So this is the final post in my “How To Publish Your Book” series, a trilogy of entries meant to outline the three major types of publishing–traditional publishing, small-press publishing, and self-publishing–and how they all work, their pros and cons, and so on for those of you who want to publish your book but are unsure of which route to take. (You can read my traditional publishing post here and my small-press publishing post here [LINK]. Please remember, however, that those posts, as well as this one, do contain some subjective opinions, so be sure to check out other articles in addition to my own to get the full scope.)
Today, I wanted to focus on the method that is currently garnering the most attention in the industry: self-publishing. As I’ve mentioned in passing from time to time, I actually have self-published a book of my own (under a pen name), so I do feel as though my personal experience with self-publishing lets me speak on the topic with at least some degree of confidence. And to be clear, that experience was a great one, and I think self-publishing can be an incredible option for writers; I just have some reservations about recommending it en mass.
I’ll get to that in a moment, but for now, let’s start with the basics.
What is self-publishing?
Self-publishing is, just as it sounds, the act of publishing your book without the assistance of a publisher (usually in both eBook and print format to sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, and so on). Since self-publishing is often for-profit, it’s always done in a professional capacity, in that if you self-publish, you become an author, which means you have to bear all of the responsibilities that come with that title.
(I should note that I don’t consider posting stories to fanfiction sites, Wattpad, Figment, or so on to be self-publishing, as it is not usually done in a professional capacity. Of course, I think it’s a great that people are sharing their work through those sites, but I just want to make clear that it isn’t what I’m talking about in this post.)
Interestingly, at least in theory, self-publishing is incredibly easy. All you technically have to do is sign up for a free Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing account (more on that later), make a quick cover, jot down a blurb, upload it, and within twelve hours the eBook will go live on the Kindle store, and voila, you’re a published author! And, as uploading a book to Amazon is free, you didn’t have to pay a thing! Instant dream come true!
However, that’s just in theory.
Like I mentioned above, self-published books should be presented professionally, and while not all self-published authors follow this concept, I’ve found that, despite what you may hear, most people who are really passionate about their books and who know what they are doing do, and as a result, publishing your book isn’t exactly free. Self-published authors should hire professional designers to create their book covers, do numerous rounds of revisions on their books either with an editor, a copyeditor, or a legion of beta readers who are completely honest and who have very good eyes for critiquing, and they should present themselves in a professional manner online: they have clean, easy-to-use websites; they don’t respond to reviews; and they strive to be as professional as they can on social media.
That, in my opinion, is how you self-publish. You write a great book. You edit it. You hire a designer to create a unique and nice-to-look-at book cover. And once you publish your book, you act civilly and professionally, even to those who, for whatever reason, don’t like the story, something that in actuality is totally normal.
Point being: don’t think of self-publishing as a free, easy way to get your book out there. You want to put your best foot forward, and that means being prepared to either spend money or, if you don’t have any to spare, to find friends who are genuinely talented and can help you out.
Okay, John. Fine. All that sounds great, but why do people self-publish, anyway? If their books are so great, why don’t they just get agents and sell them to publishers?
Actually, a lot of authors who self-publish DO have agents, or at least did at some point. Some have even turned down major, six-figure book deals to self-publish. So it’s not like the self-publishing realm is overflowing with desperate, rejected writers who have nowhere else to turn as some sources may have you think. Many of them had the potential to get publishing deals, and in cases like the above even got publishing deals, but they elected to self-publish anyway because they felt it was the better choice for them and their goals.
However, on the other hand, those rejected writers who self-publish aren’t automatically “bad,” either. There are (is? Oh my English teacher will kill me if he reads this) a good number of self-publishers who have kickass books to share with the world, books that just, for whatever reason, didn’t get published. It happens. It really does, because unfortunately, writing a great book isn’t even a guarantee a publisher will pick you up: sometimes your book is awesome and publishers recognize that, but they just simply don’t feel as though they can sell it to a large enough audience for it to be worth their investment. Or sometimes you get incredibly close but have one too many strokes of bad luck, like the publisher has a book similar to yours already in the process of being published and can’t take yours on for that reason. Or, frankly, other times agents and publishers just get it wrong. They don’t mean to, of course; they aren’t out to get you like some self-published authors seem to think; they just happened to overlook a book that didn’t deserve to be overlooked.
And that’s where self-publishing comes in.
