7 Reasons to Self-Publish, 7 Reasons Not to Self-Publish

The Evolution of Publishing, collage by Melanie LamagaIn case you haven’t heard the news, writers now have a choice when it comes to publishing books. I’ve done a lot of research over the past year and here is what I’ve learned.

You Might Want to Become an Indie Author Because…

1. Mo’ Money

Most publishers give you an advance, and then between 5 to 15 percent royalty (after you sell enough copies to pay back that advance, and most books never do). As an indie publisher, you get to keep 35-70% of your profit (after costs). Compounded over the life of a successful book this can add up to serious green.

One of the biggest of the big dogs of self-publishing is JA Konrath, a writer of thrillers who went indie after his publisher dropped him. He just celebrated his millionth e-book sale. YES, A MILLION.

Konrath writes the best blog ever on this topic. I respect his opinions because what he says is well-researched and/or based on his own experience and that of writers he interviews. I tend to trust his motives because he  is not a writer of “How to Sell a Million Books on Amazon” books–he’s a fiction writer, like me, just sharing what he’s learned for the common good.

2. Creative Control

Cover, title, book description, length. When you go with a publisher, you may not have control over these particulars. But, unless you’re already a well-known author, these are precisely the things people look at when deciding whether or not to buy your book, along with reviews. You don’t have control over reviews of course, but when you go indie, you control the rest.

Revisions are easier with POD (print on demand) and e-books. I cringe when I see mistakes and the idea of being able to fix them in real time (instead of waiting for a second edition that may never come) appeals greatly.

Pricing. Most indie authors play with price points and monitor sales to see what works best. For example, according to Konrath, you can offer your book free for a couple of weeks to build momentum, and that often carries over into sales once you start charging again. Amazon and other online retailers offer real-time sales reports on an ongoing basis.

3. Be an Entrepreneur

Some people self-publish for personal enjoyment, for their friends and family—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you intend to be a professional writer, self-publishing means starting a business. That’s why the term independent author (indie) seems a bit more accurate than self-publishing.

Just as indie bands and film makers have to learn to manage the business side of things (or hire someone to), indie authors must wear many hats. Fortunately, this is a business you can start while keeping your day job. This enables you to see if self-publishing is something you enjoy… and if you can sell your books.

 5. I Want it NOW, and I Want it FOREVER

Now: Independently publishing your work means once it’s done it will come out sooner. It can take years of submitting to find a publisher. Once you finally do, publishers typically take from a year to a year and a half—or even longer—to get a book out.

Forever: Once you’ve got that book out, you can keep marketing and selling your book forever. With traditional publishing, books that don’t do well get pulled from the bookstores and returned, where they may sit in a warehouse until they crumble into dust, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Some books take longer to find an audience. Do you want your baby axed if it fails to get up on its little legs and run a marathon after a few weeks? If the book is in your control, you can continue to try different marketing strategies. Virtual shelf space is unlimited and free, so you can take all the time you need.

6. Transvestite Panda in a Rowboat. 

What if your book doesn’t fit easily into any marketing category that the publishing industry recognizes? Maybe it’s not the right length, or it will only appeal to a niche market, or an undiscovered market, or (like mine) it blends genres , or (also like mine) it’s a book of short stories, which have not been considered to be very commercially viable (though with the rise of e-reading devices this bias may be changing, too).

If you’re in any of these camps, you might actually have a better idea than the experts how to market your book… assuming you’re not the only person in the world interested in nautically inclined, cross-dressing ursi, and you’re willing to do the legwork to find and market to those people (thank you, Internet!)

7. If You Sell It, They Will Come.

If your book does well, the publishers and agents will come a-knocking.

JA Konrath suggests you don’t even think about looking for an agent until you’ve sold about 50,000 copies of your book. The poster child for this is Amanda Hocking, the fantasy author who couldn’t get published, then sold a bazillion books on her own, then got picked up by St. Martin’s Press. More recently Hugh Howey, the author of Wool, was wined and dined by all of the Big Six publishers for the rights to distribute hard copies of his book. He refused to sell the e-book rights, because he’d already made a million on his own.

Many industry watchers predict self-publishing will increasingly become the minor leagues, where authors demonstrate they can sell books and build an audience, allowing agents and big publishers to swoop in and skim off the cream.

But if you are doing so well on your own, why would you want to give away a big chunk of your earnings to someone else? Amanda Hocking said she just couldn’t do it all on her own anymore, and I can well believe it (see reason #1 not to self publish).

The good news is that anyone being courted by publishers after self publishing success can demand better deals—higher advances, larger print runs, more creative control etc., from their prospective suitors.

And of course there is a third option, utilized by the most savvy of indie authors, people like Catherynne Valente who has sometimes published her own work (she crowd funded The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland), and sometimes goes with publishers. If you write different kinds of books, as she does (as opposed to, say, all detective fiction), it makes sense to decide which way to go on a case-by-case basis. It also makes sense that your strategy evolves as the market place (and your position within it) changes. Other authors split the difference, self-publishing e-books and later selling the print rights. This is because they want to get their books featured in brick and mortar stores, which is challenging when you’re selling print on demand books.

You Might Want to Avoid Self Publishing if…

1.  All You Want to Do Is Write.

I know, don’t we all? But the reality is that most of the professional writers I know teach, edit, or have other jobs on the side, anyway.

My hope is that by finding a team of people to do all the things I don’t want to do, I can maximize my writing time, eventually. But over the last year or so I’ve spent about half my time (time that otherwise could have been spent writing) learning about all the things I need to know to become an indie author the right way.

