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Why I Don’t Generally Recommend Self-Publishing to Beginners

I am either the best possible choice as a judge for Mark Lawrence’s ‘The Great Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off’ or the worst choice. I should probably explain that, shouldn’t I?

When someone comes to me asking whether they should self-publish a book I almost always convince them that no, they should not. The process of convincing someone that self-publishing is generally not a good idea involves being rather blunt with them and coming across, initially, as a bit of a dick. Thankfully, after I give my reasons for why self-publishing isn’t a good idea for the average writer (i.e. 99 out of 100), and explain that it is for the good of the author I’m talking to and, indeed, the industry, I’m usually forgiven and am happy that the person who came to me has been set on a path to becoming a better writer.

So, why don’t I like self-publishing *as a rule* then?

Well, I don’t think that any aspiring author out there would turn down the chance to be published by the likes of Harper Voyager (who print books by Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin and Mark Lawrence) or Gollancz (home to Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson).

Certainly, I’d love to have them as my colleagues or stable mates!

I also don’t think that any individual is egotistical enough to think that they can do the job of agent, editor, marketer, production manager, distribution manager, sales person, etc. all by themselves and to the high standards of trained, experienced professionals who have earned their jobs in the top publishing houses around the world.

Finally, there just isn’t good money in being a self-published author. Yes, there are exceptions, but if you want to take the chance that the next one of those will be you then you’re playing with odds not too far away from getting a good lottery win.

Once I’ve explained this reasoning I ask my writer friends why they are self-publishing. Generally, it takes quite a lot of teasing out of them because the reasons they give me are the ones they don’t really want to admit. Here are the primaries I’m given:

1. An Editor / Agent turned their book down.

I understand this one, totally. When you put hours into a book, you love the characters, you are proud of the story and you feel it deserves to be read, rejection is heartbreaking. How can you just give up on these people and places – their story? The prose that you’ve poured your soul into? In this case, the unfortunate truth is that by self-publishing you are choosing the easy option.

Why is this a bad idea and not quite as harmless as you might think? Well, in my eyes it stunts your progression as a writer. If you refuse to acknowledge that an editor or agent doesn’t feel your work is ready to be released upon the reading public and do it anyway you are robbing yourself of acting on professional feedback that will allow you to grow.

What should you do instead when a rejection occurs?

Go write your next novel or re-write your current one. Emma Newman and Brandon Sanderson have both told me about the books they have written and simply thrown or stored away upon finishing them. Imagine you want to be a professional football player, you don’t walk on the pitch and start playing for Manchester United. Imagine you want to be a movie star, you don’t automatically get cast in the next Avengers movie. Similarly, if you write a book there is no reason you should assume you deserve to be on shelves next to Trudi Canavan or Peter V. Brett, etc.; you need to put in some practice, allow yourself to fail a few times, get to a professional standard through hard work and dedication.

The thing to remember when tucking a book away is that this wasn’t all a waste of time. Get people to look at your work and critique the heck out of it. Put an editor’s/agent’s hat on and think about why it didn’t get snapped up. If you are finding it truly hard to give up on the tale you’ve already told then think about the authors I mentioned such as Brandon Sanderson. He had drafts of books stored in draws that weren’t publishable, but is in the process of re-writing them now that he has had more writing experience and time within the industry.

Note: He also had ideas for books that he felt he was not good enough to do justice and has only recently started working on them too.

Self-Published

After releasing the above picture on Twitter I got around 100 retweets and favourites. Most people agreed with me, but there were some who made some very good arguments. Some suggested you could self-publish and then write your next book. This is true, but why? I understand if you went straight to self-publishing as this had always been your goal. But, if you sent the book to an agent you obviously valued their opinion and wanted them to pick it up. It is no good once they reject it saying, “Well your opinion is bullshit, I don’t care what you think!” because you obviously did. The risk to me is that you spend months promoting and improving that book, convinced it is good enough to be on shelves, when you could be spending your time on writing another having analysed why an agent didn’t think it would sell.

Others suggested that this one book may help you build a following and then be picked up by a publisher. Again, it could, but you could just write another book/keep improving the first one after learning from the rejection. There is also a real danger that if you publish a book and it doesn’t sell then you are proving that your work isn’t selling and I can guarantee agents will take that into account. It is also mentally tough to have a book on a shelf that sells 10 copies, I’m told. You could always use a pseudonym if it didn’t work out said one tweet, but then you’d be doing that because you know your previous work wasn’t of the best quality and, therefore, probably shouldn’t have released it in the first place.

2. An honest belief that the author can do all the work required to a professional standard and obtain the sales figures to make it all worthwhile.

I hesitate to kill a person’s belief when they say this to me, because it is an incredible amount of self-belief to have. The thing is, self-publishing isn’t as easy as writing a book, putting it on Amazon and watching your bank get tasty little bonuses. The worst thing I see is when an author truly believes they don’t need an editor, that they can do all the refining of the manuscript themselves. They go right ahead and publish a book without having a professional edit it. I mean, Lynch, Le Guin, Abercrombie, Pratchett, they all had editors because you need an editor. Not only does an editor fix your prose, they have years of experience approaching a book as a reader and letting you know what a reader will raise their eyebrows at in disbelief, disgust, etc. and also where you’ll leave them yawning or lost in terms of what is going on.

I feel much better when people hire an editor, but it’s not cheap to secure the services of a good one and even the best editor can only do so much with a book. I guess there is a polishing a diamond vs polishing a rock metaphor here, but if you are reading this you are probably a creative person and I’ll let you make up your own. 🙂

The next problem, potentially an even bigger problem, is that if you write a book and self-publish it you get people like me who instantly approach your book with suspicion. Why is this book self-published? Has it undergone editing? Will there be a sequel/completion to the series once this author realises how little money there is to be made?

It’s incredibly cruel and I hate myself every time these thoughts enter my head, but, being honest with you again, the days where I gladly accepted review copies of self-published books from authors setting out on the self-pub trail are behind me. The reason is: I accept the book, it is awful, the author gets in touch and asks me what I thought. Do I be point blank honest hurting their feelings in a hope I can help them or do I lie and say it was good but not for me and risk leaving them oblivious to the practice they still need? Despite this evil post I like to think of myself as a nice person and breaking the heart of writers or angering them is not something I enjoy doing.

