Anyone who is interested in self-publishing should read Janni Simner‘s most recent comment to my post “Is Publishing a Dirty Word.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Janni’s right. Self-publishing is (by everything I’ve read) a rough row to hoe. The odds are against you. So why do it?
Why does one decide to self-publish? No, let’s make the question bigger: How does an author decide on her career path? Some of that path is, obviously, out of her hands. An author can do her best to perfect her craft, study the markets, and submit to all the right places (that serve her goals), she can promote herself online and in the “real” world, but in the end she has no control over whether her book is published — unless she chooses self-publishing.
That statement should not be taken as the reason to choose self-publishing. Janni is right in pretty much every particular. If what an author wants is wide distribution, she probably shouldn’t choose self-publishing.
And that brings me to my point: What do you want? Why are you writing?
These aren’t simple questions. There’s a lot of emotion tied up in these questions. And it’s been pretty well established that no matter how much we try to be rational and logical, our decisions are ultimately made by our subconscious base on the info the conscious mind has gathered. (Some results of some consciousness studies have shown that an action is begun before the conscious mind is aware of it and so creates a decision to justify it, thus making Behaviorists happy.)
But I digress.
As Linda Houle points out in her book The Naked Truth About Book Publishing, an author should know what they want and what their expectations are. Only then can she make an informed decision.
Traditional publishing (with a NY publisher) is slow but will get you wider distribution, more promotion. You’ll get paid an advance. There’s a certain prestige in getting published by the Big Six. The odds are stacked against you here too, though. Less than 1% of books submitted are published. (Some would argue that’s a good thing. The vast majority of books in the slush pile are dreadful. They just aren’t ready to see the light of day.) It’s been said by more than one person giving advice on how to submit to NY, editors are looking for a reason to reject you. Don’t give them one. They want to find the next great book, but they don’t have time to sift through the mountains of drek stacked in the corners of their offices. So they look for reasons to reject your book.
The odds are better with small, independent presses, but not much. They may accept about 4% of what’s sent to them. They’ll give you more personal attention than a big house will, but the advances are small if they give one at all. They have smaller promotional budgets. An author will have to shoulder a lot of that responsibility. Many, if not most, don’t get into the brick and mortar bookstores, though readers can usually special order a book if they pay up front.
Ebooks still only command about 5 – 8 % of the market, but that’s growing. A number of people in the industry (Michael Stackpole, Mike Shatzkin, Carolyn Reidy) have predicted that by the end of 2012 they will comprise 25% of book sales. Still, at present, your book won’t reach most of the reading public because they don’t yet read on their computers or a dedicated device. Ebook publishers do make an effort to promote their releases, but they don’t have big budgets either, so it will mostly be up to the author. Most don’t pay advances and if they do it’s hundreds, not thousands of dollars. There’s more prestige connected with being published by an ebook gatekeeper than if you go it alone. (Thanks to Kris Tualla for pointing me in the direction of the statistics.)
Self-publishing. It’s all up to the author. There are numerous resources to guide the author-publisher, but in the end it’s up to her to pay for everything with time and money. There is precious little prestige unless you are one of the few who have a great book and the promotional skills to create buzz about your work. You probably won’t make a lot of money. (It can happen, I’m just relating the odds.) It’s main recommendation: Control. The author decides when and how to put her ass work on the line.
Will self-pubbing damage your reputation in the publishing community? I think that depends on the quality of the work and how professionally the author presents herself. And that kind of self-examination is very hard.
So what do you want? Money? Prestige? People to read your book? All of the above?