Friday 28 March 2008

Writing Pitfall #2: Self Publishing

I was a panelist at a fantasy/science fiction convention a couple of years ago and while I and the other panelists were waiting to start we looked at each other's books. As the fellow to my left examined a copy of my history of Byzantium, I looked over at his novel.

"Who was your publisher?" I asked.

"AuthorHouse," he replied, slumping in his seat.

I can see why he slumped. AuthorHouse is a vanity press, meaning he paid to have his book published. He will get no marketing from his "publisher" unless he pays even more, no copyedit unless he pays more, no distribution in stores, and most reviewers won't take him seriously. His work won't even be recognized by the Library of Congress.

When I first started as a writer and was expressing frustration at not being able to get my books published, my wife (who now knows better) suggested, "Why don't you self-publish?"

My response was "No thanks, I'm already a nobody."

Despite a lot of hype to the contrary, fueled by the vanity presses themselves and defensive self-publishers, paying for publication will probably not help your career. Agents and editors don't consider self-published works as prior experience, and almost nobody makes back their initial layout. "Oh," but they say, "What about The Christmas Box? What about Eragon?"

What about the thousands of books that are self-published every year that never make it anywhere? Yes, there have been a few success stories, but they're few and far between, and the authors of the above two books happened to be talented, unlike most self-published authors. Both eventually got picked up by major houses, which helped with their distribution and advertising and made them more money than they ever could themselves.

One of my more soul-destroying jobs was as a copyeditor at a major self-publishing firm. In the six months I was there I didn't see a single book worth reading, let alone publishing. Flat characters, hackneyed and occasionally nonsensical plots, and not a glimmer of literary worth. The fact that my pay came out of the author's pocket and not the publisher's gave me a queasy feeling. Now I only do freelance editing. It helps me sleep.

So is self-publishing always a bad idea? No. Self-publishers fail because they have no market for their books. When was the last time you looked through the catalog of iUniverse or PublishAmerica for something to read? But if you have a guaranteed market you can reach cheaply, then you just might be able to sell books to people other than your mother. If you self-publish a history of your church, for example, you know you can sell a certain amount of copies to the parishioners. I met a guy who was an expert in a certain rare tropical fish. Through newsgroups he knew pretty much everyone who owned this type of fish and they acknowledged him as an expert. So he self-published a book and sold it to people in his newsgroups. I doubt he made much money, but he did get his ideas out there.

You can also do well if you build up a major platform. Cynthia Hope Clark has built up a reputation for writing advice through her fundsforwriters website. Now she's self-publishing books filled with writing advice. Since she's spent years building up a reputation, she can market through her popular newsletters and website. It helps that she knows how to write. She blows all the authors from my old job out of the water.

So my advice is, unless you have a major reputation or a tight hold on a niche market, stay away from self-publishing. It will only break your heart.

And that guy I was on the panel with? I didn't see him sell any books at the convention. He never came out with the sequel he was planning, or the audio book of his first novel, and his personal website hasn't been updated since 2006. Yet another casualty on the self-publishing highway.


Zoe Winters said...

hmmm, my problem with this is that unless you get really lucky with a major publishing contract that also markets your books, authors have to do most of their own marketing anyway. This is especially true with small publishers.

Many small publishers can't get a book wide distribution through the bookstore chains. (though in a recent pole the chains command about 32% of market share...while online book purchases such as through are up to 43% of market share.) is exceedingly easy for an indie author to get their work onto.

Another problem is, things like authorhouse and It irritates me that these vanity PODs use things like "Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman self published" Yes, they did, but they also actually SELF PUBLISHED in the true own your own business, run your own company, know what the hell you're doing kind of way. They didn't vanity publish. Vanity publishing is to true self publishing what an MLM is to owning your own small business. If you're selling Mary Kay, you don't REALLY have your own small business. Not really.

And Mark Twain lost his shirt in it. Though it must have paid off obviously, cause here we are knowing who he is.

I think if someone A. Has the goods (can actually write), and B. Has a good business head on their shoulders and starts an ACTUAL business, and uses actual printers (even with POD technology, there are printers such as Lightning Source which are fabulous), and then C. markets said book (and there are so many opportunities now on the internet for someone who actually knows how to market to do so without going deep into the red financially...)it can be feasible.

If you know what you're doing, you're going to sell as many books likely as you would with a small press because they lack wide distribution as well and in both cases you're marketing yourself pretty much exclusively. There is no magic way for books to get sold just because someone besides yourself published you. And at 3 to 4 times the profit (even on a POD print model, I crunched the numbers)

While in a perfect world one would get a new york publisher, that's harder and harder to come by.

Anyway what this long rant was meant to do was simply to point out that while indie publishing certainly isn't for everyone, it's not all "Authorhouse" and "" and really crappy covers.

The number of writers who can truly wear all these hats is few, but they exist. Writers are starting to get more business savvy as a whole, but they have a long way to go.

Hope Clark said...

Thanks for the mention, Sean. Yes, I have a platform. Yes, I can sell self-pubbed books. I write ebooks. I self-pubbed THE SHY WRITER. But I established a platform before I ever thought about writing a book. Even still, I only market to my readership. I sell ebooks right and left. THE SHY WRITER, however, though it has an excellent reputation, still hasn't reached 2,000 copies. Considering I only market it through FundsforWriters, that's an amazing feat. But if I hadn't had FFW, I doubt I'd have sold 100 copies, like 90% of all self-pubbed books. And the only reason I self-pubbed it was that I found Booklocker who also promoted it to their 75,000 readers in Angela Hoy's Writers Weekly newsletter.

Yes, there is a place for self-pubbing. However, it's for a small minority, not the majority, and not for those who think that publishers are shunning them and that their work is good enough. Shunning serves a purpose. 99% of the time it means your work isn't quite yet worthy and needs more sweat and blood. Too many people are publishing first and second drafts of books, and that, my friend, has ruined the image of self-publishing. Self-publishers publish ANYTHING for ANYONE. I'd rather my work be seen amongst the ranks of those judged than amongst those who threw words together with typos, misplaced commas, noun/verb disagreements and more. You might be good, but look at your peers in that arena. There's something to be said about watching who you socialize with. Don't we teach that to our children all the time? You might have the greatest kid in the world, but if he's caught with a pack of dope users, he's guilty by association.

Hope Clark

Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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