Is Self-Publishing Good for You?

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Quite a few people have asked me if I think self-publishing is a good idea. It's not a question I can give a simple answer to, so this article will serve as my not-so-simple answer.

Loyal LitReactors may already be familiar with Rob Hart's "Adventures in Self-Publishing" article series, and it's well worth a gander if you haven't already taken a look. While my take-aways are often similar to those found in that series, my experience with indie publishing led me to a somewhat different vantage point. But before I jump into that, let me go ahead and take you on a quick historical tour of self-publishing your creative work.

Self-Publishing's Bad Reputation

Self-publication wasn't a sign of the book's quality. It was a sign of the author's gullibility.

You may shiver at the thought of self-publishing because you associate it with a specific type of company: They tell you how great your work is. They're not only willing but eager to publish you. All you have to do to make that happen is give them a thousand dollars.

These companies, known as vanity presses, duped thousands of would-be authors with promises of fame and fortune. That thousand dollars for the printing fee—the one they told hopeful writers was the industry standard—would be refunded just as soon as 500 copies of the book sold. Which, of course, they almost never did.

The mental connection between this con-game self-publishing led to a negative reputation for self-publishing overall, and that made perfect sense. Until about a decade ago, that's almost all "self-publishing" meant.

Until this millennium, you'd need to keep it quiet if you self-published. It certainly wasn't a way to make friends with traditional publishing houses. After all, self-publication wasn't a sign of the book's quality. It was a sign of the author's gullibility.

What Self-Publishing Means Today

Over the course of one year, Hocking's self-published work allowed her to buy a house with cash.

Today, self-publishing is a different beast. Thanks to eBook publishing on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, you can publish your own work for zero dollars down, zero dollars a month. Any sales you get can connect you with potential readers, the reviews you get will (for as-yet unpublished authors) be the most reliable you've ever received, and selling a substantial number of copies can demonstrate to traditional publishers that your work has an audience.

There have been a number of cases where publishers buy the rights to successful self-published novels, with one of the most prominent being Amanda Hocking. Over the course of one year, Hocking's self-published work allowed her to buy a house with cash, and have plenty of spare change left over. Her fantasy series sold about 1.5 million copies that year, and traditional publishers then converged on her location to compete with one another for the rights to publish and promote Hocking's future work.

Hopefully you can tell this is the exception, not the rule. It is a case study into what's possible, however, and the potential for indie publishing as a foot in the door for more traditional publishing shouldn't be overlooked. Selling a large number of copies means the author is building a platform that the publisher can later leverage, and that's a major selling point.

The digital marketplace is still in its juvenile phase, and it's hard to say with confidence what the future will bring. There are still plenty of pitfalls, a strong element of chance, and far more demand for genre fiction than anything literary—but that's true of traditional publishing as well, so it's hard to call this a real drawback. Today, it's a wild jungle for potential authors to face down, but those who learn the territory can do more than survive. They can thrive.

Why I'm an Unsuccessful Indie Author

These shortcomings made it harder for the book to succeed—but it isn't why the book failed.

I've self-published! Yay me. I've even made some money. This year I reported $10.84 of "royalty income" on my taxes.

No, I didn't feel proud.

My self-published book, Broken Glasswas a dense, dark novel that dove into the disturbing parts of life. It wasn't genre, it didn't have a happy ending, and it was described—in my favorite review ever—as recommended for "readers who want to spend a few dark, dry, introspective hours curled up with a good bottle of painkillers and a copy of Aristotle’s greatest hits."

The plot had substantial issues; I first penned the story about a decade ago and was overly loyal to what my eighteen-year-old self had envisioned. With a focus on gore and philosophy, it was understandable that the story wouldn't appeal to large chunks of the standard audience for indie eBooks. And then there was the depressing, life-is-broken, maybe-pain-is-the-only-thing-that's-meaningful conclusion.

These shortcomings made it harder for the book to succeed—but it isn't why the book failed.

