Self-Publishing Series Part One: Is it Right for Me?

We are pleased to introduce a new series addressing the many issues and questions of self-publishing. Please stay tuned for posts on how to build your team, how to market your work, and more. With self-publishing everywhere in the industry news these days, we have more prospective author clients than ever wanting to hear the 411 on this unique and intrepid path to publication.

Usually, the conversation starts with a client telling me something like, “I have written this novel, and I’m getting nowhere with agents. Should I just publish it myself?” Or “My book is about rainbow trout fishing using only string, and I’m not sure the readership is large enough to attract a publisher. I’m thinking of just putting it out myself.” Or “I’ve got a direct line to my readers—do I even need to mess with getting a publisher?”

Oh, how I love this conversation. In general, I have a very bad habit of directing people’s lives: My opinions about whom you should date, where you should work, and where you should go on vacation are most often unsolicited and unambiguous. But when it comes to this particular conversation, it’s easy for me to take a backseat, present some useful information, and let the client sort the rest of it out while I listen. This is because the decision about whether to publish your own work or not is a distinctly personal one—no one can make it for you (whereas, obviously, I can decide whom you should date).

Here are the questions I start with:

What are your motivations?

If you’re publishing for financial gain, you need to look at the economics very closely. It costs money to produce a high-quality book, and you will likely need to rely on professionals to help you. Will you realistically recoup that cost? The answer here is not unequivocally yes or no, by the way. You’ve got to crunch the numbers.

If you don’t care a whit about the finances but want to make the book available because you want to leave a nice memento of family recipes to your grandkids for posterity, or make hard-to-find information accessible in book form as a public service, then the decision becomes a lot less complicated: you are making an investment in something that is important to you, and that’s a very different type of decision to make.

Or maybe you need a book to help further your brand or spread your message. I’ve had clients say, “In my business, I need a book—I need something I can show to speaker’s bureaus, or to boards, or to prospective clients. I don’t care if it’s published by Simon & Schuster or by my sister. I just need to build my brand by communicating what I stand for.” In that case, self-publishing is definitely a great option.

When is self-publishing not right for you?

If you need resources in order to write the book, then self-publishing probably isn’t the way to go unless you have an alternate plan for funding in place. This applies to folks like journalists and academics, many of whom may need a research budget or to take a sabbatical from work; it also applies to people who want or need to hire ghostwriters. A publisher, on the other hand, will pony up an advance that will help you get the book done, and done well. A publisher will also cover all the essentials like developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, and design in-house.

If your main concern is literary prestige, in the world we live in self-publishing is not going to offer that, at least not yet. We’re curious to see where this stands five years from now, though, as the stigma is lessening all the time.

If you don’t want to take on an entrepreneurial role in getting your book out into the world, self-publishing also isn’t for you. A mainstream publisher will still give you plenty to do to market it, but at least in that case you’ll be in the passenger seat, not the driver’s seat.

How connected are you with the potential market?

Again, if you’re planning to give your book away to your grandchildren, you’re probably pretty connected to your potential readers. If you’re a motivational speaker with twelve engagements a month, or you already write a blog with hundreds of followers, great! If you’re a dentist and you give your children’s book about a shark cleaning his teeth away to all of your patients, it’s safe to say you have a pretty captive audience. But the equation is much different in the case of the sci-fi writer who hasn’t shown her work to anyone, or the poet who works as a banker by day and no one knows that she writes. Unless she’s planning to change something dramatically, she's probably not going to expose too many people to her book and will need a publisher’s support to get even a small number of readers.

How committed are you to promoting your book?

This ties in with the previous question. If you are a mystery writer and just want to write, then great! More power to you! If it’s enough to you to just have your material available and you don’t actually care if anyone reads it, so be it. But if you want to share your work more broadly, you have to be willing to do the work to promote it. And I don’t mean obnoxiously—there are plenty of ways to do this in a way that won’t cause self-loathing. But your book won’t get much traction if you just sit and churn out another one. Incidentally, neither this question nor the previous one go away if you opt for a traditional publisher, but in the latter case you will likely have some support.

How much control are you willing to relinquish over its publication?

For some clients, relinquishing control is a nonstarter. They know themselves; they know this project is their baby and they want to control every piece of it from the cover art to the title to the way the font reads on the acknowledgments page. It would make them crazy to allow someone else to steer those decisions. When writers like this do work with publishers, it’s safe to say it’s not a super pleasant experience for anyone involved. On the other hand, some people want nothing to do with anything but the words on the page, and maybe don’t even care if those are changed. They want to delegate. This latter camp would be happier with a publisher.

How much am I willing to spend?

If you decide to self-publish, I am pretty opinionated and unequivocal about the need to do it well. Be very wary of asking friends and family members to edit your work—and I don’t care how meticulous they are about finding typos, or how generally well-read they are. I’m pretty meticulous myself, and I would make a lousy copyeditor. Experienced editors, designers, and project managers will make all the difference between a project that looks professional and one that looks amateur. That’s it for my sales pitch. You don’t have to hire Girl Friday in particular (though we’d love you to), just hire someone good and experienced, because as one of our favorite mottos goes, “Friends don’t ask friends to edit their novels.”