So you’ve written a book. You think it’s pretty good, and you’re ready to launch your literary career. The only question is do you go through all the business with agents and publishers, or are you going to take a chance and self-publish?
Or perhaps you already have some work in print, but are considering self-publishing (in which case, you’ll want to check any existing contracts before even considering it). Maybe you’re dissatisfied with the status quo in publishing, but concerned that you’ll wreck your career if you self-publish. With all the claims, warnings, and invective flying around, how do you decide?
For some reason I can’t entirely fathom—except for the fact that we’re a bunch of barely-evolved monkeys—it seems that everyone feels a need to take sides on every issue, whether or not they actually have a horse in the race. The question of self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing is, sadly, no exception. On the one hand are those who claim that agents and publishers are the shining guardians of quality, the last barrier between legions of innocent readers and an ocean of vile dreck; on the other are those who claim that the traditional publishing model is broken, corrupt, and deeply flawed, and needs to go, freeing both readers and writers from the industry’s burdensome shackles.
Well, there’s an old saying that “there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.”
Now, I don’t claim to know The Truth, but I have some thoughts on this increasingly contentious issue. And I also believe that both sides are, to some extent, disingenuous, and not disclosing all the facts. So—leaving aside for the moment some emerging models which may offer a ‘third way’—let’s start by listing the things that are fairly straightforward and uncontested:
- Bookstore presence
- Editing and proofreading
- Cover art & layout
- Likelihood of some mainstream review
- Possibility of some marketing and promotional support
- Market perception of quality
- Greater personal sense of validation, legitimacy
- Need to jump through hoops
- Long road to publication (12 – 18-plus months from acceptance)
- Possibility of friction and roadblocks at each of several stages
- Obligations of contract
- Lack of control over just about everything
- Short shelf life/bookstore presence
- Possible lack of transparency regarding royalties and sales figures
- Complete control over just about everything
- Short road to publication
- Not beholden to anyone
- Full access to sales data in near-real time
- Regular, predictable payments from POD and digital sales channels
- Typically much higher royalty from each sale, especially digital
- No advance
- No editing/proofreading help
- No cover art & layout help
- No help with marketing & promotion
- No (or extremely limited) bookstore presence
- Difficulty in getting mainstream review and acceptance
- Perception that book/author wasn’t good enough for traditional publisher
In case you haven’t noticed, each camp has fanatical adherents, almost all of whom have an axe to grind. On the one hand are the publishers, agents, and their dependents, all of whom have a lot to lose, and a few, highly vocal, bestselling authors. On the other are authors (and they are many) who’ve either been screwed by publishers, agents, or both, or who just enjoy a dust-up and possibly see the opportunity to burnish their image by stirring up controversy.
After years of following the topic, it seem to me that some of the best, most honest, and certainly most exhaustive information on this issue can be found on Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s fine blog. Rusch, one-time editor of the highly respected Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a bestselling, prolific author across a number of genres, has set out scads of information. Although she doesn’t pull punches over the shortcomings of the existing publishing model, she has a foot in both camps, and—most importantly—had established her own bona fides and gained a dedicated readership before flying solo. When you’re done here, you’d do well to visit her blog, ‘Business Rusch’ (link above left).
Bottom line: a self-published author is most likely to succeed if they (i) already have a following; (ii) not only write well, but also take steps to ensure their book is thoroughly copyedited, proofed, formatted, and presented to the standards of a traditionally published work or better; and (iii) are prepared to aggressively market and promote their writing.
Now for those Dirty Little Secrets each side would rather gloss over:
- Editors (being human) make bad judgment calls all the time
- A fine book that doesn’t pigeonhole easily is liable to be rejected, especially in today’s climate of fear
- Many authors will get little or no developmental editing (double-edged sword)
- Most authors will get near zero marketing and promotion
- Most books don’t earn out advances
- Contract clauses can and will tie an unwary author up in knots for years to come
- Putting out a quality product takes a great deal of work, skill, and ingenuity
- Most self-published books sink without a trace—and deserve to!
- As well as having a strong book, authors had better be extremely good self-promoters to even stand a chance
- Getting reviewed by mainstream reviewers is next to impossible
- The vast majority of self-published books sell fewer than two hundred copies
There are probably a bunch more.
In summary, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, my advice would to begin by asking yourself the following*:
1. Do you have any objective measures (friends’ and your mom’s opinions don’t count) that lead you to believe your work is really ready for a wide readership?
2. Are you prepared to invest a lot of time and at least several hundred bucks (a couple of thousand to really do it right) in preparing, polishing and formatting your work to professional standards? Because if you don’t, you’ll almost certainly fail.
3. Are you temperamentally suited to the endless self-promotion and multiple other tasks required to succeed?
If you can honestly answer ‘yes’ to all three, self-publishing may be for you.
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To read Round Two (part two of this article), click here