Thursday, June 25, 2009

Should You Self-Publish?

I've been getting a lot of emails from people wondering if they should self-publish, specifically on the Amazon Kindle.

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
After getting an agent, she'll want to submit the book to editors at large New York publishing houses. If you get lucky, you'll land a book contract. This is the best-case scenario.

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:
  1. Write a damn good book
  2. Submit to agents until you find one to work with
  3. Keep writing good books until your agent sells one
However, if your goal is to see your name in print and you're okay with investing your own money and doing three times the work for very little respect:
  1. Write a damn good book
  2. Self-publish it
In the past, I never recommended self-publishing because in 99% of the cases the books are overpriced and inferior (poor covers, poor editing, poor writing), distribution is very hard (no returns on POD), and chances are high you won't sell many books that you didn't personally handsell.

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

55 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

I think this is absolutely true:

"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."

I have yet to read a self-pubbed book that I thought my own crit group wouldn't have shredded (and, in turn, helped the writer re-assemble it into a publishable book). I think the self-pubbing game is changing, but there is still a healthy percentage of people who choose that path because they can't bear tough criticism and the hard work of craft and want to bypass the process, deluding themselves that they aren't published because the odds are stacked against them (which is also true) not that they aren't good enough.

However, I do think it's exciting that some writers with established fan bases or burgeoning careers wil be able to offer some products on Kindle like novellas or perhaps bakclist titles.

E

E. Ann Bardawill said...

But my dear sweet mama told me that if I self-publish I would go blind.
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Well... I **think** that's what she told me.

carl brookins said...

Boy, regardless of our constant disagreements over just about everything, including which of us is the most handsome, I have to say this piece is absolutely, unequivocally right on the money.

Good going!

Jude Hardin said...

I agree with Erica, and I also think there are people who believe they have what it takes to be writers when really they don't. They just don't have the talent, and will never succeed as hard as they might try. Then there are those who do have talent, but lack the drive, the hunger, and the willingness to learn and improve on craft. So I think you need both--talent and persistence (oh, let's go ahead and add luck to the equation as well), to make it in the real publishing world. All you need to self-publish is...well, nothing really. Anyone can do that.

JA Konrath said...

All you need to self-publish is...well, nothing really. Anyone can do that.

But not everyone can do it successfully.

Of course, "success" is subjective, and based on the goals you set.

Jude Hardin said...

But not everyone can do it successfully.

True.

Perhaps my real fear is that nobody will want to read my novel, even for a couple of bucks.

Robert Burton Robinson said...

Joe,

As you know, three years ago I started posting a story on my website that turned into a novel. Then I wrote two more novels and two novellas and posted them on my site (as I wrote them).

This was a crazy way of writing, and I don't particularly recommend it, but along the way I learned and picked up a lot of fans. And hundreds of them from around the world made glowing comments.

Could I have found an agent/publisher for these books if I had not published them online? Maybe. But I doubt it.

The reason I'm not searching for an agent is the same reason I don't buy lottery tickets. The chances of winning are so slim that it just doesn't seem worth the effort.

I don't care about being PUBLISHED---as in being able to enjoy the aroma of a hardcover novel with my name on it. I just want to earn some income writing stories that entertain people.

But without an agent, can I really hope to have any success with my books? We'll see. Right now my books are picking up steam on the Kindle Store. And I'm about to switch from LSI to CreateSpace for my print books and lower the prices.

The biggest roadblock for me is getting people to give my books a try. Kindle has made that a little easier.

The one suggestion I do have for the would-be novelist is to post some of your writing online---not necessarily a novel. Maybe a novella or some short stories. See how people respond. Friends and family comments don't count.

If you have a knack for storytelling, you can always learn to write more effectively. But if it's just not your thing, no amount of training is going to enable you to write a book that people enjoy reading.

JA Konrath said...

You do have some control of over the number of people exposed to your book. Not nearly the control your publisher has, but hopefully longtime followers of this blog have seen the many ways I've been able to reach people.

But just because someone knows you exist doesn't mean they'll read you. And if they do read you, that doesn't mean they'll enjoy you.

If you reach very few people, that doesn't mean your book sucks--it means your marketing sucks.

Joe Menta said...

