by Marie Marshall
Last week I read Martin Crosbie’s article entitled 5 Reasons Why You Should STILL Be Self-Publishing.So far, I have held back from self-publishing. I currently have five books published by the traditional route (three novels, two of which are for YA/older children, and two collections of poetry). From my point of view, getting someone else engaged in publishing my writing was part of the endeavour and the achievement.
Now, as an intro, that may sound as though I’m assuming a position of superiority. Not at all. I don’t mean to belittle anyone else’s high quality writing (I know that is a difficult thing to define anyway), but whether we like it or not, there IS a hell of a lot of rubbish (also not easy to define) out there on Planet Self-Publish, and it is amongst the generality of that overcrowded planet’s population that good self-published writers have chosen to walk. The rubbish will proliferate, and it will probably proliferate at a faster rate than the good stuff. The way I see it, it is necessary to introduce voluntary ‘best practices’ in order to raise at least the quality of presentation. I’m sure this has been said many times before, but I am going to say it anyway.
1) Self-publishing does not mean self-editing.
No matter how many times I have read through a manuscript, I have been shocked at how many typos and other errors I have missed. These would have been caught by a professional editor. If you believe in the worth of your work, be prepared to back that up by having it independently edited. No, your best friend doesn’t count as an independent editor; an independent editor is someone who does it professionally. This costs money. If you can’t afford it or can’t raise it and still go ahead with publication, well then beware.
2) Self-assessment is biased. Get your work peer-reviewed.
No, your friends and family don’t count. They will love your work and consider you the new Tolstoy/Austen/Joyce/Rushdie anyway. Find a handful of people who will beta read your work, from amongst those involved in writing and/or reading new literature in your genre. You will end up making friends with them anyway, but the most important thing is to allow them to challenge style, content, and structure. Then go back to your manuscript with their critique in the forefront of your mind.
3) Try to get it published by a publishing house first.
Why not! It’s worth a go! Send a synopsis and a few sample chapters to literary agents and see if any of them will take you up. You may have to sit with your manuscript burning a hole on your desk for a few months, but bear that. You may get a few comments back about style, content, and structure (again!) – look on that as some input free of charge.
4) Get original cover art.
You need something that will grab attention. Let’s say you have a book on Amazon, and there sits the thumbnail of your cover. Imagine that the potential reader with that open in his or her browser is, in fact, looking at it on display at a station book stall; their train is due in two minutes, so they have thirty seconds in which to decide to pick up YOUR book as opposed to anyone else’s. Getting original artwork can also take time and be expensive, but you have to weigh up whether it is worth it, rather than using a template or mocking something up from a public domain image. You have a lot more control over this than if the decision were in the hands of a publisher (I have to say that I have been fairly lucky and have been pleased with the look of my books). On the other hand, publishing houses know what works, so take a look at what is prominent in your local bookshop.
5) Cover everything a publishing house would.
If they would do it, you do it. Please do not just bang your work out there.
6) Self-published and still hoping to be taken up by a publishing house?
Don’t hold your breath. Even getting picked up by one of Amazon’s imprints, as mentioned in Martin’s article, is exceptional. Publishing houses generally will have the following attitudes towards taking up a self-published book. Firstly that it amounts to secondary publishing, and they don’t do secondary publishing; the majority of publishing houses want unpublished work. Secondly, if your book has not sold well, that is an indication that it isn’t commercial. Lastly, if yours has sold well, it has already eaten up a chunk of its potential market. A lose/lose situation.
One thing a publisher usually covers is the promotion of an author’s book. This is something you are going to have to do for yourself. Arm yourself with the cheek of the devil and offer readings, book signings, and so on at your local bookshop, coffee shop, mall, or wherever. Go to open mics and read your favourite passage. But you HAVE to be armed with something of comparative quality to what is available in bookshops!
8) Be pleased with your achievement of having written a book.
There is a lot of satisfaction from simply having created a work of art. I know this is heresy, but do you really need to publish it? I know there will be sharp intakes of breath at this radical thought, but step back and think the unthinkable.
