Friday, July 16, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing - Scott Nicholson

With the publishing industry undergoing vast change and new avenues opening for authors, the choice of career route no longer leads straight through Manhattan. With authors able to directly upload their manuscripts for the growing digital market, the temptation is there to bypass agents and publishing houses altogether, going for the immediate reward and readership–however large or small.

Self-publishing was long considered “vanity press” and the mark of a frustrated amateur, but as more established authors release their own backlists as e-books and a new generation of authors embrace the do-it-yourself indie spirit, it’s no longer a dirty word in the literary world.

Vicky Tyley, an Australian mystery writer, finished her novel Thin Blood four years ago. After numerous rejections on two earlier novels, she found an agent, who then approached all the major mystery publishers. After he kept hearing “we can’t consider an Australian mystery,” he encouraged Tyley to put it on Amazon for Kindle and see what happened.

What happened was the book hit #1 on the Kindle mystery bestseller list. It has since sold more than 20,000 copies.
“First, I wanted to have the best manuscript I could,” Tyley said. “I invested in an editor and, whilst the changes she suggested weren’t major, they added a polish that the novel wouldn’t have otherwise had.
Her agent, Robert Fleck of Professional Media Services, said he took a somewhat unusual step in an industry where self-publishing is still largely suspect.
“For people like me, and honestly a huge proportion of the editors and agents in publishing, the joy of finding that one book out of the pile is a huge part of what drives us, but it's also why these jobs aren't for everyone,” Fleck said. “Vicki and I chose to test her first book through self-publishing precisely because it was a very good book that wasn't being read many places because of a stupid marketing belief. That's a very different thing than many of the would-be authors out there who think they're being rejected because nobody understands their brilliance.”
Some indie authors have piled up numerous agency rejections, and some have had agents who couldn’t sell their work. Other authors, like Zoe Winters, started out with the idea of building their own audiences, not even bothering to waste the years typically involved in querying agents.

Some, like Boyd Morrison, do well enough that they are then able to sell their work in New York even if it was previously rejected.
“To me, the electronic publishing frontier is probably best for breaking in an author who can't get a reading for specious reasons, or for maintaining the careers of midlist authors who have a lot of quality product but never quite ‘broke through’ in traditional publishing,” Fleck said.
As one of those authors with modest sales numbers, I embraced self-publishing after a year of struggle, in which I had left an agent and was a couple of years removed from a book on the store shelves. I was writing steadily but with a sense of discouragement, because I was schooled in the old lesson that “professionals don’t self-publish.”

Six months into my experiment, I still work with agents but I see indie publishing as the foundation of my career, especially as e-books expand and bookstores diminish. New York is still the lottery ticket, but more and more writers are drawn to the idea of a steady, albeit often small, revenue stream. It’s also very appealing to know readers are just one click away from connecting with your words, but that can also breed an impatience that leads writers into bad habits and a slack approach to craft. A book needs careful editing now more than ever, simply because it must swim even harder to rise above the tide. In the next installment, we’ll crunch some numbers and compare the practical benefits of both traditional and independent publishing.
Scott Nicholson is the author of nine novels, four comic book series, three story collections, and six screenplays. He’s a freelance editor and journalist living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. More writing tips are available at

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  1. Insightful post, Scott. With the surge of e-book popularity, I think more and more authors are going to go the self-pub route. I hope they still use editors as that is a crucial step too many skip.

  2. Self-publishing is still intimidating to me. Who to go with? How to do it? It's scary. And yet, more and more authors are taking this route. Thanks Scott.

  3. I'm so glad you posted this. The advances in e-publishing and the increasingly sophisticated (and modestly priced) results of services like CreateSpace (I was going just say self-publishing houses, but opted for the brand name since quality and value differ dramatically) mean that self-publishing really is coming into its own as an alternative. But with that increased access comes increased responsibility on authors.

    I do a lot of self-publishing--and I work closely with at least two editors. If it weren't that I have a professional background in book design, I would also hire my design work done. In the past a poorly produced book was the fault of the publisher. Self-publishing means that we each have to take responsibility for the quality of our books ourselves.

