Technology and Amazon.com have opened up the world of book publishing, making it far more “democratic” than ever before and allowing anyone with word processing software and connection to the internet, to become a published author.
The traditional publishing industry is a $25 billion or more industry in the United States, generating about 300,000 new titles every year in all categories and editions. The average traditionally published book sells around 3,000-4,000 copies in its lifetime. Most publishers consider something which sells less than 10,000 copies a less-than-stellar outcome.
Depending on the year, the self-publishing market can equal or far-exceed the total title output of traditional publishers. Since sales data for self-published titles is not available from any central source, your guess is as good as mine of the average per-title sales for self-published books.
However, some self-published authors can actually make more money than they can if they published with traditional publishers.
How do you know if self-publishing is for you?
First, three reasons not to self-publish:
- Industry Impertinence – you feel agents and traditional publishers are callous people who are difficult to work with, and you don’t like most of them.
- Author Independence – no one is going to tell you how to edit your book, change anything or tell you what you can or can’t do.
- Author Impatience – the time between inspiration, writing, and books-available is too long in the traditional market.
Why are these bad?
Because the underlying thought-process behind each is negative. You should never do anything just to prove you are right, living with a proverbial “chip on your shoulder.”
First, it is no way to live, and second, for authors of books with Christian themes, the anger and bitterness will come through in the writing, and in the way you conduct yourself with readers and others, which is not something a Christian author should desire.
What are good reasons for self-publishing?
- Financial – You can make more money than you did in traditional publishing. (For experienced authors, of course…with large platforms.)
- Platform – You need a book to grow your platform. I’ve suggested this for many authors who have a good idea and the start of a platform. The cart is the book and the platform is the horse. Some horses only move when they have something to pull. (metaphor not copyrighted, feel free to use for any occasion.)
- Author Independence – for those who know what a good cover looks like, can accept editing and professional advice, enjoy collaborating with others for mutual success, and have time and the desire to work really hard, it can be rewarding.
No matter what direction you take, there is the ever-present chance of disappointing results (sales) after a book is made available to readers. Make some provision in your personal finances for losing money on the project. There are no guarantees. You might lose a lot of money and experience what traditional publishers experience on some projects which didn’t meet expectations.
The traditional publishing world is infused with elements found in competitive performance fields. Much like professional music, sports or acting, sometimes things don’t work out as planned.
The self-publishing market is no less competitive and in some ways even more competitive than traditional publishing, as it truly is just you against the world, with no publisher behind you to help, to encourage, or work with you.
Readers of my blog posts will catch a common theme…know what you are getting into, no matter what path you take. Eyes wide open on the road ahead.
If you believe self-publishing is best for your situation, then by all means do it. But if you think it will be less work and a quick road to success, think again.
Some great things to think about. Thanks for sharing!
It’s so tempting to jump out there when you’re not ready. Trying to tell myself to be patient and keep learning the craft!
Dan, excellent summations of the reasons for both contracted and “indie” publication. Thanks for sharing. (Unfortunately, there are people who still go the wrong direction for the wrong reasons. But they’ve been warned).
Thanks for sharing the wrong reasons to go the self-publishing route as well as valid reasons. I always like an eyes-wide-open approach when making decisions. Thanks for offering that.
James Scott Bell
Need to also mention that a publisher who is “behind you” and “working with you” will drop you like a hot rock if your books fail to meet a certain level. Buh-bye. Oh yes, and in many cases they will keep the rights to your books forever.
So no rose-colored glasses for trad publishing, either.
There is no “quick success” either way. But by being productive, smart and entrepreneurial, those authors who wish to retain the rights to their own work product have a real shot at making some good lettuce in this game.
Brennan S. McPherson
After going with a small traditional publisher for my first book, I’ve gone completely indy, and keeping your rights is definitely nice. Now, I’m in the midst of uploading multiple audiobooks that I own the rights to (and performed myself). But I’ve got a business degree, and tons of experience in the music industry and audio production (I was a full-time touring and session musician before writing, and still work in music and audio production at my day job now).
One thing that stinks about going indy is that you have massive amounts of responsibility. That’s not a lovely experience. It’s also hard to be alone. To that point, Carol Ashby’s comment, I think, elucidates the importance of knowing your “why” and being driven by that.
