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Should You Self-Publish Your Book?

Penelope Trunk made big buzz a week or two ago when she wrote that even though she had gotten a book deal with a traditional publisher, she had opted to self-publish.  While I have a feeling the blog post she published is only part of the story since some of the facts just don’t add up and others are embellished, the question the post raises is a valid one: should more people self-publish?

I want to start out this talk by stating that while I opted for the traditional publishing route, I think self-publishing can be a very good option and there are certain people I would encourage (including my future self if the situation arose!) to go down this route if the second choice was to have the book languish in a desk drawer.  I think as long as you go into self-publishing with your eyes wide-open and an understanding of how it differs from traditional publishing, you can do very well for yourself.  And I also want to state here since I don’t want it misunderstood that while traditional publishing and self-publishing differs, I am not saying that one is better than the other.  They are two very very different processes that have very little in common, so I think it’s technically literary apples and oranges.  But I like apples and I like oranges; neither fruit trumps the other one.

So let’s dive into this.

Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing is Apples and Oranges

Wait… let’s back up for a second.  What do I mean that they’re apple and oranges?  Unless you hire a team to edit, design, and market your book (and even if you hire a team to do so — I’m sorry to be blunt but quality and expertise matter), self-publishing your book is the equivalent of going down to Kinkos and xeroxing your manuscript, putting a glossy cover on it, and then waiting for people to buy it.  It looks like a book so we call it a book, but there is a reason why it takes a year or longer to get a book from manuscript to bookcase with a traditional publisher, and it’s not because they’re inefficient.

There are a lot of pieces that go into creating a book that will move copies, and that is what you are getting with traditional publishing: a team of people who know how to structure a story or frame an idea into a way that people will want to consume it.  They know how to design a cover that will entice people to pick it up as they walk by it on the table or see it online.  They know how to build buzz and get the book into influential people’s hands at the right time.  They know how to price things, and when to move the price, and how to deal with bookstores.  Do all publishers do their job as well as others?  Well… no.  There is a reason why some publishers are very successful and others are not.

Now, is that finished product better than the self-published book?  Maybe yes or maybe no.  It may have lost a lot of its rough charm in being polished up, stretched and molded by the traditional publisher.  So again, we are not talking about better or worse, but we are talking different.  And that is why bookstores will rarely carry self-published books.  They want work that has been vetted, that has gone through a process where they know the product will sell.  They may miss out on great books by going that route, but they have to go that route in order to ensure the quality of what they have on their shelves.  And there are too many decently-written-but-needs-a-good-edit self-published books out there mixed in with the gems that I am so glad have been self-published because if they hadn’t, they may have never seen the light of day because no one would take a chance on it in the traditional publishing world.

Publishers Make an Investment on Your Creativity or Intellect

The reality is that when a publisher takes on your book, they are making an investment in your creativity or intellect.  That is all a publisher is — an investor in the creative.  They coddle their investment and make sure it will pay off, but it is less about the writing and more about what sells.  There are fantastic books out there that no one will take on because they don’t believe they can make enough money off of it to make it worth their time.  And that’s why I’m glad self-publishing exists — because it fills the gap so seemingly unmarketable books don’t fall into the oblivion of a desk drawer.  But a lot of times, when an agent or a publisher isn’t taking on your work, it isn’t even a statement about the quality, but it is a statement on the saleability of your idea.  Yes, there are books that pop out of the mold such as 50 Shades of Grey, but those stories are few and far between.

There is a canary that you can send into the coal mine to see if self-publishing is worth it to you; if you have a chance of moving a lot of copies, and this canary is free (at least in terms of money; it will cost you a lot of time): it’s your blog.  Your blog is a good indicator of how well you’ll do with self-publishing because even with traditional publishing, it’s part of your platform.  It’s part of what you will use to sell books.

If you have substantial, on-going traffic, that blog may have enough kindling to start a purchasing fire.  How many page views or unique visitors is enough to deem your traffic substantial?  Who the hell knows — but let’s work with the idea that under 1% of your readership will pay to read something you wrote.  If you have 100 daily readers, you have sold one book.  If you have 1000 daily readers, you have sold ten copies.  10,000 daily readers and you’re up to 100 copies.  Okay, let’s go with a more generous 5%.  That’s 5 books/50 books/500 books based on those readership levels.  Are you starting to see how hard it is to make things add up?  There is no way to know what percentage will pay since your readership isn’t constructed out of paying readers.  It’s constructed out of non-paying readers, and that is another way that this becomes apples and oranges.  What people love when they are receiving something for free is very different from what people love when they’re paying for it.  If you price your book well, you may move copies to 50% of your readership.  That’s 50 books/500 books/5,000 books based on those readership levels, and hells yeah, it would be nice to sell 5,000 copies to serve as your kindling (hopefully once those 5,000 begin to spread word with reviews and such, the book will catch fire).  But if it were truly that easy to sell 5,000 copies of a self-published book, the traditional book industry would have folded a long time ago.  And it’s still standing; which makes me wonder how many copies the average self-published book sells.

