To Self-Publish or Not

Which is best, to self-publish your book or go with a traditional publisher?

My answer is always: “Depends.” (And no, I don’t mean those undergarments for the elderly.) IMO it depends on the type of book and the writer. Over the years I’ve run into many men and women who have written a memoir. The story might be theirs or it might be an ancestor’s, but each writer is sure it should be a book. Thing is, as important and interesting as this story might be to the writer, a traditional publisher is going to ask who, other than the writer’s relatives and friends, will buy the book. If it’s less than 5,000 people, it’s doubtful any publisher (especially the larger publishing houses) would even consider the story. There are exceptions, of course. Memoirs about a well known person or a story with an element that an editor feels will catch readers’ interest. Most memoirs probably should be self-published and given to friends and family. It’s a great way to preserve family history. And nowadays that’s easy to do through e-books and Amazon’s
Create Space. No more having to go through a vanity press, pay for the book to be published, and figure out where to store the 1,000 copies you had to buy.

Same with non-fiction craft and hobby books that might have a limited audience. With publishing houses, it’s the numbers that are important. They’re out to make a profit. So niche books, especially in cases where the writer knows how to make the book available to the people connected with that craft or hobby (such as craft shops and organizations that promote the hobby), might do best if self-published.

But what about fiction?

Here’s where I start to question the wisdom of self-publishing. First off, I wonder what it was about the manuscript that didn’t interest an editor. I’ve picked up way too many self-published books that needed serious editing. This occurs even though the writer says s/he paid an editor to edit the book. (Many are just plain boring, often due to wordiness or repetitions, and some are riddled with grammar and spelling errors as well as errors in facts.) I’m not sure if an editor who’s paid by the writer will be totally honest. If I’m charging the writer $3 a page, will I tell the writer s/he sucks?

What’s really bad about these poorly written self-published books is they make readers wary of all self-published books.

So how does a writer get a publisher? The NY publishing houses are looking for blockbusters (so they can take home big salaries) and are impossible to break into without an agent, but I think it’s always worth the effort to try them, and if you don’t succeed, there are lots of small publishing houses that offer editing and will pay the writer (maybe not much) to publish a book. They’ll work with the writer to make sure the book is well
written. (Their reputation depends on it.)

Also, once a writer self-publishes a novel, how does s/he get it out to the public? Yes, PR has become a necessity for all writers, but at least a publishing house can give the book a wider distribution, often sends a catalogue to bookstores and libraries across the continent, and can get it looked at by the big name reviewers.

We hear success stories of self-published writers who sell millions of books or do really well from their sales. We always hope we’ll be one of those writers, but I’ve noticed a lot of the successful ones are very savvy PR people who spend a lot of time promoting their books. Not all writers are like that. I know I’m not.

I think it’s great that we have self-publishing as an option, and that it’s now easier to do, less expensive and has more exposure, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to go if you’re writing fiction. At least not until you’ve exhausted all other options.

What do you think?

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6 Responses to To Self-Publish or Not

  1. Dana Corbit says:

    Maris, I think you’re dead on. Like everyone else, I have great family stories, and if I chose to tackle one, I would definitely consider self-publishing. I also believe that fiction books might find their best audiences, and, more importantly, their best editors, with traditional houses. The exceptions to this theory might be for published authors who have titles that wouldn’t fit in with their regular publisher’s guidelines. They would have an established readership, and their readers might consider taking a chance on them when they try something new. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Maris says:

      Thank goodness for e-books. They are allowing those books that publishers are afraid to take a chance on to be published. What is interesting is, most of the self-published e-book authors who have done well jump at the chance to sign with a traditional publisher once their sales interest the publishing house. They, evidently, see the benefit of a publishing house’s support.

  2. John Locke’s e-booklet on how he sold 1 million ebooks in 5 months gave me my answer. Sometimes what you write appeals to a niche too small for a publisher to realize the profits they want. I’m working on a Christian erotic paranormal. That’s not a ready made market, but from comments on my erotic website, I know the market is out there, but it’s up to me to reach it. Quite a number of my RWA sisters who are traditionally published self-publishing new as well as their backlist fiction to varying results, but none are sorry they chose the self-pubbed route for their ficition. As to editing, I haven’t self-published yet, but I’ve had to send my edits back three and four times to my publishers whose in-house editors didn’t catch everything either. Self-pubbed or traditionally published we authors have to be vigilant. I’ve already connected with the cover artist who did the cover of my second book as well as a group of former Ellora’s Cave editors who have gone out on their own, (editors whose names I recognize from titles I’ve read in the past, so I know the quality of their work). When I self-pub, they’re who I’ll be working with. The PR piece is the key to sales and John Locke is totally clear on that. But what’s true is you as a new author have to be doing that kind of promoting with a traditional house as well. When I launch I’ll let you know how it works out.

    Anna T.S.

    • Maris says:

      Anna, I totally agree that PR is the key and I’ve met way too many writers who are going the self-published route who have no idea how to do the PR. I’m just saying it’s totally on the author’s shoulders when you self-publish. At least with a traditional publishing house, though limited, you do get some support, especially if the house has a good reputation.

  3. Annette says:

    Thanks for your comments on a very tempting idea. But, as you’re mentioned, self-publishing is full of demands for skills and responsibilities beyond just writing the book. You brought up some very real complications to taking that route.

    All the best, Annette

  4. There was an article in our local Sunday paper about how self-publishing is becoming more acceptable, and it refers to an author who claims to be making over $30,000 a month self-publishing! And she writes vampire romance. I imagine we’ve all heard of Amanda Hocking, who self-published, sold tons of e-books, and is now signed with a traditional publisher. My feeling is that I can see self-publishing backlists titles or stories that were previously published, but for something new, I’d still prefer to have a traditional publisher.