The cool, exciting thing about self-publishing is that the results often aren't an either/or prospect as far as quality goes... some of the books I've read were flawed, somewhat sloppy, but fascinating as Hell (mixing genres, moods, topics, etc., in ways that would turn off traditional publishing). The flaws- generally- have made the whole discovery process worthwhile as I chop through the brush on my Kindle. Heck, being a writer/proofer for my company, I may offer my services to some of these people... many of these Kindle self-pubbed books need just a little extra tweak to attain the polish level of a Borders offering. Anyway, rather than berate the messiness of the new publishing landscape, I'm extremely excited by it.

Steve Weber said...

Great advice, JA, with a couple of caveats.

I hate to be crass, but my No. 1 goal as a nonfiction writer is to earn money. Having prestige, being widely read, making a difference in the lives of other people ... those things are nice, but not No. 1.

So, JA, I think your post is wonderful advice for fiction writers who need to develop their careers more. But for nonfiction authors who think of their writing mainly as a business, self-publishing is a no-brainer in my opinion ... unless a better offer is out there. By self-publishing, I mean creating your own imprint, buying your own ISBNs, hiring your own editor and cover designer, the whole nine yards.

As to self-publishing to Kindle specifically: Why not? It's not going to make you rich -- it's a tiny but growing part of the business. All my books are available in paperback and Kindle, and the Kindle sales are always 3 to 4 percent vs. paperback sales. But it's nice to make a few hundred extra dollars a month. If Amazon ever releases a Kindle reader for PC/Mac users, there will be more sales.

I'd add this, too: Anything worth publishing in e-book format is worth publishing in paper also. Why? If you're publishing only in eBook format, you're giving up about 95 percent of your sales.

And, finally, your results with Kindle will vary depending on if you have an existing platform/audience, and the genre/topic you're writing in. (My hunch is that fiction sells a bit better via Kindle.) If people have bought your books before, your new books (Kindle and paper) are recommended to those readers, and other Amazon customers with similar buying histories.

Zoe Winters said...

My initial reaction is to say if you have to ask "Should I self publish" the answer is "no."

Then again, I asked that question for four years before I decided to do it. I think self pubbing is wrong for most people, but I think it's absolutely right for others.

If you don't have an insane love of the publishing process itself, and you don't want to spend the hundreds of hours you'll spend learning about it and how to do it right, then... if you want to succeed, no, you shouldn't self pub.

It's very hard. I knew this going in. I don't think most people realize going in how hard it is, so there is a huge number of people who are completely clueless and who can't write to boot, who self pub. And there are a lot of people who don't self pub based on all the stigma and difficulty even if that's not true about them.

It's a lot of crap to deal with, but so is everything in publishing. There is no easy road, and IMO the road to any type of publishing success is hard. Yes NY is fabulous distribution wise, but you have to get there first, which from everything I've read from people *in* the business is just as hard as successfully self pubbing, so if you want an easy way, stop writing and do something else.

Only you know you, your goals, your temperament, etc.

One thing about novellas though... Novellas are a much easier sell in romance and erotica than in other genres. There are several print novella anthologies put out, as well as you can sell to an e-pub like Samhain.

If I wasn't such a control freak, I would be trying to sell to an epub like Samhain. I think it's an excellent way for a romance author to start to build an audience, while making some money and learning about the business of publishing.

So basically I only recommend self-pubbing to people who are crazy like me. If you are insane and won't be swayed, awesome, welcome. If you've got any shred of sanity at all... probably don't.

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Robert, a lot of my feelings mirror yours on this.

I've considered using both LSI and CreateSpace (though I *think* I'd have to use up two diff ISBN numbers for it and that makes me go *squick* I kind of hoard my ISBN numbers.)

I'm not sure about the quality of CreateSpace's books (need to order one to find out), but Booksurge I wasn't happy with their samples because their covers were too shiny (for my taste) and the glue for the binding was yellow instead of blending with the paper color. Not sure about CreateSpace.

For me though LSI just has more distribution options instead of "just" Amazon. Not that Amazon isn't the big dog here, but still. I can even sell overseas in the UK with LSI.

Lori A. May said...

Great post. Lots of valid comments here and I agree, far too many think self-publishing bypasses all the messy work with publishers and agents. It’s often that messy work with publishers and agents that make the book a success.

I do think, personally, that a writer who already has established readers, publications, and some success can consider self-publishing if they go about it the right way and treat the process as if they are working in the ‘traditional’ way. That means professionally handling editing, production and design, marketing, and so forth – which not many newbie writers are up to. But for an author who has already established him or herself in a complementary form may have some success, or at least enough to justify giving it a try.

