Should You Self-Publish?

By Mark Nichol


Because I’m getting paid to write posts of more than one word, I’ll qualify that answer.

But first, here’s another question, and this time, it’s your turn to answer: Why do you want to self-publish? If it’s because publishers and agents have turned your work down, you might want to retrench and start small, submitting articles or short stories to newspapers or magazines, or to writing competitions, to develop your writing skills further before going the trade-publishing route again.

But if you’re still determined to self-publish, consider this: If you hope to publish a novel, the odds are stacked heavily against you, and if you plan to put out a nonfiction book, they aren’t much better.

Why? It’s certainly not that you won’t be able to find a self-publisher. Myriad companies exist that will be happy to relieve you of hundreds of dollars (for a handful of budget-look books) or thousands of dollars (for higher quantity and quality) for the privilege of printing your book. If you plan simply to self-publish — and recouping your expenses is not a priority — you are almost certainly guaranteed to succeed.

Otherwise, the odds are against you because, as the term self-publishing suggests, you are responsible for every phase of the publishing process, from paying to have the book edited to paying to have it formatted to paying to have it printed (often by the same company offering a package deal, but often best performed in separate steps with distinct vendors). And then, once it’s published, what do you do with it?

Most significantly, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you will have to market it yourself. And if you’ve published a novel, an anthology of short stories, or a book of poems, your potential market is limited — it is unlikely to extend beyond a circle of family, friends, and other people you know. (If that’s all you want, by all means, go for it.)

If it’s nonfiction, the outlook isn’t much different, unless you have a marketing base: Are you a high-profile expert in your profession or in a field of study? Do you belong to a professional association or an organization such as a historical association or a large network of craftspeople? Do you teach courses or present at workshops or seminars? Do you own a business whose customers are likely to be interested in buying your book?

If you are honest with yourself about the likelihood that you can sell out a run of 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 books (keep in mind that small presses consider 1,000 a respectable run and major publishers would be content with sales of 10,000 copies of one book) — and can find several objective people to sincerely agree with you — then you have the potential to be a successful self-publisher. But if you’re expecting sales in the four- or five-figure range, then we’ve come full circle, and I have to ask you again: Have you been rejected by agents and/or publishers?

But, you say, all this talk about marketing overlooks the fact that most publishers make little or no effort to sell books by authors without track records. That’s true, but can you do better? And if you publish with a trade publisher with a recognizable name, bookstores will sell it, you’re more likely to be invited to do reading and book-signing gigs and radio and television shows — and any self-marketing you do will have better results because your book will have a brand name on it.

I’m not hostile to self-publishing, but I am highly skeptical about it as a route to even modest fame and fortune. If you insist, don’t let me stop you, but take great care to research the business of self-publishing — and be wary of self-publishing companies that are effusive about your work. They don’t call it vanity publishing for nothing.

44 Responses to “Should You Self-Publish?”

  • Jay Gordon

    I read much farther along in the Comments section that I usually do and realized it was because it was a civilized discussion, something sadly lacking in many online forums. It was at that moment I discovered Levi Montgomery, decided he was interesting, went prowling on Amazon and downloaded “Crossroads.” If I like it as much as I expect, I’ll download other books.

    Thank you to those who captured my attention with civilized discourse and to Mr. Montgomery for making me want to push the magic ka-ching button to learn more about his views. If more writers wrote this well online, they’d probably sell more books. Just a thought.

  • Bill Polm

    Well, perhaps you have suffered enough for your conventional, prosaic, traditional opinion. So i’ll write with restraint.

    Here’s my take…

    The major publishing houses are in trouble and dying, somewhat slowly granted.

    Nothing wrong, of course, with seeking to publish a novel or nonfiction work with them. But not in order to get a validating trophy on your mantle, proof that you really are good after all.

    Are you checking out recently published works, including those by major houses? Some of them are beyond pathetic, just plain no good writing. Some of them even receive glowing reviews by big name people who should know better. Or at least have more integrity to tell it like the really see it..

    I’ve lost respect for a lot of those major publishers. The merit badges they hand out not longer entice me as they did years ago.

    Hey, get with the times! The internet is revolutionizing publishing. You really want to confine your head to the last century?