Final note on this one: some people tell me that they do not care about sales figures. That’s fair enough. Vanity Presses existed in the past where writers would pay to print their books with the potential to make their money back through royalties or selling them themselves. Rarely did an author make ANY money (in fact, they usually lost a fair amount), but, you know what: most didn’t care. They could tell their friends and family they were an author who had a published book with their name on the front and everything and this was good enough for them.

Amazon, really, has become like a giant, super-cheap vanity press. You may not care about making money, but you should. The number of readers you get is a good indication of how good your book is. If your book is truly good enough to sell to the masses and yet you’ve only sold 20 – 30 copies you are robbing yourself and robbing readers too. Not only that, but the dream of every writer should be to do it full-time so that they can become a full creative and indulge themselves within their worlds and provide the reading public with as many works that have had as much of their time as possible, surely?

By this point I imagine the vast majority of you are feeling, “Why the bloody heck is this evil, self-published author hating sod taking part in Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off then?”

Well, if you’ve read all this, are in the Blog-Off (or not) and think, “F*** you, Marc, I’m going to release my self-published novel and it is going to sell because although agents didn’t fully appreciate it I’ve had it professionally edited, I have a clear marketing strategy, I’ve researched my distribution networks, I’ve got a cover that is going to drop jaws and am ready to fully engage myself with the SFF community” then you might just be the next Michael J. Sullivan or Anthony Ryan that this competition set out to find.

Authors do fall through the net, there are authors who don’t appear to be what the market is looking for – perhaps they call upon tropes from a time passed or are so far ahead of where traditional publishing is at that they are overlooked or maybe the sub-genre they are writing in is believed to be too obscure. In the case of Michael I think he was calling upon tropes thought to be out of fashion (which were, evidently, not) and in Anthony’s case I feel that his work was felt to be too similar to what was already out there (whereas, in reality, the reading public REALLY wanted more of that kind of thing).

Whilst this blog post has been a harsh one and quite a difficult one to write, I do believe that there will be more authors who choose to self-publish who will go on to sell as many books as Mark Lawrence, Brent Weeks, Kameron Hurley, Wesley Chu, etc. It would be an absolute honour to find them and if one of them can convince me that self-published novels can be as good quality as traditionally published books I would welcome that change in opinion. It truly would.

My opinion is though that for every one person who does become a success thanks to the increase and ease of self-publishing, hundreds upon hundreds will choose it as the easy opinion and not learn the correct way of responding to rejection – picking yourself up and refining what you tried before or trying something new to achieve the original goal. This is sad because it means some writers who were destined to write great novels that they were going to sell to hundreds of thousands of readers will instead self-publish, get discouraged at a lack of sales and give up writing.

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86 Comments

  1. Bryan says:

    I was reading Arc Royal by Christopher Nuttall and when I got to the end of the second or third book, he talked a little about his sales figures. He self published on Amazon for $2.99, He didn’t elaborate, but I believe I read that Amazon pays 70% of anything priced at $2.99 or less. At the time he wrote the afterword on that edition, he’d sold, I think, 65,000 copies. So that comes out to about $140,000. I think it was Mark Lawrence who said recently that authors that go through a publishing house looked at the advance as the thing, and that advances usually ran around $10,000 or thereabouts, because most books published sell around 500 copies or so, and so you can’t depend on getting any royalties over the advance. Out of that, you have to give a percentage to your agent, too.

    I understand that editors would probably make one a better writer, and I certainly understand the desire to be one, but if I had to choose to go through all the headaches of finding an agent (after multiple rejections) and then having that agent shop a book around (getting multiple rejections) for 10K or self publish on Kindle for 140K, I think I could live with being a mediocre, but highly paid author 😉

    • Overlord says:

      That’s fair enough 🙂 There are certainly exceptions in terms of earnings and I don’t dispute that Self Publishing is the easier option out of the two. Indeed, if you are ready to give up writing then Self Publishing makes sense – if you are fed up of rejections and never going to write again. My point really was aimed at people who have only just started writing / have only written 1/2/3/4/5 books and are thinking just because they’ve had a couple of rejection letters/emails they should ‘chuck it on Amazon’ and be done with it. What I was essentially saying is: don’t publish on Amazon if it will compromise your ability to improve or future prospects. You are an artist, always improving. Gollancz said it will earlier: There are no Ronaldos playing pub football. The truly great writers will find their way to a traditional publishing deal. It is telling that even authors like Anthony Ryan and Michael J. Sullivan who did VERY well with Self Publishing took a Traditional deal once it was offered to them.

      • D W McAliley says:

        Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I can tell you that I’ve made a couple of the mistakes you talked about. After writing my first book and having 6 beta readers look at it, I started the re-writes. I incorporated the criticisms I thought were most constructive and made changes accordingly. Then I had a 25+ year veteran English teacher read and “edit” the manuscript for grammar mistakes. I know now that editing for an English literary style is nowhere near the same as editing for novel formatting, but it’s definitely better than nothing.

        To make a long story short, after 5 rounds of edits/re-writes I published the story on Amazon. I didn’t do this for expediency or really even to make a money. I had done a ton of research and spoken with several agents who basically laid it bare to me that as an unknown author with zero publishing credentials or record it would be very tough to even get looked at in a serious way by most publishers. Given the fickle nature of today’s publishing market, publishers are typically hesitant to invest the kind of time and money it takes to develop a book for someone they don’t even know can sell a story.

        Even with all of the work I put into the process, I still published too early. There were mistakes and typos that I had simply auto-corrected in my brain when reading the work the billion times I read it. I saw what I intended to be on the page and not what was actually there. Thankfully some of my early readers saw this and sent notes for corrections which I hastily made and uploaded. If I had one thing I could change about the process, I would have stuck the manuscript in a drawer for a month or two, then read it again looking for missed errors.

        Still, even with the mistakes and hiccups in the work, I’ve managed to sell more than 10,000 copies in my first six months. I honestly don’t know what to attribute that success to since I’ve spent a grand total of around $80 on marketing and I did all of the cover and layout work myself. I’m working on the second installment of my series now and hope it does as well as the first. I’ve also since submitted my original work to a professional editor and am in the process of updating it for a 2nd edition release.