Of course I have read and seen a great many obviously self-published books. There have been a few times, however, that I have been surprised to learn a book was self-pubbed. To me, that was a great compliment to those authors. They are few and far between, but for those who are willing to invest the time (and money) into making their product a professional one, their efforts show. Of course, those are the minority, but I’m always willing to judge a book by its content and not by the publishing imprint.

Thanks, I enjoyed this post! You’ve given writers something to think about before making a very, very big career decision.

By the way, I saw the link to this on twitter @FictionCity from my @loriamay account.

Robert Burton Robinson said...

For those who are self-publishing, you've probably discovered that putting your book on the Kindle Store at a low price can help get your books noticed. But are you losing potential readers/customers because of a weak description?

For example, I just added my short story collection, CLASSICAL REVENGE, to the Kindle Store. (Yes, I know, Joe, short story collections are very difficult to sell.) As of right now, the description is missing from the book details, but it should be added soon. And when it is you will see that the title story has this blurb:

A woman ventures out at night during a snow storm into a dangerous part of town to get the last item on her Christmas list.

It's mysterious in a dark-and-stormy-night kind of way, but it also sounds like it's a Christmas story. Yet this story really has nothing to do with Christmas.

Perhaps I should have gone with this blurb instead:

Sometimes murder is not enough. She vowed to take revenge on her cheating husband. But when his cold, dead body failed to bring satisfaction...she went further.

What do you think? Would this one draw more interest? Probably. It's kinda giving me the creeps. And I'm the one who wrote it!

So, think long and hard when you're writing the blurb for your book. It could make a huge difference in your sales.

I may be mostly preaching to myself. I just hope I'm listening. :)

Rabid Fox said...

Great post. One thing about self-publishing I know already is that I would still hate my boss. :)

Livia said...

Nice post. Do you know of any authors who have e-published good novels?

Erik said...

some of you may want to check out arno books (www.arnobooks.com). they just launched this past week and are looking for queries for fiction. i was lucky enough to get the inside track (friend of a friend kind of thing) and they published my novel blur for its first book. i know i'm biased but it really is an interesting business model for publishers. worth a look if you want to get that novel published.

Karen from Mentor said...

Joe,
I settled the who’s cuter contest between you and Carl Brookins off blog, with him..just FYI.
I wasn’t going to weigh in on ebooks or self publishing, although I’m Really enjoying the debate…because you’ve heard me bemoan the whole books not in a nice paper package that I can curl up in my bed with at night for pleasure is not my thing bit ad nauseum. And that’s why I don’t read ebooks… because I don’t take electronic devices into my bedroom. [insert obvious joke here]
But, and you know there had to be one, because otherwise why am I chiming in now?
I was contacted recently by Joan De La Hayne, of Rebel e Publishers. She had seen the 10 Questions Tuesday interview I did with you (does the I’m not worthy…thanks again for linking to that, sir) and wanted me to interview one of her authors.
Well, I asked for a sample of Cat Connor’s book, Killerbyte and Joan sent me a whole ebook review copy to read.
I have to tell you, I still don’t like reading on my computer, so maybe I’ll take a page from your book on how to get a new GPS device and ask someone to send me a kindle…(anyone?) ….but if I hadn’t agreed to read the ebook I wouldn’t have happened upon a smart, funny, quirky character driven novel that has some of the most interesting phrases that I’ve ever seen in print. It might be because the author is from New Zealand, but I think that it is simply because she knows how to give her characters voice. And her main character is SUCH a smart ass.
I’m not sure I’ll read more ebooks, at least not on my laptop, but I’ve at least opened the door to the option.
So, to sum up, you were right, I was wrong. You are master of the universe. Here’s your scepter.
I told Carl that you like nothing more than a raging debate, but I’m pretty sure you like unadultered adoration just as much, so this comment is a win/win for you, NO?
P.S. I have a famous screenwriter coming in to visit in an upcoming 10 Questions Tuesday, and I’m working on getting Steve Martin…and the funny thing? I’m not even kidding about Steve Martin. Thanks for the leg up my friend.
Hugs!
Karen

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Karen,

I'm one of those "you can rip my paper from my cold dead hands" kind of people. I'm pretty pervy about my paper, but even I have thought there are certain situations in which I would read the e-format.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Heve there been any big success stories for published writers who then decide to self-publish? There seems to be growing potential for that path (with Kindle and Scribd); I'd be interested to learn if there have been any midlist writers who have had breakout novels, or even solidly successful numbers, by self-publishing.

