Even if you’ve self-published something already, I’ve found that certain myths persist right up to the point where someone sees decent success. And if you’re starting to think about self-publishing your first book, your head is likely filled with doubts and questions that are mostly variations on “Sure, I can self-publish … but should I?”
The answer, in my opinion, is that there’s little reason not to. There are advantages to traditional publishing in some situations (I’m not a purist and won’t argue that no one — including newbies — should ever go with a publisher), but there’s virtually no way in which self-publishing commits you to something with an inevitable downside. In other words, if the question is “I’m not sure if I should self-publish, so should I do it anyway?” my answer would probably be, “If you don’t have another immediate option, then why the hell not?”
Let’s look at some of the myths about self-publishing that might be fogging your head.
MYTH #1: If you self-publish, you can’t publish traditionally.
I’ve gotten this question a few times, and it usually looks something like this: “I’ve just finished my book, and figure I have two options: I’m trying to decide if I should self-publish or shop it around to literary agents. Why should I consider self-publishing instead of traditional?”
The root of this question is a fear that the writer has used up what’s inside them — often all they feel is inside them, because the notion of writing a second book feels daunting — and that they therefore have exactly one shot and don’t want to waste it. They see self-publishing versus traditional publishing as a binary decision wherein they can choose one or the other … but not both. If they use their only chance to pursue self-publishing, they’ll never see their book in a bookstore.
Even now, self-publishing can still have a distinct stink to it. That scent is fading faster every day, but it can still happen. Traditional publishing is seen as “better” and self-publishing as “Well, at least you did something.” Traditional publishing might be referred to as “real publishing,” as if it’s somehow more genuine or has more inherent value. I get it; if anyone can self-publish but not everyone can traditionally publish, the latter means you’ve passed another tier of approval. But does that matter? Maybe and maybe not.
The question about whether or not self-publishing or traditional is better for you is a rabbit hole not relevant to this particular post, so I’ll leave that alone for now and assume you really do want a Big Six publishing contract. If that’s the case, is it a mistake to self-publish that masterpiece rather than banging on doors until you crack your way into an agent or publisher?
Well, yes and no. There is some truth to the idea that a publisher won’t want a book that’s already been published … at all … anywhere … including by you. Publishers want fresh meat, so they can shape it how they’d like without worrying about your current readers who may have earlier versions. So if you have Novel X and you self-publish, it’s possible a publisher won’t later be interested in Novel X because it’s already out there in the world. So, if Novel X is all you have in you, and your life won’t be complete unless you see Novel X in a bookstore, and nothing less is acceptable, then maybe you’d better keep querying and networking and trying to get it to a publisher. If you’re a total unknown, and Novel X is your first and only book, the odds are very, very heavily stacked against you, but if you want to keep at it, that’s your business.
On the other hand, let’s say you can write a second novel, called Novel Y. If you publish Novel X yourself, and if Novel X is a big self-published success, then publishers will be much more interested in looking at Novel Y. You’ll be able to tell those publishers, “Look at Novel X … I already have readers and fans who love me!” Publishers always want to know about your “platform,” which means “your ability to promote the book without our help.” Racking up a few self-publishing successes before pitching traditional publishing is like playing baseball in the minors: Publishers can look at your record and see you have the chops needed to sell in the majors.
But what about Novel X? If you self-publish, is it really “doomed” (quotes meant to convey sarcasm) to remain in the indie realm?
If there’s one thing that’s absolutely true about the rules and conventions surrounding self-publishing, it’s that there are no firm rules and conventions yet. If you build your self-publishing career until you have enough cachet to make even old Novel X appealing to traditional publishers, is there any reason they might not sign it anyway? Nope. Not at all.
There’s also a lesser version of this myth that you might have heard, the one that suggests you must choose one or another publishing option not just on a book-by-book basis, but as an author. This is not even close to true. I know many so-called hybrid authors who publish traditionally for some books and go indie for others. Diversifying in this way can be wicked smart under certain circumstances.
MYTH #2: Publishers can do things for you that you can’t do yourself.
Okay, there’s technically some truth to this one, but there’s only a little, and it’s irrelevant for most authors.
If your name happens to be Stephen King, then you can get a significant push from the marketing arm of a large publisher. They’ll push the living crap out of your book, Steve. You (Steve) couldn’t make all the connections the publisher can make, couldn’t get your book into all the nooks and crannies that they can, couldn’t take out all the advertising they could. On your own, Steve, you probably couldn’t cover the front table at major booksellers and coordinate pre-sales that send you to the top of the charts before the book even comes out. And what about all those foreign sales, Steve? Are you really going to handle all that distribution yourself?
Okay, so that’s for Stephen King. If you’re not Stephen King, keep reading.
Big publishers are built for scale. They can, in essence, take large things and make them larger. But the average writer will get a marketing budget commensurate with what they expect your books to sell. That means virtually nothing for most of us. There’s a certain “chicken versus egg” loop at play. Authors think it’s a publisher’s job to earn them money, but publishers don’t see it that way. In their eyes, you and your book are assets at best and liabilities at worst. You’re a stock in their portfolio; you’ll either perform, or you won’t. They won’t market the crap out of you to ensure your success. It’s more accurate to say that they will market the crap out of you if you become successful.