        I’m not writing this to refute anything you said in your article. I just wanted to make the point that for some new authors who have never published before, the self-publishing world of eBooks can, at times, offer a foot in the door. There can also be at least some measure of success with dedication and a bit of luck. I don’t really have a gauge to measure by, so I don’t know if my numbers are average, below average, or awesome. I know it felt pretty awesome to hit that 10,000 mark.

        My end goal is to hopefully sign a lucrative book deal with a publisher to carry my whole series and any other books that come afterwards. But I don’t really think that it would have been realistic for me to expect a publishing company, or an agent for that matter, to simply take a shot on my work on faith. At least this way I can show that even with a very meager advertising budget I can write a story that’s engaging and that sells. Maybe that will be incentive enough to attract the interest of a publishing house, perhaps not.

        But this entire experience really served a deeper purpose. I had been frustrated in my attempts to write for years (not by rejections but by calamity) and I was beginning to really doubt whether this was even a viable career goal or a juvenile pipe dream. Now I know, and there is a great measure of comfort in that knowledge.

        Again, awesome post and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

        • Marc said, “I don’t dispute that Self Publishing is the easier option out of the two.” As someone who has some degree of success in both self and traditional, I’ll respectfully disagree with Mac here. If we can put the qualifier around self-publishing to be “professional self-publishing” (which I think it the only kind of self-publishing worth doing) then it is VERY, VERY difficult. Much more so than traditional publishing, because as Marc pointed out you need a wide range of skills to produce a work of quality…you need to do ALL the things a publisher does and do those things well – and that is not easy.

          Marc’s article mentioned self-publishing for beginners – and I think that is an important qualifier. There are MANY professional self-published authors who have made hundreds of thousands of dollars (I was one of them) but these are not the same people Marc was addressing in this article. And while I’ve not read anything by Christopher Nuttall, I’ll suspect he is also in the “professional self-published” category. These are people who write books that COULD be traditionally published and release high-quality books just like traditional publishers.

          Now, since I was mentioned, I should explain one other aspect about my own decision to traditionally publish. First off, even though I was offered a six-figure advance (unusual for a debut series), I was staring a potential $200,000 – $250,000 loss by signing. As it turns out, I didn’t…mainly because the foreign sales were very lucrative, and the series has continued to sell well even several years after its release. Why was I willing to walk away from so much money? Because “taking my career to the next level” was more important than the cash. Just as Marc has an aversion to self-published novels, there are many others who feel similarly and the only way to reach them was to join the ranks of traditional published authors. Without the ability to form an alternative universe at the point of my transition, it’s impossible to say which path would have been the better one, but based on all I know now, it WAS the right decision. If I look at goodreads data when I was self-published I had about 300 books a month added to shelves and gained 200 unique readers. Nowadays I see about 7,000 – 10,000 books added a month and gain 2,000 – 3,000 unique readers.

          One last thing I should mention…writers can be divided in all types of ways. At the end of the day I concern myself with those that (a) can write a good book (“good defined” as one that people read, enjoy and recommend to others – because without word-of-mouth all books will die in obscurity). That is a very small percentage of the writing community. For THESE people there are several paths available:

          1. Traditionally publish

          2. Self publish professionally – meaning be an author-publisher and produce the book with every bit of quality as a traditional publisher

          3. Self publish with poor production – lacking one or many of the following: cover design, editing, metadata classification, and marketing blurb.

          4. Put the book in a drawer and write something else.

          Of those options, #1 and #2 are, to me, equally beneficial with various pros and cons of each. In some cases, it’s not the author’s choice as good books are rejected by traditional publishers ALL THE TIME. Yes, sometimes (most times) a rejection has to do with a books quality but it can also have to do with (a) the market (b) no space in the publishing calendar (c) a bad decision on the part of the acquisitions editor (d) a bad “pitch”. (e) something that is too original to not be able to do a good ROI on (f) many other reasons too numerous to mention.

          If getting the “traditional” stamp was the final arbitrator of “quality” and “marketability” than every book would earn out and every author would be able to quit their day jobs. The fact is most do have “day jobs” and many earn only a few thousand dollars a year even though they are traditionally published and you would recognize their names. Only 20% of books earn out – and that’s even with the modest advances of $5,000 – $10,000 generally offered to debut authors.

          Personally, I think hybrid authorship is the way to go. Some projects self, and others traditional – easy to say but the MOST difficult to pull off because you have to be able to do both traditional AND self-publishing well and that is threading a very small needle.

          • DW said, “I don’t really have a gauge to measure by, so I don’t know if my numbers are average, below average, or awesome. I know it felt pretty awesome to hit that 10,000 mark.”

            Knowing “where you stand” in publishing is one of the things I really had problems with initially. After many years and much research, I can tell you that 10,000 copies is VERY good (especially since you have only one title out). Generally, I think 3 is the magic number for “finding traction” and to get as many sales have you have with just one book is a VERY good sign that you are doing things right.

            Of course price is going to play a part here. 10,000 copies at $0.99 is much different than 10,000 copies at $7.99. And at the lower prices many of those purchases probably didn’t read the book. The best way to judge your traction is to watch reviews on Amazon and shelving and unique readers on goodreads. You show 139 reviews on Amazon which again indicates a very good start. I think you are right about focusing on writing book #2, in your case more content is going to be a key success factor.

            But yours is representative of many self-published authors that I personally know, and shows that there is value in this route AS WELL AS traditional publshing.

            • D W McAliley says:

              Awesome insight!

              Thanks for the advice, and you’re absolutely correct that I missed the qualifier in Mr. Aplin’s post (and felt quite sheepish once I realized that).

              You make a good point about the 10,000 copies at $0.99 being quite different from the same number at a higher price bracket. I think that price point along with a serendipitous news cycle that happened to place nuclear arms and attacks in peoples’ minds more than perhaps is normal helped push my sales quite a bit. I’m happy to say, though, that even with a higher price point my sales are still holding relatively stable.

              I also think I had a leg up on the average self-publisher in that I actually took a class in college about book building. In the class we covered topics like type setting, cover layout, graphics design, etc. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken in all my years of school/college. It definitely helped me avoid having to spend money on cover design, layout, etc and let me focus on content.

              Working hard on that second book as we speak.