  4. Nice post, Scott.

    Maryann, I hope those authors will do their research and invest in GOOD editors, not just any old editor. As a publisher, I still get manuscripts that the authors insist have been professionally edited and yet, they are riddled with frustratingly basic errors that should have been caught by the author.

    A good editor is worth their sum in royalties.


  5. As long as writers understand the difference between true indie self-publishing and subsidy publishing!
    But there's a lot of successful indie authors with eBooks and I'm sure that number will continue to grow.

  6. What shocks me most is the reason given by publishers of Vicky Tyleys novel: "we can’t consider an Australian mystery." Where have these people been? America is no longer that insular. We like books that take place in foreign countries.

  7. It depends on who you are and why you're writing. Same as freelancing. It takes self-motivation while others feel safer with an agent other risky people prefer to do things themselves. For me, I just want people to read my work and get it out there for sheer enjoyment and entertainment. That's why I bypass publishing all together and post my things online for anyone interested.

  8. BodieP, great observation about a self-published author's responsibility. One of the reasons that vanity publishing (and self-publishing) has earned such a tarnished name is, as you state, lack of quality. Poorly written and unedited, so many of these books fall far short of good reading.

    So you are quite right. We writers who choose to self-publish owe our best (edited) effort to our readers. We also owe it to our fellow writers. To take a badly laid out, unedited book to press exacts a price from all writers who go that route, even those who've put much time, effort, and money into creating a masterful work. And while more attention is finally being paid to the essentials of responsible publishing, we must remain vigilant in our determination to see that everything we write meets or exceeds the quality of books that come out of the large traditional houses. We must be accountable.

  9. Thanks, Scott. We'll look forward to your sequel.

    I'm so in agreement about the importance of good editors - even the publishers skip this all-important step as is evident by all the books riddled with errors. It gets worse all the time.

    First Red Pencil ;)

  10. The other problem we have here in Australia is that agents won't take on an author who doesn't already have the interest of a publisher, and publishers won't generally touch an author who doesn't have an agent. I think Vicky was one of the lucky ones.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  11. "....with a sense of discouragement, because I was schooled in the old lesson that “professionals don’t self-publish.”

    I did my homework - made the decision to pass on the traditional query/agent/bite your nails route & headed down the self pub path for tons of reasons. No regrets & no sour attitude toward anyone hellbent on "making it" traditionally. Someone wants to take the attitude that I'm not "really published"? - Oh well. Not here to impress anyone.

    We DO owe it to readers that part with their hard earned $$$ to buy our books to produce an outstanding (edited) product. As Linda said - We must be accountable.

    My gripe with self pubbed is the selling price of the paperback versions. I work with an outstanding company - but the retail price of $14.95 is too high (but less than what many others charge for similar page count) for YA fiction. The book sells well (tourist town), but would do much better if it was more reasonably priced. Not sure what I'm going to do with the 2nd one that's ready to go.

    (BTW - Nice to Zoe here - she sure gets fired up over at Joe Konrath's page.)

    Very solid post.


  12. Zoe's my home girl--bottle that passion and make a million! Joe Konrath, too, is probably my direct inspiration for giving it a try.

    And new models of getting your services (editing, graphic design, formatting) are emerging--whether through royalties or payment made after proceeds accrue. As always, those who adapt fastest will thrive.

    Scott Nicholson

  13. Scott, Thank you for an excellent post. I believe that self publishing, and particularly e-publishing, is the future. Just as the Internet revolutionized the news world, it is revolutionizing the publishing world in general. Vanity Press is becoming Necessity Press.

    And, as everyone has said, it's important to produce the best product possible, with the help of designers, editors, and agents. Let's continue to hold high standards.

  14. Great post. I've linked to it from my own blog discussion on the subject.

  15. excellent post and timely - I have engaged an editor and am considering my publishing options... great to get some inside grit on the real story of self pulishing

  16. excellent post and timely - I have engaged an editor and am considering my publishing options... great to get some inside grit on the real story of self publishing... and encouragin to know it's more positively viewed now


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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