9) There are alternatives.
Time and effort spent constructing a blog for short stories, essays, flash fiction, poetry, etc. is not a waste of time. But remember, even this needs care: editing, design planning, etc. You may manage to build up a good following that way, and know that your writing is appreciated.
So, explore some other avenues, and once you have, then take the plunge into self-publishing. Don’t sell yourself short.
Marie Marshall is an Anglo-Scottish author, poet, and editor who likes her written works to speak for her. You may learn more about Marie at her website and her Author Central page.
40 thoughts on “If you really must walk on Planet Self-Publish…”
We did try the traditional route for the first two years. After two years of rejections without any feedback as to why, we read about Amanda Hocking’s self publishing story and decided to go that route. Did we know anything? No, we didn’t. but we have learned a lot along the way. The biggest thing we have learned is what works for one person doesn’t always work for the second person. Traditional publishing has worked great for you, Self publishing has worked great for Martin. Small independent publishing houses like MKSP work great for others too. The one thing most people miss is to keep trying and keep learning new ideas and avenues. Find what works best for you and your genre. Thank you for this wonderful reminder about getting professional editing and book covers done. Very sage advice.
You’re welcome. I put the article together in a bit of a hurry and I’m sure there’s a lot more I could have said, and you’re right about the diversity of what works.
I have been traditionally published through a small publishing and self published. I don’t have to walk on Planet Self Published, I choose to. That being said, I agree with all the points in this article except one. To try submitting to a house anyway because it will only take a few months. Over a year after I had sent out queries to literary agents, I was still getting replies. Rejections, of course.
Editing is important but don’t just blame self published authors for poor presentation. I’ve seen some traditionally published books that need to be edited more thoroughly.
As for covers, I so agree on getting original artwork. People will judge on the cover and you don’t want anything that looks like someone else’s cover. Why spend all the time and money on editing etc to blow it with a shoddy cover?
Thanks for an interesting, thought provoking article.
Hi. It actually took me a lot longer than that. I completed my first novel, ‘Lupa’, in 2005 and agreed a publishing deal in 2011.
Sounds reasonable to me, if it gets you to a big five publisher (or Amazon) along with a reasonable advance. (Worst that can happen is that you end up self-publishing eventually anyway.) Go carefully into any other publishing relationships. Check Preditors and Editors. Check with the other authors they publish. They often seem like the worst of both worlds to me. You give up control, but don’t necessarily do any better than you would on your own.
Very good advice, Sandra.
It would be interesting to see how it all shakes out in the publishing world in 50 years. Too bad I won’t be around to see that. In the mean time I agree with 90% of what you say Marie, particularly that there are far, far too many of what I would term as “carelessly” self-published works. And you’re absolutely right, friends and family and are not your friends when it comes to editing and critique.
Personally, I’m in it for the writing, not the publishing and certainly not the money. Nor do I have any enthusiasm for marketing, but that’s my choice. But whatever I do put out there for public consumption will be as clean, polished and professional as I can make it. And yes, that means spending more money than I will ever get back.
90% is a good score, John. Thank you.
I read with interest and a hollow feeling, have I rushed into self publishing and doomed myself. Your points are valid and true. Unfortunately as a writer we spend so long waiting for that email to say yes or no. On my first book I think I had over 150 rejections (which is all part of it). Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of just wait, you have to do something. I wish all writers who go traditional the best of luck and I hope all goes well.
Och, I hope you are using the term ‘doomed’ ironically. I can’t stress enough that the actual creation of a novel is a wonderful thing, something to be proud of. I’ll never forget how it felt putting the final full-stop (period) at the end of ‘Lupa’. Yes, rejection is a choker, but you aren’t alone – I might sound successful, but I’ve had my share of them!