Your “niche” book that doesn’t have a wide enough audience to be traditionally published, your rejected novel that trusted and impartial sources are telling you shouldn’t have been rejected, your eighth completed novel with which you want to bypass publishers and put out on your own–thanks to self-publishing, now, they all have a place in the market. Now, they all can be read by tens, hundreds, thousands, millions of people.
Just like that.
Needless to say, this freedom can be both a dramatically positive and a dramatically negative thing. On one hand, it gives talented authors an outlet to tell the stories that readers absolutely need to hear, even after those books were rejected by publisher. But on the other hand, remembering that a good number of authors do self-publish prematurely, the self-publishing market is now absolutely flooded with poorly-written books thanks to the lack of quality control, and that makes it much harder for newcomers who have written genuinely great books to stand out.
What are the advantages of self-publishing?
There are a number of advantages to self-publishing, starting with:
– Control. With self-publishing, you can pretty much do whatever you want. You can edit your book how you want, market it how you want, price it how you want. You can give it the title and book cover of your dreams without having to worry about a publisher wanting to change it. You can also even see your book sales in real time (updated about every hour), something that most traditionally published authors can only dream of. But perhaps most importantly for those who like working on their own schedule is that when you self-publish, YOU set the deadlines. So rather than having to turn a book into your publisher by X date, you can self-publish a book whenever you feel confident that it’s ready to be out in the world.
– Better royalties. There’s no denying it: with self-publishing, your royalties are far better. Through Amazon KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing service), for example, you make 70% of the cover price per eBook sale–a number that is usually between 10% and 20% if you were to go with a traditional publisher. (However, on the flip side, it’s worth noting that readers are usually willing to pay more for traditionally published books–and also, traditionally published books are much more likely to sell well–so in the end, the two do end up on slightly equal footing.)
– Sharing your book with the world. Yes, it’s corny. But yes, it’s also true. Self-publishing gets your book out there, and if you’ve researched the industry long enough, if you’ve gotten enough critiques from unbiased sources, if you’ve looked at your book critically and you still believe it’s “good enough,” then sharing your book with the world is all you can really want–and, most likely, is your dream.
Plus, through sites like Createspace (which is affiliated with Amazon), you can even develop print copies of your book, mail ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) to bloggers, print bookmarks, and other stuff traditionally reserved for authors with publisher. (LeighAnn Kopans is a great example of a YA author who self-published her book in the same way any traditionally published book would be.
And yes, there are other advantages to self-publishing as well (as are there a number of disadvantages), but hopefully this gives you the broader positives.
Wow, that sounds seriously awesome. What could the disadvantages possibly be then??? Living your dreams and being able to mimic how a traditionally published book is released sounds pretty awesome to me.
And this is the part where I have a feeling I’m going upset some people, so, for any new writers reading this, I want to remind you that a lot of the following is my opinion, and you should most certainly check other sources too if self-publishing is something you’ve been considering. I’ve just seen too many people get over-excited and rush into self-publishing too soon and regret it later that I feel the need to at least voice my thoughts.
So, yes, self-publishing is pretty great, and I think if you take a writer who has written multiple novels in the past, who has a good understanding of the industry and how to market a book, and who knows, deep down, that he or she can do this, then yes, I think that person should self-publish. Because self-publishing, in my opinion, is on equal footing with traditional publishing when the writer has a good sense of what they are doing.
However, not everyone does have a good sense of what they are doing, and while it may look easy on the outside, self-publishing is really, really difficult. Actually, all kinds of publishing is difficult, but since self-publishing puts all of the burden on you, the author, if you’ve been considering self-publishing you have to be completely prepared for what you’re getting yourself into before you make that first step. After all, self-publishing isn’t only about writing a book and uploading it to Amazon or [insert site here]. It’s about being ready to market that book. It’s about preparing yourself for the inevitable negative reviews that follow. It’s about feeling confident in yourself and the step you are taking and being okay with exposing yourself a bit–because all of a sudden, anyone in the world can read and judge your book, and that’s a scary thing. Although I’m sure that you guys are able to handle all of the above, I do still think it’s something to keep in mind when considering self-publishing: to make sure you’re ready.
So how do you know if you’re ready? Obviously, there’s no secret formula, but I do have a few questions that I believe are important to keep in mind when considering self-publishing. (However, let’s be honest. If you care enough to have read this far, then I think it means you take this decision seriously; and therefore, no matter what I say, you should make a decision like this yourself. You know you, and whether or not you fit my “guidelines,” you should make the decision on your own, and I fully support whatever you choose.)
