Jan Burke

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Few Things to Think About If You Are Thinking About Self-Publishing

Just keep this in mind, and you don't need to read the rest of the post:

Never pay anyone to publish your work of fiction.

Not all that long ago, a person could be self-published in hardcover by what was commonly known as a vanity press, and pay thousands of dollars to insulate a garage with unsold copies of their books. Then in the 1990s, a new technology known as "print on demand" started coming into its own, and suddenly you didn't need thousands of dollars (although some have lost that much to POD self-publishing outfits) and you didn't have to own a garage. Books could be printed and bound one at a time. The technology is used widely and not just for self-publishing, but it has had a greater influence on self-publishing than just about anything since the invention of movable type.

POD technology has also proven to be a fabulous windfall to a set of people who have been in a lucrative industry for decades — not the publishing industry, but the industry of making money off of those who dream of being published. This is a set of people who understand how widespread and tenacious the dream of being able to say "I am an author" is in our society. They know that the impulse to tell stories is strong within many of us. They don't care much about writing or writers. They care about parting dreamers from their money.

I am not completely opposed to self-publishing, but I think there are only a few — a very few — circumstances when an author should go this route. I'll go into some of those at some point, but right now I'm going to focus on the publication of one's first work of fiction. Usually, a new writer of fiction should choose self-publishing only when he or she really doesn't care at all about book sales. I mean that — you don't want to make money and you don't care if you are the only person who owns a copy of your book.

Self-published new authors often dream that their books will light fires of enthusiasm in readers, build huge sales by word of mouth, and start to sell like discounted tickets to the Superbowl. The statistics say otherwise, and I'll get to the reasons they do at some point in this series of posts.

Maybe you really don't care if your book only sells 12 copies. That number isn't one I pulled out of the air. I did a study for a major writers' organization a couple of years ago, and the vast majority of participants in its self-publishing program — a relatively deluxe program that also included experienced, known authors reselling out-of-print titles from their series — sold 12 or fewer copies. (For a number of reasons, the organization dropped the program.)

Publishers Weekly, the major trade magazine for the publishing industry, ran an article in 2005 on iUniverse and included some numbers from 2004 — after the company was well-established — that should give any fiction writer considering self-publishing pause. Of the 18,104 titles — fiction, non-fiction, you name it — published by the company, only 83 sold more than 500 copies. Let me tell you right now that in the world of publishing, setting the bar at 500 copies is setting it low, and only 83 titles jumped over it. Do the math and you can figure out the odds of making that little leap.

I know a handful of people will read these cold hard facts and ignore them. They will want to tell me about someone who got famous by self-publishing. See the sentence about the two-headed calf in yesterday's post. (And for God's sakes, do not give me that old crap about Poe being self-published. He apparently self-medicated, too. Let's not even talk about his marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin. All of that aside, like other industries, publishing has changed since the 1830s, and so has the world of selling books. Even back then, by no means were all of his works self-published.)

So when should you self-publish a first novel?

If you are terminally ill — I am not saying this facetiously — and you all you want is for your family to have copies of your story in trade paperback book form (and simply making a photocopy of a clean manuscript to pass down to your grandchildren won't satisfy you), and you have the money needed to self-publish, by all means do so. The commercial publishing process usually requires at least eighteen months between the signing of a contract and the release a first book. The process before that point, of getting an agent and the agent making a sale, may take even longer. If you don't have that kind of time left, then don't wait for an agent to take you on.

If you aren't dying, you probably don't have a worthwhile excuse for your impatience.

Unless, of course, you have written something that you are certain will never appeal to more than 80 or so readers and has no commercial value, and you have no fear of embarrassing yourself, and you really don't care if you have to hand sell every single copy of your book yourself. If that's the case, go ahead and self-publish.

Here's one of the basic problems. If you self-publish, you aren't just the author. And you aren't just the person who pays to have your manuscript physically made into books. You take the place of everyone in the process of publishing, except those who physically produce the book.

