To Self-Publish, or Not To Self-Publish?

It’s a serious question. Increasingly so, in fact. A few years ago you heard of the odd success story (and even that one was discovered “by chance” and then traditionally published), but that’s just what they were: odd. Self-publishing was the road you took when your book wasn’t good enough to be accepted by a traditional publisher– at least, that was the perception. Still is for most people I know.

And now? Well, now there are people publishing their own work to e-readers and/or print-on-demand companies like CreateSpace and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Hardly what you’d expect from a book that’s “not good enough,” is it? People are turning down offers from “real” publishers because the benefits of going it alone are very real.

For some people.

This is a tough topic, and I’m working out the questions for myself in this post. Please offer advice in the comments, thoughts, anecdotes, whatever. And to make it all easier to stomach, I’m gonna throw in some pictures of cats. Because I’m nice like that.

I can't work under these conditions.

I can’t work under these conditions.

I always assumed that I’d do things the traditional way. Agent, publisher, edits, publication, see my book on the shelf in Chapters, cry, party. Obviously that’s greatly simplified; I understand the obstacles and the potential (even unavoidable) frustrations.

But as I sit here attempting to polish my quivering blob of a query letter into something more closely resembling a diamond (a feat of alchemy that I’m quite aware may be impossible)**, I wonder whether this is really the way I want to go. Not only is self-publishing becoming a more attractive deal in many ways, but traditional publishing is pulling back, offering less to unproven writers (and even to established writers), and screwing them over, sometimes in epic and permanent ways. So many questions…

  • Do I want to spend the next X number of months begging agents to take a few minutes of their time to look over my work, then waiting for them to attempt to find an editor who likes it, then waiting two frigging years to see my story in print? Because that’s how it goes these days.
  • Do I want to give up control of everything? Am I willing to risk my book going to a publisher who probably won’t put much effort into cover design or promotion, thereby dooming my book to the dreaded midlist for all eternity? It happens.
  • Do I want to face the possibility of being forced to change my book to be a “stand-alone with series potential?” Because that’s all you hear when you read about pitching a book: series potential=awesome, but don’t get ahead of yourself, honey. Nobody wants to hear about a three or 4 book series from an unpublished author when you can’t prove the first one will make good.

You know what? I’m telling a long story. Yes, each book has its own story and character arcs, its own themes, its own beginning, middle, climax and resolution, but they’re all tied together, and the story only gets bigger as it grows. Think more “Hunger Games” than “Nancy Drew.” Do I want to let go of that vision?

Not particularly.

Stop blabbing and pet me. Right meow.

“Stop blabbing and pet me. Right meow.”

But there are problems with going the other way, too. There’s still a stigma attached to self-publishing; people still think it’s second-best, that it’s what you do if you’re not good enough to make it the “real” way. Do I care what people think? If I’m being honest, yes. I do. I shouldn’t, but I do. This is huge for me, this feeling that I need to prove myself this way, but I can’t let it outweigh other considerations.

There’s the fact that I’m not an outgoing, glad-handing, look-at-me, self-promoting entrepreneur. And as anyone who has self-published or indie-published will tell you, promotion is an absolute necessity. People will not find you on their own. You’ve got to make yourself known.

…but again, I’m a new author, unproven, and these days a publisher is probably going to tell me to market my own work, anyway. So that sucks.

There’s also that little issue of me knowing nothing about formatting or cover design, the issue of me not having any friends who are professional editors to barter with for their services, and me not having money to pay for any of these things. Call it being professional, call it investing in yourself and your work… I just don’t have the cash.

It’s enough to make you want to close the computer and use it to gently bash your own brain in.

"Who cares about publishing? I'm an adorable sea otter! Yay!"

“Who cares about publishing? I’m an adorable sea otter! Yay!”

What would this look like if we laid out the benefits of each path? Please feel free to add to either column in the comments:

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING:

*Someone else takes care of cover design and marketing; professional editing is part of the package.

*A chance to see my book on store shelves. Not as important as it once was from a sales standpoint, but it’s a dream of mine. It’s part of the validation thing, of knowing that my work is good enough to be there, playing with the big kids. Stupid? Probably. But it means something to me.

*Working with an agent means working with someone who knows the business, who knows about foreign rights, etc., who has contacts, dammit!

*E-readers are gaining ground, but most people I know still do their book shopping by browsing in stores. So maybe that point above isn’t so stupid, after all.

*Sales potential- but really only if the publisher decides that my story is the shit and promotes the hell out of it. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, I’m still mostly on my own.

*Might be more likely to get reviews… I’d have to look into that, but most book reviews I read are for traditionally published books. So there’s that.

SELF-PUBLISHING:

*I can still hold a real, paper copy of my book in my hand if I go through CreateSpace, and they’ll help with e-publishing, too… to a point. I don’t think they publish to kobo, but they do Amazon and a few others.