Morgan Mandel said...

I agree and disagree. There is a stigma associated with self-publishing, but it's generally in author circles, not the reading public. People who like certain authors don't care who publishes their books. They just want to know where to get them.

I'm conducting an experiment with Killer Career and I'll see how it works out. Am I committing author suicide? If so, I'll have fun in the process and get my book out much sooner than otherwise.

If I were 20 years younger, I'd have time to pick and choose agents and publishing houses, but I can't roll back time. I made a tactical mistake by leaving my book for consideration with a publishing house way too long while I concentrated on a new release. I only submitted it to a few publishers and agents during that time period since I had my mind on other matters.

A friend at a conference mentioned how he was doing very well self-pubbing and described some of the ins and outs.

So, I decided to try it. I hired a damn good editor I know from an editors' blog I belong to, had three edit rounds, resulting in a much better manuscript than before. I signed up at Lightning Source, which I know from experience does great printing. I've opted for the return option, which is a small gamble. The books I don't sell at book signings will ultimately be returned to me, but I can sell them myself or use them for promo. I'm almost through with the cover design, and will then work on other aspects.

Yes, it's a lot more work and details. I'll be blogging about my experience when I go on a virtual tour. Yes, there's some money paid up front, but not as bad as before. Also, any money that comes in does not get shared with a publisher.

Another huge plus is I get to decide what I want. I do enjoy the feeling of being in control.

I may or may not go this route next time, but it's fun trying something different.

Morgan Mandel
http://www.morganmandel.com
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Morgan, you sound a lot like me there, except you don't seem as emo as me about it, LOL.

Good luck!

Stacey Cochran said...

I did this Skype interview with 16-year-old Cayla Kluver who self-published her novel LEGACY, which she wrote when she was 14 and self-published last year.

Because she self-published her novel, she was able to land a major publishing contract and is going to be huge when her novel comes out with Amazon Encore this fall.

As always, great topic, JA!

Anonymous said...

"she was able to land a major publishing contract and is going to be huge when her novel comes out with Amazon."

Is Amazon a "major publishing company" or is that refering to her next book?

It is an interesting experiment. I read the excerpt Amazon provided, and it reads just like most self-published novels in that it's in desperate need of an editor.

I suppose it could be "huge", but it could just as easily flop since the girl's writing is so bad, and Amazon either didn't see fit to have the book edited, or the editor did a terrible job.

Either way, the rope she's been given is really really long. It'll be interesting to see if she hangs herself with it or not.

Joanna Penn said...

Great article but I would also add that self-publishing is an excellent way to get to know the industry.

I always wanted to become a bestselling author, but was frozen by not getting anywhere. Self publishing releases one from a trap of not writing. Having now written 3 books and self published for fun (selling small amounts but well worth it), I am now considering writing a book that I will approach an agent with.
I have spent the time learning, and by book no 4 I should be improved! The fear is gone and I am concentrating on building a platform so that when I have my next book, agents will be more interested, or I can self-publish to greater sales.

So, self-publishing is a good way to learn - and with print-on-demand it is not expensive. It gets all those initial books out the way and leaves room for the future.

Thanks for a great article! Joanna

Stacey Cochran said...

Anon.,

Amazon Encore is a huge unknown right now. It is the company's first venture into publishing in a "traditional" sense, where they acquire a title, negotiate an advance, plan to distribute a large print run for the book, market, publicize, and promote an author, etc.

Cayla is now being represented by Kevan Lyon, and she has hired her own publicist (which is how I set up my interview.)

I would not be one bit surprised to see her as big as Chris Paolini a year from now.

People are going to pan her book, but people (teens) are going to go nuts for her, too.

Stacey Cochran said...

BTW, I'm up to 1,970 Kindle books sold in the month of June alone... may very likely break 2,000 copies sold this month.

CLAWS for 80 cents

The Colorado Sequence for 80 cents

Also, I had my first publisher nibble today. Was contacted on Friday because of my success and set up a phone call this afternoon. Talked with the publisher for about an hour, and they're interested in my submitting a novel to them.

Was a fun phone conversation.

Anonymous said...

It seems likely that E-publishing will develop into a method for writers to sell their out-of-print material, and possibly books which do not interest their agent or publisher(something outside of their usual genre is a possible example.

