Should You Self-Publish?


For most authors, the decision of whether to self-publish or search for a traditional publisher is a tough one. I wrestled with this decision (it fought like a crocodile) in the years leading up to 2008. Even after self-publishing multiple books in 2008 (I had one completely written and the material for several others already well-prepared), I continued to wrestle the crocodile for another seven months. Then sales of two of my books erupted and later the next summer I launched a series that became popular enough that I no longer questioned my decision.

That’s what you hope for, when you’re wondering which route to take. You’re hoping that a day will come when you no longer look back over your shoulder, wondering about the other road (that road you didn’t take is such a clichéd road, it really isn’t worth any anguish).

Not an Easy Way Out

Self-publishing isn’t the easy way out. It might seem that way at first:

You don’t have to find a publisher or an agent, you don’t need to write query letters, you don’t need to put a book proposal together, you don’t need to buy Writer’s Market, you don’t need to meet the right people, you don’t need to write sample chapters for a book that might never get published, you don’t need to make marketing commitments, and you don’t need to wait years hoping to get lucky.

You also won’t have to deal with a pile of rejection letters:

Self-publishing is a sure thing, baby! (Well, at least as far as getting published is concerned; whether or not you’ll sell a copy to anyone other than your grandma, that’s another question.)

But self-publishing is still a lot of work. You’re the writer (so you still need to learn the craft), you’re the editor (which means a great deal more work once the book is written), you’re the formatter (which means learning a new art and how to use the software to pull it off), you’re the illustrator (can you draw, too?), you are your own marketing department (put Executive on your name badge), and you are your only public relations specialist (if you fail at this job, you can kill all your hard work faster than your favorite speedy cliché).

That’s a lot of work for someone who just wants to write. It might just be easier to find an agent or publisher after all.

And you don’t really escape the pain of rejection… because anybody can post a critical review right in plain sight where the whole world can see it (stock up on thread to mend your bleeding heart).

You’re not Really Alone

It really isn’t self-publishing. It’s indie publishing.

You only do it all yourself if you choose to do so:

  • There is an abundance of free information available to help authors learn writing skills, editing skills, cover design skills, marketing skills, and publishing skills.
  • The CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing community forums have many knowledgeable participants to help out if you have a question.
  • You have the option of joining a writing group or organizing a focus group from within your target audience to help provide valuable feedback.
  • You can recruit extra pairs of eyes to help you proofread.
  • Services are available for editing, formatting, or cover design if you need to hire help. You may find affordable service at high quality if you do your homework well.
  • What you lack in financial resources you can make up for in time (it’s money, right?). You can choose to take your time to get it right.
  • You can find support from others, such as this wonderful WordPress community.

Changing Tides

It wasn’t long ago that self-publishing equated to hundreds of books piled in an author’s garage (though somehow I still have hundreds in my home office…).

For most authors, it was either traditional publishing, vanity publishing, or no publishing (and too often, the latter was the case).

Print-on-demand services like CreateSpace and e-readers like Kindle have revolutionized the publishing industry. Now anyone can  publish (and, believe it or not, there are even some authors who have their dogs publish, so if you hear this expression, there is a little truth to it—a photo book about dogs, surely; why shouldn’t it be written by, narrated by, and published by the dog?).

And hundreds of thousands of indie authors are publishing.

Self-publishing was ripe when it first came out. Many readers weren’t aware of the new concept in the early years. There were fewer authors and books, too. E-readers were new and quite appealing. The market was growing rapidly.

Then word started to spread about books with editing, formatting, and content problems. Many customers discovered these problems firsthand. Some review abuse from authors didn’t help the image (fortunately, Amazon has made great strides toward limiting this in the past couple of years). There were also some people (perhaps the extremists we will not label as authors) who had heard of amazing success stories, who were hoping to make a quick fortune with little effort (you can easily spot them because they have deep scars where they continue to scratch their heads).

Yet the number of indie authors and indie books continued to grow, and support for them grew with it. Take tens of thousands of authors, add their families, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, and you can see that there is ample support for the concept of self-publishing. Many indie authors read indie books; many more people who know indie authors read indie books (and not just by authors they know). It’s not uncommon to search Amazon for “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform” to try to find a good self-published book to read.

Amazon and traditional publishers both did indie authors some huge favors. Amazon’s role is obvious: Thank Amazon for the beautiful red carpet. Every big traditional publisher must yearn badly for a time machine. How has indie authorship come to take so much of the current market share? Would the publishers change their e-book pricing strategies if they could dial the calendar back several years? Would they focus more of their efforts on the advantages of digital books? Would they try to get to market faster? Would they encourage their authors to utilize more marketing strategies that top indies have come to thrive on? You might sooner solve the Tootsie Roll riddle…

Traditional publishers have responded to the effects of print-on-demand and e-books. But they also have the disadvantages of being big business: especially, s.l.o.w. response time. Things continue to change, though. They are looking ahead, they have a great deal of publishing experience, and they have many resources. They haven’t disappeared; they just haven’t dominated the market like they once did. Definitely, don’t count them out.