    What sells books is either hype or word of mouth. Period. Hype is most often deceptive like most advertising. Word of mouth works well–for any good writing. Major publishers these days do little beyond put a book together for you anyway.

    And who wants to wait two-to-three years or more to see a book in print. A minor point perhaps.

    To me a much smarter route, than rolling the dice with a publishing house or ten of them, is to build a platform through a blog, gain subscribers, the do a trial run with an ebook. You can even put out a few chapters for feedback and reactions. Then you have a solid basis–not just compliments by relatives and local friends–for going further.

  • michael b nobody

    I can tell most of you love writing, but do you really think that by being pretentious as some of the above comments have been, as being helpful in any way to those of us whom would like to have our stories published, your road to being an author might not have been an easy one, but know this, not all tellers of stories have had the same experience as you nor you of them, and as all of you can tell by the mistakes written here, I never had to get a PHd. to feel that I “earned” the right to put pen to paper! I say bravo to those who dare even if it’s not with conventional pubs, get that story out there, I just want to read and enjoy it, besides only God is perfection.

  • Unknown

    I’m going into self-publishing. Because, I like my story the way it is. Many of you, opposing of self-publishing are ignoring the most important thing. The readers decide! all this stuff about self-publishing books aren’t polished to the highest standards and are of low quality means absolutely nothing. If the reader is engaged and enjoyed the story that’s all that matters. I don’t care how correct your grammar, sentence structure, or punctuation is. If your story is boring, i’m not buying. Not to say errors are acceptable; but, as long as the book is readable, contains a good plot, decent cover, and good dialogue readers are sure to come.


    “So I think who you know is also a very important point to consider if you’re well connected, and I’m not talking about your neighbor’s kid who has Photoshop on the basement PC.” applecore, you’re right about one thing, it’s who you know. My brother and best-friend are very talented artists. They’ve agreed to work on the cover for me. um… what’s wrong with using Photoshop? It can make some nice book covers.


    “So I want to break a beer-bottle when I hear someone describe themselves as a “published writer” when all they did was hit “upload” or “print,” Spoken like a true critic and real writing hi-so. I’m 19 years old, been writing since I was 13. I enjoy story-telling, that is why I write. It took a year and one month to complete the first book of my novella series. I’m currently still revising and re-reading. I’m trying to aim for it to be as clear as possible. I take writing very seriously and worked very hard on constructing my book. It is the process and time put in the work, that gives an author the right to claim the title “Published Author.” It does not matter how they did it.

  • xixihaha567

    I’ve not checked in here for a whilst since I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are great high quality so I guess I will add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it friend

  • applecore

    I found this site through Stumble – the article was interesting, but I have enjoyed your comments more. I love how the majority of comments are disagreeing with the post and find that encouraging since I have been toying with the idea of publishing a novel for my brother. I thought the article rather negative (and yes, without mention of digital options, which are super important – look at B&N) although he has some good points, as does Michael several comments above. I think it’s wise to be cautious and having seen a lot of self-published stuff, yeah, most of it is crap.

    The big difference, personally, is that I am a professional graphic designer and printer. Publishing books is new to me, but printing certainly isn’t. I also do copy editing, I’m currently building my brother’s website, and as part of my business I’m a marketing consultant. So in short, everything that can be done, I can do, at cost. He just does the writing, illustration and promotion. In this case, he gets ALL the profits. So I think who you know is also a very important point to consider if you’re well connected, and I’m not talking about your neighbor’s kid who has Photoshop on the basement PC.

    I’m probably younger than the majority of those who have commented, but I believe the traditional American workforce is somewhat a thing of the past. The economy may sucks, but the opportunities are limitless, and things are going to start changing for both of those reasons. This has been seen in entertainment – movies/music (the rise of Netflix and downfall of Blockbuster), the number of home businesses (Etsy), the ROWE system, freelance designers and developers, virtual assistants, overnight YouTube sensations and of course the end of B&N due to Amazon and Kindle, iPad, etc. I could go on and on (the comment above by Chris is fantastic in this regard).

