Why pay to be printed when you could get paid to be published?
If you’re shopping your book to publishers who require you to pay for any portion of the process, you’re self-publishing.
A company can call itself whatever it wants—hybrid, subsidy, cooperative, indie. But if you pay one dime for any of their services (even committing to a minimum initial order as part of the deal or paying for publicity or any other marketing element), you’re self-publishing.
How can I say that when you might have been told your book was “accepted,” and you’ve been “offered a contract,” and you’re paying only for this or that?
Trust me, whatever you’re paying likely covers the company’s other expenses to produce your book and even gives them a profit.
And you are still the decision-maker; that makes you the publisher.
What’s wrong with that? Why should we let the big, impersonal, almost-impossible-to-crack traditional publishers make all the decisions about our books?
Because they’ve earned that right, know what they’re doing, pay you for the privilege, and take all the risk.
Will Self-Publishing Your Book Really Get You More Money?
But, the argument goes, “Why should I accept a royalty of roughly 15% of sales when I could pocket all the profits?”
Because 15% of 10,000 books sold is a lot more than 85% of 1,000 books sold. Do the math on a $15 book.
10,000 x $15 = $150,000 x 15% = $22,500.
1,000 x $15 = $15,000 x 85% = $ 12,750.
Why do I use those sales figures (10,000 vs. 1,000)? Because most traditional publishers will not accept a book they don’t think will sell at least 10,000 copies.
And because 1,000 books sold is way above the average for self-published books, despite the rare, noisy exception.
And how much would a self-publisher cost you before you started selling books? Up to $10,000 is not unheard of.
The Shocking Self-Publishing Statistic
Jeremy Greenfield, who writes about ebooks and digital publishing for Forbes, reported nearly three years ago that according to data from a new survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest, the median income range for self-published authors is under $5,000. And nearly 20% of self-published authors report deriving no income from their writing.
“Few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs,” Greenfield quotes Dana Beth Weinberg, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Queens College in New York City.
It’s true that your traditionally published title might never earn you more than the $5,000 to $10,000 advance you might receive. But it’s also true that very few self-published titles get anywhere close to 1,000 sales. Most, in fact, are given away.
The So-Called Benefits of Self-Publishing
But hasn’t the self-publishing revolution—including all the nearly free ways to “publish” your book online—made this the greatest era ever for writers?
So some would have you believe. “Finally,” they say, “there’s room for everyone. You don’t face the Catch-22 of needing to be published before getting an agent or a contract. You can publish yourself!”
The fallacy in that argument is that writers who do this then represent themselves as “published authors”—a stretch, you must admit. And when they present themselves that way to traditional publishers, they find that having self-published was the worst thing they could do for their reputations.
Plus, because it seems nearly everyone is doing this, the bigger pool for everyone to play in has become a problem in itself. While competition is stiff and the odds of landing a traditional publishing contract are long, literally tens of thousands are self-publishing every day. I’m not exaggerating.
So the likelihood of your manuscript, even if it’s great, being noticed in that avalanche of mediocrity (and worse) is minuscule.
The Self-Publishing Predators
Sad to say, too many self-publishers and self-publishing online courses today are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
They lie in wait like jungle cats until an unsuspecting victim crosses their path. Playing on your dream of being published, they lure you with phrases like:
- “Become a published author in less than 90 days!”
- “Make your book an Amazon bestseller—guaranteed!”
- “Self-publishing will supercharge your career!”
They promise “getting published,” marketing strategies, and wide distribution. But you pay for it all (regardless of sales success)—sometimes thousands for:
- Poor cover design with exorbitant upcharges for changes
- Unprofessional type and page layout
- Little or no editing and/or proofreading
- Overblown marketing promises that really consist of getting your title listed in some massive online catalogue that bookstores ignore
- A publisher much less responsive (sometimes impossible to engage) once you’ve signed the deal and sent your check
- Dismal sales
Even the better, more reputable self-publishing companies—those who can produce handsome products and even offer professional editing and proofreading—will either:
- Overcharge for such services, or
- Allow you to opt out of investing in such services
Frankly, that’s one of the biggest dangers. When you publish without editing or proofreading, it shows. Some authors even choose to have their manuscripts printed “as is.” In other words, rather than a traditional-looking typeset, they go directly from their computer-generated manuscript to the printed page.
More Self-Publishing Downsides
Opting out of professional typesetting can result in a book with:
- San serif type (like this blog, as opposed to serif type—scientifically proven to read easier)
- Flush-left paragraphs (not indented)
- A space between each paragraph (again, like this blog)
That is customary for online copy. But all those elements are no-nos if you want your book taken seriously in the marketplace.
I’ve even seen books “published” with two spaces between sentences, the way we old-timers were taught to type in prehistoric days. You won’t find a traditionally published book with two spaces between sentences.
On top of that, many such companies will allow you to choose your own cover, whether you have any design background or not. They’ll also let you put “by” in front of your name on the cover—something else you won’t see on a real book.
I’ve seen Foreword spelled Forward, Foreward, and even Forword. It’s always a dead giveaway that I’m looking at a self-published book. I’ve also seen Acknowledgments spelled with the extra British e: Acknowledgements.