– Where do you feel your book fits into the market? Can you think of other, similar books out there whose fans you could potentially market to?
– What is your target audience? Do you have a plan for how to reach them, and how to get them excited about your book?
– How do you hope to handle bad reviews?
– Are you okay with presenting yourself professionally online?
– What kind of blogs would you contact to review your book? What other outlets would you promote on and how would you get people to listen?
– Do you either have a little bit of extra money to spend, or a talented friend who is willing to help you out? (NOTE: I do think the need to spend a lot of money in self-publishing is overstated, as you can get away with using a number of skilled beta readers and doings several rounds of revisions when it comes to edits, for example, but you should still at least have a plan for creating a presentable, professional cover, because that is of utmost importance if you want to be taken seriously.)
And I could ask a host of other questions as well, but hopefully this list gives you a basic idea of what you’d be getting yourself into. Because if you think over those questions and eventually can come up with strong, solid answers for each one, then there’s a good chance you are ready. If not, however, it’s probably best to hold off self-publishing for now. And for the record that’s not a bad thing: the learning curve you get from querying agents is one of the greatest ways to become a talented, informed writer, and I feel confident that all of you reading this, if you’re not there already, are right on the cusp of awesome.
So keep at it. Query some agents, meet some writers, learn a bit about publishing, and wait until you wake up one morning and say to yourself, “You know what, I’m ready to self-publish.” Or maybe you end up deciding you want to publish traditionally. Both are great options, and once you feel like you understand the writing and publishing world enough to be able to make it publishing a book on your own, then you really can’t go wrong with either one.
But wait, can self-publishing really hurt you if you aren’t experienced enough?
Actually, it can. Not a lot, but enough that it’s worth mentioning. Because if you rush into self-publishing too quickly and do a sloppy job, it can hurt your standing with agents and publishers, not to mention with readers.
Why? Well, because publishers value your status as a debut author (it’s easier to sell readers on a new author than on one who has published before without success) which means agents also value your debut status, which means if you self-publish a book that garners low sales, your “resume,” so to speak, automatically looks less appealing than that of an author who still has a “clean slate.” One sloppy book won’t hurt you much, don’t worry, but it does still matter, and in such a competitive industry, if you’re holding out hope of traditionally publishing soon, it’s safe to be a little cautious. (But remember, if you query an agent with an amazing and sellable book? Your publishing history hardly matters at all.)
And then–yes, a sloppy first book can hurt your standing with readers as well, because if your book is poorly presented and not as well written as it could have been, they have no reason to come back and look for more books from you. And while that is far from the end of the world, you can only reach so many readers on your own, and you don’t want to ruin your chances with a good number of them over something you can control, like presentability. (Bad reviews DO happen, however, no matter how great your book is; I’m only talking about losing readers for no reason, if you rush into self-publishing.)
That’s why I suggest you wait until you’re sure you’re ready: because if you do a great job self-publishing, it can only help, not hurt you. If you write a great novel, get it edited, learn how to market, identify your target audience, employ a variety of strategies to get them excited about your book, and finally, slap on a professional cover and author website, then you are golden. Readers will be flocking to you. Hell, if you do all that, I will be flocking to you.
Basically: self-publishing is work. It requires a lot of effort and an equal amount of luck, but if you don’t rush into it, if you wait until you a) know that you’re ready to be published, b) know that this is the path for you, and c) have a detailed, solid plan on how to go about getting your book into the hands of reader, then I say go for it. (And if you ever have questions, you can always email me. I’m not expert, but I can give you some advice/support!)
(If I came across as condescending anywhere thus far, truly, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to condescend or dissuade you; all I’m trying to do is to challenge you to make sure you’re not rushing a big decision like self-publishing, because I don’t want to see anyone get burned because of it.)
(Two other side notes:
1) If you do still want to try self-publishing but aren’t 100% sure about it, I suggest using a pen name. That way, if things don’t work out, you’ll still have that clean slate. ;) Plus, self-publishing can also be a really great learning experience for you as a writer, so doing it under a pen name can’t hurt much if that’s something you choose.
2) If all you want to do is print some copies of your book to show to friends and families, that is totally different from total self-publishing. Printing copies can’t hurt you at all, and it’s something I actually encourage you to do, as it is entirely awesome and rewarding to hold your own book in your hand. (I recommend using CreateSpace, if you need a suggestion on where to start.))
How do I know if self-publishing is right for me?
