The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round One

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:



  • Advance
  • 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.

*            *             *

To read Round Two (part two of this article), click here


Filed under Writing

12 responses to “The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round One

  1. Hi! I know this is kind of off topic but
    I was wondering if you knew where I could locate a captcha plugin for my
    comment form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having problems finding one?

    Thanks a lot!

  2. Pingback: From Pre-Published to Published Part 3: The Big Steps | Archer's Aim

  3. Lisa Gail Green

    Great analysis. Thank you for showing me this!

  4. Pingback: The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making | Reading Outlaw

  5. Pingback: The Great (Self-)Publishing Debate – Round Two: A Tale of Two Manuscripts | Dario Ciriello

  6. Jeff VanderMeer

    ■Many authors will get little or no developmental editing (double-edged sword)
    –This isn’t true.
    ■Most authors will get near zero marketing and promotion
    –This isn’t true.
    ■Most books don’t earn out advances
    –Cite your sources.
    ■Contract clauses can and will tie an unwary author up in knots for years to come
    –If you don’t have an agent and aren’t savvy, perhaps. It depends on the publisher.

    Just a slight corrective. You’re still promulgating generalizations that in some cases aren’t true. Based on received ideas. Your general thesis, that there shouldn’t be a conflict between these options–that they’re all viable–makes a lot of sense. But you still have to be careful about giving accurate information about what you’re talking about.

    Jeff VanderMeer

    • Jeff, welcome, and thanks for taking the time to comment, and for your more informed corrections.

      To answer your points, then: first regarding most books not earning out their advances, I don’t have stats to hand but have more than once read that 7 out of 10 traditionally published books don’t earn out advances; quick googling just now turned up this, and I believe the same point may have been made in an extensive Vanity Fair article on publishing I read just recently. Perhaps you can point me at correct numbers?

      Regarding contract clauses, yup, it seems to depend on the publisher (and one’s agent); Kris Rusch details a good deal of this one her blog, and a good many author blogs detail horror stories. That said, I’m not going to get partisan here.

      Finally, on the developmental editing and marketing $ (and in the latter case I realize ‘near zero’ is rather vague), I’m in some cases repeating ‘received ideas’ and, in some cases, the experience of people I know. I’m not a publishing insider. Yes, I’m guilty of vague generalization when I say ‘many authors,’ or ‘in many cases;’ but can you substantiate your blanket, ‘This isn’t true’? And exactly how much can the average first-time (I should have qualified) author expect in marketing and promotional support?

      Finally, I did this morning read your own excellent and thoughtful blog post on this subject, and am intending to post a link to that, and others, on my next post, ‘Round Two.’ In the meantime, for anyone reading this, Jeff’s own post is a must-read.

  7. I think you’ve nailed it. I can answer yes, yes, and yes, to your questions and I’m really wanting to self-publish. But I have a couple of friends who are urging me to hold out because a couple of agents have asked me to send my next book. The thing is…I held out and sent my last book. And it was a book that should have sold. But by the time I got an agent and we sent it out…there were some NY Times bestsellers that had the same inciting incident as my book had, and I looked derivative. So much about traditional publishing is timing. If you’re self-publishing, you can get the books out faster than the publishers can. You can hit while the market is hot. I know it’s going to be hard to sell books. But what’s the alternative? Leaving a good book sitting in the drawer?

    ha ha just ignore me. I’m simply trying to talk myself into having some guts.

    I love your covers. The thing that turns me off to most self-pubbed books right away are cheesy covers. Who is your designer?

    • Sally, great to see you here, and thanks for commenting. Kudos for asking yourself those three questions! 😉 And having agents request your next book is a serious objective measure, and may be worth following up on at least to test the waters. Was the similarity you mention in the inciting event so very strong that you’d have really looked derivative? People are, after all accustomed to zeitgeist, and fashions in the Arts, and sometimes being first isn’t necessarily a good thing… although I totally understand what you’re saying.

      All the Panverse cover layouts were done by the very talented Janice Hardy (whom you already know), author of the ‘The Pain Merchants’ YA series and my critique-mate in the Written in Blood group. She’s a longtime professional graphic designer and can be contacted through her website. The cover artwork is by different artists, all of whom are listed at the Panverse Publishing website.

      I’ll elaborate some and quote my personal experience in Round Two of this post… didn’t want to make this one too long!

      • I had no idea Janice was a graphic designer. That is good to know. She did a wonderful job. As one would expect after reading her books and blogs. She does everything well.

        Though my book was quite different from other books, my inciting incident was very similar to four NY Times bestsellers. There may have been others reasons my book was rejected, but it was a perfect fit for a couple of publishers and it went to pub board at one house and those editors told us that my book was too similar to some of the other very popular books. So even though I wrote it before any of the four were published, mine looked like a knock-off.

        It makes sense that we all came up with similar inciting incidents. We probably all read the same books six years ago and we read the same newspapers and we lived in the same culture. So it’s not surprising that we came up with similar problems to solve. The other authors already had agents and they got their books to market while I was still hunting for an agent. My book is very different than any of the others. I have my own worldview, I solved my story problems my way. I think my book is worth publishing. But editors are inundated with books that sound similar and they are sick of this premise.

        That’s fine and I’m working on an MG boy book now, because that’s what they say they’re wanting. But I suspect that by the time I get my boy book done and find another agent, and get my manuscript out to publishers, there will already be a bunch of boy books that look like mine contracted or published and the editors will want picture books or something. 🙂 It’s the nature of the beast.

        We shall see.

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