Be Published? or Be Read?

Is your goal “being published” or “being read?”

What pieces of writing and publishing advice do professional agents and editors wish would go away…forever? I asked that question of some of my friends in the industry (yes, I have friends, and most are much smarter than me). The last two weeks I have posted (here and here) some of their responses. But I’ve saved one more for last.

One savvy, experienced publishing professional replied to my query by saying one piece of “conventional” publishing advice that needs to go away is, “You can launch your traditional publishing career by self-publishing or publishing with a micro-publisher first.”

[A micro-publisher can be defined as a small press. Of course then you have to define “small” too. We choose to define it as a small traditional publisher that pays royalties but rarely pays an advance. They usually have limited marketing budgets and rely on direct-to-reader/consumer ebook sales online with little or no presence in the traditional physical bookstore. They do not require the author to provide any money to publish the book. That is what makes them a “traditional” publisher.]

There are numerous good reasons to self-publish or to publish with a micro-publisher. I have publishing friends with great vision who are doing marvelous things to give new writers a voice and a helping hand. Some are changing the Christian publishing industry—slowly, but for the better, I believe. I have writer friends whose work has found an audience through non-traditional publishing—work that otherwise would never have gained a hearing from an agent or editor. And some have built a career and an income by e-publishing or working with a small publisher or non-traditional publisher.

But my industry peer is right. Too often an aspiring (and perhaps impatient) writer thinks, “If I can just get my first book published, then people will take me seriously. My next book will be easier to sell.”

Not so much. Having published a book is not the sole consideration. Sales history is part of an author’s permanent record. And if your first book sold only, say, nine hundred copies, that history is likely to come up in your next pitch to a publisher. And it is likely to hurt. It may even be fatal. It is a form of Test Marketing. In this particular case, the book has been tested and found wanting. (Dan wrote further on this topic in the post “Test Marketing Books.”)

That doesn’t mean you should never self-publish or sign a contract with a small publisher. It does mean, you should do so for other reasons, not “to get my first book out there.” It does mean, if you have more than one book in you and you plan to work with a large publisher in the future, you need to make sure that your commitment to any book you publish includes well-planned, strong marketing efforts of your own, because sales numbers will either help or hinder you in the future.

Sure, you may be the one-in-a-million author who sells twenty thousand copies of your non-traditionally-published book. It has happened. But more often, writers who poured themselves into a good book only to sell a few hundred copies end up shooting themselves in the foot by focusing on “being published” instead of “being read.”


20 Responses to Be Published? or Be Read?

  1. Avatar
    Mary-Anne October 18, 2017 at 5:48 am #

    Very Interesting – thank you!

    I personally will not self publish. I’m trusting God for a literary agent. I have come so close on several occasions where I have received personal letters from the literary agents inviting me to edit or saying their quota is almost full but to try again next year.

    I will NOT give up! I am passionate about writing and I know God will enable me one day to find the right connection.

    Good luck to everyone else out there x

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 18, 2017 at 6:15 am #

      I salute your faith and courage, Mary-Anne! And I pray that the blessings of representation and publication come your way…and that they are more than you ever hoped for.

  2. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 18, 2017 at 6:13 am #

    An interesting question, Bob. The answer, for me, vanished wraith-like into a cold, fell mist and emerging bearing its own brightness before it.

    My first thought was that, yes, I would have enjoyed a successful writing career; at the end of a night that lasted a year, those dark and bloody hours put me in mind of the fact that a modicum of success might have allowed health insurance, and pain relief other than cigars (which do help, and make me look like Hemingway).

    But the thought’s a temptation (and idle vanity, as it didn’t happen); my raison d’etre, formed for me by the Almighty, is to document the fact that in despair, dread, and the depths of a feared abandonment of spirit, faith, hope and charity can rise higher than ever from the ashes of a life, resplendent and glowing.

