Should You Self-Publish?
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.
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