What do I mean by the right way? Simply, that everything that represents you as an author must be professional-quality. This includes websites, author photos, social media profiles and posts, and especially, of course, your finished book–the writing, editing, formatting, cover, and marketing materials.

It’s a process; it’s going to take mental bandwidth and a lot of hard work. It might be more than some people want to bite off on their own. Or you might hate business-stuff. Or, if you start selling a ton of books, it might be worth it to you to give up a bigger slice of the pie to have somebody else handle all the details. If I ever decide to pursue a traditional publisher, this would most likely be why.

2. You’re Not Highly Self-Motivated and Self-Disciplined.

Along with the craft of writing, you’ll need to know, or learn about, cover and interior design, editing, formatting, marketing, web design, social media, and more.

Do you have to do everything yourself? No. It’s probably not even a good idea unless you are a multifaceted genius (equally good at writing, visual design, technology and marketing), and in no particular hurry.

Most successful indie authors hire or trade with other people to do the jobs they can’t (or don’t want to) do themselves. But even that process initially takes time and research. If you don’t figure out what good design is before you hire a designer, for example, you might end up with a cover that your neighbor could have done better, and for free.

3. You Don’t Have Time and/or Money to Invest.

As you should already have figured out from reasons #1 and #2, indie publishing, while faster than traditional publishing, is a huge amount of work. If you’re just not in the position to take on a big project, self-publishing may not be right for you, at least not right now.

4. You’re Worried about What People Think.

Until about a year ago I thought, as many still do, that self-publishing was a cop-out, an admission that you couldn’t make the cut.

Although that stigma has waned considerably, it is still there, especially among those who to came to writing through academia (like me), and those who are already traditionally published.

I know some people may think less of me for going indie; it’s just a reality. My hope is that by producing a book that is well-written and professional in every way, I can overcome any lingering stigmas.

However, if you’re super self-conscious, you can always release your book under a pseudonym. If it doesn’t do well, nobody is the wiser. If you make a success of it, presto chango, suddenly you emerge a visionary, an entrepreneur, an iconclast!

Bottom line, in my opinion one of the best things that traditional publishing still offers is the Big Stamp of Approval. Somebody experienced and respected by critics, other publishers, and authors is ready to step up and tell the world that you are the real deal. This can be a big bonus for the unknown author.

5. Most of Your Potential Readers Are Going to Want Print Books.

From the research I’ve done it seems that a great majority of indie sales, and far and away the greatest profit, come from e-books. If the demographic most likely to buy your book still shops in book stores, traditional publishing might be a better route to try.

6. You Think Self-Publishing is a Short Cut to Wealth and Fame.

First let me say that writing is never a reliable short cut to wealth and fame. You may as well wait for a wormhole to open in your living room so you can avoid the morning commute. Do it because you love it, or get out.

Indie publishing is a short cut to being published only in the sense that it can be literally faster than going the traditional publishing route. But most of us don’t simply want to be published, we want people to actually buy and read our books.

The reality is that there were more than 235,000 self-published books, out of… okay, I’m not going to tell you how many books Bowker estimates were released in the U.S in 2012, because it’s a bit depressing…let’s just say millions. How are you going to stand out?

Indie authors need to understand that unless we get lottery-odds lucky, it is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time to build an audience, just as in traditional publishing.

Here’s the difference: In indie publishing, you build your own team, you have the final say, take the financial risk, and reap the lion’s share of any profits. In traditional publishing, the publisher provides you with a team, has the say, takes the risk, and reaps the greatest profits.

7. You’re Ready, But Your Book Isn’t

In this sense, self-publishing could be too fast and easy. Although it’s unwise to submit your work to traditional publishers and agents before it’s ready, at least you won’t run much risk of having the book come out too soon and embarrassing yourself publicly. But in indie publishing there’s nobody to save you from yourself, except you.

Next week I’ll write about how to figure out if your book is ready to step out of the dark shadows of your mind and into the bright, busy world.


Be the Monkey  E-books and Self-Publishing: A Dialog Between Authors Barry Eisler and JA Konrath. This PDF is shorter than a book but longer than an article. This is great introduction to the topic and an analysis that demonstrates why self-publishing makes financial sense.

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. JA Konrath’s excellent blog. He doesn’t publish often, but when he does the articles are long and detailed. I recommend signing up for his newsletter so you know when new articles are posted.

The Book Deal: An Inside View of Publishing. Rinzler is a seasoned editor with impressive credentials. His blog is packed with useful information. Here are two excellent articles specifically about self publishing:

Great Reasons to Self-Publish by Alan Rinzler

The Bears and Bulls of Publishing by Alan Rinzler

Hugh Howey’s “Wool” is the latest self-publishing mega-success story. If you want to dream big, read about it here.

Books – Ready for a detailed road map? These encyclopedic volumes of useful information are not for the idle dreamer — read these when it’s “go” time.

A.P.E: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur by Guy Kawasaki. This book, hot off the press earlier this year is a cutting edge, step by step how-to of the self-publishing process, A-Z.

Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer, by Jeff VanderMeer. This book, by an acclaimed, prolific fiction writer and publisher, covers every aspect of the creative process from inception to writing to publication and beyond. This book is not specifically targeted at self-published authors; it also covers the ins and outs for those who are (or plan to be) published by either large or small presses in this age where authors are expected to take an active role in the marketing and publicity of their books.



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