Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pros and Cons of Self-Pubbing

Even a few years ago, most professional writing advice doled out at conventions and forums said, “Never self-publish,” because it was seen as the mark of an amateur, a lunatic, or simply an impatient writer yet to put in the requisite years of craft.

Aside from that perception of “vanity publishing,” the commercial barriers were considerable. Even if you managed to print up hundreds of copies of your book, you had an uphill battle getting them into stores.

Technology has eliminated most of the barriers to entry. You can now upload a digital file and be “published” in minutes. There is no overhead and you actually have the chance to reach whatever audience you deserve, assuming you can find it.

For those who have used up the A-list of agents and the few publishers who will look at unagented manuscripts, it’s hard to argue against it. For those with out-of-print mass-market novels, it’s a no-brainer to seek a new audience and earn easy money for work already completed. Print-on-demand technology has even made paper books a reasonable option, with more small publishers and even a few of the bigger houses using it for limited runs.

So why should you even bother with a publisher anymore? After all, you can earn the bulk of the book’s revenue if you do it all yourself. But how much of “all” are you really qualified to do?

Can you find professional editing, a respectable graphic designer, and a publicist? Those are the primary advantages of New York, aside from the ability to give you a generous advance and put your books in stores. Of course, the level of attention your book gets will be directly proportional to both the publisher’s investment and the publisher’s sales outlook, which are almost always intimately connected.

Bookstores are always swapping out the inventory, so your book usually has between 30 days to a year to find a buyer, depending on format. After you’re removed, you’ve likely lost the rights to your own work and the project is dead for years, so you are losing both money and potential audience. That’s not an issue with self-publishing and digital publishing.

So if you accept that bookstores are vanishing, and the digital audience is growing, and most books end up with nothing but a single product page on Amazon anyway, then why should you give a publisher and the supporting cast 85 to 96 percent of your book’s income?

Simple. Your small cut of the publisher’s income may prove far more than you will ever make on your own. And if you are a bestseller, then you will still make far more money with a conventional deal.

If you know you will never be “good enough to be published,” and you have no patience to improve your craft, then you hardly have any reason not to be self-published. If you feel your work is so extreme or of such a niche market that no publisher will invest in it, then you, too, will probably want to self-publish. If you feel New York is a pretentious club where everything comes down to a secret handshake, then you’ll probably project that attitude in any submission and therefore New York is a waste of your time and theirs.

So, really, the only camp that even needs to struggle with the decision is the hard-working, aspiring midlist writer, one who dreams of a professional career. Going it alone is a hard road to wealth and success. But so is the other way.

These are philosophical debates that each writer must resolve to personal satisfaction, and which have no right or wrong answers. In the next installment, we’ll look at some of the publishing math—the kind with dollar signs in front of it.

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Scott Nicholson is embarking on a Kindle Giveaway Blog Tour from September through November to promote his 12 novels. He’s also giving away a Kindle 3 through his newsletter and a Pandora’s Box of e-books through his “hauntedcomputer” Twitter account. Details at


  1. Scott, tell us how your Kindle Giveaway blog book tour went and if you think this promotion is worth the time and money. Lots of authors claim giveaways don't work, but I think they do and would love to find another "proof positive" example. I already have proof positive from a publisher who tracked site traffic and sales that blog book tours do work.

  2. One of the reasons I used iUniverse was I reasoned a small cut would make me more than going it alone. That being said, I will not use iUniverse for my next two books. I'll move in another direction.

    iUniverse was great in that they had distribution channels in place with Baker & Taylor and Ingram. Not going to get into B&N and Borders bookstores any other way. I did however have to work with both retailers to set up accounts with their warehouses. Just having distribution channels is not enough to get your books on their shelves.

    Your book needs to be in their warehouses for stores to order copies if they want to carry it. Most new authors are not aware of this. Once an account is set up (and its not guaranteed B&N and Borders will agree to an account) then a buyer can order 100 or so books for their inventory. You can then begin calling stores and ask them to carry a few copies on their shelves. Its work, but this is what it takes if you want your self-published book in their brick-and-mortar stores.

    Stephen Tremp

  3. A valid argument for self-publishing. You've covered some very good points. Either way you go, you'll still have a lot of work to do after you sign the contract or after your book goes "live".

  4. Changes in the publishing world are coming so fast that it's hard to keep up. Thanks for this good information, Scott. There's a lot to think about.


  5. I've read some excellent books that have been independently or self-published. By the same token, I've read some poorly edited and poorly written pieces by big-name authors that came out of traditional New York houses. The industry is undergoing drastic changes and lines are blurring more and more. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

  6. I think many in the industry still view traditional publishing as validation that the author has been "approved" as it were. Self publishing is a bit like doing all the work, and more, for a doctorate but not being officially recognised by any institution.

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  7. Very helpful information. Thank you so much for sharing this, Scott. As more and more authors consider self-pubbing it is important to get all the information we can.

  8. I want to see if he survives 90 days of blog book tour. Or if his audience will. LOL.


  9. Dani, I'll let you know in December! I did a writeup for MJ Rose's "Buzz, Balls, and Hype" blog if you want to see how I organized it.

    Stephen, trying to get your indie book in bookstores is the least efficient and most troublesome way to sell your book, because you still have the create the audience (really, we all do at any level below bestseller). I hate to say it, but indie authors should not waste an ounce of energy on stores--use the Internet, both for direct sales and ebooks.

    Actually, I don't hate to say it, because I am an honest guy. The only exception would be signing ONCE per book at the local indie, as a goodwill partnership.

    Elle, you STILL have to do all the work, and NY is less legit by the minute. Once you get some experience, you see it's just another system, and that system is not designed to serve readers and writers the best way, it's designed to serve the system. It's neither good nor evil, though some people make it out to be an institution on par with a religion. It's not. It's just some liberal arts majors who moved to NY and now a room full of sales executives who don't read much. Like I said, I'm an honest guy!



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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