WHEN SHOULD WE SELF-PUBLISH? WHY? WHY NOT?


By Charles S. Weinblatt

My first book would have been a perfect poster book for self-publishing. It represents every solid reason why an author should self-publish. Forget the years of effort writing books and then devoting months or years attempting to contract with a small, independent publisher. Forget the years of writing, searching, struggling to gradually create an impressive author platform to attract literary agents. Forget depending upon someone you did not hire for editing, graphic design and printing. Forget waiting until a publisher is ready to schedule your book’s publication, and then the added time to distribute, promote, market and sell your book. When you self-publish, you make every decision on your own and on your own schedule.

Why was my first book such a perfect example of when to self-publish? First, it was not fiction. Fiction is harder to sell if it is self-published. It was a textbook on job seeking skills, something that I had honed for six years as a vocational rehabilitation counselor and then continued on my own in my private consulting practice. I taught it so frequently that I might have done it well in my sleep. And I knew that I was good at it. Thus, my textbook, Job Seeking Skills for Students (1986, Kendall-Hunt Publishing Company), would be viable. I could sell almost as many copies as I desired through my consulting practice and as required reading for graduate students in my university (The University of Toledo). Why share the profit if you don’t need to?

Of course, I wrote that book in 1985 and I understood nothing about self-publishing then. Along came Kendall-Hunt Publishing with a nice advance and I required no convincing. They could see that I would have little trouble marketing and maintaining regional sales. All they had to do was replicate it elsewhere. Given my complete lack of understanding that there was another option (self-publishing), I took the advance and gave my book to Kendall-Hunt. However, if I had the same decision to make today, I would self-publish it in a heartbeat.

Of course, with self-publishing comes serious responsibilities. The author must hire a talented editor, a gifted graphic artist with successful experience designing winning book covers and jackets, as well as a solid printer and an excellent publicist. The self-published author must purchase the ISBN, arrange distribution contracts on different continents and make sure that every retailer of value around the English-speaking world has copies to sell. This author must also handle promotion, marketing, sales, returns, stocking and restocking retailers, etc. Not rocket science – but very time consuming.

If it happened today, instead of 1985, I would also need to create the e-book version of Job Seeking Skills for Students and format it for each type of e-reader, tablet, computer and smart phone. Then, I would need to post it for sale at Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Diesel, Apple (iTunes), Kobo, Sony, Scrollmotion, Baker & Taylor, etc. But it would have been worth the effort. These are books made for self-publishing. Bypass the annoying, laborious platform creation and go directly to sales, where you, not a publisher, keep most of the profit.

There is a time and a place for everything. And when it comes to self-publishing, there is a difference in the chance for success between fiction and non-fiction. If the author is a celebrity or a highly-recognized subject matter expert, self-publishing makes perfect sense. But if the author is unknown and writes fiction, all such bets are off.

You can count on your digits the number of best-selling self-published fiction authors who were not already made famous by celebrity or by traditional publishers. Today, many famous fiction authors are deciding to carry their readers along into the self-publishing world. In other words, this works in only one direction. You use small independent trade publishers to attract literary agents, who will attract major publishers to your books. After you’re a famous fiction author, you may then decide to self-publish and keep more of the profit.

There are some excellent self-published books. I’ve self-published three books. They’re probably not excellent; but through them I was able to comprehend the process. Here is the single most important factor. There is no talent entrance bar for self-publishing. No one evaluates your writing. No aptitude is necessary. You can literally make your cat a self-published author in a few hours. This fact degrades all self-publishing books in the eyes of readers, agents, publishers, distributors, publicists, reviewers and bookstore owners. Please note that I am not advocating this as a desired condition; only stating it as a fact. It is not good, bad, right or wrong. There is still a stigma attached to self-published books. Thankfully, the stigma is somewhat lower than in prior years. But it remains. Since anyone can become a self-published author, regardless of talent, all such books are stigmatized by those careless, inept, unskilled “authors.”