Those may not seem like big deals, but compounded they result in an amateurish, obviously self-published book.
Why Would Self-Publishers Allow This?
Not all would, of course, but to too many of them, you’re fresh meat to be moved through the cattle chute. I maintain a personal policy that forbids criticizing companies by name. But it does seem in many cases—based on myriad complaints I’ve heard from many writers—too many self-publishing firms seem to care most about cashing your check.
Of course, not ALL self-publishing companies are predatory.
But enough are that you should exercise extreme caution if you go that route. I recommend that you not even negotiate with one without first conducting a vigorous background check, including personal knowledge of a satisfied customer.
You’re Working with a Sleazy Self-Publishing Company When:
- They refuse to acknowledge that traditional publishing is almost always your best option if you can break in (don’t even think about publishing with someone who doesn’t admit this)
- They let you publish your book—and put their name on it—despite the blatant errors or sloppiness outlined above
- They insist they’re not a subsidy- or self-publisher, despite that you are being charged (for any of the process)
Below I’ll cover when self-publishing is your best option and how to find a reputable company that actually cares whether your book succeeds.
But I’ve seen enough highway robbery in this business to advise you to be highly skeptical of any company before you’ve done your homework.
When Self-Publishing Makes Sense
I’ve made it my life’s work to coach writers to get their writing to a level where they can market it to traditional publishers. You’ll rarely see me suggest self-publishing as a first option.
So, when would I suggest it?
- When your book does not have wide commercial appeal. Traditional publishers cannot accept books of interest to only several hundred friends and relatives. I self-published two volumes of my late father’s poetry, as well as a short biography of my wife’s grandmother, who lived to be 101.
- When you need to be published for the sake of your career. You may be a professor under a publish-or-perish mandate. Or you may be an expert in some esoteric science or discipline in which it behooves you to have books available at speaking events.
- When you have exhausted all traditional publishing avenues and realize that either your subject matter or your writing quality will never be favored by traditional publishers, yet you remain determined to be published.
In that last case, if you choose the self-publishing route, be prepared to spend as much as it takes to get a final product that looks as much as possible like a traditionally published book. If you’re not willing or able to spend that much, at least have someone edit and proofread your book.
And realize that the responsibility of promotion and marketing and sales will fall entirely on you. You’ll either do it yourself, or you will pay for it.
Before You Settle for Self-Publishing
If you’re having trouble landing an agent or a traditional publisher, take a hard look at the writing itself. Weak writing is the #1 cause of rejections.
And cream always rises. So do whatever is necessary to make your writing cream.
The Truth about Agents and Publishers
They aren’t looking for reasons to reject your manuscript. Though the best agents and editors can tell within five minutes whether your manuscript is publishable, they want you to succeed.
If your first few pages aren’t error-free or don’t grab the reader by the throat, agents and editors immediately know it’ll be far too labor-intensive (expensive) for an editor to clean up.
(If you’re wondering how to clean up your own manuscript to give it the best chance with an agent or a traditional publisher, my ultimate self-editing guide will get you started.)
That’s why the goal of this blog and my Writers Guild is to give you what you need to take your writing to the next level. Ideally, I want to see you shop your writing to literary agents and traditional publishing houses.
Despite holding for decades my current view of self-publishing, I did waver a few years ago and even offered self-publishing packages through my former guild. I heard enough writers complain that they found it impossible to break into traditional publishing. And enough traditional publishers admit that the odds were growing longer against new writers.
I believed I had seen the light and developed a self-publishing package that did little but prove to me in the end that I had been right all along. No one seemed to be able to afford a self-publishing package that included everything that I insisted would make it reputable.
I wound up publishing several of my colleagues, who largely resurrected and updated out-of-print traditional titles. Bookstores accepted these because well-known writers’ names were on them, as was mine.
That proved to be my short-lived attempt at doing something credible in that market. I was left feeling the need to post a blog like this.
So, My Advice to You
- Give yourself to the craft
- Hone your writing skills
- Read everything you can about writing, including my idea of the best books on writing
- Exhaust all efforts to get your writing quality to the level where you can compete for a traditional book contract
That may seem like only a dream right now. But if you apply yourself, you might be surprised at your results by this time next year.
If you do opt for self-publishing, there are some good, reputable companies out there. But do yourself a favor and read this revealing book before you sign a contract: Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should (Updated Second Edition).
Though I disagree that “you should,” aside from certain circumstances, the chapter on vanity presses alone (especially some associated with established traditional publishing houses) is a must-read.
Many of these have been under investigation for failing to pay writers, overcharging, and otherwise taking advantage of newbie authors.
My Bottom Line
This post is not intended to start an argument or even a discussion on the pros and cons of self-publishing. It reflects my view, and those who vehemently disagree are entitled to theirs.
But even if you are in that camp, let’s agree on this: Regardless the method of publishing you choose, your reader deserves quality writing. Self-publishing is no excuse for less than your absolute best effort.
Have you had good or bad experiences in self-publishing? Tell me in the Comments.