Friday, September 30, 2011

When is it right to self-publish?

It's probably one of the hardest decisions authors today face. Both sides, legacy and self-publishing, have benefits, and there's absolutely no way to predict results until you're knee deep in either choice.

My advice is, if you ever might maybe-perhaps-one-day want to be traditionally published, query exhaustively before going to self-pub. Self-publishing can really complicate getting an agent (see why here). If you're sticking it to the man by self-publishing, that's cool. Don't query, too, though. They're separate paths; until you sell a million copies you've got to step on to one or the other.

But saying "suck it" to traditional publishing (or agents) might not be why one self-publishes. You might be *fine* with traditional publishing. You might be torn, feeling discouraged after a bunch of form rejections from a book that, by many unbiased accounts is PRETTY DARN GOOD. So when do you take the plunge, call it quits, and go self-publish?

Actually, wait. there's one caveat first: No one should self-publish without expecting it to be a lot of work. Without having an active online presence, a slammin' cover (peer edit, just like with your writing), and a marketing plan of your own design or someone else's. Books don't just sell. Ever.

If you fall into one of the following categories, self-pub might just be the best route for you:
  1. You're writing what's in bookstores right now and you're getting form rejections. If you're seeing books that are suspiciously like yours come out right now, it means that they were being bought a year ago. Unless you think you've got a pretty substantial twist or a really new take (be real) you might be better off self-publishing it.***
  2. You're writing significantly shorter or longer than traditional wordcounts.
  3. You're writing poetry without the platform of some amazing prizes and journal publications.
  4. You're writing a memoir with neither a strong platform nor a "third act"--something that happens as a result of what happened to you that makes yours a more universal story: legislation that was enacted or overturned, for instance. This does not go, however, for other types of nonfiction (in my opinion).
  5. You're writing extremely graphic violence or sex. Or both. 
*** The relates the most to young adult fiction. People seem to be jumping on that bandwagon with stuff that's past its prime: dystopians, vampires, werewolves, angels. 

The reasoning here is that there may very well be an audience for your book, but that might also be a very small audience or one that's not easily reached by the typical event-oriented marketing that publishers do. Therefore, an agent might also have a hard time finding an editor to buy it. If you sell a billion copies, you'll be laughing all the way to the bank because you found the audience no one else was willing to.

However. This does not give you license to not edit. You still should have a writing group or beta readers of people who write and read in your genre. You should still listen to them. They ARE your audience. Let them judge your cover, too (PLEASE).

Anything else that's prompted anyone to self-publish?


  1. I think self publishing will bring back serial novels, or make releasing a series of interlocking novellas a viable option.

    Interlocking novellas with separate stories that contribute to an overarching whole, would work particularly well.

    The key factors would be releasing the stories in rapid succession, sticking to a schedule you commit to up front and telling people exactly how long the sequence of novellas would be. You would also have to be rather extremely good, but that was a given, right?

    Some romance writers already do this to an extent, but I think self publishing in electronic format might be the key to doing it better.

    Well, confession time. This is more the pipe dream of my greedy little reader heart than a prediction of what the future will hold.

  2. I self-pubbed because the stories in the book I released originally appeared as the "first season" of an online serial. Strike against me. I didn't think an agent would represent something that already appeared for public consumption.

    So I released KAT AND MOUSE, GUNS FOR HIRE myself.

  3. Meredith, if your clients' books fail to sell traditionally, do you advise they trunk the manuscripts, or that they self-pub?

  4. Great topic, Meredith! I'd love to hear your take on Melissa's question - do you recommend to your clients that they consider self publishing if the manuscript doesn't sell to traditional publishers, but you feel it's still a strong product? Thanks!

  5. I chose to self-publish my novel THE BREEDERS earlier this year for a few reasons that aren't listed above. I had two full manuscript requests from agents within my first ten queries back in January, but I ultimately followed my gut instinct, faced my previous prejudices on self-publishing head-on, and decided to do it myself. After some extensive revisions based on those agents’ feedback, I decided to take this road.


    1) My book is politically relevant TODAY, and it will be throughout the next year, as the election approaches. I did not want to sit around and wait on traditional publishing and miss a major window of opportunity.

    2) I am a photographer/graphic designer/video producer, and I have all the software and equipment to create my own professional design for the book cover, book interior, marketing materials, etc. I love the control of this, because I would have hated for my book to get a bad design that didn't have the right "feel" to it.

    3) Some of the greatest authors in history have self-published. Based on some of the books I see coming out from traditional publishers, I have zero reservations in saying that some of the stuff that has made it through the Official Gatekeepers, while usually polished and professional, is barely readable. I no longer trust that those few people in New York (generalizing here) are the best judges of what is worth seeing the light of day. The very concept of having most major gatekeepers in a place as self-contained (or dare I say provincial?) as New York is both frustrating and scary. And passion be damned if one of those people loves a book but doesn’t think it will sell in the publishing marketplace, then ultimately the consumer marketplace. There are so many factors involved with traditional publishing that it’s almost scarier than self-publishing!

    4) This was my big reason for self-publishing, the one involved with the gut feeling I mentioned above: I wanted to challenge myself, challenge the stigma surrounding self-publishing, and test my abilities as a business person. Life is short, and I'd rather die having been expanded by certain experiences than die with fear-based regrets.

    The result? Self-publishing has already become the most illuminating experiences of my life, and my book isn't even out yet. Apart from the joy of working with an editor and line editor (absolute necessities!!), I have learned how to design and code eBooks and print books; I've partnered with a printing company that serves many mainstream publishers; I've learned how to write and distribute press releases; I've begun to seek out reviews in legitimate publications (I have one significant review lined up so far); I've learned that I need to be even more careful with my work as a self-publisher than I would as a traditionally published author, due solely to quality control issues (typos, etc.); and I’ve learned things about myself that I would never have learned otherwise. I'd never take this experience back, even if it prevents me from getting an agent in the future.

    That said, I would DEFINITELY consider publishing traditionally in the future, if this career experiment isn’t a shot to my foot. The work of self-publishing (or at least of doing it as it should be done) is so intense that I've nearly unraveled a few times. Even so, much of that was the process of learning how to do it, so it would definitely be easier in the future. When all is said and done, however, I'll have a finished book to market and self-sell, just like any other author. We’ll see what happens.