    I think my overwhelming thought though was this: “Don’t people write books because, they love to, well, write?” It seems sad that it’s all about the money, as necessary as that seems. I don’t believe that’s true though… I think people should do what they love and find a way to make money at it. Approach it like investing and diversify. My clients are tattoo artists, lawyers, brides and business owners. I’m a serial entrepreneur and I have plans for things completely unrelated to printing, but about things I am also passionate about. I think this IS the new work movement by those who dare to try, and it most definitely includes authors and writers.

  • ApK

    Forgot to add, the key is that while self-publishing has been deserving of the criticisms you give, technology has given us the opportunity to reverse that, and many are in process of doing just that.

  • ApK

    Thankfully, Michael, you don’t speak for everyone, including the growing number of successful self-published writers and the publishers who more and more are giving traditional deals based on a writer’s self-published success. See the community forums on the Kindle Direct Publishing site for a growing number of stories.

  • Michael

    I’m surprised by how many people are trying to perform some kind of verbal magic act and make self-publishing into something respectable. It isn’t. It just isn’t. Blogs are one thing; self-publishing your novel is quite another. Besides the obvious, those who self-publish gain an awful reputation, right out of the gate (and for good reason).

    It boils down to this: not all “self-published” books are unreadable nonsense written by lazy hacks… but the majority are. Self-published works aren’t vetted. They don’t rise to the top through competition. Therefore, they’re basically meaningless.

    A writer isn’t just someone who writes (that’s called a human being). Tons of people want to be writers but quite frankly, aren’t up to snuff (just as thousands of people who like playing basketball aren’t able to do it professionally). Passion isn’t enough. Not even close! It also takes raw talent and LOTS of hard work. Again, not all self-publishers do what they do because they’re lacking 1 or 2 of the 3, but many do.

    Why would you want to be associated with a group in which 99% of the writers undeniably aren’t worth a damn?

    I’ve published three books and five chapbooks, with another book in negotiations, all through presses and contests. I don’t claim to have a huge readership, but I can at least say that I’ve earned everything I’ve received. So I want to break a beer-bottle when I hear someone describe themselves as a “published writer” when all they did was hit “upload” or “print.” It’s like the thousands of guys who take two months of martial arts lessons then go around describing themselves as martial artists.

    The only possible exception I can see to this MIGHT be self-help or do-it-yourself books, stuff that’s basically going to be used as a reference guide, because the general readership already assumes those works won’t be as polished. They’re not looking for imagery, tension, and narrative flow. They just want to know how to build shelves. Even then, though, the books will stand a much greater shot if they have a professional press advertising and distributing them.

  • Samie

    I find this whole debate interesting, I’m working on finishing my first novel and am debating my publishing options. I had a friend that was preaching self-publishing (specifically through Kindle/Amazon, who do a POD system as well, but that takes a slightly higher percentage than a Kindle version), but I’ve always shied away from self-publishing.

    My Grandfather self-published, and as much as I loved the man, he was an example of what most people think of when they think of self-publishing and it’s always been a bit of a deterrent for me.

    Recently it has not been the case. I am a fantasy writer, and as a rule, fantasy novels rarely make the big bucks. I love the idea of using POD and Kindle, as with Kindle’s cheaper prices, people buy more books. My best example of that point is my father, who can go through a book a day, is always looking for a new read. If he can get two or three books for the price of one paperback? He’s going to spend the money.

    My experience with POD has been good. A friend of mine published her book that way and she’s an amazing writer, it was just not a book a lot of publishing houses would have accepted. From last time I talked to her, she’s made pretty decent on it, but she also had only intended it for her friends and family to buy it.

    (And with the mention of typos and bad grammar, I am well aware mine is wonky in places. I’ve spent too much time experimenting.)

  • Writing assistance

    There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where the most important thing will be working in honest good faith

  • Chris

    Interesting article and comments.

    I’m an unpublished author, about to self publish my debut novel, the first book of my three book series titled “Is The Juice Worth The Squeeze?”, this Spring/Summer 2011 through I also plan to put out three other books this year, and three to four next year (some relating to the series and others not).

    I have helped publish one book, and published a genealogy tree (though I don’t consider that to pop my publishing cherry).