          • Overlord says:

            As you point out, a lot of people missed my ‘beginner’ point. My main point is that a beginner submitting their book to an agent should accept the rejection and carry on to the next book or next session of editing. To put the book straight on Amazon is a mistake.

    • Bryan, Christopher Nutall is not alone. I think one of he biggest misconceptions about self-publishing is just how many people like him exist. There are tens of thousands. Even so, his experience is more of an exception than the rule, and good for him – it’s one the reasons I like self-publishing so much.

      The trick with publishing is knowing whether the book has legs or not. And that can’t be determined until it is “out there” and the readers decide. Traditional publishing suffers from a problem of bandwidth – having only a very small number of slots and a very large number of people vying for them. Professional self-publishing has expanded this bandwidth and provided opportunities that really have revolutionized the industry. Should every book go this route? Absolutely not, but it has proven to be viable for those that have what it takes to find an audience.

      • Bryan says:

        Michael, I appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into thinking and educating us about this. I admire your decision to go through a publishing house regardless of potential loss of revenue for the sake of your art. You’ve given me quite a bit to think about.

        This last comment is the one that hits closest to home, for me. I’ve always wanted to write, but have never developed the discipline necessary. Part of that is a lack of confidence in my ability to tell a story that anyone would want to read or that actually says anything I’d want to say. I won’t go into a lengthy analysis of my psyche, since I suspect my thoughts/fears/desires are actually pretty common among writers/artists, I’ll just say that if I ever do manage to finish something, I probably will self-publish on Amazon, and probably won’t put a great deal of money into it beforehand, just to see if, as you describe it, my story “has legs.”

        Ultimately, as I half-joked before, while I would be pretty stoked about being a highly-paid, but mediocre, author, I think I would rather be a lesser-paid, but talented one.

        Again, thanks for everyone here trying to help

        • Thanks Bryan,
          I’m glad you’ve found the insight helpful. I don’t know of any author who doesn’t suffer from fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It comes with the territory.

          I think you may be missing an important point in what I was saying. If you have a story that does “have legs” but you produce it in an unprofessional way, it won’t have any (legs that is). In other words. You need ALL OF IT. Great story, well produced. If you scrimp on production (by not putting a money into it) then the result will be it has no legs. The conclusion, which may be wrong, is “Well, that story had no legs.” Which is much different then having legs but was overlooked because it was in such a poor package.

          In any case, I hope you do finish something, release it well, and are hugely successful.

  2. Bernie Anes says:

    Well, I certainly agree with you. It’s not an easy path to take. Insane really. You spend a year working on a book. During that year you have to sacrifice other hobbies to write unless you’re lucky enough to be able to safely slack off at work and write. Afterward you spend months rewriting, cleaning, tightening. You struggle to find beta readers or push your book through critique circles which takes time and effort. Finally you near completion of the tuned novel and work on a query letter…

    The query letter itself is a beast, a 250 word document you quickly learn to hate. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, then scour the internet for agents. Many of them reject you, but only after two or three weeks of silence. Some actually ask for your manuscript, then reject you after months of silence. Then you learn that even if an agent picks you up it’s not uncommon for your work to take up to a year to sell to a publisher, if it ever does, and then another year to see it on shelves… all often for a payout that won’t come close to replacing your day job.

    It’s easy to see why people take the easy path when you look at everything objectively. Personally I write for the sheer pleasure of it and because I love telling stories and I promised myself if I ever get published then it’s going to be the slow, insane way. As they say to witchers, best of luck on the Path.

    • Overlord says:

      As an athlete, I see a lot of similarities between my path and that of a writer. I eat healthily to stay on weight, I spend about 20 hours a week in the gym, I can never truly relax because I’m always thinking about my sport. Every profession where the eventual aim is obscene – publishing a novel, being a champion of your sport, being the World’s best chef, etc – takes handwork, sacrifice and dedication.

      There is a reason only very few people ‘make it’.

      • Agreed 100% — it takes years (10,000 hours by Gladwell’s standards and 1,000,000 words by King’s) to develop the skills to write well. My first published work was the 14th novel I wrote – and those benchmarks above are about right with regards to my work, which took over 10 years of active writing to develop.

        Your article was for beginners – but if we expand the discussion to people who have gone through those paces, and CAN write a book that is likely to find an audience, the decision on which path is best is MUCH more complicated. I can make a case for both.

    • Self-publishing CAN be the easy path if all you do is slap something online and move on…these projects rarely gain any traction and fade into obscurity. To be honest, I don’t know why anyone would do that….it handicaps your book in a market that is really tough.

      Personally, I think that regardless of self or traditional two things should always be the same (a) the quality of the writing and (b) the professionalism of the packaging.

      With few exceptions, any book that does well needs both.

  3. Bibliotropic says:

    Yes, to all of this. Self-publishing’s totally an option if people want to do it, but it might not always be the BEST option, and it’s usually not the thrill-ride many writers think it will be. You see all these rags-to-riches stories of people who had their books rejected a dozen times until they self-pubbed on Amazon and suddenly it sells well and oh yeah, NOW traditional publishing houses want a piece of that action. But those are rare. And they usually involve way more work than the story suggests, such as what you mentioned with marketing, art, editing, all that stuff. It’s not overnight success. It never is.

    I, like you, often approach self-published books with a bit of trepidation. Part of why I joined the SPFBO was to see what was out there, to push my boundaries, and to maybe break down those prejudices that I had. And I have to say that while I did find some good books in my batch, my prejudices weren’t really blown apart. I had everything in my batch from “pretty good” to “this is why people look down on self-published novels.” In about the same percentages that I’d expected all along. The additional harsh truth is that latter perception is part of an uphill battle that traditionally-published authors don’t have to deal with. People DO look down on self-publishing, because they expect that nobody would self-publish unless their book isn’t “good enough” to get taken on by a traditional publisher. Whether or not that’s true. It’s not enough to be your own entire publishing team, but you also have to fight against public perception, and the possibility that you’re the sought-after needle in the haystack but nobody can find you because there are too many low-quality books dragging your image down.

    That’s another part of why I joined the challenge, though. Takes a little bit of pressure off some of the authors who do have quality work out there because they may be awesome authors but not so good at marketing, and publicity is the biggest thing holding them back.

