Thursday, May 9, 2013

Yes, you can self-publish. But should you?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the newly released The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

When Jill and I wrote Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft into a Published Book, we stated that the question we were asked the most is, "How do I get published?"

Easily the question we're asked the second most is, "What do you think about self-publishing? Should I do it?"

And like with the first question, there's no one correct answer. And, honestly, with how rapidly the industry is changing (my agent refers to this climate in publishing as "the wild west") how I answer this question about self-publishing has changed in the last year or two, and will likely continue to change.

I completely get why self-publishing appeals to new writers. When I was a teen, had self-publishing been what it is today, I likely would have done it. And I would have regretted it, because I wasn't yet a good writer, and I was too naive to know that. Jill Williamson says the same thing, that she was so impatient, she would have, and that she's glad she didn't.

We advise you to not self publish if:

1. You've never to been a writer's conference, or if no one outside of your circle of family or friends has ever looked at your work. 

Because even if your mom is an English major and will proofread for you, she's still your mom.

Editors don't just catch typos, nor do they want to take over your story and make it their own. A good editor takes what you've written and enhances it. That beautiful symbol you've woven throughout the book? They find more ways to draw it out. They'll point out a plot line that you could improve, or a character who you could build upon.

Editors are people who know what makes a story work, and how to fix parts that you might not even realize are broken. They also know how a story fits in the market place and they'll know if your idea has already been done. Don't make the mistake of underestimating how valuable it is to work with a professional editor.

2. You're doing it in hopes of making yourself more appealing to agents and publishers.

These days, according to the agents I've talked to about this, it doesn't really hurt to have self-published, but it doesn't help either unless you have good sales numbers. I asked Amanda Luedeke with MacGregor Literary if she could be more specific with me about what sales numbers she considers "good" for a self-published book. Here were her thoughts:

If it's a print version, we like to see 5,000 copies sold in the first year. If it's digital, then it depends on price point and market. In the general market, they look for sales in the tens or hundreds of thousands if the price point is under $2.99 or so. In the Christian market, they can be impressed with less, but they still want a figure in the tens of thousands for a lower price point. Higher ebook price points can be treated more similarly to print rules.


3. If you hope to someday be traditionally published.

Self-publishing, when done right, takes a lot of time. You're researching which company to go with, formatting your book correctly for ebooks and for print, finding a cover artist and an editor, and, and, and. It's a long list. And then the book releases, and you move on to marketing.

That's a lot of time NOT writing. If your goal is to be traditionally published, we feel it's better to spend your time pursuing that with your whole heart, at least for a period of time. Grow as a writer, attend a couple conferences, take classes, join a critique group, pitch to agents and editors, and see what happens. This requires a lot of patience, but Jill and I see it work for writers all the time.

Now, this process usually takes a couple years, but I've never heard a word of regret from a single writer who worked hard to break in and finally did. I've never heard them say that they wish they hadn't waited, that they had just published the novel five years ago when they first wrote it.

When self-publishing might be a good option for you:

1. If you have no interest in traditional publishing. 

You've written this book and you want to hold it in your hand. You don't care about money or a career or anything like that, just this book.

2. You have a way to sell your product. 

Jill and I chose to self-publish the Go Teen Writers book, but it was after we had both spent several years blogging about teen writing issues, working with teen writers on-line, and teaching writing for teens in person. We also both have been to about a dozen conferences between the two of us, we're traditionally published in fiction, and our agents thought it was a good idea. We knew we had enough of a platform to make the project worthwhile. And even with all that, it's a slow build and the money part takes time.

3. You've pursued traditional publishing for about five years now, and still nothing is happening.

If you've been writing, rewriting, querying, conferencing, writing, rewriting, querying, conferencing, paying for a book doctor/editor, writing, and rewriting for the last five or so years and still can't get any traction, then it might be time to consider self-publishing.

We know that waiting can stink. Both of us had our days of wondering, is this ever going to happen for me? Am I doing all this waiting for nothing? And it's especially tough when the people around you don't understand how long it takes to write a novel or all the quirky details involved in getting it traditionally published. We know it's hard.