Book publishers can get your book into big brick and mortar stores. That’s true. But unless they expect your book to sell quite well, the publisher won’t pay the extra money to get you prominently featured in that store: face-out on the shelf, displayed in the end caps, laid out on the front tables. That positioning isn’t earned by merit. With the exception of something like staff picks, a bookstore isn’t going to think your book is awesome and set it up front. Chances are, for most authors, you’ll be another anonymous spine on the shelf, begging for attention. Your book will then have a few weeks or months to prove itself, and if it doesn’t, the bookstore will declare it a failure, pull it from the shelf, and return it to the publisher.
What about publishers helping you reach more readers? My friend CJ Lyons, a hybrid author with successful books on both sides of the traditional/indie fence, tells a story about meeting with one of her New York publishers. When CJ proposed some unconventional marketing based on her readership’s unique characteristics, the rep told her that the publisher didn’t know who bought her books. CJ, who possesses a business savvy that few writers do, presented customer demographics she’d mined on her own and said, “Well, I do … here they are.”
The publisher was flabbergasted. When CJ told us this story, my exact words were, “But that’s what a publisher is supposed to do for you! If they’re not doing that, what are they doing?” But see, publishers don’t actually know what readers want. They know what distributors want. Joe and Jane Smith? No clue. Barnes & Noble? Wal-Mart? Publishers know what those guys want.
For most authors, publishers will handle editing, covers, and book packaging. They’ll get your book into stores. From publicity to promotion, the rest is up to you.
Yes, technically, traditional publishers can do a few things that indies can’t … but for most writers, those things are irrelevant, especially compared to the loss of control. You can’t make assumptions. My partner Dave and I found ourselves somewhat handicapped by our traditional deal, severed from our usual strategies, and unable to pivot when needed. What we didn’t know when we made the deal that we do now: we’re better at pleasing their readers than our publisher. This affects everything — not just the number of books sold and the profit per download, but how readers feel about their experience. This influences the quality of your reviews, and how likely those readers are to buy whatever else you have to sell (your traditional publisher will never care about leading readers to your other indie titles).
Always weigh all sides of any deal. Know what you’re getting and what you’re giving up.
MYTH #3: Self-publishing is for artists who want to give their art the chance to succeed in a true meritocracy.
Do you think of yourself as an artist? Awesome. Me, too. But if you want to be an artist and only an artist, you might want to stick with traditional. To be a successful self-publisher, you must be a businessperson as much as — or maybe more than — an artist. This is a business, after all. Pure artists who refuse to sully their hands with business will get trampled like Mufasa under the stampeding wildebeest. Guaranteed.
I’ve run into plenty of “pure artist” types in this business, and I love them. Pure artists are awesome. My sister is a pure artist. She’s a florist who designs gorgeous weddings using flowers that are too pretty for much of a profit, and an artisan who makes greeting cards by hand that are impossible to scale. But the problem with pure artists, when they enter the realm of self-publishing, is that they seem to feel that the merit of their work should cause it to rise to the top as obviously better than the competition, and that pretty much never happens.
It might be unfortunate, but it’s true: the world, even the self-publishing world, is not a meritocracy. To reach the zenith, you have to do all the right business stuff. You must build your base of true fans, and market to them in all the right ways. You have to create product funnels and write smart calls to action and place them intelligently at the back of your books.
MYTH #4: Self-publishing is a lottery, and you can (or have to) get lucky.
This is one-book thinking.
If you’re thinking self-publishing is a lottery (either one you hope to win or one you hesitate to enter because winning seems impossible), please do yourself a favor and stop.
There are success stories out there like 50 Shades of Gray, where an author had exactly one title, and that book blew up big time, but those are lottery scenarios and in no way typical. E.L. James did hit the self-publishing lottery, and never has to write another book if she doesn’t want to. But don’t let her story discourage you because it seems so unlikely. Don’t let her story encourage you, either, because you’re hoping for the same.
To the gamblers: You’re not going to have that one-in-a-million hit, so stop hoping for it and keep writing.
To the skeptics: You don’t need to have that one-in-a-million hit … because you can keep writing.
Don’t bank on lightning-strike thinking. A surprising hit would be great, and surely boost your catalog. Sterling & Stone has written hundreds of books, with hundreds more to come. If one of our titles hits BIG, everything sells at least a little more. But the magic is that we don’t need a big hit. The approach we believe in, use ourselves, advocate, and evangelize is workmanlike.
Get one book that makes $200 per month, then create another 20 or 30 like it over time. Two hundred dollars per month is in no way a big hit, but it’s good. And achievable. It certainly isn’t the lottery.
Any good, persistent, business-minded, prolific writer can succeed if they keep writing and moving forward. For the modern author, that’s excellent news.