If self-publishing sounds like it’s right for you, chances are that it probably is. However, since I know that’s not really an answer, if I were to generalize those who are compatible with self-publishing I’d say that self-publishers tend to want to be able to control their book’s editing, cover, marketing, title, and so on, tend to want the freedom to experiment with different promotion strategies/book covers on their own, and tend to like working for themselves–both because they set their own deadlines in that case, and also because they don’t need to consult the publisher before releasing, say, a book teaser. The ideal self-publisher is also often well-versed in book marketing, blogging, and self-editing; she* is okay with sometimes needing to be a little bit shameless in her self-promotion; she has written multiple full-length books in the past; she is prepared for inevitable negative reviews; and she knows exactly what audience would love her book and how to reach them long before she announces that she’s self-publishing. There are exceptions, of course, and I don’t think you should use this list as a basis for whether or not self-publishing is a good fit for you, but it should give you a general idea of the kinds of people who self-publish.
The ideal self-publisher should also be reconciled to some of the pitfalls of self-publishing. For example, self-publishers don’t get bookstore placement, don’t usually get inclusion into the yearly debut author group blogs, don’t usually have the ability to offer pre-orders of their book, don’t usually get reviewed by major publications, and so on. There is also a lingering stigma against self-publishers in the industry, so you should be prepared for certain people having a much more difficult time accepting you as an author if you’re self-published than if you’re traditionally published. (So that means bookstore owners may not want you to do book signings in their store if you don’t have a publisher, magazine editors may not want to interview if you don’t have a publisher, etc.)
How do you self-publish?
I’m not going to go too in-depth into the how of self-publishing because there are so many different ways to go about it, but for those who are curious, here is the REALLY general gist of it.
Basically, the majority of the self-publishing market revolves around eBooks**, and since Amazon is by far the dominate force in eBook sales, I think it’s fair to say that self-publishing all but revolves around Amazon. This is thanks to Amazon self-publishing program known as Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), which, through just a few clicks, allows you to publish your book, complete with a cover, blurb, and search tags, to Amazon. And just like that, within twelve hours, it will appear in the Kindle store for customers across the globe to buy and read. (Amazon automatically publishes books to all of its arms throughout the world; you have to manually deselect eBook distribution to another country if you don’t like that prospect for whatever reason). If you’re interested in some screenshots from the process, see here, but suffice it to say, the actual act of self-publishing your book is so simple that there is little else to say about it.
Amazon, though, is not the only online bookseller with a self-publishing program. Other popular self-publishing platforms include Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Press, Kobo’s Writing Life, Apple’s iBooks Author, as well as Draft2Digital and Smashwords, both of which are more distributors than they are publishers, meaning they send your book to even more online stores you otherwise wouldn’t have access to (such as Sony, Diesel, Oyster, etc.). Of course, all of these platforms take a cut of the royalties: Amazon takes 30% of the cover price on sales in most of their stores, and the other sites hover somewhere around that number: both Barnes & Noble and Kobo take 35%, I believe. But perhaps the greatest thing about all of these platforms is that you don’t have to choose which one to publish on; unless you decide to publish through KDP Select, then you can publish your book through pretty much every online ebookstore out there. (But as far as the actual act of uploading is concerned, all of these sites are relatively easy to publish on, possibly with the exception of Apple. The only issue you may encounter is that every site has its own specific style guide for exactly how your document should be formatted as well as the size of your cover, so pay close attention to that when uploading. Formatting improperly can screw with the look of your book page-by-page on Kindle/Nook/reading tablet, and you definitely don’t want that.)
Okay, but you mentioned something called “KDP Select” briefly. What is that exactly?
KDP Select is an arm of Amazon’s KDP. In one sentence, it’s basically an imprint wherein you publish your book exclusively on Amazon for a 90-day period in exchange for certain benefits, like better royalties in particular Amazon stores, the ability to temporarily make your book free as a form of promotion, the ability to do a “Kindle Countdown Deal,” such that Amazon features your book on their Countdown page, and so on. But since that Amazon exclusivity means your book can’t be published on any other store besides Amazon during that 90-day period, whether KDP Select is “worth it” is a bit of a push and pull depending on how much you sell on those other eBook store. (Generally, your sales on Amazon will far outmatch your sales on any other store.)
Aaaand at this point, I’ve just spent four hours straight writing this post, so I’m going to defer to NYT bestselling self-published author CJ Lyons for more on Select.
Thanks, guys! Hope this helped at least a little bit! Let me know if you have any questions.
**But thanks to sites like CreateSpace, your book can also be published in print format on sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and The Book Depository.