We also know what The Call feels like, the scary rush of the first book signing, and the joy of an email from a reader who randomly bought your book in a bookstore. We know it was worth the wait.


51 comments:

  1. Great post. I'd been on the fence for a long time, but I finally decided to polish my manuscript (still in the process with a long way to go) and query for a while (I have a whole submission plan already). If I don't get anything, then I'll self-publish.

    That's my plan, what do other people think?

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    1. I think it's a great plan, Zara. As much as I dislike the pitching process (even as a published writer) there's a lot of good that comes out of it. For me, there were times when it felt like a refining fire - it wasn't enjoyable, but I was stronger and the writing was stronger after I went through it.

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    3. Go for it, Zara. Sounds like a fab play. Keep in mind, that when I set aside my "baby" and wrote another book, it was so much easier. I'm a strong advocate of completing several books before you go the self-publishing route. You just learn so much, you can't even compare your first one to your second, usually.

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  2. I have recently started considering self publishing, but after reading this post I think I should probably go back to pursuing traditional publishing. The only reason I was really thinking about self publishing was because traditional publishing kind of scares me... but I know I can probably do it if I tried hard enough and waited.

    Thanks. :)

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    1. I understand that, Hannah. It's a very intimidating industry, and it can feel like a closed circle. Sometimes it scares me too!

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    2. Few things in life come easy, and when they're easy, they're rarely as wonderful as the things that took hard work and patience. You go, girl! Stick with it!

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  3. I also shared this post on my blog here: http://www.zarahoffman.com/4/post/2013/05/go-teen-writers-yes-you-can-self-publish-but-should-you.html

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  4. I'm hoping for traditional, myself. (fingers crossed! eek!)

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  5. What a great article! As someone who has done it all--self-pub, small press (as in, starting our own), and big publisher--I think you hit on absolutely all the major points. There are times when self-publishing works. But most of the time, people choose it because of impatience. And that, in my experience, means that what you put out yourself isn't in good shape and won't survive the marketplace. There are exceptions, and you explained those beautifully. =) I think Jill summed it up perfectly in the GTW book--respect your dream. Respect it enough to do what's best for it, no matter how much work that might be!

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    1. The few times I looked into self-publishing, it's because I was hoping for a shortcut. I decided against it because it was pricey (this was pre-Kindle days) and because I was still young. But I don't think it would have been an insurmountable mistake. I'm glad I didn't do it, but I would have recovered just fine.

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    2. For me it was the desperation. The, "Well, if I just had my book printed, then readers could read it and everyone would see how good it really is!" But that was all in my head because I was too focused on my wants and not what was good for me and my craft. It's a hard place to be.

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  6. Honestly, I'm not really considering any type of publishing right now. I'm still writing my first book...I'm still learning how to edit...and I highly doubt this one is going to end up good enough to be published. I'd be much better off learning how to write and practicing first. ;)

    Somewhat irritatingly enough, people I know started asking me even before I finished the first draft, "Are you going to get it published?" (I cringed at that one. "Get it published" indeed. :P) I try to reply nicely and explain that no, I'm not going to "get it published," LOL.

    EVENTUALLY, after I've had more experience, I might work on trying traditional publishing. We'll see. :)

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    1. Yes, even non writers are obsessed with publication!

      I think that's a great personal goal, Amanda. Very wise.

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    2. Agreed. Love that, Amanda! :-)

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  7. Oh, what a great post! I've been pondering self-publishing and traditional publishing for awhile now. I don't know where to turn with it. If I did self-publishing, I'd do Amazon's CreateSpace; I can't afford other self-publishers. But I do have hopes of being traditionally published someday, so I'm at a fork in the road and don't know which way to go. I've been writing for several years now; I'm currently editing a historical fiction work of mine, and really want it to see the world. Since the writing of that book, I've finished one book in a series, and am almost half-way down with it's sequel; I am also working on a novel about a girl who travels on the Titanic.