You must either find and pay an experienced editor (assuming you would even know how to recognize someone who could do this extremely important job in publishing — a job that is almost never understood or appreciated by new writers) or become your own editor. The latter case is very unlikely to produce a well-edited book.

You must find or pay a copy-editor. Being your own copy-editor will likely doom your book to being a storehouse of unprofessional if not laughable errors.

You must also be your own advertising, legal, art, sales, publicity, and distribution management departments. To name a few.

All of that takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. Energy that most writers need for a different challenge — to grow as writers.

Where do you want to put your time and energy?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

*sigh* A friend of mine is insisting on self-publishing her books. It's a real shame because she is a good writer, but she unfortunately FREAKS at the idea of trying to get a professional agent/publisher to publish her. Like screaming-meemie-panic fear. Hell, she had a freakout and retracted a short story submission the one time she sent anything out because OMG THEY'RE JUDGING ME AND MAKING FUN OF ME!

She keeps saying things like, "A publisher will look at me if I manage to sell 5000 copies of my book. THEN they might want to publish it." *sigh* Unfortunately, this is going to be a case of "You're gonna have to learn the hard way" here.

2:25 PM, April 05, 2007  
Blogger Jan Burke said...

There is only one sure-fire way to avoid criticism of one's work -- never show it to anyone. That includes never publishing it.

Self-publishing won't by any means exempt a person from ridicule. If anything, and at times unfairly, self-published writers face another layer of it for choosing that route.

As Ms. Snark once said on her blog:

There are cases of people who have gotten picked up by agents and publishers after going the POD route. It's the equivilent of being discovered at the Automat by Woody Allen. Yea it's happened but he also finds 99.99% of his actors through a casting agent named Juliet Taylor.

I also don't think your friend has stopped to think about how these magical 5000 sales are going to occur. What's her plan?

Before she invests time or money in self-publishing, she should visit independent bookstores and tell the owners that she's thinking of self-publishing, but she's heard that it's a money-losing proposition for booksellers to carry self-published books. They can tell her why.

Most agents I've met are hoping to find that manuscript that will let them say "yes." That's how they make their living -- selling works they can believe in. They don't make a dime by rejecting people -- for most, it's the downside of the job for them.

Your friend probably thinks she is choosing an easier way into a career as a writer. Alas, she isn't. I have no trouble believing that this must be a "learn the hard way experience for her."

I hope she'll stop being so hard on herself and at least give the traditional publishing route a chance.

7:50 PM, April 05, 2007  
Blogger Mark said...

I've read a bunch of self-published books and often thought that with a little more revision they could have been picked up by a traditional publisher. I think the biggest danger in self-publishing is that it stops short the process of revision. I know two authors who self-pubbed their almost-there first novels because they were tired of rejections. Now they've published second and third books and each one is worse than the previous because they go from first draft to self-publication. It's sad to see a writer's growth go in the opposite direction and I blame self-publishing for it.

7:18 AM, April 06, 2007  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

If you "self publish" by using iUniverse or something of the sort, and then expect people to pay for your work, not only won't you make any money but you'll also insure you'll have no readers.

If you have a book you can't sell but you would like people to read, it would make far more sense to offer it as a free download. You'll make nothing (same as with iUniverse) but you might be able to convince a few people to read it. Might. It is hard, I imagine, to get anyone to read a book by an unknown author for free let alone expect anyone to buy it.

1:47 PM, April 08, 2007  
Blogger Jan Burke said...

Mark, I agree.

The self-publishing process -- since it usually requires absolutely no standards to be met other than "Do you have the money to pay the POD company's fees?" -- is not one that is likely to push a writer into improvement.

7:21 PM, April 09, 2007  
Blogger Jan Burke said...

Eric, I agree that paying fees doesn't make sense. The trouble with putting a book online (aside from rights issues) or using one of the "no money upfront" POD methods of publishing is that the writer is still not getting the benefit of editing. Again, the only person judging the work is the writer.

And as you've noted, it's still a hard sell.

I'll add that once a book has been made available as a download, it is unlikely (not impossible, but highly unlikely) that a traditional publisher will then take interest in it.

7:36 PM, April 09, 2007  

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