Broken Glass had enough strengths to succeed with a niche audience. At the sentence level, my writing was strong. I had fun scenes, interesting characters, and the story hooked most of its readers. Several reviews stated they felt eager to keep reading from start to finish. I recently watched Requiem for a Dream and realized the negative reviews for my book were surprisingly similar to the negative reviews for that film. My audience for Broken Glass may have been harder to pin down in the current marketplace, but it was out there, somewhere.

The problem is that I stopped trying to find it.

I'd worked hard for months to re-work, polish, and format my book. I'd followed Vladimir Lenin's advice to Study, Study, Study. And then, when the story finally got out, it received mixed reviews. Some were enthusiastically positive. Others had teeth.

I was deflated. It felt impossible to will through the necessary hours of submitting the book to various reviewers with the hope that they would be part of the niche audience my story called for. While the work of submitting a book for review was simple enough, it felt like knocking on doors and asking people to tell me what a shoddy author I was. So I gave up. That ... simply that ... is why the book failed.

The Role of the Publisher

It's not personal to them. It's business. And when it comes to promotions, that's a good thing.

You may want to look to traditional publishing, but not because it's the only route to success. Rather, publishing houses have a lot to offer. They have in-house editors, cover designers, and connections to all the major book retailers. More importantly, they have decades of experience selling books.

If you choose to go the indie publishing route, you'll have to either spend a lot of money or a lot of time getting the book up to snuff. Once it's out, you'll need to do the hard work of promoting the story—and that gets much harder if your work isn't getting rave reviews. Publishing houses can de-personalize this sort of work because it's not personal to them. It's business. And in this case, that's actually a good thing.

Traditional publishing certainly has shortcomings, too. You make less profit per sale. You have to go through months of querying, editing, pitching, and working on contracts. Some publishers fall through on promoting the work. And then there's the fact that the publishing house will almost certainly require you to sign over the characters you wrote, the world they lived in, and your first-born child. But those costs come with a great many benefits.

Today, independent publishing is a legitimate route to success. It is not, however, easy. It's sure as hell not a magic bullet solution. At the end of the day, it requires that you do much more work, and the bulk of that additional work isn't writing. Of course, that work also pays dividends in the form of cash money, a stronger personal platform, and a network of relationships you can call on for future publications. All advantageous, but it's unwise to underestimate the sheer number of hours you'll need to spend completing tasks normally taken care of by your publisher.

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Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life February 26, 2014 - 12:09pm

I don't have any books publsihed yet, but this line struck me:

More importantly, they have decades of experience selling books.

Publishers sell books to bookstores. Specifically, big bookstores. What then, is their role if the writer has no interest in getting into a bookstore? If you want your book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, then you may well be out of luck if you self-publish.

Record Companies have decades of experience selling records; as a writer trying to make this decision, it may be worthwhile to look into the recent paroxysms of that industry.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami February 26, 2014 - 12:39pm

I wouldn't mind signing over to a trade house, except for the fact that -- if on the million and one chance you get a movie deal, they'll pressure you to sign your rights over to Mr. Walt Disney and Burger Joints. I'm not bastardizing me work like that. We saw what happened with Mary Poppins. (I hate that movie, can you tell?)

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb February 26, 2014 - 1:31pm

I'm thinking of self publishing for a novel I've nearly finished, and the part I'm really not sure about is 'submitting it for review.' With loads of potential critics out there, where's the right starting point? I expect a good deal of it is sending the book out with a letter saying 'please review this' and then all the reasons why the recipient should be interested, but then getting nothing back from quite a few of them. Yeah, I've got friends who would write me a review on Amazon if I put an eBook on there, and yes they'd be honest about it and not just kiss my arse, but once I've run out of friend reviews there would have to be more than that. As for advertising, figuring who to sell the book to and putting an advert where they'll see it isn't so difficult, it's just the part that takes up a lot of time I'd probably rather spend writing.

I'm tempted to try the agent route first, and the publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts as well, but the chances of success aren't especially high there either even if someone is a good writer. If that route doesn't work, I'm brave enough to go for self publishing and at least I know the book I've written is only half the work.