    With traditional publishing, do you have to travel?

    Any advice would be most appreciated as to what I should do next. :-)

    Fellow writer,
    Patience

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    1. There's no need to travel for traditional publishers, Patience. The days of book tours for the average joe writer have kinda fallen by the wayside. My publisher told me flat-out not to bother. So any traveling is purely voluntary. =)

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    2. That's good to know, thank you! :) Traditional publishing holds both excitement and terror for me, so I guess that self-publishing appeals to me for the reason of "getting my feet wet".

      -Patience

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    3. It should be the opposite, though. With a traditional publisher, you have someone to hold your hand through everything, even helping you sell it. With self-publishing, you're on your own and no one cares, for the most part, but you. It's super lonely.

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    4. Well, I'm a little scared of those people at publishing houses. I'm worried with the thought of rejection, that they'll shred my darlings to bits, and that I won't be able to understand their terms. :-(

      Can anyone sympathize??

      -Patience

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  8. I considered self-publishing for a while. I queired my first novel last August, and at this point I've been rejected by most and ignored by a few. Now that I've got all my energy into my second book, I'm glad no one picked up the first and I'm glad I didn't self. There are loads of things wrong that I've discovered in craft books and on this blog. It scares me a little, though...that first book took me years to write and over a year once it was done to see that it wasn't very good. What if I'm pouring my heart and soul into this one, and I query for a year, and then realize it's just as bad? Thanks for the post, though. I'm definitely interested in traditional publishing, so I probably won't end up doing it on my own.

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    1. I had almost the exact same experience, Kaitlin. By the time all the rejections came in for the first novel I queried, I could see so many flaws in it that I was ready for a new project.

      And I've had that fear before too. It happens even after you're published, sadly. That you work hard on putting together a book proposal that no one ends up wanting, or sometimes even a full manuscript. It's a hard part of the business, I agree.

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    2. I struggle with the same worries, so be glad you're not alone. :) I think the thing is, though, that we'll always see faults in our previous work. It's kind of like looking back on a bad relationship. (Not just romantic, but friendships that have ended or family members you're estranged from, etc). There'll always be a little ache, but you'll eventually reach the point where you can laugh at it. (And here's where my analogy falls apart, because I believe you should always try to patch broken relationships, but broken books are essentially broken unless you rewrite them.)

      As scary as it is, though, I think we need to keep throwing ourselves into the next project, or we'll keep puttering around, afraid to commit to something.

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    3. Kaitlin-- my first and second and third books were horrifying! My fourth one was better, and my fifth and sixth finally had some potential. We all have to learn sometime. Don't be ashamed of that. Just keep at it. If you can see where you're improving, that's huge. Keep going!

      And, Diana. Good advice! Throwing yourself into the next project is one of the best ways to improve.

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  9. I disagree with your #1 that you should self-publish if you have no interest in traditional publishing. A number of authours including Amanda Hocking got discovered because they self-published. I plan to go both ways and have a novella series getting ready to release in the fall and a fantasy novel I hope to get edited and polished by the end of September to start sending to agents. So I think you can do either or both as long as you do your best and ensure to do everything to make your work of the quality deserving a chance to be published.

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    1. Yes, there have been authors who've had such great success with their self-published book that they've been discovered. Christopher Paolini is the example Jill and I hear the most. It DOES happen. But it doesn't happen often. More often than not, according to agents I've talked to, it doesn't help or hurt. This is from Chip MacGregor's blog:

      “Will self-publishing my novel help me or hurt me when I approach a traditional publisher?”

      Most likely, the answer is “neither.” Self-publishing probably won’t help you land a deal with a traditional publisher unless you sell a bajillion copies. Yeah, yeah… The Shack did exactly that, but that’s news because it’s so rare. For every Shack there are ten thousand other self-pubbed novels that did nothing. And then, if you sell a bajillion copies, you may not need that traditional publisher. But I certainly don’t think self-publishing will actually HURT you, unless your book is so horrendously bad that it becomes an insider joke.