I’ve never understood the point about poorly written dreck dragging down the rest of self publishers who do it right. I agree that there is poorly produced material available that someone’s spouse or uncle thought was great. The reality is, those books soon sink to the sub-million ranking where they belong. They don’t make discovery of my books, with pro editing, proofing, and cover any more or less difficult, because people never see them.
I never sent off a single query letter to an agent or publisher. Aside from an interest in selling foreign rights to my books, I have absolutely no interest in a deal from a traditional publisher. There are too many downsides: lengthy publishing schedule, poorly thought out “promotions,” noncompete clauses, poor royalties, difficulty in getting my rights back after they’ve given up on a book, a short window to succeed or fail, etc.
For me, I didn’t need an editor or agent to tell me if my books are good. I chose to put them in the marketplace and let the readers tell me instead. I value the feedback of the reader who emails me, joins my mailing list, and follows my FB page much more than someone looking for any reason to reject me.
I have a friend who wrote a wonderful novel the same time as I wrote my first book. Three years later, he is still seeking a publisher, while I have four books, five novellas and a number of short stories in the marketplace selling. He’s finally working on self publishing the book now. Of course, I can’t predict how that book will do, but now it will have a chance.
I’m glad you’re happy with your path, Marie, but I think worrying about the poorly produced self pubbed books is tilting at a windmill that doesn’t need to be pierced.
I so agree with you, Shawn! There are a lot of books published by big presses that I’ve had to put down because the plots are thin, the characters weak, or too much mumble jumble. I’m pretty much a rebel and I’m not going to necessarily like a book just because it’s a NYTimes best seller. In fact, I haven’t really found one that I adore yet. Still, some Indie authors are writing some pretty awesome novels with new ideas, new twists, cutting edge plots and exciting characters. I want to be in that group and I’m going to hone my skills until the world takes notice.
Good on you, Dianne! 🙂
Well just you go on doing what you’re doing if that suits you. I wasn’t holding as gun to your head.
I just launched my first self pubbed book after querying and after having 3 books published by small presses. I had a very soft launch this time and only sold a few copies, but already I’ve made half of what my latest small press has given me in royalties for 4 books in two years. I plan on doing a tour and a sale with KDP. Getting reimbursed for the hard labor I’ve put into my writing and marketing is going to be a joy. Not sure I’ll do this any other way from now on. I don’t care what anyone thinks about self published authors anymore.
“but whether we like it or not, there IS a hell of a lot of rubbish (also not easy to define) out there on Planet Self-Publish, and it is amongst the generality of that overcrowded planet’s population that good self-published writers have chosen to walk”
This is the fundamental misunderstanding of all traditional publishers. It’s based on an erroneous conception of the reader’s point of view.
The truth is this: ALL books are out amongst the swarm of published books out there. ALL of them have the same shelf space. Assuming they have a decent cover and blurb, readers don’t have the foggiest notion which ones are self published and which are not.
Best yet, readers mostly don’t care.
It’s not the self publishers who are “amongst the dreck”. It’s ALL books which are. And ALL books which need to be seen in the sea of books.
The good news is, readers don’t buy bad books. So the “dreck”? The really bad stuff, with no audience at all? It sinks into the mess, never to be seen again.
Lots of good books sink, too; that’s the challenge of there being too many good books and not enough reader hours for them all. But that’s where competition comes in (and your quality control comments are not too off, there).
1) If you are a professional editor, then by all means copy edit your own work. That’s awesome. I do it. I also send some stuff out to other copy editors. Depends on the piece. I KNOW my proofing skills on my own work are about as good as any other pro proofer – I’ve tested it. But if your skills are not up to that level, hire someone.
2) Yes, get your work reviewed. By READERS, the only audience which really counts, anyway. Publish. You’ll get feedback pretty fast, even if it is dead silence (and yes, dead silence is feedback).
3) Only if you are REALLY bad at math! Traditional publishers take 3/4 of the income on your books for precious little in return. Worst – they use non-compete clauses to control your future work as well, potentially for the rest of your life. These non-competes can be devastating to your career. In general, traditional publishers are death to your career until you are big enough that you can bargain with them – by which time, you’re big enough that they can’t give you more money than you’d get on your own anyway.
