Tuesday, October 27, 2009


By Writer X

A few posts back, a Commentarama reader asked about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. While I don’t have much experience with self-publishing, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a part of me regularly dreams of chucking the hassles of traditional publishing and skipping down the road less traveled. Self-publishing offers an author more control of her manuscript, larger royalties, no agents, no picky editors, publishing what she wants, when she wants it. What’s not to like? Sign me up!

Not so fast.

Even so, more authors are flocking to self-publishing for a variety of reasons, making it less like the road less traveled and more like the interstate at rush hour, especially when you look at the growing number of small and self-publishing presses compared to only a handful of traditional publishing companies. And I can’t blame anyone for refusing to go through the traditional hoops of finding a literary agent, an editor, and then finally building a fan base only to deal with various levels of rejection along the way. I call it the 1-10 Pain Scale, like when you’re in the hospital emergency room for a gash in your hand (true story) and the nurse asks you, “How would you rate the pain on a scale from one to ten?” The pain in my hand was a -1 compared to the 10++ pain I’ve experienced over the years. And still do.

Here’s the little I do know about self-publishing:

1. There are lots of companies from which to choose: AuthorHouse, Booksurge, iUniverse, Lulu, PublishAmerica, Outskirts Press, Trafford, Tate. There are lots more but these are some of the publishers—also called vanity presses or Print-on-Demand (POD)— that advertise regularly in writers’ magazines that I read. They vary in size, cost, and available networks with which to sell your book. Some have direct links to Amazon and intricate domestic and international distribution channels. Very cool. As an aside, I also know several authors who’ve started their own small publishing companies to publish their works, using a third company to produce the books, and then hit the road to sell them.

2. All of the companies listed above offer publishing packages and a là carte services, depending on how much or how little you need and wish to spend—e.g. securing the ISBN number, cover design, editing services, book promotion, book quality (hard cover versus paperback). Their prices are all over the place, from nominal to thousands of dollars.

3. Some publishers like Lulu even let you publish e-books only and promote your book on its site. Not too shabby! And very cheap.

4. You set the price of your book allowing, of course, for the publisher’s take. You earn much more per book (the royalty) than you would with a traditional publisher; however, you’re 100% responsible for the promotion of your book.

5. Some best-selling fiction and non-fiction authors went the self-publishing route and found fame and fortune after having been rejected by traditional publishers. Examples: THE SHACK, ERAGON, and even those CHICKEN SOUP folksy books. I ask you: Is there a CHICKEN SOUP for someone’s soul that hasn’t been written??

6. You can publish your book TODAY. How cool is that? Very tempting!

7. There are a few literary agents (out of hundreds) who don’t mind if you’ve self-published before you’ve opted to go the traditional route. These mostly technically savvy agents are still the exception, however. For some reason, most agents still equate self-publishing with failure. In other words, their thinking is that if your writing is good, you should be able to find an agent and sell a book to which I say: If only it were so simple. Not all good writers are good at self-promotion. It takes self-promotion to find an agent in the first place! But self-promotion is a critical part of an author’s overall success, too. It’s a Catch-22. We must like it or lump it.

8. Despite the allure, the odds of success are still not in favor of the self-published author. As an example, according to a January 2009 New York Times article, AuthorHouse reported selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008–which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 41 sales per title. In other words: Don’t quit your day job. Certainly, though, some self-published authors do better than others.

9. There are no $$ advances given to authors who choose the self-publishing route.

Personally, I do believe that self-publishing will continue to gain popularity especially as authors and readers demand faster time to publication and more people opt for e-books instead of hardcovers and paperbacks. Consumers will benefit from more reading choices—perhaps even too much choice. That said, traditional publishing may go the way of the dinosaur but don’t expect traditional publishers to go quietly. They are starting to dip their toes, reluctantly, into the e-book waters but there are still plenty of consumers like me who still haven’t warmed up to the idea of reading books on a computer screen the size of an index card.

I also think that self-publishing, particularly for non-fiction authors with a sizeable audience, is actually a very good idea. Because of the content of your book, it might be beneficial to publish sooner rather than later if your idea/book might become stale in another year or two. From that perspective, it might make better business sense to self-publish.

Before you decide to self-publish, talk to people who’ve done it. Visit message boards and blogs. Compare the different companies, their costs, tools, and reputations. Don’t simply be swayed by the flashy web sites or eager online salespeople, touting only the advantages of self-publishing. A few additional things to consider: How many books do you have to sell before you can break even on your investment? Are you willing to pound the pavement and visit bookstores, schools, and libraries in your state? Across the country? What about selling internationally? Will it makes sense for you to hire a publicist to help with promotion?

