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Is self publishing a bad idea?

Everyone who’s toyed with the idea of writing a book has asked themselves at one time or another: is self publishing a good idea? I’ve written previously about how to decide if self publishing is right for you, but even if you’ve determined that it suits your personality type, you likely still have doubts about it. These doubts are often based on the attitudes of other people to self-published books. Perhaps you even share some of these opinions. It’s very difficult to find information that isn’t biased in one way or the other. I know, I’ve been there. I went through the whole to-and-fro about which method I should choose for my own publishing for years.

So here are all the facts about self publishing that I learned in those years.


Why self publishing is bad (sometimes)

Let’s get this out of the way first.

Most of the criticism regarding self publishing stems from the lack of gatekeepers. There’s no editor or agent giving books the stamp of “it’s good enough” and there are plenty of people who believe the first draft of the very first story they’ve ever written is definitely, absolutely good enough.

Since self publishing is so easy, there are a lot of these lazy/egotistical books out there. This problem is twofold because it means that discoverability becomes an issue (good books get buried under piles of bad books) and it also means that readers become skeptical of all self-published books after hitting on a few bad ones. You may have difficulty getting anyone to take you seriously as an author if you proudly proclaim you’re self published, because the bad self-published books have given the industry a bad reputation.

The second problem with self publishing is that actually pressing publish is super easy, but getting people to find your book (let alone buy it and read it) can be incredibly hard and it’s just getting harder. When the industry was young and there weren’t that many players, you could sometimes simply float to the top by having a good quality product. That’s not the case anymore, especially since Amazon recently started offering its own advertising solution. Now you have to put a lot of work into marketing and money into advertising in order to even find readers.

Are you still with us after that downer? Alright, now here are a few of the other things that I suspect might be keeping you up at night.


Am I still a real author if I self publish?

When you dreamed about being an author, you dreamed about finding your novel in bookstores, about friends checking out your book from libraries, about going to speak at schools, doing book signings and maybe even being recognised while out in public. Something that few authors will admit, but all have worried about is whether these things are possible if you self publish.

In some cases, you will find that people are snobby. Some bookstores won’t take self-published books, some reviewers will shun you, some events won’t invite you to speak and some friends will turn up their noses at you for self publishing. The reason for this is understandable: anyone can upload anything to Amazon, that doesn’t mean it’s good. The reason these people act this way is likely because they’ve been inundated with bad books.

However, this attitude is rapidly changing as independent book publishing becomes a more refined and acceptable type of business, and the quality of the books goes up. Here are some facts that might comfort you:

  • You can hire a distributor to get your books into bookstores.
  • There are companies like Ingram Spark that cater directly to libraries, and bookstores can also order books from them.
  • Schools and libraries don’t tend to care how you’re published, they just want to be able to say that they managed to get an Author to come speak.
  • Bookstores will let you do a signing so long as they think you can draw a crowd.
  • Two of my self-published friends were recently featured in the media: one had a full-page spread in a magazine and one was featured in a newspaper.
  • Once you have enough positive reviews, enough books and enough sales, people stop caring about who let you be successful and just acknowledge that you are.


“Self-published books are bad quality”

Let’s take a break from talking about books to talk about knitting. Knitting is fun. You get people who only do it as a hobby, you get people who do it for family, you get people like my mom who knit things to sell in shops. You also get huge industrial machines that churn out books- I mean sweaters. (You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?). You’d have to be a special type of asshole to walk up to my mom and tell her that she should not be making sweaters because that is a job for that industrial machine, right? When you’re at a craft market and happen to see a big, fluffy, aran-knit sweater that’s handmade and available at a good price, you’re delighted.

Sometimes when you’re at that craft market you don’t come across the fluffy aran but the sketchy scarf that’s clearly been created in a hurry by someone who’s only recently learned how to do purl stitch but hasn’t figured out how to join colours yet. Then sometimes the sweater you buy at a big store will fall apart the first time you wash it. Anyone can knit. (Really, I’ve taught loads of people. It’s super easy). But not everyone can, or even wants to, knit well. Even fewer people will start up successful knitting businesses.

Stop thinking of self publishing books as anything other than manufacturing products.

A good self-published book is indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. The savvy author hires a team of people to make sure the product is well made. These people perform the exact same roles as they would in publishing houses (often they have actually worked for publishing houses in the past): editors, proofreaders, cover designers, interior designers and distributors. These authors will likely even register their business as a press, imprint or publisher, so you may have read many such books and never even known. (By the way, these authors often call themselves “indie” because of the negative connotations of the term “self published”).

The fact of the matter is, traditional publishers in this day and age can not afford to take risks. If you’ve got a big industrial machine making sweaters, you have to sell a lot more sweaters to cover your costs than my mom at a craft market.  Traditional publishers want books they know they can market and often that means whatever is trending right now or, even more often, something non-fiction about sport or food. This is why even traditionally published authors are now going “hybrid” and self publishing some of their niche titles themselves.

The quality of a product is not determined by the size of the machine that makes it.


“Traditional publishers will market my book”

Marketing is something that puts a lot of writers off the idea of self publishing.

But here’s the bad news (I’m sorry): you’re going to have to do that anyway.

As I mentioned before, publishers have huge overheads so they’re going to bet on the horse they know’s going to bring home the bacon. (Wow, there’s an image. Kinda Scorpio Races. Got away from me a bit. Anyway…). You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right?  So put yourself in a traditional publisher’s shoes. In this economy, do you think they’ll spend tons of money on marketing an unknown author? Sometimes it happens, but it’s rare. They’re far more likely to concentrate on the 20%, the big names. If your book does well, then they may offer you another deal and maybe spend a bit more on you the next time. If it doesn’t… well then you may be back to querying again.

I think it’s worthwhile teaching yourself how to market either way. There are loads of resources out there that can even make it fun. I recommend checking out David Gaughran and Mark Dawson to start with because they have tons of free resources.


Is self publishing free?

Yes and no.

If anyone ever wants to charge you for publishing your book, run. The internet is full of these people. They’re called vanity presses and what they offer is something like, “We’ll publish your book for you – everything from editing to cover design. You just pay one fee.” Which seems great if you’re not keen on doing that stuff yourself, but is not so great when you realise that once you’ve paid them they have zero incentive to actually do a good job. They’re making their money off you, whereas traditional publishers make their money off actually selling your book and they need to turn the book into a high-quality product to do that. These vanity presses can also make rights and distribution issues unnecessarily complicated.

What is free is the act of uploading your book and hitting publish. One hundred percent free. You can do it directly to tons of stores (Amazon’s KDP is the top one by market share). There are also a bunch of third-party sites like Draft2Digital that have handy templates and other tools and distribute to lots of stores.

But if you want to produce books without spending a single cent, you’re going to struggle to create a quality product and sell it.

If you’re looking to get your memoir in print and only intend to give it to family and friends, go ahead and do it! There’s nothing stopping you! There are no rules to say that the grammar has to be perfect or the cover has to be right for the genre.

However, if your aim is to turn writing into a career, you have to think of your publishing business as a startup and that means you need to spend money to make money. I’d recommend you budget for spending money on these two things, even if you have to save up:

  • An editor
  • A cover

If you have friends who are willing to read your book and give you honest feedback, you’ll be part of the way there with editing. However, a professional editor will know about genre conventions and will be able to offer advice that the average person can’t. Even if you’re an artist or designer, or have a friend who is one, bear in mind that most people judge a book by its cover. You need your book to signal its genre and that it’s high quality in a matter of seconds and that’s hard to pull off unless you’ve done a ton of research. And I’m not just saying that because I happen to design book covers. I started designing book covers because I felt sorry for authors who wrote brilliant books that never sold because they thought they couldn’t afford a decent cover and made something themselves instead.

Marketing is the third most important thing to spend money on, but it can be very expensive so it’s important to think carefully about how you spend your money and when in the process. The expert links I’ve already given will help loads (Gaughran and Dawson), but it may be worth holding off on a big marketing drive until you’ve written more than one book (more products). You can do a lot of community building for free if you’re patient.


Is self publishing profitable?

Again, yes and no.

What it is is a way to get a product to market with very low overheads. And once that product is on the market, you can sell it again and again until you die without putting in any extra work.

What it isn’t is a get rich quick scheme. If you think that you can dump your first draft on Amazon and sell a million copies and become the next Fifty Shades, you’re mistaken. Most of the overnight successes we think came out of nowhere had followings elsewhere already (for example, a huge fanfiction community). So scrub that dream from your brain. It’s not going to happen, no matter how good you are.

If you’re serious about making money from self publishing, I can highly recommend the Facebook group 20Booksto50k , which is centred around the idea that you can earn a salary of $50,000 a year or more through self-publishing. It’s filled with people who do just that. But they work their asses off to achieve it.


But can you make more money from self publishing than from traditional publishing?

Here’s the deal: traditional publishers will pay you an advance up front and then you’ll get some royalties from sales. With self publishing you get much bigger royalties from sales, but you don’t get anything up front. If you don’t sell, you make nothing. If you don’t sell when you’re traditionally published you still have your advance (but possibly not another one as they might see you as a bad investment).


Is it possible to make a living from self publishing?

Yes, but it depends on genre and, again, working your ass off. You have to write a lot of books that a lot of people want to read in order to earn enough to support a family. It can be done, there are people doing it. But the truth is that most authors – traditional and indie alike – have multiple streams of income. If you want to write for a living, think of other skills you can do from home that can give you writing time and work towards making those things happen sooner rather than later. This will also take the pressure off writing.


Okay but HOW do I self publish?

Aside from the resources and folks I’ve already mentioned, I would recommend you visit The Creative Penn for more info. She has a great free book on getting started and an amazing weekly podcast full of tips. This isn’t an affiliate link or anything, I just love her 🙂


Do you have any other questions or doubts about self publishing? Drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer. 



One Comment

  • Daniel Wright

    Thank you so much for clearing all the misconceptions that people had with self publishing, I will surely share this with my friends and family as well for their reference too.

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