But as self-publishing, the tiny percentage of worthwhile self published e-books will be no greater than the tiny percentage of worthwhile self-published print books. And those exceptions prove the rule.

It doesn't matter how much money one makes off self-published print or e-books, you are not an author/writer until a profesional editor has agreed to publish your work and paid you money for it.

Zoe Winters said...

"It doesn't matter how much money one makes off self-published print or e-books, you are not an author/writer until a profesional editor has agreed to publish your work and paid you money for it."

I consider this statement both sad and masochistic. What gives you the power to define another person's legitimacy as a "real writer?"

One correction on your statement though: a "professional editor" doesn't agree to publish your work and pay money for it, a publisher does. An acquisitions editor has no power to acquire a manuscript these days until it gets past the marketing department.

Also "professional editors" are available for freelance work on the free market. This statement seems to me another example of how intensely uncomfortable many people are with the lines of authority and definition blurring.

Stacey Cochran said...

I have to agree with Zoe on this one. Anon, you just sound uninformed.

Not sure about masochistic, Zoe... but definitely uninformed.

Good luck, everyone!

CLAWS for 80 cents

The Colorado Sequence for 80 cents

Anonymous said...

Anon 2 here.

I also have to disagree with Anonymous. Writing makes you a writer whether you sell anything or not.

But, I do agree that you're not a "published writer" until a publisher accepts your work and pays you for it.

We can argue it back and forth, but no matter how you spin it, self publishing, whether on the Kindle or as a .pdf or through a vanity press, just isn't the same as having a book accepted and released by a traditional publisher.

It's just not, sorry.

I realize a lot of people have their ego's wrapped up in self publishing and they refuse to even entertain the idea that they don't have what it takes to land a traditional deal, whether that's talent or patience or just the time it takes to learn the craft well enough to be a professional writer.

These writers (and they are writers) will surely disagree with me out of a desperate need to validate what they're doing. They'll post about following a different path and doing research and new tools available to writer's and they'll compare it to a revolution and talk about the money they've made so far then they'll throw in a few comparisons to the music business and the film industry and bla bla bla bla bla.

They're still not published writers.

Period.

Don't get me wrong. I think all this Kindle stuff is great. I think people who put their books out on their own and try to build a name for themselves are showing initiative and drive and should be commended, regardless of how badly written their books might be.

But let's not kid ourselves and pretend we're all published writers because we took 15 minutes to post our books on the Kindle, because that's just silly.

Also (and I can't believe I even have to say this), you're not a bestselling writer just because your book wound up on Amazon's top seller list for Kindle novels any more than I was an astronaut when I was seven because I drank a lot of tang.

I know publishing is tough, but let's keep these things in perspective, please.

Stacey Cochran said...

A very well articulated response, Anon 2.

Of course, I completely disagree with you.

9 out of 10 debut novelists tank and they cost their publisher money. That is, publishers lose money on 9 out of 10 folks who take the attitude you're espousing.

Now, if those 9 out of 10 had worked to develop a readership on their own of 20-30,000 readers before traditionally publishing, they would be much less likely to lose money for their publisher.

That's exactly what I'm doing. I am building a base readership of folks who want to read my fiction.

To me it seems completely selfish (and just plain stupid) to say, I'll do nothing to establish a fan base and expect my traditional publisher to carry the entire burden of selling my first book. Not to mention that you're learning nothing about how to sell a book if you take that position.

Imagine for a second you're a small press publisher and you're faced with two manuscripts: one from someone who has never done anything whatsoever in publishing, has no connections, no marketing experience, no network with bookstores, press, no way to get blurbs from bestselling authors, etc.

Or a second manuscript from an author who has sold 50,000 self published copies of his books, has a vast network of bookstore, press, and writing community folks, has done more than 300 bookstore events, has been on television talking about books over 100 times with numerous New York Times #1 bestselling authors, and has a fan base that will immediately make you thousands of dollars.

Maybe you'd go with person one....


CLAWS for 80 cents

The Colorado Sequence for 80 cents

Anonymous said...

No, you're right, Stacey. Just keep in mind that until said publisher buys your book, you're not a published author.

Other than that, 50,000 copies is a hell of a lot of copies to sell on your own. By your own admission you've only sold 2000 copies this month, and that's for two books, so technically you're only selling 1000 copies a month or 33 copies a day, which isn't bad by any means, but it'll still take you over two years to sell 50,000 copies, not taking into account that sales might drop.

