Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 5: Why Not Just Self-Publish?

Here we are at the end of December, coming close to the end of the Tiny Writers’ Conference (though, like many a good writers’ conference session, we’ll go a little bit over our time—when you get on a roll, it’s hard to stop the conversation!) 

We’re at the point in the conference when someone will inevitably ask, why not just self-publish a book? Sometimes the tone of the question, especially when it’s asked by a kindly and maternal type, says why are you doing this to yourself, sweetie?  Other times, often when it’s asked by a middle-aged man, for some reason, implies a challenge:You think self-pub isn’t good enough for you?

Let me start by saying that I’m not here to scoff at self-published books or their authors. Not at all. In fact, I think there are several good reasons you might self-publish a book. Maybe you want to get a timely book out quickly, and without the emotional upheaval that the traditional agenting, pitching, and publishing process can entail. Maybe you enjoy shepherding a project from inception to completion without anybody else’s demands encroaching on your vision for the final product. Maybe you recognize that the project has a limited audience, such as your close friends and family, and you’re intending the final book to go directly into their hands.

At the same time, there are some tremendously good reasons to pursue traditional publishing. Let’s put aside the prestige factor (and let’s face it: plenty of us, myself included, want the validation of having clawed our way past the gatekeepers of literature) and look at the disadvantages of self-publishing, especially those disadvantages that arise after you’ve already published your book.

First, self-published titles aren’t typically eligible for book reviews in any of the traditional review venues, such as newspapers or journals. Second, self-published books aren’t eligible for the same book awards as traditionally published titles. Finally, self-published books aren’t typically purchased by bookstores or libraries.

Good reviews and awards can be important ways that an author builds awareness of a book, and ways in which she generates sales. Bookstores and libraries, of course, are still where a large number of readers find books, so losing those two important venues further limits the reach an author has to her audience.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re okay with doing without reviews, awards, and distribution. You’ve still got a few hurdles you need to to clear before you’re even ready to publish your book.

First, who’s going to edit the book? Everybody can benefit from an editor’s eye, even if only on the copy level. The more you look at a text, the more everything looks as though it’s correct, even if it’s actually rife with errors; no author is immune to the can’t-see-her-own-mistakes fog. You may even need some developmental editing; as good as your critique group may be, they may not find every plot hole or inconsistency in your manuscript. They’ve looked at it for a long while, too, after all. They’re not immune to the fog, either. If you want to publish a book yourself, you’re probably going to want to invest in a professional editorial service.

Second, who’s going to design the cover and the internal layout of the book? Who’s going to convert the book into the appropriate file types for publishing in ebook format? You don’t want the manuscript you’ve worked on for years to come out looking like something on the Lousy Book Covers Tumblr.  (If you’re at all tempted to slap a book cover together without some design training, this is the Tumblr to curb that impulse!). Designing an internal layout isn’t a walk in the park, either. You may need to hire a professional to help keep your book from looking like it should be on a worst-dressed list.

Third, who’s going to promote the book? Do you have a plan for reaching your audience? It’s not as simple as uploading a file to Amazon and waiting for fame and sales to rain down upon you. You’re going to have to get the word out to your audience somehow, and your publicity strategy may not be all that different—or any less demanding—from a traditionally published author’s.

If you have a thoughtful and detailed response to each of the three questions above, wonderful—you’re probably in good shape to self-publish if you want to do so. But let me add one last question: are you sure you’re going to be happy with your choice to self-publish? If you think that, a few months down the line, you may want to traditionally publish your book, that’s a good sign that you should try traditional publishing first and see where the process leads you. Self-pub will always be an option, while traditional publishing probably won’t be if you’ve already exhausted your rights, not to mention your promotional chutzpa, on the book in its self-published form.

7 Replies to “Tiny Writers’ Conference, Week 5: Why Not Just Self-Publish?”

  1. I’m traditionally published by a small press. Unfortunately, many of the self-published disadvantages you mention apply to small presses too. Specifically: Promotion, Libraries, Bookstores, Reviews.

  2. Well, I think that’s not entirely true, John! You are *eligible* for all of the above; you may just have to do all the legwork yourself. It’s not fun, but it’s an option to you. If you were not traditionally published, you wouldn’t even have the chance to approach review venues or prizes.

  3. Kelly, thanks for these — I know I’ve been uber busy to participate, but these have been nice to follow, the room may have an echo, but I’m listening bob

  4. Yes, Kelly. Many authors don’t realize the limitations or the demands that a self-published book requires. One of the main problems with self-publishing through a venue such as Create Space includes the lack of editorial standards and the costs of self-promotion. However, I pick up mistakes and errors in traditionally published books as well, but not to the extent they can appear in a self-published work.
    Perhaps a happy compromise is to go with a well-established and respected self-publishing company (Booklocker) that insists on applying their standards to the work, including offering a well-designed cover. After all, their name is on the cover and the overall quality reflects on them as well as on the author.
    Competitions are open (writer’s digest) to self-published authors as well. However, the self-published author must exert the time, money and energy to research valid promotional venues and learn the subtle skills of promotion. If they don’t, they run the risk of sounding like a narcissistic egomaniac.

  5. Thanks for these comments, Kaye–you’re absolutely right that a cooperative (I’m not familiar with Booklocker, which my auto correct really wants to change to “bootlicker,” horribly enough, but certainly with ventures like Booktrope) can be a great middle way.

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