Yes, I know.
We all want that big publishing contract handed to us upon completion of our first novel, and the career trajectory that rivals Stephen King. And there are still some people who get it. But there are also people who win the lottery, and their odds might be slightly better. The fact is, more people than ever are
trying to get published, and there are only so many traditional houses that can take them on. Eventually, we’re all faced with the question of whether we want to let our work—our art—sit in a drawer forever while we wait to be discovered, or take a chance on our own.
I’ve been self-publishing my own books for nearly a decade, and gotten so much experience with the industry that I now produce books for other people. This isn’t where I tell you how wonderful and artistically freeing it can be. In fact, if you’re considering self-publishing, here are a few reasons to think twice before you go charging in…
1. Self-Publishing Should Always Be a Last Resort
I always tell my clients to try to get their manuscripts published the traditional way before they self-publish. I spent another decade collecting rejection letters before I decided to try something different.
Most of my clients are in the same boat, just as frustrated as I was after getting nowhere, and determined to follow their dreams. But the amazing thing about all that querying and submitting and pitching is that the process itself still gives you some great insight about the industry: how it works, what it wants, and what sells.
One of my clients refused to listen to me about this. She had just put pen to paper for the first time three months before, scribbled out what she felt sure was a bestseller, and wanted to get it out to the reading public no matter what the cost. She had no understanding of what it takes to market or distribute a book, and was utterly baffled when she wasn’t on talk shows the week after it came out.
2. You’re Trying to Get Discovered in a Slightly Smaller Ocean
Remember how hard I said it was to get the attention of a traditional publisher these days? When the economy tanked in 2008 and unemployment skyrocketed, there were suddenly a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands who thought writing a bestseller sounded like a pretty easy gig. The result is an ocean of writers, all with their own manuscript, waving it at any person with a sign over their door that says ‘Agent’ or ‘Publisher’. And when they realized it wasn’t going to happen, a large segment of these writers turned to self-publishing.
When I started out, the landscape was very different. Expensive vanity publishing houses were everywhere. The production quality of most print-on-demand distributors was lacking. Ebooks were still a burgeoning market, and the technology to create them was far above the layman author. In other words, only the most determined—or the ones who had the most money to burn—could self-publish.
Not so anymore. The industry responded to the growing interest, and now pretty much anyone can self-pub easily and cheaply. You can even try to crowdsource it, if you don’t have the funds yourself, a trend that’s also growing among the traditional houses. The result of this is, of course, a slightly smaller ocean than the one trying to flag down the traditional publishers, except now you’re attempting to convince readers why they should pick your novel not only over the “real” books, but all the other self-pubbed ones as well. Ask yourself how you intend to market that bad boy before you set it loose on the world.
3. Going About It the Wrong Way Can Still Bankrupt You
The most important question to ask yourself before you decide to self-publish is, why am I doing this? Do you just want a book to give your family and friends, or is this a serious career attempt? If it’s the latter, you want to reach as many readers as you can. Ebooks are a cheap, easy route, but if you only publish in electronic format, aren’t you cutting off a huge segment of the market? Not everyone has an eReader, and some industry moguls say they’re a fad that’s already in decline. So you have to consider publishing a physical copy as well, and that’s where you can run into some serious money.
That old saying about not judging a book by its cover sounds great, but it’s human nature to do so. If your book doesn’t look as professional as any you would find in a bookstore, that puts you at a disadvantage. And since not too many people have the training to typeset their own book and design their own cover (although too many try), they have to find someone else.
This is the point when people tell me that companies like CreateSpace and Lulu are a great option for this. But you have to understand, these places are producing covers for thousands of people. Most of them are simple, boilerplate designs that are going to look like everyone else’s. If you truly want something original, something that stands out in that ocean, hire an independent designer.
I’ve met other self-publishers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars just having a book designed, which is, frankly, insane. You have almost no hope of making back that kind of investment, especially your first time out. So set a budget for yourself, and stick to it.
4. The Stigma is Still Just as Bad
I will never, ever forget the first time I told my writer friends I was self-publishing. I can laugh about it now, because the look of horror that spread across their faces was just as bad as if I’d told them I’d tested positive for bubonic plague. I even remember reading an article years ago where one famous author said it was better for writers to try their whole life to get published “legitimately” and fail than to self-pub, a philosophy which still makes me see red.
Self-publishing has certainly come more into the mainstream now. You even have established writers leaving their publishers because the royalties are so much better. Of course, they’re bringing name recognition and an established fan base with them, so that’s not really the same thing. A savvy reader can spot a self-published book a mile away, and they avoid them like, well, like the plague.
And why all the hate? Because self-publishing has always had a reputation for poorly-edited books, and just because the practice is more prevalent now doesn’t mean that’s changed. In fact, it’s undoubtedly worse. It’s up to you to present your best face to the world when you publish your own book, so don’t forget to get it edited (which can cost a fat stack of cash as well).
5. Your Success—or Failure—Will Ultimately Have Little to Do With Your Writing
When you self-publish, you become a business owner as well as a writer. And as such, you have to concern yourself with profits and costs and all the things which a publishing house would normally do for you. How will you market? How will you distribute your eBook to the multiple eReader platforms? Which printer will use the best quality materials for your paper copy (check out this article for a fantastic comparison of the major print-on-demand distributors; I was pleased to learn that mine, Lightning Source, is probably the best)? How will you network with bookstores and venues to get signings and appearances?
Just writing a novel—even if it’s a great one—isn’t enough.
Because anyone can be a self-publisher these days. But it takes an entire range of skills to be a successful one.
- Russel C. Connor, DFWWW member since 2006
You can buy Russell C. Connor’s novels through all major online retailers, or go to darkfilamentpublishing.com if you’re interested in having him produce your book. Find him on Twitter @russellcconnor.