The average self-published book sells 100 – 150 copies.

And if you read that article, you’ll see that the author fronted $7,500 to get a book of quality self-published.  You certainly don’t have to spend that much to get your book self-published, but you do get what you pay for.  And you will need to invest in yourself with self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing where the publisher invests in you.  Work out in your head how many copies you will need to sell in order to break even on your investment.

But If I Have to Help with the Marketing, Why Don’t I Just Self-Publish?

Traditional publishing houses are expecting their authors to do a lot of legwork in the marketing of a book, and some people say that if they have to do that, they might as well self-publish.  But what they miss out on is the network, marketing skills, and boost you get from the traditional publishers’ name.  People were willing to take a chance on my first fiction book not because they knew me but because they liked other books my publisher put out.  I would have never tapped into that audience without them.  They moved an extraordinary number of e-book copies — many many many more than any percentage of my daily readers.  My readership for my book turned out to be a percentage of people who read my blog, but a much larger percentage of new people who found me via my publisher or Amazon or a review site.  I am so grateful that the world of traditional publishing brought us all together.  Marketing with traditional publishing is a team effort.  Marketing with self-publishing is entirely on the author’s shoulders and whomever they hire.

Back to that Canary-in-the-Coal-Mine Blog

So why did I call your blog the canary in the coal mine?  Because here you have your product — words that are plucked and shaped according to your writing style — and you are handing it away for free.  You can judge how many people like your product, how well you’re doing at getting eyes on your product, and frankly, get a little feedback about your product before you invest any money into self-publishing.  If you have steady, substantial traffic and a strong understanding of how to tap into more traffic from time to time, you probably are in a good place to self-publish.  If you have a small but loyal following and you only want to move a small number of books, go for it.  But if you don’t have people reading your blog when it’s free, it may make sense to invest in growing that readership first before you try to create what amounts to the same product — words — and charge for it.  There are plenty of things you can do to organically build traffic, and if you have decent content and are willing to invest the time it takes to connect with people, you can increase your readership.  It’s worth the effort if you want to self-publish a book (or use a traditional publisher) since that blog will become part of your platform.  It’s time well-spent, and building those relationships is actually what your traditional publisher has done to create their own network that they use to sell your book.  Can you do networking as well as a traditional publisher?  Then you don’t need them.  But if you can’t, you may now see why traditional publishers are still very much needed.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

There are a lot of places where I disagree with Penelope Trunk on her post.  Publishing houses ARE a brand, and yes, their sites do move books.  If you need a book about sharks and there are two — one by Random House and one self-published — which are you more likely to buy?  If it were my money, I’d invest it in a book from Random House knowing the facts have been vetted vs. going with the unknown, even if the unknown got better reviews.  I don’t know the reviewers, but I do know the quality of a Random House book.  Maybe that’s just me, but I think the fact that we can all name publishing houses points to the fact that houses themselves are brands.

And then there are places where I agree with Penelope Trunk; publishers need to get good at working the online world (though they also need to remain strong with marketing to the offline world).  I went with a publisher who is exceptional at creatively marketing to the online world, and I love them to pieces because they do such a good job being flexible and trying new things.  Smaller publishers tend to be able to go with new ideas just as smaller boats can change course easier than a large boat.  There are plenty of traditional publishers who excel at online sales, and there are plenty of authors who don’t really know the first thing about marketing.  So it isn’t an either/or situation.  It’s knowing where you excel, and also admitting that something may be outside your expertise.

Where does that leave you?  With probably a lot to mull over.  I hope this lesson wasn’t discouraging but was instead illuminating so you don’t have a disappointing experience.  I think self-publishing is a great thing when people go into it with realistic goals in mind, and a very frustrating thing when you are told by people that it’s the next! great! thing! when in reality it’s an uphill trudge to school both ways.  Self-publishing is a lot of work and requires money invested in yourself upfront.  But it can also have a really great payoff in the end; and I don’t just mean a financial payoff.  The emotional payoff has to be taken into account as well.

