Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why I Don't Want To Self-Publish // Part One

Recently I talked about query writing, and I mentioned I wanted to write a post about why I don’t want to self-publish. This is that post.

I have come a long way since my younger days when I considered self-publishing as nothing more than a platform for untalented writers. I have since read self-published gems like Sierra Abrams’ THE COLOR PROJECT. And let’s not forget that Hugh Howey’s WOOL and Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN were originally self-published. There was a good stretch of time, about a year, when I strongly considered that route myself, when I still wanted to have my books out there, but I had lost faith in my ability to make the cut.

People don’t realize how big a deal it is, doing everything by yourself. If you want to do your due diligence, you are probably going to need to hire a professional cover designer and a professional editor. That costs money. You can cut corners with those, if you want, but you are going to risk hurting the final result. I’m going to say something unpopular and discouraging here, and it won’t be the last of it’s kind in this post: you are not as good at editing and writing and cover design as your mom says you are. I have read too many samples of self-published works that were rife with typos and lazy formatting and bizarre grammatical errors. Most readers are not willing to spend their time and money on those.

Unless you are sticking with digital publishing, you are going to need to pay for print copies. You also need to either a) figure out how to format a novel well, which is not as easy as you think, unless you know about formatting issues like widows and orphans (and I’m not talking about the Baudelaire kind), or b) you need to hire a professional to format your novel.

This isn’t meant as a harangue on self-published authors, since there are some who do their due diligence, but because there is no gatekeeper in self-publishing to tell people, “Hey, wait a minute, you don’t know what you’re doing,” most books don’t get vetted. Suddenly if your mom says you have written the next Great American Novel, then that’s good enough, might as well stick a barcode on that baby.

But back to the issue of money. If you’re going to do it right, it can take somewhere between two and five thousand dollars. You might, might earn back that investment. Let’s say you spend two thousand dollars, and let’s say you charge twelve dollars for each book, if you’re doing print. You are going to have to sell upwards of one hundred sixty-seven print copies before you start to see any kind of income, and that’s not necessarily factoring in the cost of printing all one hundred sixty-seven of those copies, because the initial two thousand won’t cover that many, so it’s actually going to be longer. Also, as you make all this money to pay back your two thousand, you have to remember that taxes for self-employed people, which is the category you fall under as a writer, are twice as high, because right now your workplace pays half of your taxes, so the money will basically evaporate. That means it’s going to be longer before you earn out, and even longer before you start to make any sort of appreciable profit. I could go on. But I hope you see what I mean. You can curtail some of these expenses by sticking with digital or using a platform that does not require you to pay for your print copies, but you’re still going to have to pay for editing, cover designing, book formatting, and promotion, which you shouldn’t skip.

Something a lot of people don’t realize is that you don’t pay a traditional publisher. The publisher buys your book. Like, with money. Essentially, they’re paying for the privilege of editing your book with you, designing the cover, printing it out, etc... I would much prefer a setup where I don’t have to pay to do things I could otherwise get payed to do. Simple math.

And here’s where too many authors get scammed. You never ever ever pay a reputable literary agent out of pocket. After your book sells, they get a percentage (usually 15 to 25%, depending on the agent and what kind of deal it is—print, foreign, film, etc…) before you get your cut. True, most advances are not worth bragging about, and after taxes and your agent’s percentage get taken out, what remains is less than impressive. But it is still preferable to footing the bill.

Let’s get even more depressing. Self-published books normally don’t get placement in bookstores, which doesn’t have to be a major deal now that Amazon has become a huge marketplace, but you would still be losing sales opportunities. You would also be passing up on the chance to see your book in a bookstore, freak out, and take a million photos. So, there’s that.

