Thoughts on Self Publishing

author_scene_spin1To self publish or not to self publish, that is the question facing many aspiring writers. The answer is not a simple one.

Years ago when I first sought a publisher, I followed the traditional route. Why? Self publishing has a bad reputation that is well deserved. The vast majority of self-published books are terrible. They are poorly crafted, and the editing often appears to be nonexistent.

Also, self-publishing carries a stigma, that anyone who resorts to self-publishing must not be good enough to be traditionally published. Although that stigma might not be deserved, it exists. Some people point to examples of excellent self-published books, but they are buried in a sea of sewage. Readers have to be highly motivated to seek them out.

For a first-time author, traditional publishing is the better model. More books get into more hands, and the author becomes established as legitimate in the eyes of more readers.

Some argue that the self-publishing option as well as small, independent presses provide higher margins or royalty percentages. This is true, but I would rather sell 2000 books at 10% royalty with a traditional publisher than 500 books at 50% royalty with a small print-on-demand publisher or 100 books at 100% royalty through self publishing.

My goal is to reach hearts with my writing, not to fill my wallet. I want readers. I want to change lives. I didn’t become an author to get rich. I became an author to enrich others.

Since I hold these opinions, some might wonder why I self-published Reapers. The answer is multi-faceted.

  1. I have an established following, so many of my current readers are inclined to buy Reapers.
  2. There is little to no self-publishing stigma when an author already has legitimacy through traditional publishing.
  3. With more than 20 novels under my belt and an excellent editor as my companion, I have the resources to create a high-quality novel without help from a publisher. I must emphasize that having an experienced editor is essential. No author, regardless of his or her experience, is able to catch every error. Don’t ever publish a book that hasn’t been professionally edited.
  4. Christian publishers showed interest in Reapers, but they wanted more overt faith elements, which were not appropriate for this story. Self-publishing gave me complete control over the content.
  5. I wanted to get this book into more hands at public schools. Some public schools are hesitant to invite authors of overtly Christian books. Reapers provided more open doors.
  6. With self publishing I have the option to use offset printing in order to get the price-per-copy as low as possible, so I can sell the book at a reasonable price. Many small, independent publishers use print-on-demand, which significantly increases the price.

These factors didn’t exist when I was first seeking publication. I wasn’t experienced enough or a good enough writer to publish myself. I didn’t have a following. Self publishing my early books would likely have failed.

Is self publishing out of the question for first-time authors? No. It might be viable, but I would discourage it unless the author has genuinely tried the traditional route. Before you attempt self publishing, you should evaluate your experience.

  1. Have you received more than 100 rejections from traditional publishers and successful literary agents?
  2. Are you getting personalized rejections that compliment your work?
  3. Have you written at least a million words during your writing journey?
  4. Have you read several books on the craft of writing?
  5. Have you attended writing conferences and had your work evaluated by professionals?
  6. Are you willing to work hard at promoting, including traveling to speak to groups?

If you answered yes to all of these, then you have completed the necessary prerequisites. You are a candidate for self publishing. Yet, you need to go into that option with your eyes wide open. At the end of the process, you will have a book, but selling it is a monumental task. You have no name recognition, no marketing team, no distribution channels. You are on your own. The key to significant sales will be the hard work you put into marketing. Success is possible, but perhaps after shedding a significant amount of blood, sweat, and tears.

I’ve rambled long enough. Obviously, these are merely opinions based on my experiences. Take them for what they’re worth, and feel free to ask questions.

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39 replies

  1. I have read many books that have been self published, through both digital and physical forms. What I have noticed from it is this. If the person was already an established author like Bryan Davis or Terry Goodkind, it would be equal to their already existing high quality work. However, for those that are already established authors what I have noticed is even when they have a good story, it is almost impossible to tell because you get distracted by so many grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. If I am reading a story the last thing that I want to see is a ton of these errors. I think that the traditional publishing route helps to eliminate these for new authors, as well as helps get their work known to begin with so that people will buy it and read it. While self-publishing, it all falls onto you. For someone like me, it would be extremely difficult to get the word out if I were to self-publish a book, I barely know anyone and don’t have any contacts that could help me out by getting it known that I had published a book.