If you think you’re going to strike it big as an indy publisher without being good at business, obsessive about administrative details, and at least passably good at marketing, you’re fooling yourself. If you think you don’t need those skills with a traditional publisher, you’re fooling yourself again.
Whatever path you walk, the basic rules are the same: invest in your skillset, find people who are strong where you’re weak to help you (as you struggle to strengthen your weaknesses), learn how to market books, understand the business of publishing, polish your craft, be productive, and rinse and repeat for years. Notice how much of that ISN’T writing craft-focused.
Dan’s points in his post ring perfectly true to me. I’m now making more as a self-published author, AND finding wider readership, AND gaining access to more avenues for growing my platform and readership in an economically sustainable way. But it takes an enormous amount of work, and at least a decent amount of business savvy.
Spot on, Dan. As an indie with sales and reviews that satisfy me and might almost satisfy a small or niche traditional publisher, I’d like to add three things I think are vital for success as an indie.
Commit to polishing your craft until your debut novel is as good as the traditionally published works in your genre. Then keep on polishing, always trying to make the next even better than the last. The first must be good enough to make a reader want the second, and the next book must never disappoint.
Realize that discoverability is key to success, and even the greatest books need constant marketing to find new readers. Steady sales will demand constant attention to this, not just heroic efforts immediately before and right after each release. You’re a draft horse pulling a heavy wagon up a long hill, not a thoroughbred only running a mile and quarter for the blanket of roses.
Find your purpose for writing in something more than making money, and define success by something beyond sales numbers and the size of royalty payments. Running in the black is nice, but very few will make enough to support themselves. It’s the reviews and emails telling me I shared the message God entrusted to me that will keep me laboring at all the tasks succeeding as an indie demands. If even one reader tells you that your work drew them closer to God, your success is greater than the best-selling author of a book that merely entertains.
Doing anything–not just publishing–for negative reasons is rarely the path to success. “Whatever you do, do all things to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Impertinence, independence and impatience don’t fit well with the glory of God.
Bravo! Love this post with its pros and cons, as well as the instructive comments. This blog is an unfailing encouragement and education for me.
I have friends who have self-published before the books were ready. The editor in me has a hard time not saying they needed more editing before publication.
A physician friend we knew years ago was not particularly taken with infants. But people kept asking him about the baby. He finally found a statement that protected his truthfulness without insulting the parents: “My, that really is a baby!” I’ve taken a leaf from his book and congratulated the accomplishment, if not the work itself.
L. K. Simonds
I have an interesting story about self-publishing. In 2001, I self-published a novel, using Xlibris. I felt I was being led by the Holy Spirit at the time, and I still believe I was. The book didn’t do much, sales-wise, but that’s okay. I got some priceless reader feedback, and the book attracted the interest of an acquisition editor at a well-known Christian publisher. All of this let me know the effort (to write) was real, to quote James Baldwin.
The novel had issues. It hadn’t been professionally edited or proofread. There were mistakes in it. Eventually, I stopped promoting it and only shared copies with friends when asked.
Flash forward to 2018. I realized the story was still viable, but it could not go forward as written. It no longer represented my best work. So I did a major revision. Major. I slashed about 20,000 words, tightening the prose and the characters. I sent it to a professional editor who further cut and polished. I hired a cover designer too. Then a funny thing happened on my way to Createspace. I signed a contract with Morgan James Publishing for the newly titled book. Now I have a powerful partner to indie publish this new book.
When this novel comes out, it’ll be L. K. Simonds’ debut as a novelist. Nevertheless, I don’t regret one step of the journey up to now. In fact, I think it was a good and necessary path for me, personally and as a writer.
I’m glad there are so many ways to get a book to readers these days. Ultimately, reaching and touching readers is all that matters. Everything else is just logistics.
I realize that a platform, money, and marketing is everything when you self-publish!
However, I wrote a book ten years ago that is still occasionally purchased on Amazon or by someone I’ve told about the book. The feedback from contacts I’ve made has always been “through the roof.”
But as an author with health and financial issues, I will never be able to adequately market my book or establish a platform to boost sales.