    • Overlord says:

      Really nice to hear from you, Bibliotropic.

      As you say, the people who end up ‘rich’ are so few and far between and there is usually a reason other than their writing that they make it – they have a VERY good marketing strategy that is ahead of their time, they have a family member involved in business/publishing to guide them, etc. There are a few authors who have made it simply because their awesome writing was missed, but, again, you are playing with odds that are stacked massively against you and if you are playing with them at the cost of improving your writing you are robbing yourself of improving as an artist.

      Like you, my opinions on Self Publishing weren’t changed massively by the Blog Off. I did find about 3-4 books that I thought could be published with a little bit more work. But not a single book, even our champion, do I feel is of Traditional Publishing quality. Of course, I’ve only read a small percentage of the total books and I imagine the next stage will be much more refined – I’ve read Ben Galley’s and GR Matthew’s work, for example, and know they are both very good. At least as good as our ‘champion’.

      A big part of my image (that a few people complained about) that was missed was that I drew the writer having sent a book to an agent before they decided to Self Publish. If they went straight down the Self Publishing root then my point would be less valid. How many authors legitimately think ‘Traditional Publishing isn’t for me’? Very few – they look for an agent, don’t find one and then Self Publish. The reason I think this is an issue is that you are saying ‘I want to publish Traditionally’, ‘I trust an Agent will pick up a good book’ and then when your book isn’t deemed suitable you act as it the Agent doesn’t know anything rather than taking the feedback and working with it.

      Your reasons are just like mine. I believe that there IS an author of Traditional Publishing quality out there… maybe one as good as Peter Brett, Trudi Canvan, etc… they were probably missed by the Agents. I think it is rare, but I am sure it must have happened purely down to numbers.

    • Bibliotropic said, ” I had everything in my batch from “pretty good” to “this is why people look down on self-published novels.”

      I’ve long said that the mix of books in the slush piles pretty much mirrors the mix of books in the self-published group. In other words, self-published has the entire gamut of books released, while traditional has filtered off the and hides all the “not ready for prime time.” It’s one of the reasons why I hate most posts that talk about author income or chance of success. They are usually comparing apples to oranges.

      The real comparison should be between authors in both groups with similar sales levels. If we consider group A to be all authors who have or are in the “query-go-round” with group B all self-published authors, we’ll see similar results….

      1. The vast majority will fail (not get through query-go-round or sell next to no books in self.

      2. Many will find only marginal success – get a few hundred or a few thousand readers and negligible income.

      3. A very small number will do reasonably well – get several thousand readers and make $35,000 – $50,000 a book.

      4. An extremely small number will be a success – get tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of readers and make a living wage.

      5. Only true outliers will be a phenomenal success – making the New York Times, selling more than 1,000,0000 copies of a given book and become a staple of the industry.

      I think you’ll see similar %’s for both groups in classification 1 – 3. I think group 4 will have more self-published authors than traditional (due to the ability to control price and the higher income self-publishers get), and Group #5 will be almost exclusively traditional.

      • Marc said, “How many authors legitimately think ‘Traditional Publishing isn’t for me’? Very few – they look for an agent, don’t find one and then Self Publish.”

        I think there are more of them that you realize. I’ve noticed a very real change in the pre and post self-publishing revolution. In the pre days, publishing was very much a black box. Little was said about things like contracts, advances, actual sales, and the like. Traditionally published authors didn’t want to speak on such matters as pulling back that veil might get them in hot water with their publishers, and there was no other avenue for publishing then them so there was a cone of silence over the industry.

        When self-publishing became viable, and people like myself saw both sides of the coin some of underbellly of publishing was exposed. Contracts are, and continue to be VERY slanted toward the publishers. Many books people “think” are successful earn the author only a few thousand and might sell just 1,200 copies. Then there is the whole issue of control – control over pricing, ability to go DRM-free, control over covers.

        Now that writers are better informed about both routes there are quite a few people who CHOOSE to self-publish. I had offers of publication for my science fiction novel Hollow World, but I turned them down to self-publish. Death of Dulgath, my next Riyria book was never submitted to a publisher because none of them could get it out in the deadline required (by a non-compete clause in my Del Rey contract for my next series). So again I self-published.

        True numbers can’t be known, so you see few where I see more…I suspect a lot of it has to do with what circles you run in.

  4. Self Publishing Activist says:

    I’m a pro self publishing person that believes in this new platform. I’m about to self publish one of my first books within the next couple of weeks. I could spend this entire post pointing out all the benefits about self publishing and why authors should move towards it. Although I’m not going to do that, and instead support some of the claims made in this article.

    I used to run a blog that reviewed self published fantasy novels. That’s how much I believed in this new trend, that I wanted to make it easier for other people to select and pick out the best fantasy novels out there in the open market because I know there’s some good ones out there. I reviewed 4 books and was in the middle of my 5th when I said to myself, I can’t do this anymore. To put it bluntly, a lot of them are really bad. I pre selected all the books I reviewed from the reviews they got from Amazon and tried picking well received self published fantasy novels that no one knew about yet. Even then so many books suffered from mistakes that could have easily been fixed with another revision or an editor. There were a lot of good ideas and potential in the books I read that I couldn’t help but think, if these people went through the rejection process of traditional publishing, they could have had a great fantasy novel in their hands.

    Polish is the one thing that hinders self published books just as much as grammar does. There are a lot of good ideas and scenes that are marred by bad ones. An editor, or at least a couple of beta readers, would have filtered through these bad scenes and made them a lot better to sit through. And I got frustrated reading these books because I knew if they were more patient to have revised their book again or send it to an editor it could have been significantly better.

    Despite that I tried lowering my standards for self published books and continued buying (I never asked any of the authors for their copy of their books, I wanted to support too), reading, and reviewing, but even the best self published book I read, that I rated a 4, would be a 2.5 with traditional publishing standards. I kept on yearning for high quality fantasy novels and that itch grew more and more with every book (it was hard reading a self published book to review, and another book because I tried to review a book a week, that was very challenging), and I just gave in.

    And the troubling thing is that these books that I reviewed are some of the more well received and successful self published books I’ve read (nothing like Amanda Hocking successful, but three of the ones I read were in Amazon’s top 5000, one of them at 1000 at one point). Imagine all the other ones out there?

