Because this issue keeps coming up again and again on writers' loops and in emails, I've decided to provide my own version of a decision tree. Below are the questions I believe someone should ask a writer who is considering self-publishing:
1) “Are you a newbie or an established name with an audience?”
There is an urban legend out there that Robert James Waller self-published The Bridges of Madison County. He didn’t. However, almost a decade later, he DID make a deal with a small Texas publisher (John M. Hardy) to essentially self-publish the sequel,
A Thousand Country Roads. Waller was able to do this because of the phenomenal success of “Bridges,” which had created a built-in audience for a sequel.
Even so, I find it telling that Waller has returned to traditional publishing for subsequent releases.
2) “If you are a newbie, are you writing fiction or non-fiction?”
It is much easier to sell a non-fiction book than it is a fiction, especially if you have a legitimate platform.
When a reader goes looking for a non-fiction book, she usually has a very narrow frame of reference, which makes it easier to direct her (and other traffic) to your book. If someone can find your book by Googling the subject, you have a huge advantage.
As an example Dr. Ken Blanchard had a training and consulting firm out in California in the late seventies. In the early eighties, he co-wrote and self-published a small non-fiction book titled The One Minute Manager. The book immediately found a home with corporate America because it taught beginning managers three simple lessons.
When a New York publisher came calling, Blanchard opted to go traditional because the publishing house could market the book while he turned his attention to writing additional books in the series. However, he could as easily have continued self-publishing the book because he'd connected with his niche market.
3) “If you are writing fiction, do you have a niche market ready and willing to buy the book?”
This is where a lot of fiction writers get tripped up. When I ask, “Do you have a niche market?” I am not talking about genre readers—-i.e. “I write sci-fi and there is a huge market for sci-fi; therefore, I’ll self-publish.”
A genre market is a huge territory. It has lots of members, lots of well-known names and lots of websites. In order to harness the power of a genre, you must have an established name (see question #1 above).
A niche market, IMHO, is a much smaller venue where you will be readily recognized, welcomed and accepted without judgment. In other words, where you have credibility—either earned on your own or borrowed from someone who HAS earned credibility.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about is the recently published best-seller The Shack. Author William P. Young wrote the small book as evidence of his Christian faith and to inspire his family and friends. He showed it to a well-known Christian writer who introduced him to a well-known pastor. The three decided to self-publish the thin volume after Young could not interest a major publishing house.
While Young had no credibility in the Christian market himself, his two partners did. They sent copies of The Shack to influential Christian friends, tapping into the niche market to which they were already connected. Word-of-mouth spread and book sales grew. People bought copies for their friends who, in turn, referred the book to their own friends. The book has been a phenomenal success, and the Hachette Book Group has now secured the rights.
4) If you do not have a niche audience ready for your fiction, do you have specialized marketing or publishing industry skills (and the money to invest heavily in your book)?
There are a number of examples that come to mind, but the most recent is The Lace Reader. Brunonia Barry’s husband owned a software publishing company. He was willing to invest $50,000 in publishing/marketing her book. They started locally and built from there.
5) If you don’t have a niche audience, don’t have specialized marketing skills and don’t have publishing skill, what are your personal expectations? Do you want to just hold a book of yours in your hands, or do you want to see it on the shelves of libraries and bookstores?
If all you want is to have a book of yours to hold in your hands and to give to your family and friends, by all means self-publish. If you want to just break even or make a modest profit, by all means self-publish. However, if you want a commercially successful book, understand the odds are heavily against a self-published writer—-especially in a world of many more releases every year. Even if you write a great book, the odds will be against you, simply because there are so many books competing for attention.
Add to that the terrible reputation that self-publishing now has, and it is 95% certain you will not be able to place your books in bookstores or libraries. A few self-publishing operations now have deals with certain bookchains in which you, the author, pay for placement in bookstores for a short period of time. But that's not the same thing.
The self-publishing industry is a slick one. They offer you the names of successful writers who self-published, although they rarely offer the specifics of the stories to explain why writers like Waller, Blanchard, Young and Barry above did succeed.
I hope this post will help writers decide whether to self-publish or not. Or at least to slow down before jumping into the deep end of the pool.