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  10. When I self published my book, I didn't know anyone who had done it traditionally, so I had no idea how to dance that dance. I had completed NaNo, and received a free proof copy from CreateSpace, so decided that I might as well hit the "approve" button. Perhaps, had I read this post then, and known about agents (the only book I had about publishing was an old "Children's book Publishing for Dummies."), I probably would have pursued Traditional.

    As it is, I really don't regret my decision. Sure, my sales aren't the most awesome in the world, but I have more control over my cover art and stuff like that. (And I disagree when it comes to my mom. She is my toughest editor and will shred my books to bits.) I did pull my book from the internet briefly, but that was because my mom's cousin had designed me a much more appealing cover art, and I took advantage of that to do some edits that some friends had pointed out to me.

    And just because my book isn't in physical bookshelves doesn't mean that I haven't had people just stumble upon it. I even had one person comment on my blog and tell me that my book inspired her to try writing again.

    So, there's my stand on the issue. Traditional publishing is great for most people, but me ... well, I'm a very independent person. I like the freedom that self-publication gives me.

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    1. Self-publishing definitely provides a lot of freedom, which is nice. I'm glad you're happy with the choice you made - that's what matters!

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    2. I like the part about your mom, mine's the same. And congratulations on being a self-publisher! I think it's still think it's super cool.

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  11. Very helpful post, Stephanie. I personally would far rather publish traditionally because the marketing process is so much more likely to work and everything.

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    1. It is so nice to have a publisher help you. So very nice. Since my first publisher was small, I was pretty much on my own. And it was exhausting. But with my second publisher, it's nice to have them make book trailers and send you on a book tour. So very nice.

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  12. I agree with you 100%, Stephanie!! WOW! Great post! I was asked recently if I would self-publish (from some close friends who are awesome at challenging me and asking me hard questions - which I love!), and I immediately and firmly said, "Not a chance!" Because for me, I'm just too ambitious. If I work hard enough, and God brings about the right opportunity, I'm not going to settle for less. It's worth the wait! :)

    Thanks for writing SUCH an honest and kind post! :)

    Sierra

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    1. It's totally worth the wait. It's so much fun.

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  13. I'm self-publishing a novella later this year (it's currently with my editor - I plan to do this the right way!) I went back and forth as to whether or not to do this for a loooong time. One thing I'd add to the "Why-to-do-this" list, point one: if you like/want that control. All that work you mentioned - finding and paying for editing, a proper cover, doing or paying for the right formatting, etc. - *is* a huge load of work. But for me one factor in self-publishing is that I like being in charge of things, especially my own projects, and having total control over cover, title, marketing, price - everything! - makes this a lot more fun for me.

    Another huge factor in my decision is that I let anyone and everyone I could find in the GTW FB group read my work back before I ever considered self-publishing, and I kept hearing that suggestion again from friends and strangers alike. "This is so good!" "You should get this published." "Have you thought about self-publishing? This would make a great ebook."

    When I have those doubts as to whether I can really make it, whether it was the right decision for me, I go back to these things: 1. Everyone else believes in my book. Friends, family, blog readers, writing buddies online, strangers who have read the book - they're all encouraging me to keep pushing on with this. 2. I really do love controlling every aspect of this, and it's a great experience for me. 3. If I don't ever get traditionally published, I wouldn't mind. I didn't use to feel that way. But now, I realize, as long as I continue writing and working on my craft and putting books out there, I'll be okay without the traditional stuff. I'll have books and readers and an audience - I already have both of the latter at my blog! - and that's my idea of successful.

