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Why Self-publishing Is a Good Idea (When You Do It Right)

December 05, 2008 by Susan Wenger, Designer

Virginia Woolf, self-published authorI recently stumbled across an essay about self-publishing on a blog called Creative Writing Corner. Specifically, the post is about why writers shouldn't bother. Says writer Blair Hurley:

The ease of internet publishing has made self-publishing all the more attractive for a lot of writers out there tired of rejection. After all, it seems like a lovely idea -- to have total control over what your book looks like, who sees it, and what the final edit is. It can take years to find an agent and then to find a publisher for your work, and years more until it is finally released. Why not just distribute it your own way?

The problem is that self-publishing is no picnic. I'm going to tell my readers some hard facts about self-publishing, that I was told by representatives of real publishing companies and serious publishing professionals. It might not be pretty, but it's important to hear.

The "hard facts" she presents, in order:

  1. You'll never make a profit.
  2. It takes an absolutely massive investment of time to promote a book.
  3. It is extraordinarily difficult to get wide bookstore distribution.
  4. No one will review your book.
  5. It's not good for your credentials.

Though Hurley raises some points that you should absolutely be aware of, I disagree with her conclusions. Let's take them one at a time ...

1. You'll never make a profit.


Well, that depends on a couple of things.

First, have you written something that people will want to read? Will you spend a lot of time carefully revising your book after completing your first draft? Will you get feedback from people who are capable of being brutally honest? After getting the content into shape, are you planning to have it professionally copyedited?

Second, if your book does have an audience, are you willing to do what it takes to find that audience?

This brings us to the article's next argument:

2. It takes an absolutely massive investment of time to promote a book.

Yes. Yes it does. If you believe that all you need to do after publishing is sit back and wait for the orders to roll in, you're going to be disappointed. There's a lot of effort involved, and even if you traditionally publish or hire someone to help you with marketing, much of that effort will need to be yours.

Fortunately, you aren't afraid of hard work. If you found the time to write your book, you can find the time to sell your book. And if you have no idea where to begin, there are resources that can help you.

3. It is extraordinarily difficult to get wide bookstore distribution.

It's true: while you might be able to work something out with a local bookstore or two, the odds of getting your self-published book into Borders or Barnes and Noble are slim to none. But that doesn't mean you can't sell your book. It means that you need to focus your efforts on online sales (,, etc.) and special sales (outlets that don't specialize in book retail, like gift stores, pet stores, etc.).

4. No one will review your book.

Depends where you submit it. The New York Times will almost certainly not review your book. You may, however, get some attention from your local newspaper. The Midwest Book Review gives priority to small publishers and self-published authors. You can also try the blogosphere. A positive review from an independent online reviewer may not carry the weight of a major newspaper or magazine's, but it makes for great word-of-mouth.

5. It's not good for your credentials.

Self-publishing a book of short stories may not help you land a job at a newspaper. On the other hand, if you're looking for work as an apiary inspector, you have a shot at impressing fellow beekeepers with your 232-page book about the proper handling of Africanized bees. If you're doing the lecture circuit as a business life coach, your tome about the top-ten qualities of successful entrepreneurs will demonstrate that you have a lot to say on the subject. Readers who don't work in the publishing industry won't stop to ponder whether you're traditionally published or not.

Note that this does NOT mean you can get away with slipshod material. An agent or publisher may not be vetting your self-published work, but you had better believe that the book-buying public is. This brings us back to the first point. You need to do whatever it takes to ensure that your book is well-written and professionally edited.

6. Not all self-publishing companies have your best interests at heart. Some of them will skin you alive.

Blair Hurley didn't bring up this hard fact in her article, but I'm going to do it here, because if you're going to invest in your own work, you need to invest wisely. As you shop around for a publisher, arm yourself with the following questions:

  • Do they offer a nonexclusive contract? That is, will you get to keep the rights to your own book?

  • Do they offer returnability? That is, do they allow booksellers to return unused copies of your book? You want them to do this. Said booksellers won't take a chance on your book otherwise.

  • Do they sell your book to booksellers at industry-standard discounts? Again, you want them to do this, for the same reason as above.

  • Do their book designers know what they're doing? Ask for a sample copy of a book in the same genre as yours. If it doesn't look professional, move on.

  • Will they offer you excellent customer service? While you can't necessarily expect a straight answer on this one, see how good they are about returning your calls. If they can't even do this before you give them your business, it's not a good sign.

Angela Hoy of BookLocker has an excellent ezine article up about misleading statements that appear on self-publishing companies' websites. Do yourself a favor and read it. It's easy to know what to look for -- and what to avoid -- when you educate yourself.


So, now that we've talked about why self-publishing isn't a bad idea (when you do it right), let's talk about why it's a good idea:


  1. You have final say on what the book looks like. If you don't like the cover image or typefaces your designer has chosen, you can ask to see something else.



  2. You have final say on how the book reads. Though we always recommend that you have your work professionally copyedited, you can choose to ignore a suggestion about the content if you disagree with it.



  3. You have some control over your book's list price. The minimum undiscounted price is determined by your page count, but you can raise it higher than the minimum if you believe the market will bear it.



  4. You own the rights to your own work -- your publisher won't option the book and then sit on it indefinitely, not allowing you to shop it around anywhere else.



The bottom line: If you're expecting copies of your self-published book to magically fly off the printing press and land on the NYT bestseller list, then perhaps you should rethink self-publishing. But if you're willing to hustle -- to do the hard work you need to do before AND after you get your book in print -- then you have a shot at finding an audience.


Tags: distribution, self-publishing, returnability
Filed Under: Publishing,


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