Homework: Okay, let it rip — what are your questions about self-publishing, what are your thoughts on what I wrote above, and I’d love to hear from self-published authors to chime in on what worked for them.

This was the 16th lesson for the MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.


1 Edward Smith { 07.29.12 at 3:58 pm }

Go for self-publishing! You will have more control and if you are successful, you will make way more money. Good luck, Edward Smith

2 Angie { 07.29.12 at 4:10 pm }

I self-published a chapbook of poetry, which is totally different than a novel, memoir or other book. It was absolutely simply. I did it through Amazon’s self-publishing arena, CreateSpace. The truth is that poetry was once my passion. I wanted to get an MFA in poetry and write beautiful little pieces constantly. And then I started my blog. I was still trying to get published almost constantly sending pieces out. I had a year of no acceptance letters on my poetry. And at some point, I felt my writing was headed down the road of memoir and fiction and I had lost my passion for writing poetry. You know, publishing poetry is difficult. You create this piece of your heart, edit it, work on it, tweak it, grow it, add water, mail it out, get rejected over and over and over again, tweak it, edit it, enter contests. It costs money to submit work to contests, so it is costing you money to do this. Maybe you get accepted and you get little to no money, no copies even. I think I needed the poetry chapter closed. I had been thinking about it here and there, but always thought it was like giving up. When I was ready to give up, I did it. It was incredibly liberating. I had control over these pieces. Every bit of them. I published it. I already had a manuscript I had been sending to publishers for chapbook contests, so I edited, and rearranged it. I worked on it for about a month, then published it. I paid nothing upfront. I used a template. I priced it at $9.99. It costs me 2.50 a piece to the publisher. I think I have sold 14 off of Amazon and 20 on my own. I’m cool with that. I felt like I needed the poetry chapter of my life closed, and just stop sending out poems, but if I write enough for a second book, I’d self-publish again. It is worth it for me. I’d publish a memoir, or a collection of essays from my blog, because my readers will be blog readers, probably. And Amazon searchers, searching for someone who lost a child in the way I did.

You know, I don’t think I would self-publish a novel. I think you are right that the branding of a publishing house would be important there. They like your story. They vouch for you. For memoirs, or poetry, you can like someone, connect with them, while a publisher might not. Not sure I am making sense. Just wanted to share my limited experience. Love to you, Mel. xo

3 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 07.29.12 at 11:05 pm }

I’ve known many people who have published all sorts of books through publishing houses ranging from Big 6 to tiny niche houses, and most of them would never dream of self-publishing (but obviously they are all on the other side of being a published author). However, it seems to depend most on the type of book you’re writing. For something like poetry or a novel, you’re going to write all of it ahead of time on spec no matter what. Non-fiction books in traditional publishing often have no more than an outline and a sample chapter or two before an advance gets paid; the advance pays for all of the research, so self-publishing would mean laying out a lot of money yourself in addition to the costs of self-publishing itself. One author I know spent more than $30K on research for the most recent non-fiction book (mostly travel for interviews), which was more than offset by the advance, but would have been out of the question either on spec or self-publishing.

For me it comes down to whether you’d write the book even if you never made a penny. I know many novelists and screenwriters with many manuscripts sitting in the proverbial drawer. Among the many non-fiction writers I know, none of them would write a non-fiction book for nothing, but some of them have written novels, essays, poems, etc. for which they will likely never get paid. Most people who self-publish will either break even or lose money. Unless you know for a fact that you’re going to come out ahead, as Penelope Trunk certainly did, it’s crazy to self-publish rather than go with a publishing house, if you have the choice. But many people aren’t getting any offers, in which case the choice becomes between gambling some money on self-publishing and never getting the book published.

4 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.30.12 at 4:09 pm }

Thank you for addressing this. I had seen the Penelope Trunk post, as well as an article showing the other side, and it’s helpful to have this balanced critique.

The blog-as-canary analogy completely resonates. The ongoing feedback I’ve had from my blog has helped me understand how my words and ideas will strike people, and as a result I am more deliberate as I write my manuscript. I do have my network, but I’ll also benefit from tapping in to the network and expertise of the publisher that has taken me on as an author.

I would love it if Edward Smith comes back and goes into more detail on the “if you are successful” part. Seems like within those 4 words resides the antidote to the garage-full-of-books phenomenon.

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