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    • This does bring up the question of how there are so many books that do make it through the publishing and editing process, that seem like third graders could have done a better job at editing it. I don’t want to say any in particular, because I don’t want to specifically insult an authors work.

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  2. I’ve never published a book before and I’m thinking about gong the independent route. I would be open to publish traditionally, but where do I begin? Do I need an agent or can I send my manuscript out myself?

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    • For most medium to large publishers you either need an agent or you need to meet the publisher’s representative at a writers conference. For small, independent publishers you can sometimes send a query or a proposal without an agent. It depends on their guidelines. Look the publisher up online and search for their writers guidelines.

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  3. I have some observations:

    A lot of self-published books today are made available through Amazon.com or Barnesnandnoble.com, right alongside all the traditional titles. Unless your book screams “I’m a self-published title!” no one’s going to know right off the bat when they pull up your page. Also, most customers don’t check the publishing line to see if it’s published by Simon and Shuster or by Ididitmyself Productions. Most readers care if it’s a good book, not who publishes it.

    Now, things like poor cover art, poor tagline, poor story synopsis, and poor editing (evidenced by flipping open the book to page 1), are indeed hallmarks of many self-published books and are eminently noticeable. The answer there is simple for anybody: don’t do those things. 🙂 You can become a pearl in a sea of black coal.

    Another reason that self-publishing looks attractive: the disappearance of many bookstores. In my area, a big suburban stretch with hundreds of thousands of people, we’ve had over the past decades: 1 B’Daltons, 2 Waldenbooks, 1 Borders, 1 Family Christian Bookstore and 1 Barnes and Noble. Today, we only have Barnes and Noble. Everyone else is gone.

    Many of the physical outlets for large quantities of books have disappeared. Today, more of the action has moved online, so the playing field is more level for self-published entries.

    There are also ad networks online that cater to e-books, many of which are self-published, so it’s a simple matter to buy some ads to get some exposure. However, you may need to discount or even make your work free for a brief period of time during the ad buy, as many of these ads are for discounted or free books, and there’s no guarantee you’ll draw in a sustained audience. Still, it’s a channel for exposure that wasn’t available just a few years ago.

    Re: royalty rates. For those who can get traditional publishing, yes, you can reach more people, but if you’re constantly hitting walls there, a self-publishing route may be preferable to reaching nobody.

    This is not to say that self-publishing is preferable to traditional. I imagine most people would want traditional if they could get it. I do think the potential is there if you can successfully navigate a few hurdles.

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    • Jason, I do think it is all going to depend on your area. Here in Colorado Springs, we still have many different stores such as some that you have mentioned, as well as many mom and pop stores. So although some areas may be seeing a massive decline in bookstores, other areas are seeing bookstores staying steady. The only ones in my area that have closed down were ones where the owner had been running the store for 40 or 60 years, and was simply ready to retire.

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  4. A lot of it might depend on how one approaches it. One bit of advice I heard somewhere is that each self publisher should start a company to publish their books under, that way when telling people about their books one can name the company the books are under, that way people aren’t automatically like ‘ew, self published.’ And then, of course, there’s making sure they are well edited and written. I’ve seen fanfictions that were pretty well made that were made by one person, and not even betaed. But then I’ve read self published books that make me wonder if the author bothered reading it over after they wrote ‘the end’ on their first draft. So perhaps it’s a matter of patience when it comes to editing something instead of putting the story online as soon as possible. So I guess that means a lot of self editing and showing it to an army of English teachers and such 🙂

    I’d be interested to hear more about offset printing and your experience with it 🙂

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    • Offset printing is the “old-fashioned” way of printing, not the new digital print-on-demand method. In order to make it cost-effective, you have to print a lot of copies. For example, my first print run for Reapers was 3000 copies, and that volume reduced the per copy cost to me to about two dollars. That’s a big initial investment, but it allows me to sell the book at a reasonable price while still making a decent profit.