I think self-publishing and traditional publishing are both exciting. Yet both come with headaches. I suppose it just depends on which headache you find less painful.

Is there something specific you’d like to see covered in the Commentarama writing series? Don’t hesitate to leave a request with your comment, email Commentarama, or email me directly at writerx@cox.net. All G-rated requests will be considered. All X-rated requests will be forwarded to flag@whitehouse.gov.


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for another interesting article Writer X. I had always heard about companies that would "publish" your book for a fee. I understood that they would print it and send you a couple hundred copies, which you could then sell or use for kindling.

But the new self-publishing seems a little different -- though I still suspect that unless you are gifted at sales, you should probably stick with the traditional publishers.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Writer X. Although you would never know it from the rantings I cobble together in my online comments, I actually tried my hand at writing in school and had some pretty good success with essays and a short story. Who hasn't harbored at least some thought about writing a great book at some time?

The problem from my perspective was there were always just too many other things I liked to do to get me adequately focused and motivated. These days, it seems to be music and golf.

One thing I really would like to learn to do is put together a limited edition high quality "family history" book since I have enough information and photographs to make it a worthwhile keepsake for future generations. So far, I haven't found the best program which could give me flexibility to fit in pictures and texts, but I keep searching.

Writer X said...

Andrew, you're welcome!

Yes, a self-publisher would like to send you as many print copies as you can stand as that is how they make money; however, a few will let you publish e-books on their web sites for a nominal fee. They then make money with each download. But, whether an author decides to print hard copies or downloads, the promotion remains the author's responsibility.

Promotion is still largely the author's responsibility, even with traditional publishing. But, with a traditional publisher, you get the benefit of their extensive distribution channels and promotion benefits depending on the size of your name/book. In other words, it's easier to get your books in Borders if you're published by, say, Random House then iUniverse.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I've heard lots of people get their books sold through Amazon. Do you know if that is connected to the self-publishers or can anyone just contact Amazon and say "add this to your catalog"? (I've noticed some of these people only sell a couple books -- so I can't image this is profitable for Amazon.)

Writer X said...

Jed, you're welcome!

I think everybody has stories to tell and perhaps that's why there's been such an explosion in self-publishing and why not? And, if it's any consolation, I haven't always been able to be a writer because I do like to eat occasionally and I'm not real fond of permament camping. ;-)

If your goal is to produce a history book with a limited copy run for people in your family, I think self-publishing would be an excellent idea. Of all the web sites that I went to for writing today's post, I was most impressed with Lulu.com. You might want to check them out and see if they could meet your needs.

Writer X said...

Andrew, self-publishers like BookSurge have direct links to Amazon, mostly because Amazon owns BookSurge. Getting your book on Amazon is almost a requirement these days as that is where so many people buy their books. It's no wonder that Amazon's profits are always going up while the profits of traditional publishers seem to be stagnating or declining.

If I made the decision to self-publish, the ease of linking to Amazon would be one of those things that I would definitely want to ask the self-publishing company.

With a traditional publisher, they handle all that for you.

patti said...

please let us know how many of your requests were flagged and sent to the big boss. it's like you're just daring us ;)

i think that you are absolutely right about self-publishing becoming more widespread as the times change. every print industry is changing at warp speed. kinda like all of us with blogs now. 10 years ago folks would be astonished to see how many folks had a voice and wanted it heard/read.

great article.

Writer X said...

Patti, thanks!

The traditional publishers who don't change with the times will be left behind at some point. And why should only a handful of people get a voice?

Regarding the XXX-rated requests, I'm pretty sure those get reviewed by Rahm and Gibbs in the Oval. ;-)

StanH said...

WriterX: The book industry, sounds like the recording industry ten fifteen years ago, either change or perish. The record labels refused to accept music downloads via the internet, and subsequently the music industry is on the skids. We bought our daughter a Sony, “e-Book” a couple years ago, and are looking at a “Kindle” this X-Mas. Though she ordered several books through her “e-Book” she still loves the bookstore, and the feel of the real thing. She reads one to two books a week, which gets expensive, a price gladly paid on a bright kid. As she prepares for college, we understand that the “Kindle” is a superior gadget? Easy to read and download books. We think this is a way to save us, and her money, your thoughts on the new “Kindle?”

Writer X said...

Stan, it always warms my heart to hear about kids that love to read. Kudos to you for giving your daughter that gift!

Kindle and the Sony Reader seem very similar to me in terms of features and ability to download. I did try a Sony Reader and it was pretty cool, but I'm still not a fan of either. I prefer the real thing. You should be able to try out both at most large bookstores; I know that you can at my Borders in Phoenix.