I’m grateful for those times when the book is purchased. In a less dramatic way, God is accomplishing His purpose. Limited sales will never stop me from exercising the “call” to write. I write because I am a writer. Sales and success are great, but they can never be the major motivator for me.
As a newcomer to novel writing, I crave all the professional advice I can get, so I am particularly grateful for this post and comments from experienced authors.
When I started to write several years ago, I wanted to produce a work of fiction I could be proud of, that industry professionals would applaud, and that would speak to the deeper meanings of faith and family. That’s a pretty high bar for a novice to attempt, and I realized I couldn’t do it alone.
I worked on the book for over a year, then hired a freelance editor, then a second editor and worked for another year. I also decided to go with a traditional publisher because I didn’t want all the responsibility of publishing the book myself.
I cringed at the advice to market my own work, but I’ve found creating a platform and beginning the work of developing an audience to be surprisingly interesting.
I am thrilled beyond words that the book is due to be released later this year, but I’m not starry-eyed. I know there’s a lot of work to be done and a lot still to be learned. And it’s never been about money.
I don’t know if my book will achieve the goals I set out to accomplish, but the journey has been amazing so far, and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next corner.
Thank you again for this great blog! It has been so helpful to me.
Brennan S. McPherson
Congrats, Kay! Stay encouraged. That’s a lot of accomplishments and I’m sure it’s because God led you down the path. Blessings on your writing…
Rebekah Love Dorris
“You should never do anything just to prove you are right, living with a proverbial ‘chip on your shoulder.'”
Wise words. This could guide us in a host of endeavors. Thanks for a helpful article.
i like the pro vs con lists! i especially like the cart and horse illustration!
nearly five years ago, on the advice of an author friend, i went indie. i do like the independence but would love a shot at working with an agent and publisher. my concern, though, is meeting deadlines – i have some health issues that sometimes shut me down for a day or two.
Thanks for this helpful post and the all the comments. I’m considering independently publishing a book. The information covered here helped me see that publishing is probably the next right step. Does anyone have recommendations for cover designers and copy editors?
Hi Dan and all.
this was in my ‘promotions’ folder. pfft. Wasn’t sure but made certain it makes my inbox (the reason for my delayed answer comment).
very good information, and I read a meta-data analysis recently on which was the best route for authors. Big Indie publishers was far and above self-published especially through CreateSpace and traditional publishing. Try finding a big Christian Indie house… not available.
That being said, I prefer the agent-to-publisher route. Now that I said that, I also recognize a few things here. Self publishing requires absolutely no and full responsibility to put forth quality work. An example is a novel my sister put onto CreateSpace. First draft. SPaG errors. I have other authors who have some great ideas but don’t edit fully. Some like my sister’s, is a DNF (Did Not Finish) though it was a fascinating idea.
Self publishing is awash with novels competing with traditional/Indie. I read very few self publishing any longer. I have read an author who is impeccable in his plot, character arcs, complexity and his editor’s hard work. Indie publishing is a pretty good launching stage for hardworking writers, especially larger houses. They have a reputation on the line, and like traditional, will not publish books under their name.
Traditional publishing is a great way to go, though the wait varies. Patience required. This establishes a good relationship especially for the writers who are prolific. It can be a rough road, even for them. Market saturation, etc.
When a book is declined by agent or traditional publishing due to oversaturation especially, and receive the letter, ‘your manuscript was phenomenal, we love it. However… (whatever reason) we cannot publish (at this time, or ever) but we wish you the best of luck, ‘ it is time to move on.
Either put the MS away and plunk away at the next, attend conferences and talk to more editors and agents of other houses, they may be interested in it. Or try Indie or self-publishing and do your research. Don’t go boutique or vanity, ever! Make certain you have all the ducks in the row. Editing (pay for it), cover (pay for it!), then market it (that’s you).
And whatever you do, do not give up on the agency/publishing house in the future because you never know when your book goes into a viral orbit.
Oh, and don’t forget the entertainment attorney. Like agents, they do not charge up front. Like agents, they take a percent off the back of the book. They understand contracts and have your best interests at heart and depend also on how well you sell. You can obtain an attorney months to years before the contract is signed.