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Is Self-Publishing the Way to Go?

Today I have a wonderful post from Sarah Baker, a former editor for Viking/Penguin and Simon & Schuster in New York, via Constance Hale over at Sin and Syntax. If you haven’t visited Sin and Syntax yet, go check out the Salon. It’s full of great articles about writing and publishing like Gianmaria Fanchini’s post on sliding book advances, which follows up on my Author Advance Survey Results, and Constance Hale’s post on breaking into the publishing world. And now …

Is Self-Publishing the Way to Go?

With a sidebar on what you need to know to do it yourself.

By Sarah Baker

Go to any panel on book publishing these days, and you’ll hear the hoopla over self-publishing. Easy to do! More control! A bigger cut of the profits! At a time when advances aren’t exactly advancing, editors are often too over-worked, and publicists are spending the house’s dimes on blockbusters, self-publishing sure sounds tempting. Add to this the allure of royalty rates of 70 percent or higher instead of the 15 percent (at most) from traditional publishers, and it’s no wonder all writers aren’t going indie.

But, wait. Self-publishing might be the word on everyone’s lips, but is it right for you?

“You have to decide what your goals are,” said thriller-writer and self-publishing guru Barry Eisler at a lecture in November 2011 at the Park Plaza hotel in Boston. For him, it seemed like a no-brainer. He had already published three books with a traditional, or what he calls “legacy,” publisher. He has a following, developed when he pounded the pavement one summer, visited 500 bookstores, and called on 1,200 bookstores in 40 states. Other things in his favor: His wife is a literary agent, so he has access to publishing professionals.

As if his platform weren’t enough already, the press from his decision to turn down $500,000 from St. Martin’s and go indie practically made him a household name. The mighty-marketing-machine Amazon is his publisher. He likes control. He likes business. He’s clearly very good at it.

But not everyone has built what Eisler has. For first-time authors, like Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker, who is armed with a literary agent and a nonfiction book idea, an advance from a traditional publisher is necessary for him to take time off from work to report and write. “I don’t have 50 grand in the bank,” he said.

Other authors make the point that they want the strong winds of a trusted publisher in their authorial sails. Pagan Kennedy, author of ten books including Spinsters and Black Livingstone, doubts she would ever go indie. “If you can live with 1,000 readers and not making any money, then fine. But, if you want an audience of 20,000 for your book—how do you get that?” she said.

So what should a writer weigh when considering self-publishing?

“Self-publishing had a stigma,” said Eve Bridburg, literary agent and founder of Grub Street, Inc., an independent literary-arts center in Boston. But she points out some critical new factors: increasingly sophisticated self-publishing tools are available; you can distribute via the Internet (and not just via the back of a station wagon); Twitter and Facebook can help to spread the word. Then there is the payoff: higher royalty rates. So many more serious writers are self-publishing, she added, that Grub is now offering workshops not only in the craft of writing but in marketing and publishing, as well.

Many people are taking the plunge. An article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in the Wall Street Journal cites an estimate by R. R. Bowker, which tracks the publishing business: the number of self-published titles exploded 160 percent from 2006 to 2010 (that is, from 51,237 to 133,036.)

Some recent success stories—Amanda Hocking and John Locke, in addition to Barry Eisler—have helped fuel the movement. And let’s not forget that some historic bestsellers (What Color is Your Parachute and The Elements of Style, for example) started out as do-it-yourselfers (DIY), the old-school name for the self-published. They were acquired by traditional houses after they were already successful.

Sales figures for self-published books are difficult to track, and hard to interpret, since people choose this route for all sorts of reasons. Many are printing 10 copies of a memoir for the family or 100 for the business. doesn’t share overall sales figures of books, according to Brittany Turner of their public relations department. But, in an email she was willing to say that “John Locke and Amanda Hocking have both sold more than 1 million books using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), 12 KDP authors have sold more than 200,000 books and 30 KDP authors have sold more than 100,000.” Over at Amazon’s self-publishing service site, CreateSpace, she added, former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin self-published his memoir Katrina’s Secrets, which hit the Top 100 Best Sellers in Books on Amazon the week of its release.

(If you’ve seen anyone report on the other end of the spectrum—that is, the number of self-published authors who never surpass their break-even point—please post links in the comments section! The more solid information we all have, the better.)

Even traditional publishers are capitalizing on the popularity. Book Country is Penguin Books new foray into the do-it-yourself world. It’s a place for genre fiction writers to circulate their work, get feedback, and buy self-publishing services. “Self-publishing is a trend that isn’t going away,” said Book Country president Molly Barton to Calvin Reid of Publishers Weekly.

