To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish …
That is the question an old friend and fellow writer, Matthew Nadelhaft, recently posed to a diverse group of writer/experts on Facebook. The answers he got were so thoughtful and varied that I asked permission to post the (slightly edited) discussion here. Though I’ve never self-published, many people I know are considering it — and might find this spirited exchange useful.
Matt: I’m marketing two novels right now and, as you know, it’s a slow and frustrating process. I’m considering self-publishing, but it’s not something I want to go through without collecting a lot of advice first.
Stephen Dedman: I’d say no, unless you have at least one of (a) the capability of printing it yourself, a la Simon Haynes, rather than going to a publisher, (b) enough money that you won’t miss it if none of them sell, and (c) enough contacts in nearby bookshops that you can distribute it easily.
Eugie Foster: I agree with Stephen. I don’t consider self-publishing to be a viable option for a professional writer interested in growing their readership (and getting paid). There are not the distribution, marketing, and promotion resources available to the average writer that a publisher can provide.
Jennifer Stevenson: I know of only two genres where (unless you are an internet celebrity) self-publishing first can get you somewhere bigger later: erotica, and African-American fiction. These two genres are the ONLY ONES I know of where big publishers actively go looking for successfully self-published work to pick up and take into the big time.
Self-publishing as a universe is heavily larded with people who have been conned by fake (subsidy) publishers into believing what the con artists told them: of course you can make bookstores take your books, of course you can get reviews, of course you can get signings; of course you can sell a million copies.
Real publishers are leery of these deluded souls. Bookstores frankly hate them. Readers don’t know they exist.
Jeff VanderMeer: Here are the conditions under which it makes sense to self-publish:
(1) You are absolutely sure that your novels are being rejected because they are too strange or non-commercial and not merely because they aren’t good enough. (And while you’re marketing these novels, make sure you are writing new material.)
(2) You have the money to not only self-publish (including paying someone competent to do the layout and the art), but to do at least limited advertising of the books.
(3) You have the ability to leverage the book across internet platforms and opportunities. I.e., you can guarantee coverage/publicity for the book before you begin the process of self-publishing. You don’t need to get the book into bookstores, but you do need to make sure people click through to the book on Amazon and elsewhere. And, even then, it would still take good buzz on sites like Boing Boing to get sales.
Now, let’s say you have (1) and (2) but not (3). If you set up your own imprint that’s not clearly a self-publishing tool – i.e., maybe you even publish someone else’s book as well – then you can at least establish some leverage through reviews, especially if you already know some of the gatekeepers out there. But, again, you have to be sure about (1). Many writers write decent but not great novels while working through their apprenticeship. Self-publishing a decent novel doesn’t really help you too much. Self-publishing a unique novel just might help you get a leg up.
Another note: Within five years a lot more people are going to flock to self-publishing –legitimate writers are already doing it. But most of them have established an audience first through traditional publishing methods, which allow them to get the leverage necessary to make it successful.
Jennifer Stevenson: What Jeff said here is right. It is cheaper and far more effective to write a book that New York will publish and then let them use their mighty machine to promote you. Instead of killing yourself pimping to audiences of three at libraries, or guest blogging until you are blue in the face, write another, even more fabulous book!
Alex Irvine: Then, of course, there’s the problem of what happens when you land a book in New York and then their mighty machine doesn’t promote you, leaving you with a track record of disappointing sales. (Not that this has happened to me for three straight books or anything.) You might find yourself pimping/guest blogging/etc. anyway.
Excuse my gloom. I might feel different tomorrow. This is an unsettled environment publishing- and marketing-wise.
But overall, I’d say don’t do it.
Jeff VanderMeer: Sales are relative to expenditures, of course. If there were a way to ensure direct sales of 5,000 for a self-published book by a mid-list writer, that would probably more than correspond to the average advance from a publishing house.
The publishing house gives you the ability to leverage and it puts your book where it can be seen and therefore bought. But on the PR side, it’s impossible to be sure of attention without coming in with a plan yourself that you bring to your publicist and attempt to implement – thus energizing the publicist, who is dealing with another 20 books a month, or more.
It’s tough. You have to be willing to give over part of your life to promotion and just admit you’re not going to write much for a few weeks.
It’s also good, in a time when “book” means a lot of different things, to boil down the book lifecycle to the following:
• Creation and perfection of content
• Acquisition of a platform (or format) for the content
• Creation and perfection of the “skin” (aesthetic) and context for the content
• Accessibility to the content
• Visibility for the content
Michael Stackpole: I concur with the opinion that self-publishing is not the way to go. I do like Jeff’s analysis, however.
The only place I differ is in the realm of virtual publishing. The Kindle, for example, is a great place to make shorter work available, and gives you a payment platform that will make your promotional material pay for itself.
Alex Irvine: When you’re with a major publisher it’s all the more frustrating when you present a plan to the publicist, the publicist says Great! Here’s what I’ll do! – and then not only does none of it but acts like the conversation never happened when you try to follow up.
Jeff VanderMeer: Yes, I really hate that. I try to do work-arounds to find out what the publicist has and hasn’t actually done. I remember one situation where I could’ve done the legwork myself and just needed the publicist to say “I don’t have time to do this” or “this is a bad idea and shouldn’t be done at all.” But instead I just got the “Great – I’ll do it!” and nothing happened. It was a good idea, and by the time I found out it was too late to apply it.
Michael Stackpole: I used to hate the publisher putting out book flats that indicated that there would be “author appearances,” but when any store asked for me they were told “The author isn’t touring.” They made it sound like I refused, when I wasn’t asked and certainly would have made the time.
It’s all in our hands now, it seems, to publicize our work and even publish some of it. I may not be able to do a BETTER job than traditional publishers, but I’d be hard pressed to do worse.
Cynthia Ward: Unless you have some fantastic way to leverage sales and attention (say, you’re a brilliant teenage writer whose parents can afford to drive you around the country to promote your self-published novel Eragon) and you get lucky (famous writer’s son reads & loves Eragon, so famous writer promotes Eragon to his publisher), self-publishing a novel is akin to tying it to a rock and throwing it down a well. A dry well.
Of course, if you happen to know any famous authors well enough that they could provide blurbs for you to show to editors and agents when you’re sending your novel out, that may help you get representation and publication. (It won’t get you those things by itself, of course. But good blurbs won’t hurt, and can be used on your book covers.)
Here’s how I look at unpublished fiction: It doesn’t go away. As long as you maintain physical and electronic copies, your work is always there to sell. Once you write a book that sells, editors, publishers, and agents will likely develop a strong interest in more work from you. How much better for you if you already have a backlog of material ready to sell!
Stephen Dedman: I’d like to point out that while we hear a lot about self-publishing’s rare success stories (Christopher Paolini, Matthew Reilly, Simon Haynes, etc.), the only news story I’ve read about the thousands who lose money is this one from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28selfpub.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.