My answer is always the same: It depends.
Here is my advice, based on what I would do.
IF YOU WROTE A NOVEL
I believe your first order of business is getting a well-respected literary agent. The best way to land an agent is: write a damn good book. After the book is perfect, there are a few ways to find agents.
- Visit writing conferences and conventions and pitch to agents in person
- Read books similar to yours, and find out who reps the author
- Pick up a copy of the Writer's Market
- Visit www.aar-online.org
- Befriend an agented author and beg for an introduction
Exception: You Can't Get an Agent
Getting a good agent isn't easy, which is why you should spend as much time as possible honing your craft, improving your writing, learning about narrative structure and the elements of a compelling story. I got rejected over 500 times, but the vast majority of these rejections were for books that were not very good.
Should you self-publish if you can't find an agent? I would say no. If a hundred lit agents all think the book needs work, I'd bet the book needs work, and releasing it into the world isn't going to win you fans or do your career any favors.
Exception: Your Agent Can't Sell the Book
If you landed a lit agent, chances are your story is good enough to be published. But just because something is good enough to be published doesn't mean it will be published. This is a hard business, and luck plays a huge part.
If your agent has sent the book to everyone, and no one made an offer, I would say that e-book self-publishing is a viable alternative.
I would avoid print self-pubbing if you some day want a traditional book deal, because numbers follow you. If you get an ISBN, that number is trackable, and so are the sales associated with it. A potential publisher will look at your previous low sales and possibly pass on your next book.
Exception: You Don't Care About Agents or Traditional Publishers
It's important to talk about goals and dreams here.
A goal is something within your power to achieve.
A dream is something that requires other people for you to achieve.
If your dream is to be a bestselling author, your goals should be:
- Write a damn good book
- Submit to agents until you find one to work with
- Keep writing good books until your agent sells one
- Write a damn good book
- Self-publish it
But things have changed.
The Amazon Kindle and Amazon's CreateSpace, along with printers like Lulu.com, allow you to self-publish without investing a lot of your own money.
THIS IS NOT THE QUICK PATH TO FAME AND FORTUNE
Your Kindle release, or your POD book, will likely get lost in a sea of millions, making it very hard for readers to find you. If you have an understanding of how publishing, distribution, and marketing works, then maybe you can sell some books and do well. But if you're clueless, YOUR BOOK WILL NOT SELL.
Simple as that.
Personally, I wouldn't self-publish a novel unless you already have a name for yourself. If you've been traditionally published and have a fan base, if you're a celebrity, if you do a lot of speaking engagements and can sell your books after your speeches, or if you already have an audience, then you've got a better chance at selling some books.
IF YOU WROTE A NOVELLA
We'll define novella as a narrative between 7,000 and 50,000 words. In other words, too long for a short story, too short for a novel, meaning it's very difficult to find a traditional print market willing to buy it.
The rules for novellas are the same as the rules for novels, but disregard finding an agent. Agents don't care about novellas, unless they're so good you can beef them up to novel-size.
I believe novellas are where e-book self-publishing really has an advantage over print. A 15,000 word book doesn't cost much less than a 70,000 word book to produce, so it has to be priced comparably, and people don't want to pay full price for something so short. But in a digital world, you can lower the price of shorter work.
Personally, I see no harm at all in e-publishing a novella on your website (use Paypal.com if you want to charge for it), on Scribd.com, or on Kindle. Worst case-scenario: It doesn't sell at all, but you weren't going to sell it anyway. Best case scenario: It sells well, you make some money and also learn a lot.
I would restrict this to e-publishing because of the costs associated with print. Print novellas cost too much, and they don't sell as well as full length novels.
IF YOU WROTE A SHORT STORY
While the print short story market is dwindling, I believe it is still the preferred medium for shorts.
Writing and submitting short stories to magazines, anthologies, and websites, forces writers to understand the basics of publishing. There is a learning curve in crafting a story, researching markets, and writing query letters. I think all writers can benefit from this.
I also recommend NEVER writing a short story unless you already have a market in mind. Would you create a key without studying the lock first? No. Same rule applies.
If you do sell a short story, I recommend waiting for at least a year after publication before you offer the story on your website or on Kindle. Your contract may say you have e-rights, or that you have permission to publish sooner, but I think it's nice to let the editor who paid you have an exclusive for 12 months.
Once of the reasons I began putting shorts on my website was because fans were having trouble tracking down out of print magazines and anthologies I'd appeared in. E-publishing makes it easy for people to read your entire oeuvre, and the reprint market (editors who buy previously published stories) is now smaller than ever. Years ago, you could sell the same story multiple times. I've published over 70 stories and articles, and less than a handful have actually been reprinted. Unless you're a big enough name that your publisher will release a short story collection (usually at a loss), then feel free to e-publish your old print stories.
Exception: Your Short Story Didn't Sell
Once you've exhausted all of your markets, there's no shame in e-publishing it. Unless you've already got a fan base, I'd recommend putting the short on your website as a free download. But MAKE SURE IT IS GOOD.
Your best advertising for your writing is your writing. If people try you and don't like you, this is the opposite of finding fans.
Again, I'd avoid self-publishing short stories in print. Even if you gather up enough of them to make a full length book, they don't sell as well as novels. Period.
But I see no harm in e-publishing. I'd price them low (or free) and group them together so it is a more appealing download.
IF YOU WROTE NON-FICTION
See the If You Wrote a Novel section above, but there are a few differences.
You don't normally submit non-fiction books to agents or publishers. You submit a proposal, which isn't the full book. If you can't find an agent or a publisher based on a proposal, I would question if you should even bother to write the book in the first place.
Look at your goals and dreams. Maybe you've got a memoir that you want your family to have copies of. Maybe you wrote a cookbook for your friends who are always asking for your recipes. Maybe you get paid good money to speak on some topic you're an expert on, and selling a book after your speeches is a smart add-on.
If you have a need other than vanity, maybe you should write the book, and should self-publish it.
I self-published an e-book about writing which I give away for free, because my goal is to share what I've learned about this business. So far it's been downloaded over 6000 times, and I get just as much fanmail about it as I do from my novels. For me, this was well worth my time and effort, and it satisfies me on a core level even more than money does.
There are no short cuts, no easy paths to success, no matter how you publish. You're going to wind up marketing, promoting, and working hard whatever you decide.
Traditional publishing has the advantages of big money and a huge distribution network, though you might not get either even if you are traditionally published.
Self-publishing is an alternative, but at the time of this writing it still lacks in too many areas compared to trad pubbing, except in some circumstances.
Your job is to figure out what it is you want, and then decide on the best way to get it.
Should you self-publish? It depends.
But first focus on making your writing the best it can be.