Self-publishing burst onto the scene like every writer’s fairy godmother. Can’t get a publisher? No problem! You can still be published!
It seemed amazing. The perfect solution. Power to the writers.
Then reality set in.
A market flooded with typo-ridden, senseless manuscripts. Good stories buried under piles of drunken scribbles. Every Fred, Sue, and Jane claiming to be an “author” because they slapped a messy PDF on Amazon.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some good self-published books out there. But as a general rule, I’m going to make the bold statement that self-publishing your book is a fast track to destroying your hope for a career as an author. And I can’t stand to see people accidentally doing this to themselves.
So here are the situations when you SHOULD and SHOULDN’T self-publish.
You SHOULDN’T self-publish if you have no platform.
Some people go for self-publishing because they think they’ll make more money if the publisher isn’t taking a cut.
However, if you don’t have a platform, your book is just going to sit there on Amazon. Amazon isn’t going to waste their time promoting your book or ranking it high in searches if you’re a no one with no sales. People very rarely find your book at random, and they’re unlikely to buy it if they know nothing about it. You need to already know people who you can tell to go buy your book.
Sure, you need platform for traditional publication, too. But the credibility and connections offered by a publisher, even a small one, are critical.
How much platform is enough for self-publishing? I get that question a lot. It has to be pretty big to make it worth skipping out on a traditional publisher. Honestly, I don’t recommend it unless you have tens of thousands of followers and a massive speaking platform. (Though even then, it’s an awful lot of work. You’re famous. You could probably get a publisher to do it for you.)
You SHOULD self-publish if you don’t care about money and just want to share something you wrote with close friends and family.
Let’s say you write your memoir. You’re not that interested in sharing it with the world; you just want the people you know to be able to read it. In this case, self-publishing is a great option. It puts the book out there, but you don’t have the headache of submitting and marketing.
You SHOULDN’T self-publish if you ever want to be traditionally published.
I’ve noticed a myth floating around that if you self-publish, it makes you more enticing to agents and editors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you have massive self-publishing sales, you better have a darn good reason why they should take a chance on you. Low sales show that no one liked your writing. I know that’s probably not true; it’s probably because you had no platform or no professional editing, cover design, etc. But that doesn’t matter. If you self-publish, you’re taking a dangerous risk, and I would say it’s not worth it.
A caveat: if you self-published your memoir, and now you want to pitch a YA fantasy, you’re probably fine. As long as your genres are radically different and you can say that your self-published work was for friends and family only, you’ll probably be okay.
You SHOULD self-publish if you’ve exhausted all your other options and don’t have other projects.
You had an agent. Your agent sent your manuscript to every publisher on the planet. They all rejected it. In this case, our agency usually sets that project aside and tries a different manuscript from our clients. Some works just aren’t going to sell.
Or, you didn’t have an agent. You submitted to every agent and publisher you possibly could, and they all said no.
When you face universal rejection, my advice is always to move on to another project. Use it as a learning experience. However, what if you only have one project, and you’re really passionate about it? You just really want it out there, and you don’t care about future books?
Then do it. Self-publish. It’s better than no one reading it at all, and you might be surprised by good results. Just make sure you don’t do that if you have other books you want traditionally published later.
You SHOULDN’T self-publish if you don’t have the time, ability, and money to put in to be professional about it.
You don’t want your knock-off Photoshop cover to become an Internet meme. If you’re going to self-publish, you need to be invested, or you’re doomed to fail from the start.
Hire a professional editor. Your proofreading is never good enough. Heck, I work as an editor, and I would still hire one if I decided to self-publish. You’re too close to your own work to see its flaws. And unless your friends or family are industry professionals, though they might write a good academic paper, they are probably not equipped to edit a book. Spend the money.
Unless you’re a whiz with Photoshop, hire a cover designer. (Beware, though; I’ve seen plenty of so-called “cover designers” who put out work I would have done playing around on Paint as a kid. If it sounds too good (or too cheap) to be true, it is.)
If you’re not good with InDesign and page layout, you’ll need to hire someone for this or get a friend who does know how.
You’ll need to lay out a marketing campaign. You’ll have to dedicate hours to gaining followers, interacting online, finding speaking engagements, setting up booths, going to writer’s conferences… it’s enough to be a full-time job.
The biggest DON’T of all:
I know I’ve given more “shouldn’ts” than “shoulds,” but I have one more big no-no. Regardless of your level of fame, who you want your book to be for, how many options are left to you…
NEVER, EVER, EVER USE A VANITY PRESS.
If someone asks you to put down money up front in order to publish your book, no matter how good the offer sounds, run away. They are not a real publisher. They’re a vanity press, and they make money off people who spend $10,000 for the vanity press to do next to nothing except slap on a half-decent cover (which you can get done independently for much cheaper) and print the physical copies (which Amazon does for free).
No, vanity presses aren’t technically scams, and a very few people have actually made money this way, but you might as well hope you’re the next J.K. Rowling with those odds. There are just so many hidden fees and so many things that go wrong: they might not charge up front, but demand you purchase 1,000 copies of your own book (which will take up your whole house and never sell); or they’ll charge you more and more for each service; or they’ll demand percentages on top of what you paid up front. You always spend more than expected.
In conclusion, self-publishing is usually a bad idea. BUT, if you’ve already done it, don’t despair. It’s going to be a harder road, but it is still possible to get traditionally published, especially if you have a good agent.
No matter what you choose to do, I wish you the best.