    Why? Because they’re a choice, and part of that choice was and is formed by interactions with readers. I could not have done it alone. Like Housman’s athlete dying young I am carried shoulder high by those I have never met; their careful arms cushion my body from the wracking pain of the difficult road.

    They are my daily saviours, their hands the Hands of Christ, their whispered love His Love.

    And they are here because I wrote, and was read.

    • Avatar
      Sharon Cowen October 19, 2017 at 6:16 am #

      Beautiful writing, Andrew! If art of the craft sells anything, your writing should put you up front!

  3. Avatar
    Karen Saari October 18, 2017 at 6:39 am #

    Good point, Bob. What if you want to be published AND read? 🙂 I’ve published 3 books, soon to be 4. The first was traditional and did well, it had a second printing which I’ve heard means it did well. It was a non fiction book. Then when I started writing fiction (a 3-book series) I really really wanted to try self publishing. I wanted to know how worked and how to layout my book and all those details. I have a small following of readers who love my books. But for book 5, I’m going to be looking for an agent. Self publishing is fun and I’ll probably do it again, but now my prayer is that my book is well written and ready for a traditional publisher. I’ll be waiting on Him.

  4. Avatar
    Susan Mary Malone October 18, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    This is such an important post, Bob. New writers get so confused as to what real publishing actually is. I try to impart your sentiments to them every day. I’ll send them to this!
    Thank you.

  5. Avatar
    Carol Ashby October 18, 2017 at 8:03 am #

    Bob, I had a book published by a traditional publisher (want a treatise on GaAs device fabrication?) long before I started writing fiction, so my goal has always been to be read. I’ve called myself an indie, but by your definition, owning Cerrillo Press makes me a micropublisher. (Cerrillo is Spanish for little hill,” and I’m the baby of the Hill family.)

    I’m write a series of romantic historical novels about the power of forgiveness to transform people (believers and nononbelievers), and reviews do tell me that people are reading and loving them. But my numbers, even with oscillating on and off the top 100 in my Amazon categories, of 1K in the first 11 months for the first and 700+ in 5 months for the second sound like they would be a negative in the eyes of a traditional publisher.
    Here’s the question: What kind of sales pattern would a traditional publisher want to see for it not to be a turn-off ? Do they look at the first 6 months? The first year? For a book that’s been selling steadily for a long time (how long?), does that sway the equation?
    Thanks for all the great insider info you share with us, Bob. I look forward to Wednesdays here.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby October 18, 2017 at 8:09 am #

      Note to self: read again before hitting submit. I really do know it should be ” I’m writing” or “I write.” Would you believe I was just trying to subtly make the point that you can never reread and edit your writing enough?

  6. Avatar
    LK Simonds October 18, 2017 at 8:35 am #

    Hands down, the goal is to be read. Got the easy part over with!

    I self-published a novel in 2002, before self-publishing became the more acceptable indie publishing. I wanted to put my first novel out there to see how readers reacted. I regret that I became disappointed that the book didn’t sell, but that’s my only regret. Now I’m glad the book didn’t sell because it needed a lot of work. Nevertheless, some cool stuff came from putting it out there, including praise from a senior editor at Harvest House, who tried (unsuccessfully) to get the novel through committee; a phone call from Malcolm Smith of Unconditional Love Ministries, who said the story was a “soul moving experience;” and a handwritten note from Nell Harper Lee, to whom I sent a copy with a brief letter that she, more than anyone, inspired me to write.

    Looking back now, all that feels like the right amount of success for that effort. And guess what, it’s possible now to indie publish a new and improved manuscript with a new title, by a new and improved author with a new name.

    I met a couple of authors 15-20 years ago, and I envied them so much because they had major publishing houses (and in one case VERY hefty marketing dollars) behind them. Despite that fact, sales weren’t what they hoped for, and neither is writing now. But, like me, their stories aren’t over. Like me, they may return to writing. I’ve heard it said the only thing that can stop a writer is quitting.

