The Great (Self-) Publishing Debate – Round Three: Conclusion

In the previous two parts of this article, we’ve looked at the advantages and disadvantages of both self- and traditional publishing, and examined a couple of case histories. And although this is more of an (informed) opinion piece than a scientific study, I’ve attempted to remain somewhat objective and refrain from taking sides: I recommend that you—especially if you’re a new writer considering publishing options—do the same.

We’ve reached the crux now: how does one decide which path to take? Which is the best choice for you?

After much thought and discussion with others, I’ve come to the conclusion that a good enough book will likely find its audience whichever route one takes. The choice, I believe, is largely a matter of temperament.

To be successful at self-publishing, one needs to be near-obsessive about quality, willing to research and learn a great many new skills, and both confident and creative about self-promotion. If you’re the type who’s given to self-employment and used to wearing many hats, you may be a candidate. If you’re also someone who likes to be in control, then you should certainly consider self-publishing.

If, on the other hand, you just want to get on with the next novel, hate the idea of endlessly marketing and promoting yourself, and don’t want the research, intense work, and frequent frustration involved in learning to properly format and produce a book, then you should definitely go the traditional route; because whatever anyone says, there are good agents and publishers out there, and they can serve a new writer very well.

Here follow a few tips on each alternative: take what makes sense and works for you.


Since the single biggest argument made against self-publishing—the lack of quality assurance—is the one that most hurts both the individual writer and, by association, the entire indie field, let’s try to address that. How can someone intending to self-publish determine whether they’re ready? And how can they best prepare themselves and their book?

In my previous two posts, I repeatedly used the term, ‘objective measures.’ By this, I mean that anyone considering self-publishing needs to begin by getting as unbiased an assessment as possible of their book; because unless you were born a writing prodigy—and the odds are overwhelmingly against you—you need to put in your apprenticeship before you publish. (Yes, this is the same argument the enemies of self-publishing make, and it’s a valid one. What they fail to take into account though, because of their own bias and sense of self-importance, is that there are many writers who’ve learned and honed their craft and still, for reasons including the shortsightedness and frequently dysfunctional nature of the industry, can’t get a publishing deal.)

In other posts I stress the value of a good writer’s group. Lacking an agent or editor, your best hope is critique from other writers—and they had better be good ones with solid experience and some track record. The opinion of friends and relatives, while it might give you the warm fuzzies, is typically worthless in evaluating the quality of a manuscript.

Once you’ve established with some degree of objectivity that your manuscript is in good shape, you should get it copyedited. Fortunately there are plenty of professionals (including myself) who’ll do it for you. Costs vary wildly, but a cent per word is probably somewhere in the ballpark, though I’m sure you could probably pay two or three times that. Still, a cent a word would be about a thousand bucks or less for an average ms. In an ideal world, you’d hire a proofreader, a pro to do the formatting, a professional graphic artist, and so on; if you’re in a position to do so, more power to you: for $2,500, I think any savvy person could produce a first-rate product; and (depending on pricing) around a thousand or less digital sales will recoup those costs. It’s money very well spent, and should be tax-deductible (consult a tax professional).

But recognising the fact that many writers are going to be cash-strapped, I’d say that with sufficient research and effort, finding and buying some good artwork or using stock images, and getting enough literate, preferably OCD, friends to proofread your work (something that is nigh impossible to do well yourself), you should be able to produce a presentable product.

For digital conversion and distribution, the self-published author will likely do well to look to Smashwords and Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). For POD, there are a number of choices; after reading a lot of fine print, I settled on Lightning Source.

And last is marketing. Like everything above, there’s tons of free advice and information on the net: go read it. Bottom line: networking, word of mouth, and honest reviews seem to work best; advertising is typically going to be a waste of your money.

Traditional Publishing

If you decide to take—or at least explore—this path, I strongly recommend a site called Agentquery. For a small annual fee, this site offers a fully searchable database of hundreds of agents, as well as excellent filtering and tracking software. Also, read the hundreds of online articles and blog posts about querying. There are still publishers who’ll accept unsolicited manuscripts, but I don’t recommend going this route unless you have years to give away.

If an agent bites on your query, be sure you have a good fit before signing with them; research them, interview them, and, above all, read any contract very thoroughly and make sure you understand the implications of every sentence (you’ll of course want to do the same with any eventual publishing contract).

In many cases, your agent will suggest and probably require you to do some further work on your ms. before they begin shopping it around. The work required could be anything from simple polishing to a major rewrite. Accept the fact that your agent is probably giving you great feedback, and be grateful for their advice and guidance. Any relationship with an agent, editor, copyeditor, etc., should ideally be one of collaboration and, occasionally, negotiation; if either party begins to dictate or ceases to be reasonable, the relationship probably needs re-evaluating.

The Third Way

One positive result of the revolution in the industry is that writers finally have choices, and that these extend beyond the binary option above.

Aside from the traditional small- and midsize presses, many of which are still good fits for a new writer, there’s an emergent group of strategies that offer authors further options still. These include:

  • Digital-only publishers. A fast-growing group of small presses that publish work in digital format only (though some do offer print to in the case that a title does exceptionally well). Typically, these publishers offer little or no advance, but a far more generous (and transparent) royalty structure than is the case in traditional publishing. This is a particularly promising business model as the book will receive professional copyediting, formatting, and graphic design, and the publisher will help with promotion with ARCs (Advance Reader Copies), as well as exposure on their website/online store, etc.
  • Author co-operatives. Another interesting model, the author co-op typically consists of a group of writers who effectively form their own small press. In the best examples, the participating writers may leverage individual skills within thegroup itself to critique, edit, copyedit, proofread, format, and even produce artwork for the work in question. The finished product will be made available digitally and often in POD as well. In addition to the above, a great strength of these co-ops is the potentially great synergy generated within a group of dedicated, and in some instances, well-established, writers.


I’ve tried in this series of posts to lay out the pros and cons of the available publishing choices as objectively as I could. I don’t doubt there are omissions and occasional instances of bias or error, but hopefully these are minor, and relative.

I stress that everything above is moot and that, in the final analysis, only one thing really matters: good writing. Whether it’s a book or a short story, if it doesn’t engage the reader, it will fail.

A good book is one that, for whatever reason, carries the reader along and keeps them reading; a great book will slip deep into the reader’s psyche, where it will resonate and its characters live on long after the reader puts the book down.

Because first and foremost, it’s about the writing. Just as it always was.

*          *          *

To read Round One (part one of this article), click here

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


Filed under Writing

3 responses to “The Great (Self-) Publishing Debate – Round Three: Conclusion

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

  2. Lyn

    Awesome post Dario, and on point, like always. Sharing… 🙂

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