Monday, May 01, 2006

Should You Self-Publish?

I belong to a number of writer loops. Invariably a newbie member will bring up the subject of self-publishing, saying that s/he is considering going that route. This almost always results in a dust-up with the self-published writers on one side of the divide and those writers seeking publication through traditional means on the other side.

This post is not intended to ignite another turf war. Rather, I'd like to spend a few minutes talking about why "self-published" is such a pejorative term in the publishing industry.

On April 21, did a blog on "Why People Hate Self-Published Authors" here. The blogger argues that: "When you self-publish, or go with one of the more questionable print-on-demand services, you are essentially going around that [traditional publishing] system. You’re taking your ball, going home, and making up your own game in the backyard. Your game might be fun, it might be valid exercise, it might be the perfect thing for your situation, but it’s not the same way all the other kids play. And to pretend otherwise is to invite scorn and derision."

I've talked about this before. A traditional publisher solicits authors’ manuscripts for commercial sale and distribution. This means that the only revenue the publisher will receive is from sales of the author’s published books. The costs the publisher incurs include advances to the author, editing, printing, binding, marketing, warehousing and distributing the books.

Self-publishing operations, on the other hand, solicit manuscripts with the intent of providing services to the author who pays for them. Those services include the editing, printing and binding of books. Some companies have added warehousing charges and advertising to their menu of services. The author pays for all of these services. Recently, these operations have signed deals with bookstores through which they market, distribute and sell the books for the author. Again, the author pays for these services. The term “vanity press” comes from the industry-wide belief that the book is only being produced to satisfy the writer’s vanity.

Since the author pays for all production and distribution costs, book sales do not produce revenue for the vanity press. They receive their monies upfront from the author. Any revenue from sales goes back to the author to offset the dollars they’ve already paid out.

Traditional publishers need to be choosy in which manuscripts they accept. If they make a mistake and the book does not sell well, the publisher loses money. This is not the case with vanity presses. Their upfront fees are their source of revenue. They don’t care about the quality of the manuscript. This is why they are held in such low esteem by the industry.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. There are specific instances in which it makes sense for a writer to self-publish. A writer may wish to produce a small number of books as a memento for his family and friends with no intention of selling the book on the open market. The work may be of a scholarly nature and not of interest to a large audience. The work may simply not be commercially viable. However, like the Slushpile blogger says: "But I don’t believe in resorting to it [self-publishing] just because you think the mainstream publishing industry is comprised of meanies who aren’t smart enough to comprehend your art."

What's the downside to self-publishing? The odds against you are enormous. How many people do you know? A couple of hundred? Are you willing to ask each of them to buy your book? Once you've exhausted the market of people you know, you'll be selling out of your car trunk to strangers. The vanity presses are very expensive, and you're going to have to sell an awful lot of books to earn back what you've paid out.

Like the writer who wrote Miss Snark ( on April 30, 2006 in a blog entitled "Older, Wiser...Deeply Chagrined," you will then be saddled with a questionable "credit" in the eyes of the rest of the publishing world.

There's also another price--the impact the experience will inevitably have on your self-esteem. You need to balance the joy of holding a book with YOUR name on it against the rolling eyes and sneers you will encounter when you mention your publisher. Every writer you ever meet will ask, "Who's your publisher?" It's the equivalent of two dogs sniffing each other and, in this exchange, you'll always end up in the power-down position. Eventually, like a friend of mine, you'll stop even mentioning that first self-published book in polite society.

Slushpile said it best: "The current mainstream method of selecting books for publication, editing them, and distributing those texts is archaic, ineffecient (sic), ineffective, often ill-informed, and frequently unfair. I won’t deny that. But, it remains the system that we have...[I]t is still the system we have and the system we all understand."

You will need to be either extraordinarily talented or unbelievably lucky to circumvent that system and be successful...or break even.

Like the temptation to do drugs, the idea of self-publishing is alluring. Just don't do it.


Emjay said...

Not even a teeny, weeny drag from your joint?

Seriously, the only self-published book I ever heard of that ended up making serious money was Lord Vishnu's Love Handles, and I think the name did it.

Although the book wasn't bad at all and he could probably have sold it to somebody if he'd kept working at it.

Maya said...

M.J. Rose is an author who started out self-published and succeeded, but she had an extensive background in marketing and knew exactly what to do to get her book out there. The vast majority of self-pubbed authors do not, and the claims that the vanity presses make about marketing a book are just another way to extract more dollars.