    No regrets. In this for the long haul. Here’s a quote Ryan Holiday used in his book “Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts,”

    “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” Cyril Connelly

    Terry Whalin recommended Perennial Seller on The Writers View, a resource I found on this site.

    Thank you, Bob, for the post and for all the great work y’all do to support and spur on writers.

  7. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris October 18, 2017 at 8:42 am #

    The title of your post encapsulates the recent direction my writing has taken.

    Yes, I’d love to be traditionally published, but why? Because I want my message to reach as far as it possibly can. (The advance and royalties would be nice too.)

    Since I know this season of life with eight kids under 14 isn’t conducive to that goal, my focus of late is to reach as many as I can where they are, right where I am.

    That means I’m trying to reach people on Instagram who don’t read books but will watch a one-minute video. Maybe nothing will come of it. Maybe it will. But if I died tomorrow I’d be thankful I didn’t wait until my one year old is eighteen before I started SOMETHING.

    I’m thankful to the gutsy folk I know who self-publish, because they opened my eyes to the possibility of becoming a writer when I would have thought it was about as likely as becoming president. So thanks, all you wonderful writers. And thanks for this great post.

  8. Avatar
    Sonja Anderson October 18, 2017 at 8:53 am #

    The British publisher of my children’s novels exactly fits your definition of a micro-publisher. In the past few days, I learned that they are closing their doors at the end of the year.

    Given that kids are asking for the third book in the series, should I self-publish all of them once my rights are returned to me, so that there isn’t a gap in availability, or should I plan for a new search for an American publisher of the books?

    I realize that self-publishing children’s novels is a hard road, and not my first choice, but in light of wanting to keep the books in the hands of kids, is that my best option at this point?

    Thanks for any thoughts you might share!

  9. Avatar
    Beverly Brooks October 18, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    And if we have made that mistake – how do we recover?

  10. Avatar
    Beverly Broiks October 18, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    Wow Andrew – just read yours … moving and marvelous. Thank you

  11. Avatar
    Edward Lane October 18, 2017 at 9:12 am #

    Thank you, Bob. That really provides insight inside the industry. Seems sad that disappointing numbers for a first book could destroy a career. Sounds like a writer needs to tread carefully.

  12. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 18, 2017 at 3:20 pm #

    Wow, Bob, you have said a mouthful. Thanks for your insight on the idea of self-publishing. I really appreciate your comments.

  13. Avatar
    Tracey Dyck October 18, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

    I’ve been tempted to indie publish in the past, but have since taken careful stock of my career goals and the paths that will best lead me there. Traditional is what I’m pursuing! Perhaps in the future, I may choose to go hybrid and put out some quality indie books while publishing traditionally as well. We’ll see!

    In the meantime, I see traditional publishing as my best choice for getting read as widely and deeply as possible! 🙂

    • Avatar
      Sonja Anderson October 19, 2017 at 8:07 am #

      I’ve resisted all attempts by others to get me to consider self-publishing, and have led workshops in children’s publishing advising others to avoid it unless absolutely necessary, because librarians and booksellers don’t want to buy self-published books for children. I’m a librarian, and this is true.

      I’m in such a quandary now, though, because the British publisher that took me eight years to find is going out of business–and my books have only been out for a year or two! Is it even possible to start that search again, this time exclusively looking at American publishers (I’m American), or are my children’s novels just dead in the water at this point?

      This is why I’m considering self-publishing now, even though I also see traditional publishing as the best choice. Help!

  14. Avatar
    Kingdom Publishers January 16, 2018 at 10:48 am #

    These are the major factors affecting Christian publishing and they should be addressed. There is a need for a concerted effort to get Christian publishing back on the map once more. People who love owning a book, will not hesitate to buy one from the store, but others who prefer digital editions will still be a challenge for these publishers. Know more on The Future of Christian Publishing here : #christianpublishersuk


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