    I still support self publishing as that’s the avenue I’m heading down towards, but I advise all self publishers to try and get perspective on their works before publishing. Think like a movie producer, understand that appeal is more attractive than quality. Read books, review books, be hard on yourself. Understand how marketing works (you don’t need a BA in one, just have a gist for it). Good writing isn’t going to get people interested in your book. No one is going to reward you at the end of the finish line for having the bravery to publicly submit your book online.

    It’s true what Marc said, as a self publisher you’re not just a writer, you’re your own entire publishing department. I’ve spent the last 2 years learning and understanding the self publishing game, I’m finally confident in releasing my first book (I actually have 4 others under pseudonyms that earned me some good side cash) in the next few weeks, but I’m not even confident it’s going to sell. I hope it will, but I don’t know. I’m still going to try though and learn from this to be one of the few that does make it.

  5. Moo says:

    I haven’t read much selfpublished works, but those I have read were in a desperate need of a nitpicky editor. I’m not saying that it is true for all selfpublished works. Generally I’m very skeptic about reading works that haven’t gone through and editor first whether it is selfpublished or not. One wellkown author I used to read became so popular/big that s/he stopped using an editor and I feel the quality of his/her work totally plummeted.

    Constructive feedback is essential to all writers, there’s just no way around it. So if you selfpublish please get someone who’s not your partner/best-friend/family to read your draft and give some honest feedback.

  6. Overlord says:

    One person messaged me over Twitter and gave me a telling off about my Tweet / Post. They said that Self Published authors were putting in just as much work and doing all the same things as Authors who are combined with a Traditional Publisher.

    I clicked on her profile and tracked down her book on Amazon. I read page one and it was quite evident to me it had not been edited by a third party.

    ‘Who edited your book?’ I asked.

    ‘I self-edited’, she replied.

    *Smashes head on desk*

    I know not all Self Published authors Self Edit, I know some track down some of the finest Editors to edit their work, but this is such a massive problem with Self Publishing. No author, not Brandon Sanderon, not George R.R. Martin, not Robin Hobb can edit their own work. If someone isn’t Editing your work you are missing out on such a HUGE part of the learning process that makes a good author a fantastic author. Authors like Sanderson, Martin & Hobb soak up the lessons they are given by an editor and learn from them. Editors in the UK, AUS and US are so, so talented. Lee Harris, Simon Spanton, Marcus Guipps, Gilian Redfern, Marc Gasgoine, Gillian Redfearn, Marc Gascoigne, Julie Crisp, Natasha Bardon, Jo Fletcher, Emma Coode to name just a few in the UK are really raising the level of books available on shelves over here.

    If you are going to Self Publish I’d say at the minimum you need to hire a Professional Editor. They will teach you a lot and ensure that what you put out is at least the best it can be at this moment in time. It may not sell well, but at least you can learn from the changes they suggest and reasoning they give 🙂

    • You’ll hear no argument from me – I’m a huge believer that every self-published book should be at the highest possible quality – and that means good editing.

      I will say there is a difference between structural editing and copy/line editing. As to the first, this is nearly impossible to “hire” as a self-published author. First off it is (a) very expensive and (b) the quality editors already work for houses and can’t freelance and (c) is so subjective that the editor could just as likely destroy a book as improve it.

      Personally, I think if you can’t get your book “structurally sound” through yourself, critique partners, and beta readers – you shouldn’t self-publish as you’ll need to get that from a traditional publisher.

      You mentioned a list of editors and said, “…are really raising the level of books available on shelves over here.” The problem with this statement, is you, or I, don’t know what these editors contributed and what was already in the book due to the author. We don’t have the advantage of seeing the book in it’s submitted form and what it came out like at the end.

      For me, I’ve worked with some of the best structural editors in the business, I hired Betsy Mitchel (editor-in-chief for Del Rey for a decade) to edit Hollow World. My 8 Orbit books were edited by their editor-in-chief Devi Pillali. My next book is coming out from Del Rey and is being edited by Tricia Narwani. Devi said I’m one of the “cleanest writers” she’s edited and her comments were minimal at best. Did she improve the work, yes of course, but substantially? Not really. The stories remained pretty much the same and in a few cases I disagreed with a requested change and the feedback from readers proved I was right in doing so. Likewise, Betsy’s feedback was more of a confirmation that the book was on the right track and only minor changes were made after her feedback. I’ve yet to see Tricia’s edits, but she has said on several occasions there won’t be much.

      I think this is because before my editor sees the books I have an extensive alpha and beta process — the same one I use for my self AND traditional works. Because I can get my book “structurally sound” self-publishing is an option for me – as I said, if you can’t then traditional is your route.

      As for copy and line editing, that’s another matter entirely. I don’t think anyone can do this on their own and hiring professionals is definitely required. I hired two of the top editors for Hollow World (they both do freelance work for all the big presses) and I’ll use them again for Death of Dulgath. I pay premium dollars because (a) I can afford it and (b) I see value in their contributions. It’s a step that I don’t think any self-published author should skip.

  7. Interesting read. I think in some respects you are right too. The problem is I think the same amount of work and effort needs to go into a self-pubbed book as a trad-pubbed one.

    My fear is the themes and topics covered in my fantasy series wouldn’t be to the taste of publishing houses. I wanted to write it anyway, so I’m treating it as a learning experience and doing it for my own enjoyment. I do make a profit, despite paying for professional covers and editing. However I think they’re niche books, and perhaps wouldn’t be liked by readers of well-known fantasy like Martin or Rothfuss. I think they’re better suited to a slightly younger audience, perhaps an NA audience. Next time I set out to write a fantasy series I will approach it differently. I have a few other writing projects on the back burners too, some of which I intend to submit to agents and some of which I intend to self-publish.

    • “The problem is I think the same amount of work and effort needs to go into a self-pubbed book as a trad-pubbed one.”

      And this is the most important point when it comes to self-publishing. I do both and the quality of each has to be identical – or why bother self publishing?