    I never went out to agents or publishers. Why? Well, I didn’t want to waste my time or pin my hopes on someone else, cut my pie up in more ways (which comes first, the agent or the publisher), nor did I want to give up control and my rights (being familiar with legal contracts in the entertainment industry) like my digital rights being tied up along with my first born child, throughout the known universe until the end of time, and so forth. Malarky I say!

    I know the odds are stacked against me. I know that while I can get my book up onto Amazon, it means butt-kiss in sales. I know marketing is the largest piece of the puzzle, and while I haven’t got it all figured out, I know I am learning before my book goes out the door. I know all this, and either I’m pretty brilliant, or completely off my rocker because I don’t care. I’m going ahead regardless. I want great things for my book, as I’m sure all writers do.

    It seems the whole publishing industry is in an upheaval, along with the film studios. Why? Because they’re loosing control of the market. They are no longer the gate keepers of old, deciding what is and is not worthy of the printer. And I think that is just AWEsome. I say, let the market decide for themselves. I’ve come across too many beat up authors, who have either been rejected too many times that they’ve stopped trying, or authors who don’t even want to try to mainstream publish because they fear rejection. How many great stories are out there, that died with their authors, because the Big Boy Publisher’s stood at the gates? Ridiculous and very sad.

    Not every self publisher if a complete dufus. While we may not be learnED publishers, we have the passion for our craft, and the desire to have our work have a chance, burns the fires that keeps us focused on the prize, the DIY generation of publishing. We will learn as we go, because right now, as far as I can gander, the rule book was just thrown out the door, and its anyone’s and everyone’s game.

    What I find so interesting from the comments, is the self publishing book bashing. I have read a fair amount of different books, and some of from the Big Boy Publishers. And I have found mispelled words, poorly written stories, bad characters, childish book covers, and lacking development. And some, that while the layout wasn’t horrible, it was pretty sad. Having a publisher doesn’t ensure anything, really…imo.

    Have a enjoyable day and Happy writing!

  • HP van Duuren

    I don’t self-publish because a publisher turned me down….,

    Because I haven’t even considered to show it to a publisher, simply because it was not my intention to publish it with a (traditional) publisher, it was my intention to publish it as an – eBook – to be able to easily distribute it online.

    To promote my tiny little ebook I created a blog to write about this tiny little ebook and discovered how I can also (pre) sell all kinds of other products (like for example e-readers) online with Affiliate Marketing.

    I even created several special Blogs about for example writing and doing and building your own Home Business Success with Affiliate Marketing!

    All the Best,
    To your Happy – Writing – Inspiration,

  • Carol Morgan

    I made the decision to use POD in January 2011, after querying hundreds of agents and receiving form letters or no reponse at all. I have been very pleased and the sales on my historical fiction novel have been fantastic. I have enjoyed two book launches–one in India that was hosted by a member of Parliament! What an adventure and all because I took a risk.
    I think that literary agents are overwhelmed, overworked and unindated with queries and honestly, because of the mountain of emails they receive, I don’t believe they are an adequate judge of a commercial viable piece of work. I’m sure that many good works are not published simply because agents do not have the time to efficiently evaluate the ones that they receive.
    If you are going to use POD, you MUST be determined and energetic. You must believe in the worthiness and the merit of your writing and work daily with that in mind and you MUST never stop promoting. I work HARD to get reviews, to acquire radio and TV interviews and I doubt that any agent or publicist would accomplish what I do–because no one will love my novel as much as I. I actually enjoy putting in the effort required.
    As an independent author, you must be IN LOVE with your story; you must love it with all your heart and believe in the book’s message.
    I have a close friend who is a Pulitizer winner and he told me it took SEVEN years to get an agent who would represent him–what does that say about the publishing industry?
    My advice to anyone who is vascillating on this decision–DO IT and don’t look back. D.H. Lawrence self-published his first novel and there are many other stories like his.
    I, for one, will never query or chase after agents again. I have five books in my computer, waiting to be finished and I have a limited amount of years in which to make them available–the publishing industry is too slow! I intend to use POD in the future to accomplish this.
    Don’t be afraid to take that step! What’s the worst thing that can happen? You might learn from it and then the next work you undertake will be that much better.
    The future belongs to the brave writer–the one who is not afraid to take risks; the writer who has faith in his/her gift–to tell a fascinating story!

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