*Potentially being in bookstores means less and less. (But as the author of that piece points out, people aren’t likely to stumble upon you while browsing on Amazon, either)

*Creative control. I still get to tell the story I want to tell (if I can dig up the cash for a good editor), I can make sure the cover kicks ass (if I can dig up the cash for a good designer), I can make sure it’s available everywhere I want it to be (if I can dig up the… you get the picture)

*Greater percentage of profits. Instead of paying an agent 10% and getting a small fraction of every book’s sales because the rest goes to the publisher, the money that comes in would be mine (minus Amazon or whoever’s cut, which is significantly smaller).

*Control over prices. If I want to sell the e-book for $4.99, I can do that. If I want to do a 99-cent promotion, I can do that, too. If a traditional publisher wants to price an ebook at $9.99 where few people will ever consider it, that’s not my call.

*It’s faster. Call me impatient, but I’ve been working on one book for two years; I don’t know whether I want to wait two more (minimum) to see anything happen with it. I could publish on my own schedule, get the next books out when they’re ready and not when a publisher demands them, get short stories into the mix.

*Rights. I’d keep them. All of them.

Seriously?!

Seriously?!

There are people with convincing arguments who are firmly positioned on both sides of the debate. This does not help me at all.

Side A: “Self-publishing is less than the best you can aspire to, and it’s killing the publishing industry. A traditional publisher will find the best work and take care of it. If you’re not good enough to make it the real way (and why else would you resort to self-publishing, you ogre-faced noob?), best to keep your work in a drawer. If you are good enough, why wouldn’t you want to have the power, reach, and experience of a real publishing house behind you?”

Side B: “Side A is full of shit. Traditional publishers don’t care about new authors unless they prove themselves through their own efforts, anyway; all others can fall by the wayside. These days they’re just throwing (insert substance here) at the wall and seeing what sticks. Self-publishing lets you avoid those assholes and reap so many nifty benefits… if you do it right. Oh, and they find the best work? Please. They ‘take care of’ poorly-written-but-popular crap like 50 Shades of Grey, and publish knock-offs of whatever else is selling. They’re not going to take a chance on something different.”

Side C: “Um… hi, what about smaller publishers? Sure, with many of us you might never see your book in print, but we’ll take care of the editing and cover and stuff, and for an e-book-only edition, turnaround time is about a gazillion times quicker than going with a big publisher. Just watch out for anyone trying to give you the worst of both worlds.***”

Thanks, guys.

That helped a lot.

*bashes head in with computer*

** Someone recently said that an author writing a query letter to an agent/editor is like a ballerina being asked to prove her skills with a lap dance. Whole different skill set, and that’s not the only reason the comparison works.

***Footnote to that: Yes, those guys are fixing it. That doesn’t mean someone else won’t try it.

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

16 responses to “To Self-Publish, or Not To Self-Publish?

  • char

    This is a tough decision. From everything I’ve read and learned though, the most important part while you’re looking for an agent/publisher or going about self-publishing is to continue to write books. If you have at least 3 books behind you, then when you start marketing and getting people to read those books…if they like the first one, there is a 2nd one they can buy right away, or very soon after. I’ve noticed if I like a book, I go to see if the author has more. If they don’t right then, I am probably going to forget about them before their next book comes out (then they have to do all the hard leg work again of finding readers).

    • katemsparkes

      This is very true, I think especially for indie authors, or anyone without a big marketing department behind them. You see someone like Marissa Meyer (sp?) who had Cinder published traditionally, her first book. It got HUGE marketing, big placement in bookstores (here, anyway), and people seem to have been willing to wait for the follow-up that just came out. For anyone without those resources, reader loyalty is all we have, really, and having more work available to secure that can only help.

      Thanks for your insightful comment!

  • Jae

    The short answer is: it depends. I’ve considered self-publish, I haven’t ruled it out. The trouble is many authors go the self pub route because they’re lazy and think they’re not. They don’t want to take their story to the level it needs to be. I’m not saying this is all authors who self pub, but it is a significant number (and I’ve read some of their samples). Maybe lazy isn’t the right word. Anyway, I’m sticking to traditional for now because agents will be brutally honest. Blood lust brutal. I want the personal trainers who won’t let me get away with any amount of laziness. I think the difference is making your improvements vs theirs. What are they saying isn’t working? Come up with your own solution. Ya know? I want success, and sure, I’d like it yesterday, but I want the timing to be right. I don’t want to pull the cake out early, so to speak. I feel like for me that path is traditional. For others, it may be different. Just make sure you don’t choose self pub because the effort of traditional scares you, if that ends up being your path.