Additionally, I've read that some colleges are trying to move college textbooks onto Kindle. Not sure how much success they've had but I definitely see that as the wave of the future. That would be something to ask the admissions people at her future college. I think there would be some savings going to downloadable books. It should be even cheaper than it is for downloadable books, but I expect those prices to come down with time, too. Just like they did in the music industry.

Before you purchase either reader, try them out first. If your daughter has an iPhone, you can download to that too, although the screen is much much smaller, obviously.

MegaTroll said...

Thanks, Writer X. I wondered about self publishing. You hear so much about it these days, but I can't see it as a great idea? It seem to me that despite the hassles, you're better off dealing with professional editors and publishers.

Writer X said...

Mega, you're welcome!

I think whether a person chooses self vs. traditional depends on a variety of factors. It's not for everybody, just as traditional publishing isn't either. But, like anything else, a person should go into it with both eyes wide open.

While you get the benefit of seeing your masterpiece published almost immediately with self-publishing, you still have to sell it. Conversely, with traditional publishing, you could wait years before you see your masterpiece published, if at all.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I take it that the self-publishers don't do any kind of spell checking or grammar correction?

Writer X said...

Andrew, as I understand it, the writer must pay the self-publishing company to have his manuscript edited before it's printed; they don't do it as a matter of course.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: I've always been a champ at self-promotion. Now you've given me an idea. All that's left for me to do is write something. LOL

Writer X said...

LawHawk, some of the best books started with a simple idea! And gallons of coffee.

FB Hink said...

Thanks, Writer X, for the post. I think I was one of those who asked about self-publishing and I appreciate your time.

I’m working on a couple of projects, one fiction and one non-fiction. It is frustrating because as I am stumbling through this process I am realizing there is a prevalent élitist snobbery acting as gatekeepers. Unless you went to an Ivy League school and have lunch with Buffy every other Tuesday, it seems, you don’t stand a chance.

I’m executive director of Texas Zero Tolerance, a parental advocacy group pushing for school disciplinary reform. I am becoming a recognized expert by the media and so one would think my project would be perfect for self-publication but in my mind, that’s not so. I feel that an agent and an astute publisher would do a much better job of placing me in media and in other promotional opportunities than I could do on my own. As a novice writer, can I expect that level of support?

My fiction project, on the other hand, is my first love but because I have confidence in my writing, I’m willing to take the time to go slow and develop an audience. If I’m not mistaken, Grisham self-published A Time to Kill. He loaded up boxes of books into his trunk and hit every bookstore throughout the south on weekends. I don’t know how successful that was in paving the way for The Firm but A Time to Kill was republished years after his success and also did quite well second time through.

Is my head screwed on straight or should I rethink my strategies?

Writer X said...

FB, you're so welcome and thanks for suggesting the topic!

Let me just say that I truly feel your pain. I know at first glance traditional publishing--even self-publishing--can seem confusing and even impossible. It may be confusing but it is not impossible.

My recommendation is that you decide which book you're most passionate about and proceed from there. Assuming your book is completed, the next step would be to research agents. My favorite sites for agents are AgentQuery.com and PublishersMarketplace.com. Find/research ones that would represent your manuscript; read their blogs for specifics. Even read their author blogs. Remember that you're looking for a long-term relationship so choose your agent wisely.

Once you pinpoint a dozen agents, then you need to draft a concise query that discusses your book. No longer than a few paragraphs, it should provide enough about your book to wet an agent's appetite for more while also providing a sentence or two about your relevant background. Some agents don't mind email queries; others prefer snail mail. Their blogs and web sites will provide the specifics. Some even provide samples of queries that they like!

A good agent will pitch your book to the right publishers. The right publisher can help with some of the promotion, but they'll expect you to do a lot of it too. If you have a building audience for your non-fiction book proposal, that is always a positive sign.

I wouldn't recommend trying to sell both books to one agent; that would confuse most of them. Many agents represent both fiction and non-fiction, but my recommendation would be to get your foot in the door on one book first. Once in, pitch the second.

You're asking all the right questions, FB. Sounds like all you need to do now is start taking those first steps and doing a little more research. Good luck! Shoot me an email if you have any other specific questions.


FB Hink said...

Thank you, Writer X. I have been researching some – though there’s still a lot more to go – and have sent a couple of queries for both projects just to see what happens and to get the rejection fear out of my system. Needless to say, what happened was predictable and the fear isn’t as great.

I appreciate you telling me not to market both to the same agent. I have fought that temptation. I’m following all of the “protocol” for the non-fiction project though I must get my query more concise as you suggested. When I’ve read some of the agent’s blogs, they seem to be okay with longer queries but I think you’re right: A good query sells itself in the fewest words possible.

I also appreciate the private line. Thanks for your suggestions and I look forward to your next installment!

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