But all of this takes time and ingenuity. Martha McPhee, author of Dear Money and three other novels, said self-publishing would be like pushing a boulder up a mountain, and she wouldn’t know where to begin. Claire Messud, New York Times-bestselling author of The Emperor’s Children, equates self-publishing with home schooling.

Would you consider home schooling?

SIDEBAR: Should you self-publish?

If you want a professional-looking book with a chance of success you’ll need four things: Time, Money, Connections, and Gumption. Traditional publishers have been in the business for a long time and a book contract, despite that many authors accuse them of everything from neglect to abandonment, guarantees a professional process. You’ll have a well-oiled machine behind you so that you can focus on writing and promotion. If you want to replace them you’ll need to:

1. Hire a load of people if you aren’t a jack-of-all-trades: Editor, copyeditor, jacket designer, interior designer, publicist, marketer, rights salesperson (for foreign and first serial), Web site designer, printer, and distributor (for print books). If you’re publishing nonfiction you might need a lawyer to check for libel and an indexer to create an index. But buyer beware—these people work for you, so make sure they tell you what you need to hear and not what you want to hear.

2. Verify your account balance and uncap your pen—you’ll be writing a lot of checks.

3. Buy a Starbucks Card or a Nespresso machine. With the amount of work this will involve, you’ll need your caffeine. Self-publishing is akin to starting your own business.

4. Do the hustle. Work your friends on Facebook, your followers on Twitter, your old colleagues in the media, your local librarian, and your buddies in the bookstores to spread the word and buy the book.

Good luck.

{Formerly a book editor at Viking/Penguin and Simon & Schuster in New York City, Sarah Baker is now a freelance writer and an independent radio producer. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.}

Thanks Sarah and Constance for a great post! What about you? Have you self-published? What has your experience been?

18 comments to Is Self-Publishing the Way to Go?

  • My problem with self-publishing is what makes me any better than Jenni who wrote a book about dog farts? Ridiculous, but that's exactly what I mean. Who's to say I'm a published author if I self-published? I wouldn't call people who self-published an author, not straight out of the gate. Anyone can self-publish and having bought a few self-published books because friends were peddling and you want to support them…I didn't even finish a single one I bought. Flat out, I didn't think they were any good. There's no professional person saying, hey, this is crap, and shouldn't be published. I've got my rejections from queries not adored by agents. It sucks. But I think it's even worse to proclaim myself as a 'published author' because I self-published something. Self-publishing (in my opinion) does not make you an author. In fact, if you couldn't get published by a traditional house, it probably (in most cases) means you shouldn't be published at all.

    • I'm a semi-self published author (I sold digital rights to a new ebook only publisher Diversion Books) and self-published print versions of my science thriller PETROPLAGUE (which means I have two different book covers, one "pro" one "self"). I think Andrea hits an important point, relating to the question of GOALS. Before deciding indie vs trad, each author must ask what does she want to accomplish? To simply hold a paper copy of her book in her hands? To reach as many readers as possible? To make money? To earn the prestige of a trad pub imprimatur? Depending on which of these is most important, her choice will vary. No question in my mind that traditional publishers play an important gatekeeper role. Most self-pub books are not as good as the average trad pub book. But some are better. Quality is not the sole–or even most important–determinant of what books a publisher takes on. Marketability is. It may be beautiful craft but if they think it won't sell, it won't get published traditionally. Or if the book targets a niche audience. Self-pub is an opportunity for such books to find their audience, even if it's small.

    • Daniel Swensen

      What sets any author apart is quality. I think the stigma of self-publishing is going to fade as time goes on.

      I've found traditional publication does not automatically lend a book virtue. I've read plenty of traditionally published books that are significantly worse than some of the good indies I've read.

      • meghancward

        I think the stigma is already fading rapidly, Daniel. And I agree with Amy that every author needs to assess his/her goals before deciding which path to take. Thanks so much for your comment.

  • meghancward

    Andrea – It's true that that self-published authors range from very talented writers who turned down traditional publishing deals in order to self-publish or who self-published because they wanted a higher royalty rate and more control over the end product and people who can't write at all. As a freelance book editor, I sometimes get queries for editing self-published books that are REALLY BAD. Fortunately, they tend to be written by people not willing to fork over $1500-$2000 for a book edit – maybe because they know they won't make any money off the sale of their book. And yet there are many talented writers whose books are excellent but that didn't meet the traditional publishing world's criteria of what's hot at the moment.