    • katemsparkes

      No, it’s not the effort. It’s the lack of control. If I had an editor who would let me make the changes that serve the story, I’d be happy with that. If I got one who wanted to compromise it to make it more “marketable” and more like everything else out there, I wouldn’t be. I want my work to be the best it can be; I’ve certainly put enough effort into it already that I’m not going to go half-assed for the rest of it. I wouldn’t self-publish without professional editing, cover, etc.

      • Jae

        A good editor will inspire the changes in your mind. Trust me, I worked with a mentor during Pitch Wars who does editing as her profession. She told me what she thought didn’t work and why and made her suggestions—keyword being suggestions. A lot of what she said I agreed with because a good editor will grasp the spirit of your story and try and communicate that needed change. The trouble is a lot of people out there are super embittered about rejection and try and tell you that traditional publishing is all garbage. (I witnessed this personally happen to a friend of mine and we ended up having to part ways because they became so embittered). I think it’s okay to be realistic about your expectations of trad pub, but don’t let them skew your view. Having been to a conference and interacting with these agents one-on-one it’s not as bad as some make it out to be. You just have to remember that no matter how talented you are, there are some agents who just won’t feel it with your story and that’s okay. You want a person in your corner fighting like mad for your story, not a mediocre one. That’s a huge thing I learned via Pitch Wars.

        • katemsparkes

          For sure. I hope to find an agent who can be all of that for me.

        • katemsparkes

          Most of the buttered people I’ve read information from are, unfortunately, people who have had agents and been traditionally published, then burned. That’s not to say I think that’s the average experience, of course.

          • katemsparkes

            HA! Silly autocorrect. They’re bitter, not buttered… XD

            I know, forget reading about publishing, just make the stupid book as good as I can…

          • Jae

            I wonder if they were the types who tried to abandon their day jobs too early? In Breakout Novel, Don Maass talks about how some writers stress about advances because they’re trying to live off of them too early. I’m sure there are some bad experiences, but I can’t help wondering if that’s because of an overeagerness in the writer, so to speak. I try to proceed with caution. Best you can do. But I certainly don’t think self-pub is free of problems. It’s got its own downsides too. I think both will require effort, I just prefer the path that comes with already established connections.

            • katemsparkes

              I love that book!

              I think it’s more people whose books got sidelined during the publishing process, or who didn’t get the promotional assistance they were promised, but have had more success self-publishing once they got their backlist returned to them. My comment below was supposed to be for you, I don’t know why it went there… I do still lean heavily toward traditional publishing. Like I said, I’m not a self-promoting type. But if a publisher doesn’t think your book is the next (insert bestseller here) it seems like most of the onus is on the author to promote, anyway. I’ve always assumed it was the route I would take. It just gets scary as you read more about it.

              I did enter a contest to win beta reading, editing, cover design, e-book formatting, and a few other things, though. good to have options. 🙂

              I need to remember that whatever happens, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve got a lot of other books in me. It’s all a learning experience.

              • Jae

                Yep. Agreed. You just have to believe that the project you’re working on is the one (until it comes to a point where you get published or realize it’s not). I’ve got a project I had to shelve because I realized it wasn’t the one for publishing. I think my current WIP is, and I’ve learned a lot with it. But whether or not it is, I’m determined to keep becoming the best writer I can be. It sounds like you have the same attitude. 😀

                • katemsparkes

                  I do. I’m in it for the writing; I’d love to share my stories with the world, but I write because it makes me happy, not because I want to make money off of it.

                  Not that I’d say no to money… you know what I mean. 😉

    • katemsparkes

      I do still lean toward traditional publishing. I’m just becoming disillusioned as I read more about it.

  • Christi

    In my humble not-having-published-a-book-yet opinion, traditional publishing is the way to go UNLESS you already have a huge platform (like a professor selling books to his students or an expert in a field selling books to others in the field; this applies mostly to non-fiction) or a highly unusual cross-genre book that’s hard to categorize (this is pretty rare; there’s nothing new under the sun, right?). If you don’t already have a platform or some crazy cross-genre zombie ice ballet romance, query, query, query. Even if everyone you query says no, some of them will give some valuable feedback. If you don’t already follow former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog — blog (dot) nathanbransford (dot) com — his archive posts are amazingly helpful for editing/writing purposes.

    Even if you aren’t sure, you can still send out queries in the meantime. There are tons and tons of query resources online to give you query-polishing pointers. 🙂 No matter what you decide is best for you, the process of figuring this out will be incredibly educational in your journey as a writer. Good luck!

  • Kate Sparkes

    Reblogged this on disregard the prologue and commented:

    TBT: March 2013. It’s funny how little my thoughts on the pros and cons of each path have changed (though obviously I did make a decision, and it’s one I’m 100% sure was right for the Bound trilogy). As I consider whether to query a future project, I find the same hesitations popping up again… but that’s a post for another day. 🙂

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