Several bookstores, especially chains, might wish they could turn back the clock, too. So many indie books selling each year. Some bookstores have taken advantage of this opportunity; some have avoided it at all cost. It may have been silly for them to blindly stock several copies of every indie book. But there were some good opportunities to get some of this traffic.

The image of indie publishing seems to be rebounding. Customers have realized that they can filter out what’s good to read by careful study of the product page and Look Inside. Excellent content is good to read regardless of how it is published. Some indie books have exceptional covers, wonderful editing and formatting, and great stories, too. Indie authors have the freedom to provide content that traditional publishers would never have published in the past. An indie author can choose to write to a smaller audience; that smaller audience may appreciate this. Many indie authors provide personal experiences with their marketing, which helps to attract new readers. The best indie books are competing with the best traditionally published books.

Successful indie authors are opening doors for everyone else. Some are even turning down lucrative offers from traditional publishers (check out this article, recently referred to from the CreateSpace community forum). If you do sign with a traditional publisher, you risk having your digital or other rights tied up for a very long time (if you can get a little success, by that point in time you might do much better than the advance offered up front).

Success Still Isn’t Easy

Amazon and other companies are giving indie authors the opportunity to publish. But everyone won’t be striking gold. You might not even strike dirt.

There are millions of books available for sale. Only the top 200,000 or so sold one copy in the past day. Most books don’t even sell a copy per day, on average.

You put so much time into writing, editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing (what you don’t do yourself, you still put time and money into arranging). You invest months, perhaps years of hard work, and you may also invest good money along with it. But sales aren’t guaranteed.

Sales are still hard to come by.

Traditional publishers and agents do have benefits to offer (you might also wonder if they are receiving fewer submission: are your chances better now?). They may be able to help with editing and formatting. They might help a little in the way of marketing, like getting your foot in the door for television or radio interviews, hooking you up with an effective publicist, sending out advance review copies, and listing your title in their catalogs. You’ll probably still be expected to market. You might receive an advance, though it may be $5,000 or less, not the big number you’ve always dreamed about. You have better prospects for getting your book stocked in a chain bookstore (then you get to learn the reality of returnability and big discounts).

No matter how you publish, the key to success is hard work combined with marketable content.

In the end, to the customer it’s the quality of the book that you’ve produced that really matters, not how you got it published.

Option Three

It isn’t indie publishing versus traditional publishing. Both have merit, not just to authors, but to readers, too.

Some authors are choosing both.

Traditional publishers can only produce books so quickly. Some authors write books faster than they can be published. Other authors write a few books that interest big publishers, but several other books that may not. One way to publish all their books is to traditionally publish some and self-publish the rest (sometimes, with a pseudonym). More and more traditional authors are exploring self-publishing.

On the other side, many authors are starting out with self-publishing, hoping to attract traditional publishers.

This can work two ways. If you self-publish a book that scarcely sells, it will be hard to convince a publisher to take up your book. But if you grow a large following and gain frequent sales and many reviews, a publisher may be interested in publishing a subsequent book (or even republishing the same book). They’ll want to be impressed with your success and your marketing platform, and it won’t be easy, but the potential is there.

Yet if you can build a large following and earn frequent sales on your own, why would you want to sign a contract with a publisher, tie up your rights, and take a big cut in royalties (even though a large sum up front would be enticing)? If you can be self-made, why give that up? It’s easy to fantasize about receiving a lucrative offer and turning it down, but if you wind up wearing these shoes, it might not turn out to be so easy. It would sure be a nice problem to have, though, wouldn’t it?

Other authors wonder if the grass may be greener on the other side. Some authors try self-publishing, then try to find an agent or publisher when that doesn’t pan out. Some authors land a contract with a traditional publisher, but don’t make what they were expecting, and switch to self-publishing.


There are a lot of opinions out there on whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is better.

Personally, I think it’s the wrong question to ask.

What’s better for you may not be the same as what’s better for someone else. Other people’s lists of advantages and disadvantages can help you collect ideas for your own list, but your list of pros and cons will be unique.

I believe both options can be good, and so is “option three” (i.e. both).

Nothing beats the feeling of holding your book in your hands, knowing that you gave it your best, believing it to be done professionally. That’s what you should strive for. Whether you do this yourself, with help as an indie author, or via a traditional publisher or agent, the end result is still the same—you shared your passion with readers.

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

41 comments on “Should You Self-Publish?

  1. Reblogged this on winterbayne and commented:
    Re-blogging this because I’m too busy writing a short story, which I’ve never done before now. It’s an excellent and informative post as always from Chris. I would have re-blogged it no matter what I was up to today.

  2. Wonderful stuff! It’s always good to re-frame the question and come at it from a different angle. I’m thinking self-publishing is better for me, at this point in my life. But I can see how that might change over time.

    Found my way hear via winterbayne. Can’t wait to explore the resources you linked to.

  3. Reblogged this on Amos M. Carpenter and commented:
    Though my current thinking is that I want to reach my goal of being published the “traditional way”, there’s a lot of useful information in this post. And who knows how things will turn out down the road. Thanks, Chris, for making me think🙂

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