4) and 5) I agree.
6) Why would you? By the time some publisher notices you, you will be big enough that NOTHING THEY CAN OFFER YOU is worthwhile. Go check Kboards – the number of writers who turned down six figure deals last year are stunning. And most pro indies are recommending writers turn down five figure deals as well, these days. They’re not worth it.
7) No, publishers do NOT promote your books. On the contrary, having a “platform” is a primary requirement to getting most deals these days. Publishers do precisely enough promotion on most books to get them into B&N and some other bookstores – and everything else is on the writer. The difference after the first three months of release – and remember, most publishers these days are taking rights for duration of copyright – is negligible.
8) Sure, you don’t need to publish. If you don’t want to, don’t. But there’s no harm in doing so. Worst case? The book will suck, no one will read it, no one will buy it, and it will sink and never be seen. The WORST case scenario for the worst book ever written is that nobody will see it. It doesn’t hurt you to try.
9) Explore other avenues too? Sure.
And DEFINITELY don’t sell yourself short – self publish first. Anything else is selling yourself short. 😉
“…It’s not the self publishers who are “amongst the dreck”. It’s ALL books which are. And ALL books which need to be seen in the sea of books….”
Now THAT is a good point.
Kevin, make room in your boat for me, because I’m in it with you, by choice, and loving it. I could not agree more. I’ve been traditionally published but have self-pubbed for years now, do my own editing (with the help of numerous beta-readers), and have no plans to do it any other way. The main issue for me is control. It’s MY book; I choose the title, the cover, the price. Works for me.
@Kevin, I agree. 🙂 I’ve been traditionally published years ago by Harlequin/Silhouette. Now, I have 13 books out and I much prefer self-published. I’m on my own deadlines, hire my own editors and cover artists, control how and where the books are distributed. I would never go back.
Marie you have some good points. All writers need editors. Book covers are best if original. But I have to disagree about your statement that 1st time authors should try to be traditionally published first. Most Writers can use the time they would spend querying for agents and a publisher for writing instead. The only reason I can see a publisher would be useful is the PR side, but how much do they promote new authors? I’d rather buy a lottery ticket. While some writers prefer to work with a publisher to accomplish these things, it can be done with a bit of research and subcontracting. Anyone can hire an editor, designer, printer and publicist.
One more thing – many of the good editors have left traditional in order to freelance…. No matter which way a writer goes they are taking a risk. That’s part of the fun in the process 🙂
My publisher uses a freelance editor. I didn’t say anything about using an in-house editor.
I didn’t say ‘first time authors’. I said it’s worth a try, and I meant first time, second time, third time, whenever. You’ve nothing to lose.
Time is precious
Marie has some good points. The commenters have some good points. I think part of the issue here is there is a cultural disconnect. In the UK, the acceptance of self-publishing seems to be behind the US. It is catching up, but it has made it quite difficult for self-published authors there to be considered “valid” and to get media attention. And it seems that UK publishers do tend to do a bit more publicity than US publishers. So not everything said here can be considered a universal truth, and we all know how valid universal truths are.
All of these points have a flip side and I am sure there are plenty of authors that would say they have carried out each and every one of these valid observations and still got nowhere with their novel.
The comment from Kevin McLaughlin is most astute.
If the work sells, this is all that counts. Marketing is the key.
You make some very good points. I certainly agree that we all need good editing and covers, and that the vast majority of us don’t have the capacities to do those well.
The only one that I have difficulty with is #3. The time it takes to get a publisher to accept you is too long, and the control you have to give up too great in my opinion. I did some research before going Indie. The chances of my book(s) ever seeing the light of day with a trad publisher are smaller than that of winning a major lottery. I began writing at age 57. I can’t afford the wait. Nor do I want to be told what to change to make my book fit their idea of what will sell. They often want to dictate even the title. I’l stick with self-publishing – but I will do it with all the steps needed to do it well.