    There definitely needs to be a better rating system for self-published books. The problem with any online forum in which readers can rate indie books is that all the people with crappy books will just get their friends and family members to give their books five stars. There need to be trusted gatekeepers who are willing to take the time to read self-published books, or at least the first 5-10 pages, and rate them for potential buyers.

    • Kristan


      That definitely happens — friends and family giving bogus 5-star ratings to bad books — BUT there is a backlash, because readers who get duped then come back and give scathing 1-star ratings. It's not a perfect system, but I do believe it usually evens out to where it should be in the end.

      Actual comment:

      There's no right or wrong answer; it's an option, and like any option, it must be weighed. This post has some great questions for writers to ask themselves before they make their decision, and some great information for the ones who decide to take the plunge.

      Like Nancy (commenter below) I think a hybrid approach is what we're going to see more and more of in the future.

      • meghancward

        Interesting that readers come back and give 1-star ratings after getting duped. Good! There are websites that charge hundreds of dollars for self-published book reviews (, but I think we need websites that charge $25 to rate the first 5-10 pages with the option to pay more for a full review. I wonder if those sites offer that option.

  • Great post, Meghan. I think it's interesting that there's also the possibility of a hybrid approach – publishing some work electronically or via self-publishing, and others via the traditional route. Sloane Crosley's Kindle Single is a top seller in the Essay category on that platform, and probably pushes sales of her print books – and vice versa.

    It also depends on category. I once wrote about a YA author who self-published a series of books all set in the Adirondack Mountains; he said he knew he was going to have to schlep all over to promote the book anyway, so why not just do it and keep 100% of the profits? Because his books were the perfect vacation souvenir for a kid visiting the Adirondacks, he got them stocked at book shops but also gift stores, and has sold well over 100k copies of the series over the years.

    He's also turned down traditional publishers who now want to publish his books nationally, b/c he doesn't think they'll appeal to readers who haven't been to the Adirondacks. So for books with regional appeal only, self-publishing may be a very smart option.

    • meghancward

      Great point about regional appeal, Nancy. And there are quite a few authors out there doing the hybrid approach – publishing books both through big and small presses as well as self-publishing. I love hearing how their experiences compare.

  • mainecharacter

    Sarah – Thanks for the clarity here on an often confusing subject.

    Meghan – Thanks for the link to Sin and Syntax as well – lots of good stuff.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for stopping by, maincharacter! And yes, Sin and Syntax is a great website as well as a great book!

  • I definitely agree with the four necessary components to produce a high-quality self-published book. At this point in my career, I am still considering my the pros and cons for both paths to publication. Each have their benefits and setbacks. I think it all comes down to what gratifies the author most from either choice. I let that be my illuminating factor.

  • Ode Idoko

    I really appreciate the discussions so far. I'm a writer with many ms but have been constantly turned down by the trad publishers here in Nigeria. It is a common thing for them to do that to young writers. I'm sad because, yes, I believe the trad publishers want to make money, but at the moment, they are no looking at succession to the established authors.
    This has made me to self publish with authorhouse, Uk and since March last year, they have not been able to sale a copy. It is that bad. It is not that the book is not good. I can tell you authoritatively, it is good.
    I think part of the problems with the self publishers is that most of them are only interested in the the writer pays. I have also seen self pblished book that was printed the way the ms was submitted-no edit was done at all. Garbage in, garbage out!

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    Well, Amy made the main point that occurred to me, which is that traditional publishers are the gatekeepers of saleability, not quality. Saleability is not the same as quality, after all, and also even their estimation is at best an educated guess. Nobody knows in advance how much commercial potental a book actually has.

    And I think the stigma (hey, when I was young it was called "vanity publishing") is fading fast. When the average person looks at a book on Amazon, are they checking if it's published by a major publisher? I doubt it. They're looking at the cover and the blurb and the reviews (and the price).

    But I do know that the publishing industry is in a period of transition now, trying to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and independent publishers may be able to be more flexible to adapt more quickly. But that means studying the market and doing all the other things listed in he sidebar. "Self-publishing is akin to starting your own business." Well, no, it _is_ starting your own business. 🙂 And you need to be prepared for what that means, or don't do it. Robert Fripp once said that the most surprising thing about being a professional musician was how little time he spent playing music and how much time he spent doing business.

    Me, I self-pub (I draw a distinction between self-pub and indie:, and I love it. I'm an amateur, not trying to make money, so I'm having a lot of fun.

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