  8. Roberta Flemming says:

    I am close to someone who decided to self publish. A book you rejected in your first round of spfbo. I tell him once a week, why don’t you even try to get it really published. I don’t know if it’s fear of rejection or he really doesn’t want to give up control of “his” story. But I can tell you it has been quite a journey and learning experience. When I read the first draft of his book five years ago, I was blown away at the story. The 150ish words he self published last fall was built from the first five chapters of the original. Editing consisted of my reading out loud back to him. He knew each line so well if I read it wrong he quickly corrected me. I know we missed so much in that process and wish we had the resources to get profession editing and a professional book cover, but that was not an option.

    Now I read your posts as well as the other spfbo reviewers. They are full of advise regarding professional services. But if someone doesn’t have the money to put into it does that mean they are less passionate about their book? Does that mean their story shouldn’t be told? I know the chances of making money are slim to none. But I am still very in awe of his accomplishment.

    • Overlord says:

      Hey, man. Not at all: writing a book is an accomplishment. Putting it on Amazon doesn’t make it more of an accomplishment than recognising that despite having written a book it isn’t quite the right quality to hit shelves or needs work you don’t yet have the ability / finances to give it. Put it in a draw and move onto the next one. If you really want to Self Publish (because you are scared of submitting to an Agent) and it needs work from a professional Editor and you truly, truly believe in it then get a second job or put some money back each month. With great sacrifice comes great reward and all that 🙂

      • Roberta Flemming says:

        We were so blind before the #spbfo. Finding the community of reviewers who do offered so much insight opened my eyes (and I hope his). I wish instead of putting in the drawer he sees the light and works on getting it where it needs to be. Maybe if he sells a few more he can reinvest the proceeds.

      • Roberta said, “…wish we had the resources to get profession editing and a professional book cover, but that was not an option.”

        I don’t mean to be harsh, but I have a really low tolerance for this. If you are going to publish you HAVE to be professional – or why bother doing it?

        If I didn’t have the money to hire an editor I’d get a part-time job handing out flyers, or walking dogs, or cleaning houses. I’d put each dollar earned into my jar and when it was full I’d hire the required people. Or…I’d cut out something…Guinness, dessert, eating out…and again take that money and put it in my jar.

        When someone says “that’s not an option” what they really mean is other things were a higher priority. I get that – we all make trade offs in our lives – but if you are going to publish – then do so “the right way” – putting a poorly edited book out there benefits no one…not the writer, nor the reader, or the industry in general.

        • Roberta Flemming says:

          “When someone says “that’s not an option” what they really mean is other things were a higher priority.”

          You are so right, there were things of a higher priority. Things that involved life and death. Taking care of family will always be a higher priority.

          I think there were a lot of benefits of my son’s experience in putting out his book before it was ready. Lessons learned, experience gained.

          It’s not the end.

  9. Jack says:

    Great article- thanks. These are my personal reasons for not wanting to go the traditional route:
    1) I don’t trust publishers. I have seen contracts that will give you an STD by just looking at them.
    2) I don’t trust Agents because there is a conflict of interest. They have to build relationships with publishers as well as their authors, and so they will often let things through that an IP attorney would slap you for signing.
    3) A debut novel is going to get a week of promotions, thereafter it’s up to you anyway.
    4) In today’s market you have more leverage if you can first build an audience before approaching publishers.
    5) You set your own prices. I cannot in good faith charge someone $10+ for an ebook.
    6) Publishers are looking for books that will sell – they will tell you that the marketing team has more sway than the editor when it comes to acquisitions, so that limits the scope of what you can write about. For example, they won’t even look at Portal fantasy, and don’t even think about bringing a 200,000 – 400,000 word epic fantasy. (Yes, some do get through, but 99% of the time they won’t even consider it)
    7) Agents are looking for books that they think publishers want, which once again limits what they are willing to take. This is why publishers are now offering open months, to encourage a bit more diversity. (Although they will still have to get it past their marketing dept.)
    8) Publishers want a book that is as close to publishable as possible, because they don’t have time to do a massive edit on a book that’s probably not going to earn out it’s advance anyway. So if you are accepted by an agent, it’s probably almost good enough to self publish anyway, and while they will pick up a lot of small things, and streamline you work, you’re probably not going to have the same life changing learning experience that a “young” writer would have.
    9) The industry is quite frankly arrogant. Agents come to conferences bragging about how quickly they will reject a manuscript- (At times without even looking at it.) Publishers will have an open month and then take upwards of a year and a half to get back to you, so at times it feels good to give them the middle finger.
    10) You have full creative control. This is a good and a bad thing, but if we look at indie gaming for example, which has had a bit more time to mature, you will find gems like Kingdom come deliverance, dayZ and DOTA rising up and completely shaking the industry. Self publishing allows you to push those boundaries, and try things that you would never get away with in traditional publishing.

    At the end of the day, putting it out there and getting feedback, even under a pen name, or on a free community site will do a lot more for you than keeping it locked away in your cupboard.

    • Overlord says:

      I get what you are saying, but there are books Brandon Sanderson put into his cupboard that he still hasn’t got round to editing. The rejection of them though led him to write books more mainstream titles (such as Mistborn) and that continue on in development today. Now he is a more experienced writer he is going back to them… As an author who has sold hundreds of thousands of books they are most certainly going to earn him an incredible amount of money.

      Sanderson is an extreme example, but there are lots of writers who wrote a book, couldn’t get it published – wrote something else that led them to spot weaknesses and went back to it. Putting a book away for a bit and coming back to it with more experience isn’t all that uncommon.

      • Jack says:

        I agree with that. I wrote 3 novels, spend 3 years writing and another 3 years editing, (full time) and left my first novel in a draw for a year an a half before publishing, (and will only publish the other two much later) so I definitely think it’s wise to take it slowly, and build up your craft.

        I guess I’m talking about people who have done their time. Who have put in the million words / 10,000 hours and have hit a plateau.

      • I can’t disagree with any of the things you say – and without question self is the right route for you. I wish more authors would go through a similar analysis if what is important to them and help that decide their path as both have pros and cons.

      • Marc, you are missing the point in this particular case. This person is an entrepreneur. You can see it in his comments about contracts (which are slanted toward publishers), and his ability to want to control his work and pricing. Traditional is NEVER going to be a good fit for this person. It’s not a matter of “working harder to make your books better” for this individual it is a mindset where one path is the better fit for them.