See my answer somewhere above. Ask me was it worth the wait! 🙂
Beyond disagreeing with this entire article, I think there’s an important point no one is discussing. It’s this idea that readers don’t buy, don’t read or don’t like bad books. That just isn’t true. People love garbage books — poorly written, poorly edited and with horrible cover art. They buy them by the dozens. They devour them. Guess what? They love awful TV show and films, too. They demolish garbage food and fashion. People have horrible horrible taste. The most popular stuff is terrible and always has been. Bay Watch was the number show in the world for many years. Dreck sells and it sells big. In the US Sarah Palin and Snooki sell more books than our poet laureates. We love mommy porn, and formulaic crap and Kim Kardashian and everyone knows it. Please stop with the cream rises to the top boloney. The average guy hates classic books, writing considered to be art, floofy poetry, depressing dramas — it’s like homework to them. They hate it. It makes then feel stupid and sad. They wouldn’t read the Great Gatsby if you paid them. Garbage sells and it sells big. That’s why there’s so much interest in self publishing. It’s an opportunity to reach this vast audience of vapid consumerism. Publishing is a business. It’s not about art. It’s about giving masses of consumers exactly what they want. And they want junk.
Meet The Stay-At-Home Mom Who Makes $30K Per Month From Her Bigfoot Porn Novels
“… Beyond disagreeing with this entire article…”
Which is your prerogative.
Sorry, Marie. I made that statement in passing and then went off in a different direction. But, instead of explaining why, and rehashing a lot of what I ranted, I’ll just say thank you for taking the time to share your article and put yourself out there. That’s not easy to do, and I appreciate that. My disagreement is just my opinion and is no more valid than yours.
I love the articles here because they always give new insight into subjects that can push buttons. Thanks for stepping up and putting your opinions out there.
I have to admit my jaw dropped as I read your article, Marie. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article promoting traditional publishing here before. That said, however, bravo for having the courage to buck the trend.
And bravo to Frank Mundo too, for naming the elephant in the room – success or failure has little to do with quality. Nonetheless, quality /should/ be something we take for granted. It should be the first box that’s ticked in the publishing process, not because readers will necessarily care, but because we do.
With quality taken care of, the rest is all down to marketing, and luck. And the same holds true for all authors, no matter which path they take to publishing.
I have to agree with AC on all counts. Thank you for a bold article, Marie, and I sort of agree with Frank in regard to any guarantees of traditionally published books being of good quality or that good quality books will be the best sellers; you only have to look at the success of FSG (I refuse to give that particular piece of excrement the energy of its full title).
I have had a couple of not so good experiences with trad publishers. In one instance, in negotiations with a publisher I was asked to take my book off the market while negotiations took place and I was tagged along for six months before being dropped, out of hand, as if there had never been any requests of exclusivity or encouragement at all. A lot of independent authors have a similar story to tell. I’m always glad to hear nice stories about success, in any endeavour, but it is simply not the case that ‘if you’re good enough’ and you ‘stay the course’ all will be revealed.
We all have to go our own way, and I can’t think of much to add that others haven’t already touched on. I have been traditionally published (small press) and self-published, and in each case I have been responsible for nearly all of my own marketing. I queried agents for four of my novels and after tons of form rejections (and the occasional handwritten note apologizing that while my writing was good, the agent could not sell me) and decided I’d rather take control of my own fate. I do agree that editors are a good idea. Yes, I am also an editor, but even I hire one before I publish my own work. Fresh eyes are a good idea for nearly everyone.
Maybe I’m getting so old that I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. I love the freedom of indie publishing. I find it exhilarating to be able to control everything and do it exactly as I want. I also love getting 70% of sale price.
…ummm…have to agree — I’m getting old (68) but I’ve earned
my freedom. Even IF 70% of nothin’ is nothin’…it’s MY work, My choice.
Soooo…regardless of sales, I’ve succeeded.
Write on !!
Well said, Jon! It’s great to be independent!
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