Maybe you'll max out at 3500 copies.

On the kindle that's not a big deal, but if you decide to put one of your books out in print and you only sell a few thousand copies, well, then you're fucked because those numbers will follow you.

All the other stuff you mentioned about bookstores and being on TV with published writers, etc, is nice but it's not going to help you get a book published if the book isn't any good, or the publisher doesn't think they can sell it, or it hasn't sold tens of thousands of copies on it's own.

The best thing you can do is spend the majority of your time becoming a better writer, then do what you can to build a fanbase or create a platform. The most important thing is the writing, and while that idea doesn't carry much weight around these parts, it's the truth.

People might buy one of your books because of marketing, but if the book sucks, they won't buy two, no matter how good of a salesman you are.

Anonymous said...

The above comment is Anon 2, btw.

Robert Burton Robinson said...

Suppose Writer #1 sells 10,000 copies of their book and Writer #2 sells 20,000 of hers. Who was more successful?

Now suppose Writer #2 is self-published, while Writer #1 is contracted to a major publishing house. Do you still say the traditionally published writer is "truly published", while the self-published writer is not?

Maybe the labels just don't matter. Self-published authors may never get any respect from the publishing community.

Personally, I don't care. If enough people buy my books and enjoy them, that's all that matters to me. The establishment can say I'm not really "published" or call me a hack or whatever. I'm not writing for them.

JA Konrath said...

If I sell 50,000 copies of a book, in any format, I don't care if it is done by me as an ebook or through a big publisher in print.

A sale is a sale, a dollar is a dollar, a fan is a fan.

As of now, the way to reach the most fans, and earn the most dollars, is through traditional print publishing.

There is also something to be said about having a publisher pay you for your book. Money is great, but the validation of being accepted by a notoriously difficult industry does speak to the question all writers must face: Am I any good?

The vetting process, and the amount of money publishers invest in books, does speak to a certain level of quality and professionalism that self-pub just doesn't have.

That said, the idea of being able to earn money without being at the tender mercies of agents, editors, publishers, or bookstores, is intriguing.

Jim said...

I think you offer some priceless advice for would be self published writers. I would only add a few items to your "yes; self-pub" list:

1. Write a damn good book

1a. Hire a damn good book
designer (it can make or
break your marketing
strategies and influence
future publishers).

2. Self-publish it

2a. Hire a designer who does
author sites / book sites
to promote and sell them.

3. Find a large storage space ...

Jim Wagner
Campana Design

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 here.

Zoe, Stacey, I am not uninformed. Until one makes a professional sale, they are a hobbiest. I am sorry but that's the way it goes.

Anon 2, I like your argument. Perhaps we can add the caveat that one is not a "published writer", or more accurately a professional writer, until making that professional sale to a magazine or a book publisher.

As to kindle and similar ideas, they will not replace printed books anymore than audio books did so. They will be an additional method for writers to market and sell their material.

Zoe Winters said...

I hate to say this, but the elitist snobbery and desire to separate writers and their legitimacy as "real whatever" based upon an "outside corporate entity thinking they can make money off you" makes me not ever *want* the label "published author."

So if you want to think my books and formats are imaginary or I haven't been vetted or I'm not a "real" published author because I haven't even really pursued that path, have at it. But I think you really miss the point.

It's a strawman argument when you assume something is important to a group of people that isn't. Many say things like: "Self-published authors are deluded into thinking they're real published authors." Many of us *do not care* I realize that's hard to grasp for some people, nevertheless, really and truly that's how it is.

That is all vanity.

It amuses me to no end how people want to rant on about how it's "vanity publishing" to put out your own work, when so many authors on the trad train seem to have their *entire* writing identity and ego wrapped up in someone outside themselves paying money to publish their work so they can acquire the label "published author."

It's all so unbelievably shallow, I want no part of it. Even if I later was interested in traditional publishing I don't think I would ever use the phrase "published author" to describe myself. And while certainly I might gain better distribution I don't think I would see myself at a "higher level" than I am right now. That's just silly to me.

Stacey, as for my masochistic remark, I understand if you disagree with me, clearly not everybody thinks alike and that's okay, but I think there is a deep inherent masochism in the attitude of "I'm not worthy until a certain person/group/entity validates my worth."

I think this attitude so many have about not being worthy or valid or "really published" or whatever until and unless this or that entity approves you (whether you sent your work to this or that entity or not), is just very unhealthy and very unattractive.

