Saturday, April 19, 2008

When Self-Publishing Is a Viable Alternative

In line with my new policy for weekends when I'm facing a deadline, I'm running old posts you may not have seen. This post first ran on 6/20/06.

Several times a week, I get emails from newbie writers seeking information or commenting on posts.

I received two emails today on the same subject, prompting this blog. Both talked about self-publishing. One complained about something I'd said on the Internet, which she'd interpreted as a condemnation of all self-publishing. The other just asked for advice while he readied his proposal to be submitted to a subsidy press.

Let me address the complaint. Far from being opposed to self-publishing, I actually look forward to the day when it makes more financial sense for writers to self-publish than to go through a traditional publisher. However, that day has not yet come.

The reason that day has not yet arrived is NOT due to a lack of technology. The technology exists today to print books economically. It is called POD (print-on-demand). This digital printing process makes it possible to print as few as one or two books or as many as thousands in a single print run.

The problem is not in the printing. The problem comes up after the printing: in the marketing/selling of the book.

Yes, we have Amazon and e-Bay through which writers can sell their books. You can also create your own website. However, without major buzz, it is unlikely that people will flock to these sites in search of your book. More importantly, when you self-publish, you will not have access to the venues through which most new releases find homes: Libraries and retail outlets like Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart.

There are tons of vanity presses out there offering to print and market your books. They are scams. They will overcharge for the printing and not deliver on the marketing. Sure, they might display your book for a week in a small bookstore thousands of miles from your home (for which you will pay the bookstore dearly). That's not marketing.

Having said all that, let me also say that I can think of five reasons for a writer to go the self-published route. The first three are dictated by the personal needs of the writer; the other two are legitimate professional reasons:

1) Impatience: A writer who is so anxious to hold a bound volume of his/her work that s/he cannot bear to go through the laborious process of seeking representation by an agent or submitting to traditional publishers. The writer is willing to pay to be able to say, "I'm published."

2) Artistic Control: A writer who is unwilling to surrender editorial control of his/her work or who refuses to accept feedback on possible changes. This frequently--although not always--involves a 200K-word manuscript that cries out for editing while the writer steadfastly refuses to consider pruning a single word.

3) Sentiment: A writer who has produced a work that is not intended for commercial consumption. An example might be a family history, which the writer wishes to share with her loved ones.

4) Niche Market: The writer has produced a work on a subject that is not commercially viable for a traditional publisher. There is a market for this work, but it is very limited in size or scope. This frequently involves academic works in some arcane subject.

Note: In the two years since I wrote this post, I've expanded my definition of this item. If a non-fiction writer has a ready-made market for his/her work, self-publishing may make a lot of sense. The Internet and social networking has created an environment where a writer can connect with people who share his/her interests. It is possible that the writer would be better served to self-publish and then promote that book to these groups with which s/he is already connected. He could end up keeping a larger percentage of the profits than he would if he went through the normal publishing channels.

5) Cross-Genre: The writer has produced a work that traditional publishers simply do not know how to market. This is usually a work that crosses multiple genres, making it a new genre.

All of the above are legitimate reasons to seek self-publishing. The common thread running through the list is that--in the vast majority of cases--most of these books will not likely be of interest to a traditional publisher.

Most of these books (with the exception of the niche market) is unlikely to return a profit either. In the case of the impatient writer or the writer unwilling to relinquish artistic control, the writers are trying to circumvent the traditional process through self-publishing rather than concentrating on making their books commercially viable.

In the case of the sentimental work, the writer's intent was never to return a profit. Therefore, self-publishing makes perfect sense. However, the writer would be better served to find a printing operation as opposed to a setup that advertises itself as a subsidy press or publisher. These self-professed "publishers" will charge far more for the same services than an ordinary printer would.

In the case of the niche book or the cross-genre novel, the writers know ahead of time that they face an uphill battle. While there is a market for their works, the entire effort of marketing the books will rest on the writers' shoulders. If the niche writer is well connected to his market, he may make a profit through a lot of sweat equity (self-promotion and selling out of his car trunk).

The cross-genre writer is an interesting character. I am thinking here of Jaid Black and M.J. Rose. Both women were writing in the new cross genre of erotic romance before anyone had a term for erotic romance. They both opted for self-publishing. Jaid Black founded her own publishing house, Ellora's Cave, while M.J. Rose (who had extensive experience in marketing) set about to develop her own publicity campaign. Both women have been very successful in creating a genre and in forcing traditional publishing to accept and acknowledge that new genre.

Caveat: Most writers who believe they have created a new genre are simply so lacking in focus that their manuscripts are all over the map--this is very different from creating a new and distinct genre.

So, you see, I am not opposed to self-publishing. I just believe that the writer must know exactly which of the five reasons apply to him/her. AND, s/he must be prepared to lose money if she chooses to go that route.

2 comments:

David Roth said...

Maya,

Hopefully some day the technology will exist to permit a publisher to explain to the person whose manuscript he just rejected that no matter what his mother told him, it was rejected because it sucked.

Dave

joelt said...

Short run Print on demand allows self publishers to decide for themselves if thier book is worth publishing.
Who cares what an out of touch traditional publisher thinks anyway.
Joel
President
www.thegreatamericanpress.com