You’re not going to want to hear me say this, but I’m glad younger me heard it over and over, so I am going to say it. With self-publishing, there is a very real danger of jumping the gun and harming your career. Let me give you some limited perspective. If you rush and query an imperfect manuscript, generally the worst that will happen is that you won’t get published that time around. Not a career wrecker, unless you’re unprofessional about it. With self-publishing, unless you are getting feedback from unbiased people who are knowledgable about writing craft, you are not necessarily going to get an honest view of your book. I cannot stress it enough: you need someone to tell you when your book isn’t good, and you need someone who knows how to help you make it better. Everyone does. If you rush yourself and self-publish a low quality manuscript, you have shot yourself in the foot. Your chances of getting an agent after that are a lot lower. Now that they’ve seen how you’ve performed as a writer, they’re less likely to risk their time on you. Not to mention that self-publishing as a method of breaking into traditional publishing is inadvisable, because unless your book is a smashing success, it is almost impossible to get an agent interested in an already-published work.

A lot of people self-publish their first novels. If self-publishing had been my chosen route, I would have done the same, because I thought TIB was awesome-sauce. I still think it’s a good book, but I also know that it needs work. The same for my second. But writing is a craft that takes years to develop, and the only way to develop it is through practice. No one really wants to hear this, but I am going to say it anyway, because I am so grateful that I finally understand. Your first book is probably not going to be good. Your second and third and fourth might also be subpar. It depends on how quickly you learn, as a writer. I saw some statistics once, and I wish I could find them for you, that showed your chances of getting traditionally published increase with each book, but the point where they start to skyrocket is on your fourth. Your fourth book. If you’re looking at that number and thinking, “Wow, that’s discouraging, I guess I’ll self-publish instead,” you’re missing the point. It’s not a numbers game. To learn the skills, you have to put in the time. More people get published on their fourth book, not because four is some magic number, but because that is how long it takes a lot of people to get good at their craft.

I know it’s hard, because you can get it into your mind that, oh, I finished a book, that must mean I know what I’m doing. It doesn’t. All it means is that you finished a book. It does not necessarily mean that your book is any good. Self-publishing lets you skip vital steps in your development as a writer. I know traditional publishing can be disillusioning. Because it’s so subjective, it’s entirely possible for a wonderful book to get rejected across the board, so I am not saying never self-publish. But, generally speaking, the gatekeepers are there for a reason. Agents and publishers are actually very good at their jobs. Most of them have been doing it for years, so they know how to spot talent. And while it’s not fun to think about, the rejection storm I received when I was querying TIB wasn’t because the agents I queried were mean or blind, it’s because my book wasn’t good enough.

There were times I was tempted to self-publish because I just wanted to have my book out there, because I felt this maddening need to be published that became, at times, all-consuming. It’s so hard to hear that you’re not ready yet, harder still to delay your dreams. But I learned valuable lessons from being told no so many times, lessons I needed to learn, and I’m grateful for that.


  1. That's a very interesting read, Liz -- thanks for sharing your perspective. I can only imagine how much of a gauntlet it must be just to get your book out there, so kudos for sticking with it. Reading "the gatekeepers are there for a reason" makes me think of American Idol for some reason -- it's so easy to pursue fast fame, but I'm sure it can also feel demoralizing to go the long route. I hope you get your opportunity soon!

  2. Love what you have to say here! I'm wanting to self-publish, but I've also done the research. And I know that it's going to take money and a lot of patience to be successful. I think too many people look to self-publishing as the easy way out, but if you actually want to be successful, it can be the harder way out. They also think it's quicker, but again, if you want to be successful, you're going to need to be just as patient as if you were publishing traditionally. I see this a lot as a freelance editor too. Too many authors think they can just write their first draft, pay an editor to fix typos, and then publish it. That's going to get you nowhere. Even my parents, a few years ago, heard of a printing place that just publishes your book for you, and they wanted me to do right now. And I was like, "Um, no. My book isn't ready for that yet. It needs editing and so much more work." XD They still don't quite understanding that writing a book is more than just putting the words down and you're done. Self-publishing takes a ton of time and commit. And you have to be willing to listen to objective people who can tell you when your book is ready or not. Both traditional publishing and self-publishing have their merits, and they both take time and commitment, just in different areas.
    Love this post! This is so important for people to realize.
    And good luck with the querying!