      With print-on-demand, you can print a single book, but it will cost much more per copy, so you have to sell it at a higher price. Your initial investment is much lower, but it might be harder to sell your books.

      I am pleased with the quality of the books from the offset printing option.

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      • Offset printing does seem like a good option, looking it up now. I’m sure that once I do get ready to try something like this I’d want to start with about a hundred copies, anyway. Which company did you use, if you don’t mind me asking?

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      • With printing 100 copies, the cost per copy using offset will probably be quite high. The per-copy cost drops dramatically with higher volume.

        My printer was Cushing Malloy. They did a great job.

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        • I’ll look into them, thanks 🙂

          I looked on one site, I don’t remember which one, but the quote was something like 5.64 for a 101 copy run of 600 pg books. When I looked at print on demand stuff before, I think the cost for each would have been something like what I would prefer to sell the book for ($10-$12) So 5.64 seems almost cheap in comparison, at least until I can work myself up to buying far more at a time. Two dollars a book would be amazing 🙂

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        • For 100 copies, $5.64 isn’t bad.

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          • Actually, this one company I glanced at may cut the page number off at 480…

            Blurb was the one I looked at, and I don’t know enough about types of paper yet to know if I chose the right one and how much that would affect the price. Still, the prices I’ve seen on the site so far, even for super small print batches, have been encouraging. When I get the chance I’ll research it more and see what people say about the quality of Blurb’s work.

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  5. Reblogged this on Love, Laughter, and Life and commented:

    Excellent points about self publishing.

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  6. Definitely some good food for thought here. This is an issue I’ve been weighing for quite a while. The ideal situation seems to be breaking into traditional, establishing a readership, and then (if desired) switching to quality self-publishing. Maybe. I don’t really have the experience to say for sure. 🙂

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    • Yes, that is the ideal. After getting established, do both if you can. Traditional publishing for what’s likely to be popular, and self publishing for weird, pet projects.

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      • Yes, and it’s the ‘getting established’ that looks so hard to do. But not impossible–you got a STACK of rejections before a breakthrough happened. It’s all about research, persistence, and learning from one’s mistakes. 🙂

        (Weird, pet projects–lol. I’ve got a few of those percolating.)

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      • Yes, I collected more than 200 rejections during eight years of trying.

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  7. Good post. If I haven’t had any bites on Country in Chaos by this summer, I plan to have an editor look at it and then try traditional again, and then maybe self if I don’t have any luck. (I do need to try to get more rejections though. I still don’t have that many of those.)
    One thing I’m wondering is if the small presses, such as Enclave, are worth looking into. My brother is reading a series they published, and though he enjoys the series, he’s finding a lot of typos.

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  8. I am fifteen and I have tried writing a short story. I was wondering if it is a good policy to let your friends read and edit your work? Thanks and may God bless.

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  9. Really good post, Mr. Davis. ^ ^ I think many jump for self-publishing because they think it’s easy when really it’s not. I especially see a lot of young and anxious writers go for this and I wince because I’ve sometimes read their writing and it really isn’t ready.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

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    • Right. The main problem I see is a lack of patience and an unwillingness to do the hard work necessary to create a manuscript that is ready to be published.

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    • Yep. I’ve seen a lot of writers who either regretted it, or should have regretted it but didn’t know enough to regret it. That’s the reason I’ve been so hesitant to self-publish, though I’m starting to think it may have to be the option for CiC due to the living WWII vet. I can’t really wait 20 years without that getting outdated.

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  10. How would you promote your work? That was a question that came up when I was looking at a publishing company.

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