You’ve heard the stories: Self-publishing is the new wave. Unknown writers are self-publishing and hitting the jackpot. Well-known writers are doing the same. Finally, publishing has become a democracy in which the writer—not a gatekeeper at a traditional publishing house—has the power to green-light a book. And with all the different self-publishing platforms out there, it’s as easy as uploading a file and following the prompts.
But before you click on the “publish now” link, you might want to consider what self-publishing really entails. Unless you’re famous, have a built-in platform through your company, and/or have excellent social media marketing skills, finding readers beyond family, friends, and your writing community might be a challenge. Book publishing has always been competitive, and now that so many more books are hitting the market and creating a “tsunami of content,” as Jon Fine of Amazon.com puts it, the competition is greater than ever. It might be well worth it to give it a try, but based on events I’ve recently attended through BookExpo, The Center for Fiction, and BiblioCrunch, here are some questions to first ask yourself:
1) How prepared are you to run your own publishing company?
Once upon a time, authors were authors and publishers were publishers. Now, in the age of the “authorpreneur,” authors wear many different hats. While it might look easy to create a successful book, the truth is, it takes tremendous work to keep a book afloat, much less make it profitable. If you’ve considered working with a traditional publisher, you probably know that their editorial, design, marketing, publicity, sales and other teams work together to develop and promote their books. Traditional publishers and literary agencies also license foreign language and other subsidiary rights for the author. Of course, if you self-publish, you own all the rights to your book and can theoretically sell it anywhere in the world—but how would you make it discoverable to international readers? Would you find a translator? By self-publishing, you also wouldn’t have to worry about issues like fulfillment, as e-books never go out of print and you could use a print-on-demand (POD) service if you need paperback copies—but are you prepared to track the orders? Convince bookstores to carry your POD book? Analyze the different channels where your book is or isn’t selling?
2) How much money are you willing to invest in self-publishing services?
In a traditional book publishing deal, you receive an advance against royalties based on the publisher’s estimate of how many copies your book might sell. The publisher determines this figure by taking into account the quality of your writing, market needs, current trends, sales of previously published books that are comparable to yours, and your own sales history if you’ve written other books, especially in the same genre. If you self-publish, you are in essence taking out a loan on yourself and determining your own advance. Many self-publishing platforms like Amazon.com’s CreateSpace and Lulu.com offer package deals for editing, design, text conversion, and marketing services for different budgets. Other platforms like BiblioCrunch help you build your own publishing team. Regardless of how you choose to self-publish, you might spend anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars upfront to create and market a professional project. What is your budget for these services? Your plan if your net profits don’t offset your initial investment?
3) How much time are you willing to spend on marketing your book?
The great thing about social media is that it’s generally free, but as brand evangelist and buzz marketer Cindy Ratzlaff points out, your time isn’t. Even if you land a book deal with a traditional publisher with a sizable marketing muscle, you’ll still be expected to market your book on your own. Creating an author website and being active on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites are expected. Aside from attending book signings and providing endorsements for fellow writers, you might also want to comment on other authors’ websites, do blog tours, and participate in virtual or in-person marketing campaigns. As Ratzlaff notes, developing a readership is no longer just about marketing your book—it’s about building your brand. And according to most self-publishing experts, you should build your brand well before you write your book. This way, you’ll already have a following by the time you’re ready to launch.
4) How much are you willing to edit your book?
To ensure that a book is the best it can be, most traditional publishers require multiple rounds of edits before they release an author’s manuscript payment, and this can take several months or longer. If you self-publish, you could conceivably skip this step. But even if you have the perfect cover, the best publicist in the business, and friends in high places, if your actual book isn’t strong, it probably won’t sell. If it does sell but falls short of your readers’ expectations, they won’t have a reason to buy your next book. In order to build a readership based on what matters the most in your book—the content—hire a content editor who’s both an expert in your genre and knows the ins and outs of the publishing field. Your editor can help you determine what kind of feedback you need (an editorial assessment? developmental editing? line editing?) and the difference between these editorial services. (Here are definitions from my website.) Also, don’t forget to hire a copyeditor. A clean, polished book will go a long way in making a good impression.
5) How can you improve your chances of finding an agent or publisher?
A friend recently told me that she’s sent out query letters to seven agents over the last few months and is keeping her fingers crossed. While this is a great first step, it probably isn’t enough if you’re serious about landing a book deal with a traditional publisher. Once you’ve researched literary agents in your genre, pitch to them with the expectation that most will either say no or won’t respond—but the right one will eventually hit. Also plan your strategy: Do you want to start with a small group of agents and personalize each letter? Do a large mailing to cast a wider net? Attend writers’ conferences so you can make your pitch in person? You might also try independent publishers, many of which focus on niche markets and accept un-agented submissions. That is, if you’ve written a book designed for a specific audience, you could try submitting directly to an independent publisher that specializes in your topic and receive a small advance in addition to editing, design, and marketing support.
6) What is your goal, really?
When you dream about what will happen once you publish your book, do you imagine earning money or accolades? Both! you say. But as Guy Kawasaki notes, in spite of all the self-publishing success stories out there, the odds of making money in publishing—through a traditional house or by self-publishing—are low. Kawasaki also points out, “It’s the same with becoming an artist or an athlete, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.” If your main goal is to gain the respect of colleagues and literary critics, then maybe you’ll want to keep approaching agents and publishers. If you’re ready to handle the business end of publishing and/or pay others to do this for you, then self-publishing is probably your best option. Fortunately, it’s not an either-or situation—you can do both. And with all the changes taking place in the industry today, at least you know your book will be published.