pre-made for $25 or less, and the same goes for pretty much every aspect of SP.

    Other benefits include being able to work to your own schedule. If you want five books out a year, no problem. Ten? Okay. There's no rule, and once your books are out you actually start to make money on them, you don't wait six months to a year for your 10 or 12% from a trad publisher, assuming you ever earn out their bloated costs.

  33. Self-publishing an e-book can be as easy as formatting a term paper in Microsoft Word. Easier, actually. If you’re finding it difficult, then somehow you’ve gotten headed down the wrong path.

  34. Good dreams die hard.

    I think this is the crux of it. This is your dream (trad-pub) and you don't want to give it up. Fair enough.

    This is from my blog today (a chapter out of my Indie Author Survival Guide that I'm blogging, Ch 3.11 Making the Leap):

    A NY publishing contract. Your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. These are the dreams that feel like they are dying when you go indie. I don't want to minimize this, because it's a very real (and painful) thing for many writers.

    You have to know yourself, and what you're in this for. Is it the prestige and glory of reaching that long sought-after dream? Is it to have readers and fans? Is it to make enough money from your writing that you can do it full-time?

    It's important to know yourself and what will make you happy. But it's also important to know the facts (and they are different from when you self-pubbed the first time; fantastically so). There are lots of writers who are making a living with their writing now that they're indie. They're growing fanbases and able to write even more because they can do it full-time.

    I think it's really, really hard to let go of the dream - harder the longer you've held it. But, as I start out saying at the beginning of the Guide, It doesn't matter how fast you climb if you're tackling the wrong hill.

    Just make sure that what's at the top of the hill is really the thing that will make you happy.

  35. Susan has so much great advice, I highly recommend her blog!

    I think she's right that we have to set our own goals and dreams. I am also pursuing traditional publication, but I am open to exploring a mix of options including self-publishing. I met a writer at RWA this summer who self pubbed a book with the help of her agent. I don't know the financial details or their terms, but they'd worked together for awhile, had published traditionally, and felt comfortable putting a different type of work out there sans publisher. This author has a catalog already, a fanbase, and her self-pubbed books have taken off. I think this mixing of formats is going to become more commonplace as time moves on.

    It also greatly depends on genre; some romance subgenres do fantastic in epub only (erotic romance, New Adult, for example) whereas with YA, for me, I want my book in libraries and schools, so until ebooks are more prevalent in those places and accessible to all kids, not just kids who've been passed down their parents' first gen ipad, then traditional is more the route for me. I'm looking at my writing as a career. If I traditionally pub kidlit and self-pub romance, I would be OK with that.

    Thanks Authoress for putting yourself out there--this is always such a hot topic.

  36. Stephsco: Yes and yes! What you said about YA = right on the money. And what you said about the mixing of formats becoming more commonplace as time moves on.

    Yes, we are clearly sharing a brain today. :)

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