What is important to me is creative control and being read. I don't *have* to be read by a million people or even 50,000. It'll take as long as it takes to build a fan base, but I will say... writers who have all their work stashed under their beds aren't entertaining a single person. And that's what it's all about. I'm not impressed by a writer that fundamentally doesn't get that.

It's about the readers, whether you have 50 or 50 million. And how on "earth" someone can say someone with readers is less valid than someone without them is beyond me.

Zoe Winters said...

Anon:

Call me a hobbyist all you want.

We'll see.

I do think if you weren't threatened by self publishing, you wouldn't feel the need to put it down. If you're so superior just keep doing what you're doing and you can point and laugh when you land a big deal. 'Nuff said. Jeez.

Didn't your momma ever tell you it's not nice to throw rocks at the slow children? Since you seem so secure in the idea that self pubbed authors are quaint little hobbyists with no business sense or common sense in their brains maybe that's advice to take.

JA Konrath said...

Anon 1 has some interesting takes on this. Let me try to pick them apart.

Until one makes a professional sale, they are a hobbiest. I am sorry but that's the way it goes.

Awfully black and white. But I don't believe the IRS makes a distinction between royalties earned as a professional or as a hobbiest. In fact, I would guess the hobbiest lists that income as writing income, or self-employment income.

Anon 2, I like your argument. Perhaps we can add the caveat that one is not a "published writer", or more accurately a professional writer, until making that professional sale to a magazine or a book publisher.

This gets tricky. A lot of magazines are self-pubbed, run with money and love by individuals. The same with small presses. Does this matter? Is it just about someone paying you for your words?

If so, if a fan buys your book, isn't she paying you for your words, no matter who published you?

As to kindle and similar ideas, they will not replace printed books anymore than audio books did so. They will be an additional method for writers to market and sell their material.

I'm not convinced this is a good comparison. Audiobooks and print books are similar, but still two different experiences, reading and listening. Kindle and print are the same experience, just different viewing mediums.

A better comparison would be iPods replacing portable CD players, which they pretty much have done. The Kindle, and other ebook readers, are actually a better way to experience print. And, like an iPod, once people have really spent some time with a Kindle, they see the advantages.

Alan said...

This is an interesting article and comment thread. A lot of it is just the same old going round again, but there are a couple of points that stood out to me.

One is about short stories - why always write for a particular market? There are so many markets out there that you can usually find one to fit pretty much anything you write. I write first and place later.

The other issue is the argument about being published or self-published.

I have two novels out through my own indie press - essentially self-published. They're doing pretty well.

I've had several short stories traditionally published by various magazines and ezines (and I've been paid for them).

I've written as a freelance writer (and been paid for it) writing non-fiction columns, reviews and articles for print and online magazines.

I've also had short stories published and written non-fiction in mainstream media for which I haven't been paid.

So what am I? Am I not a published author because short stories are trumped by my self-published novels? Or vice-versa? Does the non-fiction stuff count or not?

As far as I'm concerned I'm an author, simple as that. I have stuff out there that people can read and readers rarely give a crap how it got out there. They enjoy it or they don't.

Comments?

Anonymous said...

Anyone who needs someone to accept and praise their book is too insecure for writing; you shouldn't write for recognition and money; you should write for only the satisfaction that writing provides;

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm in the thick of things in my self-publishing venture. It's a lot more work than going with a traditional publisher, but I'm getting a lot more satisfaction from it, also learning more than I would have the other way.
It's too early to tell how everything will go, but I've got a qualified editor, a qualified printing company, what I hope is an eye-catching cover, plus I'm offering returns. Will that be enough? Time will tell.

What's with the anonymous comments here? Why don't people sign their names to their posts if they're not with blogger? If you feel strongly about a subject, own up to it. Don't make remarks and not say who you are.

Morgan Mandel
http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
http://www.morganmandel.com
http://choiceonepublishing.com

arcady said...

I've come late to this discussion, but wanted to thank you for an enlightening post. I write non-fiction in a very 'niche' subject; am well-published in journals in the field and my platforms generate over 1000 views per day so the writing seems to be okay, but agents/publishers say that even though they like my proposal they just don't think the market is big enough. So self-publishing seems a good option, and I'm glad it exists.