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  14. Okay.., This may seem like an anti-self publishing post... I'm not trying to seem overly negative, I just haven't had any good experiences with it. I'm not a big fan of self publishing for the following reasons:
    1. If asked to chose between a book by my favorite publisher, or a self published book for a year, and only be able to read that book for a year, I would take the published one because, hey, at least I know I've liked books by them before, whereas a self pubbed book is a wildcard.
    2. I feel like I have to do what's best for my books, and I just don't have the resources on my own to make my book successful. Plus, I feel it'd be a lot of time and effort that I would rather devote to writing.
    3. Self-pubbing has no gatekeepers except yourself, which really bothers me. Sure, I know some of my writing problems, but until I got my first beta, she pointed out problems I didn't even know I had! I don't trust myself to be a good self-editor for my book! My skill only goes so far, you know? That's what I WANT an agent and editor looking over my book someday. They likely have more experience than me or my betas combined.
    4. Self published books are almost impossible for a reader to find. I had a friend recommend one to me once, and not only did the library not find it, it wasn't in bookstores, and I only found ONE online retailer that sold it. Inconvienant!

    No offense to anyone who doesn't mind self-pubbing, in the end, it's what you think is best for your book! Sorry for the mini-novel!

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    1. Ugh, you can't edit posts... When I say I don't trust myself to be a good editor, I mean I don't have as much skills as long time agents and editors, and I know my writing as a ways to go.

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  15. I'm self-publishing my novel right now! The key thing is to have a following and I've gained mine through YouTube where I make video about writing, publishing, and books. So far the journey has been stressful and fun but I'd never give it up. Self-publishing isn't for everyone but it's definitely for me :)

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  16. Thanks for the post! Ah,the beginning writer's dream: to finish their first novel and publish it. I'm currently working on my third (all stand-alones), and it still needs a lot of work. Last June, when I wrote my first novel, I thought about self-publishing, and (luckily) realized that I wasn't good enough at the time to make it work. I know I would've regretted it if I'd put it up on Amazon.
    For my current project, I'm just going to take my time and do this as well as I can, edit and all that, and then pursue traditional publishing.
    As I keep reminding myself, though, I've got time. After all, I'd much rather my books be labored over for years and revised and unpublished than published before they were ready.

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    1. I so get this, Katia. Just write because of what it is. And I have a question -- how do you pronounce your name? Katie-a? Or Kash-ia? Either way, it's cool.

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    2. It's Ka-tee-a, traditionally spelled Katya. It's Russian, in honor of my great-grandpa's Ukranian heritage. My last name, which is inherited from him, means "little soldier" in Ukranian, which is especially fitting because of all of the trials I, and my family, have been through throughout the years.

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    3. That's such a beautiful name! I'm glad you asked, Emii :)

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  17. From Amo Libros:
    This was so helpful! As I've been learning more and more about writing this past year, I'd begun to formulate that same opinion, but it was good to hear someone else say it. And I am so glad I didn't learn about self-publishing when I actually had a finished manuscript, or I would have rushed right out and done it - and then regretted it five years later when I saw how (comparatively) bad my writing was.
    Thank you so much!

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  18. This is great! I have self-published before, but the book was total crap. I pulled it off the internet, and I am sticking to my goal of being traditionally published instead. For me, I think that traditional publishing is better, because it means that I have to be tougher on myself and my writing, and that makes yme a better writer. If I do get published in the future, I know I will look back at my book/s and think 'ugh', but at least I will know that someone other than me thought I was good enough. ;) Also, I want my book/s on shelf, because in my books I try to write an important message, so to speak. I want to be able to make a difference in someone's life, and maybe even lead them to Christ. That is my ultimate goal, because I was affected by a book like that a long time ago. I want to do the same for someone else.
    Anyone else agree?

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  19. Great points! I have been working toward self publishing for six years, I have five books written, and am part of a great group of people who aren't afraid to tell me when my work stinks. I did self publish a book of poetry, and I really like how it turned out even though it was a gift for a family member. I want my books and stories out there so they can change the people who read them, and I believe I'm on my way. :)

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  20. Loved this post!!!! It really helped me. :):)

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  21. Thank you for all the information! I'll be sure to keep this in mind once I do publish a book. Hopefully, anyways!

    Thank you!

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  22. I seriously have no interest in traditionally publishing a work of mine. Is that weird? I hope not.

    If ever I self-publish I want to do it correctly. I want to have an editor outside family and friends, have a proper cover art designer, etc.

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