Sunday, October 25, 2009

To Self-Publish or NOT to Self-Publish ... that is the question

There's been some hot and heavy conversation about self-publishing these days, especially with the boom of self-publishing services like Createspace and Lulu and WordClay and others popping up all around. Rather than tell people what we think is best, we'd like to offer up some points for consideration to help authors decide for themselves what they might think is the best option for them. Truthfully, not everyone's situation is the same, and no one answer will be the best answer for everyone. Here are some things we think should be considered when trying to decide whether to pursue publishing by a RECOGNIZED BIG-NAME PUBLISHER (Random House, Harper-Collins, and so forth) as opposed to self-publishing. The first thing you should consider is...


THE BESTSELLER. If you're already multi-book published and have a few bestsellers under your belt, chances are your relationship with a recognized big-name publisher is already well established and you don't have any real reason to go off and jeopardize that by self-publishing your next book. You're already getting fat advances on future sales royalties, and your book sell-through numbers substantiate the publisher's repeated intention of paying you those advances. The only reason you might want to self-publish would be because you're at odds with your publisher over some book that departs from your usual fare, and the publisher is balking. Then maybe you would consider putting it out there on your own. And if you are doing well as an author, maybe you can afford to and have already hired your own book publicist. All you'd need then is an editor, a book producer and distribution network, and some cash to front the expense of getting your book out there. If you don't care how many copies sell, then why bother in the first place. More than likely you do care, so you will go all out on it. But you will also be snubbing your publisher, and they may not want to deal with you next time you come up with a book that is similar to what they have already sold. So our guess is, if you are already sitting pretty, you won't spoil things by going out and trying to reinvent the wheel by doing everything yourself.

THE MIDLISTER. If you're a midlist author with a recognized big-name publisher, and your sales are moderate, you might just be able to play on the name recognition you've developed as an author to branch out on your own and keep a larger portion of your sales royalties. Author J.A. Konrath has actually blogged about this very scenario, and it is an interesting blog to consider. But he does warn that what might work for him certainly isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.

THE RELATIVE UNKNOWN. If you are an author who's enjoyed mild publishing success with second-string publishers or indy publishers or small ebook publishers, and you do have a bit of author name recognition from sales through those publishing ventures, then you too might think self-publishing would be the way to go. But experience says that while the solo route is tempting, it may not work out as well as one might hope. One thing to consider is that your book sales might actually have been the result of a group promotional effort of authors at the publishing company - an effort you would be hard-pressed to duplicate on your own. So, for instance, instead of selling 50 or 100 books during an all-day themed chat on your publisher's hosted reader forum, you might sell 3 or 4 books on your own after working really hard to get an author interview or chat set up at a genre-based reader forum hosted by a review site.

THE UNPUBLISHED. If you are an author aspiring to be published, tread carefully. It might be tempting, after receiving several rejection letters, or bombing in several writing contests, to just chuck it all and go for the self-publishing route. It will be a lot easier and cheaper anyway, won't it? Well, maybe ... maybe not. What you have to consider are the following:

1. Why do I care if my book is published?
2. How many books will I need to sell to feel like I am a success?
3. Am I hoping to make a decent living off my writing?
4. Do I have the editorial savvy to make my writing as good as 'real' published work?
5. Do I have the technical savvy to work with a book producer to get my book in readable form?
6. Do I give a horse's pattoot how good my book is and whether or not readers will like it?

We could go on and on with the questions, but you get the idea. You need to have a plan before you go off on a business venture like self-publishing.

Oh, you didn't think self-publishing was a business venture? Well, you'd better think again. If you want to make a living at it, or want to make any money at all self-publishing, then it SHOULD be a business venture.

If your goal is simply to be published and be done with it, and have a couple books to give away to friends and relatives, then certainly self-publishing is the way to go, and there are really affordable alternatives available now - Createspace coming to mind first.

However, if you have more serious aspirations, like fame, fortune, and the satisfaction of seeing your book in print (not that ANY of these are guaranteed with publishing or self-publishing), then you need to look at the options available to you from a more serious perspective.

YES, you can self-publish and get your book out there in a matter of weeks for sale on Amazon if you go through Createspace, but if you want people to take you seriously as an author, you'd better make darn sure you can create a decent cover and edit your own work and produce the upload files per specifications. Book formatting is not a breeze. It can be done, but you have to understand HOW it is done before you just jump in there and do it. Createspace is pretty user friendly, but they do not have 24-hour tech support. They have a forum for you to ask questions, and maybe nobody will answer your questions for weeks at a time. You can email Createspace for help, but they won't do the work for you. So not only do you have to become your own publisher, you have to become your own preprint production staff, tech support, and quality control. Are you prepared for that? Or barring doing all that yourself, you can PAY a service to do it for you. Do you have $300 to $4000 sitting around to blow on getting your book self-published? The service fees can vary widely depending on who you go to for help.

When you start thinking how difficult it is to get the attention of a publisher as opposed to how hard it is to publish your book yourself, you might find yourself between a rock and a hard place. The downside is, in either scenario you still have to promote yourself and your book if you expect to make any sales. And chances are, your book will make better sales if it is published by an established publisher who already has a readership base and distribution channels. If you are your own publisher, you have to create all that from scratch AND do all the editing AND the artwork AND the preprint formatting AND the uploading of files AND the proofing AND the sales promotion AND...

Well, you're starting to get the idea now, aren't you? Self-publishing is not quite as easy as it sounds, if you are looking at it as a viable alternative to getting your book published with an established publisher.

Again, if you don't care what your book looks like or how many grammatical mistakes it contains, or how many copies you sell, then maybe self-publishing is the answer for you. But if you DO care about getting your work transformed into a quality product, then you have to be prepared to do what is necessary to ensure that it is - if you go the self-publish route. And that necessary work can turn out to be just as hard or harder than getting published by an established publisher.


Once you make the decision to publish your book yourself and it gets assigned an ISBN, it is considered published. And if you ever change your mind and wish you had just sent it to a publisher - TOO LATE. It's already published, and most publishers won't touch it.

So the self-publishing issue is a lot more complicated than your first thought. There are many things to consider before making a decision. Decide what's best for your situation, then choose wisely.

-Penumbra Publishing

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