I wrote this article originally in 2011, when self-publishing was still new. Time has passed and a lot of things have changed, but I still get the question “Should I self-publish?” a lot. And while things have changed in both parts of the publishing industry, the advice in this column still holds. So with some updates….
Should I self-publish?
The answer is, “It depends.”
I have always been big on writers (everyone really) having goals and being honest about those goals. That should always be your first step—assessing your goals and being really truly honest with yourself. But you may also need to face the reality that the publishing world has already changed and is going to continue to change. Some of those goals may just not be reachable anymore.
But let’s move back a step or two. What are the reasons, good and bad, to choose each option (self-publishing vs traditional publishing)?
Should I self-publish, the breakdown
You like to be your own boss.
Good Reason. Self-publishing gives you more freedom. It also, however, requires that you are willing to line up services, like copy editing, cover design, etc. on your own. However, if you are an entrepreneur at heart, self-publishing is definitely going to have pluses for you that traditional publishing doesn’t. (A Yes to Should I self-publish?)
You want to make a lot of money.
Bad Reason. There have been some highly publicized examples of authors who have hit the motherlode by publishing on their own through Kindle or Nook. There are also a ton of authors who are selling very few copies of their book. You might make a ton of money, you might make a decent living wage, and you might make ditkus. It all depends on you and your books. (A Maybe to Should I self-publish?)
You are tired of rejection or afraid of rejection.
Good and Bad Reason. Good because I know many authors who have written good books that were rejected by traditional publishers. These books weren’t rejected because the books weren’t well written. They were rejected because the publishing houses didn’t think the market was big enough for them to make a profit off of publishing them. This is a Good Reason to self-publish. I have seen authors do really well with these types of books, some crazy well.
However, if you are just hiding from the “no,” then this is a Bad Reason. It is true that there is no gatekeeper stopping you from publishing your book for all the world to see, buy and read, but here’s the deal, readers will see, buy and read your book. Then guess what? Some of them will hate it. Some of them will leave horrible reviews saying you need an editor, write like a ten-year-old or have the morals of a drunken pirate. This isn’t just rejection; it is public rejection.
If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t publish—self-publish or traditional.
Should I get an agent and/or traditional publish, the breakdown
You want to be “real” or see your book on a bookstore shelf.
Bad Reason. First, major publishers are already switching to all digital lines. Yes, for the most part, those are add-on lines, but this is going to change. Sometime in the not-so-distant future books are going to be digitally released first and many entirely. I have already heard of one major traditional publisher who is doing this. Others are making moves that tell authors this is coming. And here’s the deal, your contract, unless you can somehow manage to get it added, will not dictate what format your books will be published in. I know authors who signed contracts thinking their books would be released and print, and guess what? Those books are now digital only. (I didn’t update this part, but it has and is happening.)
So do not sign a contract just because you want your book to be in print (unless it is explicitly spelled out that it will be—which I’m guessing you will have a really hard time getting put into writing, but hey, you never know…).
Also, the real thing? I got nothing for that. You just have to get over it. Really. Get over it. You writer. You are real.
You want to have the “editing” experience
Bad Reason. Editors vary. Some edit and quite honestly some don’t. And many times that editing is to make the book fit a certain market or slot and not about making the book better. If the book wasn’t a certain level of “good” they wouldn’t have bought the thing in the first place.
If you really want to be edited, hire an editor. You don’t need a traditional publisher for this.
You have a high concept idea
Good Reason. Traditional publishing loves high concept ideas. They know how to market high concept ideas. If you have the next Jurassic Park, it would (IMO) be foolhardy of you to self-publish it without trying for a traditional publisher first. But be aware what high concept really is. It isn’t just adding “meets” between two existing movies or books. It is something that makes your head lift up when you hear it and that tiny bit of jealousy rise. “Hey, I wish I’d thought of that.” High concept is hard—but if you have it, at least try selling it to New York. (But this one earns a No on the Should I self-publish question, at least until you have seen what a traditional publisher has to offer you.)
You need or want an advance
With reservations, Good Reason. An advance is an upfront payment. It can vary from very little money, a few hundred, to a lot of money. I hear people dropping numbers as “average” advances, but averages vary so much by genre, publisher size, and author that I think that is really deceptive. So don’t assume that any number you have heard is what you would be offered. It could be a lot higher or a lot lower. The point is, if you want or need upfront money, you will not get that self-publishing.
My reservations about this being a good reason to sell to a traditional publisher are that in today’s quick changing world, you can’t count on getting anything past that advance. If I was to sign for this reason, I would make sure the advance was high enough that I would be happy if I never earned another dime on that book. And the problem with this is that advances (on average) are going down. In fact, those digital first lines that many traditional publishers are starting come with no advance. So signing with a traditional publisher does not guarantee this money. (But this one also earns a No on the Should I self-publish question, at least until you have seen what a traditional publisher has to offer you.)
So there are a few good and bad reasons to self-publish or traditionally publish. Do you have more? What is the main reason you have or are considering one choice over the other? Or are you? Many authors are for now choosing both options.
Still interested in self-publishing? Here’s a self-publishing checklist.
Leaning towards getting an agent and going the traditional publishing route? Here are 25 questions to ask a literary agent before signing.
Lori Devoti is the author of paranormal romance, urban fantasy and young adult fiction. Under the name Rae Davies, she writes the USA Today Bestselling Dusty Deals Mystery series. Check out her books at www.LoriDevoti.com and RaeDavies.com. Looking for help with your writing? Lori also does developmental editing and critiques for other authors and publishers. See our Editorial Services page for contact information and pricing. Or check out Lori’s classes at the Continuing Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin.