Should You Self-publish Your Novel?

Writers these days have two roads to fame and glory — self-publish or go with a traditional publisher. How do you decide which road to take? Will self-publishing ruin your reputation? Will traditional publishers cheat you out of your hard-earned money?

Despan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I need help and advise.

I was planning to self publish, hoping to evaluate the performance of the book in terms of sales and readership before trying to use the traditional publishers. then while i was doing my research, i realised that you have traveled both routes – published by traditional publishers – Zondervan and also by Bookbaby (self-publishing.) I would like to be advised on the best route for a beginner like me.

I would be happy to be assisted please.

Thank you and God bless you and your team

Randy sez: You’ve put your finger on the question that many writers are asking these days, Despan.

I should clarify one point, however. I’ve published with several traditional publishers, but my self-publishing has been with Amazon/Barnes&Noble/Smashwords/Apple, rather than with Book Baby. I have nothing against Book Baby, but I haven’t worked with them. The two books that I’ve self-published have been second editions of books that were originally published with traditional publishers.

A large number of my published author friends have done exactly what I’ve done with their out-of-print novels — they’ve edited them, paid a graphic designer to create cover art, packaged it up as an e-book, and posted it for sale on the major online retailers.

Some of my author friends report no luck with these ventures. Some of them report very good results. I’d classify my results so far as fairly good. I think that as I release more e-books, they’ll all do better. One of the best ways to promote an e-book is with another e-book (since all your books should list all the others).

In the case of out-of-print novels, it’s a no-brainer to self-publish it. The cost is pretty minimal. The potential revenue is huge. Few traditional publishers are willing to republish your out-of-print novel, so that’s rarely an option.

But what if you’ve got a novel that has not yet been published? Should you self-publish it or go with a traditional publisher?

I suppose the answer to that depends on your goals.

If the main thing you want is to see your name on the cover of a book and you really don’t care if it earns any money, then your quickest way to get there is to self-publish it.

If the main thing you want is to get the ego boost that comes from being validated by a traditional publisher, then you can rule out self-publishing. You have to go with a traditional publisher.

Being a selfish guy, my main priority is to earn the most money for each book.

Let’s all remember, of course, that publishing a book is a very low-probability way to earn a lot of money. So let’s be clear on this — I didn’t decide to become a writer for the money. I became a writer because writing is in my blood and I can’t help myself. Having made that decision to become a writer, I want to maximize the money that I’ll earn. It just seems dumb to make decisions that would minimize my earnings.

I hope we’re clear on that, but just in case we’re not, I’ll repeat it. Writing will probably not make you rich. But if you know that and still want to be a writer, you should at least try to earn the most you can from it.

Here is my #1 piece of advice on self-publishing: Never self-publish a book unless you believe that it’s good enough that you could sell it to a traditional publisher.

Why? Because if your book is so bad that you couldn’t ever hope to sell it to any traditional publisher on the planet, that probably means that readers are going to hate it. Yes, there are a few rare exceptions to this, but mostly it’s true. Would you read a book that every traditional publisher thought was terrible? I didn’t think so. Treat readers the way you want to be treated.

So let’s assume that you’ve got a manuscript and you’re pretty sure it’s good enough to sell to a traditional publisher. How do you proceed?

That leads to my #2 piece of advice on self-publishing: Never self-publish a book unless you believe that you could market it at least 20% as well as a traditional publisher.

The reason for that rule is simple. Traditional publishers typically pay royalty rates of 25% of net revenues on e-books. Your agent will take 15% of that 25%, leaving you with about 21% of net revenues. I rounded that 21% down to 20% for simplicity. So if your publisher can sell 10,000 copies of your novel, then you only need to sell about 2,100 self-published copies at that same price point to generate the same amount of revenue. Of course, you might lower the price and then you’d need to move more copies, but you get the picture.

What if you know you’re horrible at marketing? I’d say in that case you’ve got no choice but to go with a traditional publisher. Of course, most traditional publishers these days expect their authors to do the lion’s share of the marketing. So being horrible at marketing is a bad idea these days. Don’t be horrible at marketing. Learn how to be an effective marketer.

What if you know your book could never sell to a traditional publisher? I’d say in that case you should work on your craft. Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard. Give yourself the time and training to become excellent. You wouldn’t try to become a brain surgeon with 50 hours of training. Nor a fighter pilot. Nor a chess grandmaster.

Learning to write fiction well takes hundreds or thousands of hours of work. That may sound like bad news, but the flip side is that it’s also bad news for all those other wannabes you’re competing with. If you put in the time and they don’t, then who’s going to win?

I have a few other bits of advice if you want to self-publish your novel:

  • Get your novel edited by a professional freelance editor. I believe that no novelist on the planet should be his own editor. You need an objective hard-eyed critique of your fiction. I don’t do freelance editing, by the way, so please nobody ask me what my rates are because I’m not available at any price. And yes, I follow this advice myself. I always hire talented editors to critique my work.
  • Pay a graphic designer to create the cover art for your book. Very few authors have graphic design skills. Find somebody who does.
  • Don’t spend massive amounts of time and money trying to do social marketing. This is merely my opinion. I’m aware that the vast majority of writers believe that social media will take us all to nirvana. Being a numbers guy, I’m skeptical. But I don’t have time to elaborate here. I often teach marketing at conferences, and it takes a few hours to lay out my vision of how to do marketing right. Social media is a small sliver of that, and should not suck huge amounts of time out of your life.

Well, Despan, I hope that helps. I talk to editors and agents all the time, and if I can distill what they tell me down to one thing, it’s this: “Be a brilliant writer.”

Easy to say. Horribly hard to do. But if you become a brilliant writer, you have a lot better chance of succeeding in the wild and crazy world of publishing. There is no certainty, ever. But brilliant writers have the odds in their favor.

Good luck!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

8 Comments

  1. Katie Hart October 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    One exception I’d add to the “never sell to a traditional publisher” is if the book’s quality is good, but it’s on a niche topic. Traditional publishers are less apt to take a risk on books that have a limited audience, but with self-publishing, as Randy said, you’d only have to sell 2,100 vs. 10,000. And if you’re writing for a niche audience, chances are you already have contacts in that area to help you market your book.

  2. Ann McArthur October 12, 2012 at 3:17 am #

    I need a professional freelance editor who specifically edits literary fiction. Can you suggest how I should go about finding an excellent one? Would you have one to recommend?

    Thanks for your help.

    Ann

  3. Kristi October 12, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    Similar to what Katie said, fiction can frequently fall into the cracks between the lines of genres. If you write something that is not quite any one genre (or that has a word count that is an odd-ball length), then you may have to hope for an editor who is willing to take a chance. And with today’s publishing industry, it is hard to find publishers to take chances on newbies in un-proven markets.

    I am published by an e-press and seriously considering self-publishing for my next book. The money isn’t much yet (i.e. it makes a small dent in my Starbucks tab). I don’t expect to do massively better on my own (and I have to put in more work upfront for cover and editing). But I get a final say in the output.

    I have a career that pays a good solid salary. I’m not writing for the money. But that day job provides little to no creative freedom. I don’t want to spend my energy contributing to someone else’s creative vision. I want to create my own. And if it takes a long time to build a fan base, one person at a time, so be it.

    I think if my only option were to mold my writing to fit what traditional publishers were buying, then I would either be writing for the dust bunnies that live under my bed, or else take up some other creative endeavor.

    If you’re pondering your options, don’t forget to take into account your own personality.

  4. Nikole Hahn October 12, 2012 at 9:41 am #

    Very good advice. I’ll add one more to it. Don’t self-publish unless you can afford it. :o)

  5. Laura Ware October 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Self-publishing doesn’t have to be expensive. You can barter for copyediting/proofreading (a friend does mine for me cheaply) and it isn’t hard to learn to do your own covers.

    Right now traditional publishing is in flux, and contracts aren’t as good or as fair as they used to be. This may not be the best time to pursue the traditional publishing route til they sort themselves out.

    I am indie publishing my work, and while I’m not making a ton of money yet, I realize this is a marathon, not a sprint. So I keep writing and learning and hopefully will succeed in my quest to make a living off my writing.

  6. Emily October 15, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    Good heavens, publish away! It will give a new writer useful feedback they won’t get anywhere else. And they can get over that ‘look at me, I wrote a book’ attitude and lick their learning wounds. It can cost next to nothing, if you use smashwords. Just use a pen name so you don’t muddy your brand once your writing matures.

    • Elisabeth Potts May 14, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      You say that even with a traditional publisher, the writer is still expected to do a lot of the marketing. I’ve been reading your book, Writing Fiction For Dummies, which has helped me a lot with structuring my novel. However, even in that book, you don’t really talk about marketing. Have you written a post on marketing that I could read?

  7. Justina Bradley November 1, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    I’ve got oddball lengths. My suspense novel seems done at about 46- 47,000 words.

    About the designer- though- I’m pretty good with design. I could probably have some idea. I think I’ve got a idea for my cover and I don’t want publishers to take it.

    Personally, I like the business and marketing aspects of publishing as well as the writing, and personally, I think self publishing’s for me.

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