The main difficulty to self-publication as a non-fiction writer is having to self-fund the travel to archives and sites for research, which may be prohibitively expensive. And many archives have begun to charge steep fees for the reproduction of images they 'own', even ones that are hundreds of years out of copyright!

arcady said...

I also just wanted to point out that in the non-fiction community there is a very strong tradition of writing and publishing without being paid, simply for the sake of advancing scholarship in the field. So what constitutes being a 'real author' or a 'published author' is perceived quite differently.

Jonathan Ball said...

There is a huge exception to everything here, and that is if you are a poet. If you are a poet, one of the only ways to make people start taking your seriously is to self-publish your work in chapbooks. Chapbooks have tremendous currency in the poetry world. As well, no agent will touch a poet. However, you still should avoid self-publishing full-length books, which should be submitted directly to small press publishers (the only ones who will publish new poetry).

Douglas Glenn Clark said...

Excellent post. Since discovering your work in 2004, I've been impressed by how much time you devote to sharing insights with other writers. I mentioned your free "Newbie" ebook on my blog. Very much appreciate the generosity.

http://thelakethatstolechildren.com/

Scott Scheper said...

Joe --

Excellent article. I really appreciate it.

I've actually decided to go a fairly unique, and perhaps loony route: I've published my chapters in real-time using a social publishing platform (wordpress), and have gauged feedback from my readers in order to improve my book.

You can check it out here: link

Ty Unglebower said...

I have not published any books in any fashion. But I am a consumer of them, and I feel that in the end it doesn't take a genious to spot some of the flaws in this logic.

Basically this seems to suggest that unless a bunch of overworked and tasteless salesman happen to decide to humor you and push for your book, you should give up on writing and go do something else.

Really, some random people on any given morning who haven't had their coffee yet make a snap decision, and you are supposed to just conclude, "I guess my book isn't any good"? That's like walking through New York and concluding you must be ugly because several people give you the evil eye as you pass them. I mean, come on...it's New York.

The same with the publishing industry. They exist in order to PREVENT books from being created. They are not there to help anyone create anything. Their job is to HALT creativity. Think about that.

Yet they don't even do THAT job properly half the time.

"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."

Um, when is the last time you skimmed through the 99 cent book bin at your local retail store? Talk about a sea of millions. Each of which, of course, somehow made it through the traditional publication process...and yet one look at their cover or their summary and it is obvious they did not do so because of the quality of the product.

I really can't believe people are still advising fledgling writers to first and foremost "write a damn good book, and sell the idea to an agent." It's clear most people who are lucky enough to get their work published have not come anywhere close to creating a "damn good book." They clearly have connections, or are great at brown nosing. And if one is good at that, why not just self publish??

There are a nebulous amount of books out there, published in a variety of ways. It is just as much of a pain in the backside to find one of quality that a traditional publisher has created as it is to find one that has been self published. The only difference is this unfounded stigma attached to indie/self published works. A stigma that in this day and age of endless trash being produced by "traditional publishers" has virtually no basis in reality.

Joe Konrath said...

It's clear most people who are lucky enough to get their work published have not come anywhere close to creating a "damn good book." They clearly have connections, or are great at brown nosing.

Nope. The books NY puts out have reached a minimum standard of quality that self-pubbed books rarely reach. You're welcome to your opinion, but no mainstream author I' know--and I know hundreds--have gotten published because of connections or brown nosing. They write good books.

Michele said...

""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."

The problem I'm running into is that virtually all of the queries and partial submissions to the multitude of agents and publishers that I have sent out get these type of responses. Rejections: "Due to the publishing climate" or "It's just not right for us" or "Due to the status of the publishing industry...our extremely selective market now demands..." Etc.

They offer no explanations at all. So how are you supposed to polish a manuscript that you can't even get them to read and comment on?

M.D. Kenney

Karen said...

Very good article. I am currently grappling with the question of self-publishing. My co-author and I have not decided yet. In reading Dan Poynter's Self Publishing Manual, I found a lot of good advice.

Elle said...

Self Published Authors lack authenticity and have a lower fan base of "Real published" authors? I have two words for the people who truly believe that: Walt Whitman. Self published. Look it up.

Steve said...

As a professional paralegal I've been ghost writing litigation [or legal fiction] for lawyers forever. Now, as a first time writer of novels I have found that while the traditional long and winding road to publishing makes sense, it is too long for my two true fiction pieces, given my age of 57. That is why I have decided to let agents be damned and self-publish and market my own work.