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Self-Publish or Not?

by Harold Underdown

If you are wondering if you should self-publish your manuscript, or know someone else who is considering this, read on. I'd like to give you a few things to think about. I admit to a possible bias--I have worked for a long time in traditional publishing, mostly in children's books, but the following applies to all areas. And I have watched as self-publishing has boomed over the past five years, thanks to the application of digital technology to the publishing process. This has made it easier, or at least cheaper, to self-publish. But I have grown increasingly concerned that people sometimes choose to self-publish for the wrong reasons, or self-publish when they aren't ready to do it successfully.

Why Self-Publish?

Why do people self-publish instead of working with a publisher? If you don't see yourself as making a career from writing, but want to create a book for a very specific or limited market, such as a local market, or your family, or for a small niche market that you know exactly how to reach, then self-publishing the 100 or 500 or 1,000 copies of a book that you want may be the best approach. The only question you have to settle is what the best way to go about that is, as there are more options to choose from. Careful research is needed: you might want to start with my Publishing Options article to get a sense of the possibilities.

On the other hand, some choose to self-publish out of frustration with the traditional route. As you may have learned elsewhere on my site, in articles such as Getting Out of the Slush Pile, it can take years to get published in the traditional way, and many never get published at all. So why not self-publish in that situation? Unfortunately, if a book has a national audience, it's extremely difficult to publish it effectively unless you publish it traditionally. The media publicizes self-publishing successes (such as Christopher Paolini's Eragon), but for every one of them, there are hundreds and hundreds of failures and partial failures. Self-publishing is difficult and a lot of work--and this news story about Paolini's success may give you some sense of what was involved with his book.

The reality for most people is that self-publishing won't even get your book into bookstores. Companies providing self-publishing services often proclaim that their books are "available" to Barnes & Noble, Borders, other chains, and wholesalers. That doesn't mean that their books will be on the shelves in bookstores. It means that their books are listed in databases from which those companies can order. Since there will be thousands of titles from the big self-publishing companies listed in those databases, their books won't get to those stores unless someone orders them. Can authors then persuade bookstores to carry their books? Probably not--stores get so many self-published authors pitching books to them that don't sell and are often non-returnable that they have learned not to stock them and won't order them except for a paying customer.

Alright, but what about self-publishing an ebook? That question is answered in this thoughtful article by an agent, which I will let speak for itself: What about self-publishing via Kindle? Or if you have been reading about Amanda Hocking's success, please read what Amanda Hocking has to say about it: Some Thing that Need to Be Said. It's not easy, in other words.

Try Traditional Publishing

My advice is that you do not consider self-publishing until you have spent at least a few years working on your writing, making submissions, and learning about the business of publishing. That won't be wasted time, because even if you don't get published, if you do decide to self-publish later you will be much better equipped to do so successfully. You will have a more polished manuscript or manuscripts. You will also have learned something about what you need to do (which is, very briefly, get your book edited, illustrated, designed, promoted, reviewed, and distributed--things a publisher routinely does, but which are difficult and expensive for an individual to do. See also my article on what a publisher does).

If you haven't even tried the traditional route yet, I urge you to do so. If you are a children's book writer, join the SCBW-I, and start learning. Go to conferences, get some books about writing, get into a critique group, read Publisher's Weekly at the library (see my article on the basics for a general orientation). If you are writing in another area, the same general advice applies; you'll just need to find the right writer's organization, and the right how-to and reference books for your area.

Here's a story that illustrates why I think "jumping" to self-publishing can be a mistake. Nearly twenty years ago, I was an assistant, starting my career at Macmillan Children's Books. I busily read the slush and came across a manuscript about two boys in an orphanage. I thought it needed work but it was interesting and well-written, so I sent the author an encouraging rejection. The author eventually gave up on that one, and a different manuscript became her first published book: the book was Ella Enchanted. Gail Carson Levine won a Newbery Honor for it. And the manuscript that I read became Dave at Night, which she published as maybe her fifth or sixth published book. If Gail Carson Levine had given up on the traditional route and self-published that manuscript after I saw it, it would not have done as well. That book needed what a traditional publisher would give it, and that's why she and many other authors stuck to the traditional route.

Self-Publish Later

If your travels in traditional publishing lead you only into a dead end, then look again at self-publishing. It can make sense to self-publish a book with a national audience once you have acquired considerable knowledge of publishing, and know where to find the design, editing, illustrating, marketing, promoting, sales, etc. help you will need. You will also need considerable self-confidence, and probably a year to dedicate to the project.

For now, make your life easier and your chances of success better: pursue the traditional publishing route.

Children's Books: a Complication

Most of my publishing experience is in children's books, and if this is your area of interest I have to warn you that it's an especially tough market to crack. Though it's a national market, it's a smaller one than the market for adults, and it's not as open to self-publishing. A sizable portion of children's books are sold to libraries and schools, and they are going to be hard to reach with a self-published book.

If you are planning a picture book, you face the additional problem of full-color printing, which is not yet as fully digital as black-and-white, and therefore quite expensive. As of the time I write this, you must either print traditionally, or accept color printing that is not up to the standards you see in the books on display in a bookstore.

Self-publishing a picture book is therefore almost impossible to do well. Self-publishing a novel or nonfiction for children is almost as difficult. The only people I know who have done so successfully turned to self-publishing after success with traditional publishers or by fitting their self-published book(s) into what they already do: see my interviews with Josephine Nobisso and Lucas Miller for examples of these approaches.

More information

Related resources can be found on the Self-Publishing Index page, the Writing Articles Index page, and the Publishing Articles Index page.

Comments? Questions that weren't answered? Contact me.

This article is copyright © Harold Underdown, 2006-2012 and may not be reproduced without permission. Single copies may be printed out for personal, non-commercial use.

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