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Now that it's so easy to self-publish and you hear about success stories, many authors are wondering whether they should go through the possibly multi-year hopefully-finding-an-agent-and-then-hopefully-a-publisher process or instead just make a deal with a self-publisher, start printing books, and see what happens.
Let me first start by saying that every book is different and no blog post that is going to offer generalized advice about something as broad and varied as whether to self-publish is going to cover every eventuality. Bear that in mind as you decide upon the right path for your own book.
I thought the best way to organize this post would be with a series of questions that someone who is considering self-publishing should answer.
1. Have you taken the time to research both the traditional publishing process and the self-publishing process?
This is your book we're talking about here! You probably took a year or more to write it - why rush into a decision about its fate? Why take the next step without really knowing what you're doing?
Too often people rush off to self-publish out of frustration with the traditional publishing industry and treat it as a way of sticking it to The Publishing Man - this is so extremely misguided. Don't let frustration cloud your judgment. Any decision about how you're going to proceed should be based strictly about what is best for your book and your career, not about proving someone wrong.
Research your options. Figure out some of the different self-publishing models. Familiarize yourself with both processes and determine which one you want to pursue.
As they say on Friday Night Lights: Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can't Lose.
Some great resources for people considering self-publishing include Writer Beware, the Self-Publishing Review, and Absolute Write, and if people with a self-publishing background could also provide some of their favorite resources in the comments section that would be great as well.
2. Does your book appeal to a broad audience or is it intended for a specialized group?
Be honest. While everyone has dreams of their book catching on like Snuggies, some books have a limited audience, whether because they will appeal mainly to a certain region, they're experimental, they're very specialized, they're geared toward a subculture, or the audience is otherwise constrained.
This is not a bad thing!! No value judgment at all. However, the traditional publishing industry is geared toward books with a mass audience. Yes, there are some regional books published by major publishers and yes, there are experimental books and other exceptions. But increasingly, specialized publishers and self-publishers are the ones who reach niche audiences.
If you have a niche project you probably don't need an agent and can either approach specialty houses directly or simply proceed with self-publishing.
3. If you tried first to find an agent and/or publisher and didn't find one, are you sure you don't want to write another book and try again?
These days, with the major publishers publishing fewer titles and mid-tier houses disappearing, great books are absolutely falling through the cracks, especially books that are literary or idiosyncratic or are in genres that the industry does not perceive as currently selling well. Some of these are being picked up by small presses, others languish.
On the other hand, there are so many books that fail to find an agent and/or publisher because the author just isn't ready. Take it from someone who wrote a first novel that failed to find an agent and/or publisher: while it's painful to put a manuscript in a drawer, in retrospect you may very well be glad you let it go if your next book ends up working out.
How can you tell whether yours is really good and will find an audience or whether you're not actually ready? Admittedly this is very difficult to answer. If you have the confidence of an agent or industry professional who is encouraging you to self-publish I'd listen carefully. If you're not really that worried about finding a major publisher down the line and just want to have your book out there for people to find I'd listen to yourself. There's no shame in that!
If, however, you want to self-publish because you're hoping for easy DIY bestsellerdom: proooooobably not the best reason to self-publish. You might instead try to continue to hone your craft and land an agent/publisher for your next book. But only you can decide for sure.
4. Do you know which self-publishing model you want to pursue?
There are many, many different ways to self-publish and zillions of companies who will be willing to offer you their services.
Print self-publishing options break down roughly across a spectrum of choices depending on your up-front investment: options where the author funds the print run and receives most or all of the revenue from sales to no upfront fee where the self-publishing company keeping most of the revenue from sales.
Or do you want to dip a self-publishing toe in the water and just e-publish for now and gauge the response? You could do that as well, though be sure and be very careful that you retain all control over your work and can pull it at any time.
Also, remember that there are also lots and lots and lots of self-publishing scams and bad deals out there. Writer Beware.
5. Can you afford to lose any money you plan to spend self-publishing?
No book is worth going broke. It's really, really not.
Books are about as likely to lead to riches as casinos, lottery tickets, and staring at the sky and waiting for a million dollars to spontaneously land on your head.
Please don't bankrupt yourself self-publishing. Please. Only spend it if you can afford to lose it.
6. Do you have a plan for copyediting, interior design, cover design, ISBNs, and all those other nuts and bolts elements that go into making a book?
There's wayyyyyyyyyyyyy more to making a book than writing it. As you will soon know all-too-well if you decide to self-publish.
7. Do you have a marketing plan?
Bookstores do not generally stock self-published books. Selling your book in a brick-and-mortar store will only happen if you're able to pound the pavement and make it happen.
Luckily you are still able to reach audiences via online bookselling. But how are you going to make people aware of your book? How will you make them interested? How can you find your audience?
It's not enough to simply have your book selling on Amazon - whether it's a blog, Twitter presence, marketing campaign, book trailer or all of the above: you'll need to get out there to make people want to buy it.
8. Do you have a plan for your next book?
If you're hoping to use your self-published book as a jumping-off point for future books or finding an agent/traditional publisher you have quite a challenge ahead. Not only will you have to invest enough time in your self-published book that it generates good reviews and healthy sales (usually in the thousands), you're also going to want to be working hard on your next project.
As I've posted before, it might not be your self-published book but rather your next book that attracts an agent or publisher. And if you're looking to make The Leap to a traditional publisher with your next project, it's almost always better if it's not a sequel.
How do people have time to both pound the pavement and write their next book? I have no idea. But people find a way.
9. Do you have a healthy amount of self-esteem and an entrepreneurial spirit?
Even with the self-publishing success stories there is still somewhat of a lingering stigma against self-publishing. It's important to understand that even if your self-published book is really really good, the vast majority of self-published books are not very good and some people are inevitably going to lump you in with those books. You're probably going to be greeted with a certain degree of skepticism as you try to convince people that yours is one of the good ones.
You will need to be the type of person who doesn't mind long odds, can deal with frustration and hearing people say no, and has a can-do spirit in the face of adversity.
Actually that last paragraph goes for anybody who writes a book. But especially self-publishers. Much like pimpin': self-publishing ain't easy.
10. Are we having fun yet?
Do the last nine questions strike fear into your heart or do they make you giddy with excitement? Can you self-publish while still abiding by the 10 Commandments of Happy Writers?
It's not worth it if you're not going to enjoy it.