This lack of industry vetting might mean nothing to a non-fiction author who is already a celebrity or known subject matter expert. But it can mean everything to a novice fiction author. Tread here very carefully. The vast majority of self-published books are not well written. They contain a multitude of errors in spelling, grammar, character development and punctuation. Just sample a few self-published books.

Do not suspect that most readers won’t notice these “little mistakes.” Readers will most definitely notice and they will roast you in reviews because of the mistakes. If you’re not willing to take the time and spend the money to hire a talented and experienced editor, why publish? It will only be embarrassing after it’s been read.

Self-published fiction is almost never reviewed by the most respected, persuasive and compelling review organizations in any genre. I am a long-time reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. Believe me, the best review organizations will reject it. As none of the best reviewers will take on a self-published book (so far), the author is left promoting reviews from readers, family members, neighbors or workplace buddies. Such reviews might appear nice on the surface, but they are unconvincing to the public. You would not buy a car if it was rejected by every major automotive review organization. Why would you not feel the same way about a book?

Self-published fiction books rarely appear on the shelves of bookstores, where more than half of all books are still sold. I’m not arguing for or against this – only stating a fact. Yet, that’s an enormous market to just give up because you want to self-publish rather than go through the trouble to create a winning author platform and attract publishers.

Unlike the trade-published author, who typically receives an advance and pays nothing to be published, the self-published author typically invests several thousand dollars on editing, graphic design, printing, ISBN, distribution, publicist, video trailer designer, marketing, promotion and sales. In most cases, the self-published fiction author will not recoup those expenses, let alone earn a profit. Please understand… I’m not telling you not to self-publish. I’m telling you why your chances for self-published fiction success might be poor and why you most likely will never recoup those expenses.

 

Although all authors must market, the SP author is completely on her or his own. She must hire her own editor, graphic designer and publicist. Without prior experience, hiring this kind of talent successfully can be hit and miss at best. The author must then hire a talented and experienced video producer to create a quality video book trailer and then it must be distributed in literally dozens of the right places.

 

Publishers, especially major publishers, promote your books at key international book fairs, conferences and conventions, something that would cost the self-published author thousands of dollars each year. Yet these are the best places to reach film producers and studio executives, screenplay authors, directors, as well as opportunities for translation and foreign rights sales. So add the cost of trips to London, Paris, Jerusalem, Berlin, etc., to your book budget.

And while the self-published author is devoting at least 20-30 hours per week to distribution, promotion, marketing, sales, stocking, etc., the trade-published author has more time to write new books because their publisher handles some of this heavy lifting. Don’t take this too far. All authors must promote and market their books. It’s just somewhat easier and less time-consuming when you have a publisher helping out.

A novice fiction author requires a powerful author platform to attract an agent. Major publishing houses only accept proposals from trusted literary agents; and well-connected agents almost never take chances on their reputation.

When an agent decides to read your query, he or she will also Google your name. When that occurs, you’ll want the agent to read many pages of powerful author platform, including dozens of positive articles and references about your books and your author reputation. Platform also includes influential writing awards, especially with regional or national media recognition. Agents and publishers want to see a gradual increase in sales of prior trade-published books. National or international news articles about you and your books in newspapers, magazines and journals are prominent platform building blocks. Major radio, TV and Internet interviews with powerful agents are useful. Blogging successfully and guest blog appearances with the best and most well-liked blogs help.

All of this takes a lot of time – years – to accomplish. To a novice fiction author, platform means everything. The big advances and publicity are earned one trade-published book at a time.Of course, being trade-published for fiction is not a decision. You need talent, a marketable book, a high quality publishing proposal (see other articles on this site for information about how to fabricate a winning book publishing proposal) and the determination to contact dozens or even hundreds of small independent publishers. During this time, building your author platform is the single most important focus of your task. It’s more important than royalties or sales. Platform means everything to a fiction author, because generates success later. And it can attract one huge piece of the puzzle – a well-connected literary agent. More about that, plus book marketing ideas elsewhere here: https://cweinblatt.wordpress.com.

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