  10. On your diagram, you left out a few steps on the self-publishing side:

    “Edit?Revise?Edit?Revise?etc.?Round 1 Proofreaders?Revise?Etc…”

    Also, Amazon does not publish. They are a retail distributor, not a publisher. (Though, they did start their own publishing company so they could cherry pick popular writers.)

    Most self-published books are one-offs; the writer made one attempt to write a book, put it out there and promptly walked away from it. However, those self-published writers who succeed are a different story. They work at their craft. They go through the above editing and revising process to ensure what they are putting out is a quality product.

    Whenever a new writer pops up looking for information about self-publishing, every successful self-publishing writer I know says the same thing: “EDIT! Then give your book to a select group of people and have them read it. If they came back and say, ‘I don’t like this part,’ then you must go and fix that part so it reads better.”

    I learned the importance of a good editing session as a student when I was asked to write an article for my University’s Yearbook at the last minute. I cranked out a quick piece, sent it along with a request to give it a quick edit and alert me for what they wanted me to revise. They put it right into the yearbook with every spelling error, grammatical mistake, and meandering tone without even giving it a glance. I was mortified. To this day, I won’t release anything into print until I have at least set it aside for a while and then reread it.

    If you want to know the importance of good editing before publishing of any sort, just go read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and follow up with reading “Go Set a Watchman.”

  11. Bill HIatt says:

    Having seen some of the debate on Twitter, I had to come over and read the whole article. I also thought it might be worth giving some of my own thoughts in more than 140 characters.

    You obviously have more experience than I do, but from my limited experience, I would lay out the options for someone rather than necessarily pushing traditional publishing hard. As you point out, there are a lot of people who self-publish for the wrong reasons, but self-publishing, if someone is willing to put the time and effort into it, is not necessarily a bad path, just a different one.

    I’m not sure I agree with your idea that, “The truly great writers will find their way to a traditional publishing deal.” It’s sobering to realize how many literary classics were rejected at first, some of them more than twenty times. Keeping in mind how long it takes each publisher to ruminate on a work, a writer having to wait through several rejections might be waiting years, might just give up. You raise the point about the financial situation of self-publishers, but surely it can’t be any easier waiting for that publishing deal to come through. We will never know, but I suspect the traditional publishing has ground down more than a few good writers and caused them to give up.

    It’s also important to note that getting accepted by an agent, or even by a publisher, is not a guarantee of success. There needs to be a good match, and there isn’t always. For example, I spoke at some length with a traditionally published author whose agent wanted to take her intellectually complex literary fiction and turn it into a murder mystery. The author managed to successfully change agents and get published. Another writer I’m familiar with had an agent who, after representing several of his science fiction titles, flat-out refused to touch a spiritually uplifting autobiographical piece. They parted company, and the author self-published the piece, which became his best-selling work. I also heard from an author negotiating with one of the then Big Six that the publisher was interested but wanted the YA novel pulled out of YA and wanted a rape scene added. After having outsiders beta-read and telling the author, “It all works except for that rape scene,” the author said no to the publisher, self published the book the way he wanted, and was successful.

    From what I can see, small publishers are sometimes better at working with an author, but I’ve also noticed, in looking at some of the titles they publish, that they don’t seem to be doing significantly better commercially than comparable self-published titles. They have the personal approach, they work with authors rather than order them around, but their marketing efforts don’t always produce huge results. That said, I’d much rather work with a publisher who shared my vision, even if the sales didn’t end up being as strong.

    You make a good point about the learning process, but keeping in mind that a rejection often is just a rejection, without any explanation, I question the instructional value of the process. Sure, writers who get published can learn a lot from their editors, but that doesn’t mean the people still outside the process benefit at all. If a writer doesn’t know why he or she was rejected, does he or she really learn how to improve? Guesswork? Do I really want to rewrite a novel and “fix” aspect A, when really the publisher thought aspect A was great but hated aspect B? How many years of trial and error would it take? Potentially, more than many people have.

    The truth is that neither process is easy if done right, and both require a lot of work for success. Yes, self-published writers absolutely need to hire editors. (Really though, if you are going the trad route, don’t you have a better chance if your manuscript is well edited when you submit it?) Yes, most self-published writers need to hire cover designers. Yes, doing your own marketing is a drag (though smaller publishers are now asking for a manuscript AND a marketing plan, so clearly being traditionally published doesn’t necessarily avoid the marketing part completely).

    There are a few differences that might make self-publishing worth it for some people. First, your book gets in front of actual readers, and you actually make some money on it, even if less than you spent in preparing it. In a traditionally published model, you are probably still spending some money on those books that then wait, maybe for years, for a nod from a publisher. Also, if the book is out there, you can begin to build a fan base. That process will be slow, but with the traditional route when the book is still waiting, a writer obviously isn’t recruiting any fans. In addition, because people are reading your book, you can get actual feedback on it. In a traditional publishing model, you may not get any feedback for years.

    I think the mistake people make is in assuming either route is a get-rich quick scheme. Both could take years to get any significant success. Both involve long-term commitment. Both involve hard work. The bulk of the really high earners are traditionally published, but that’s an extremely small group. Even many traditionally published authors supplement their income from other sources. A number of people I know who are self-published have managed to quit their day jobs. Also, we know a lot of self-published books sell only a few copies, but we forget the number of people who try to get traditionally published and never succeed. If we had those figures to weigh, we might see the two pathways aren’t as different as we think.

    • anonymous says:

      Hi Bill, I agree so much with what you wrote. Personally speaking, there is no right answer to the issue of SP vs TP. The key is to continue improving your craft no matter what happens; let it be, as the Beatles sang it.

      • Bill – A very good post. And I agree with everything you say with regards to both routes being viable. Normally, I would have disagreed with Marc’s article more except for one thing…his qualifier regarding “begineers.”

        At the heart of this article was the recognition that self-publishing provides a “quick” path and the work may not be ready for prime time – it may take many books before your skills are at the level they need to be. My first published book was #14. I believe Brandon was currently writing his 13th or 14th book when his 6th book was picked up.

        Now, if we expand the discussion to authors who already have put in the “foundation work” (Gladwell’s 10,000 hours or King’s 1,000,000 words) then yes your points are all valid.

        1. Self-publishing is a different but viable path.

        2. Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean a book isn’t good.

        3. Traditional publishing can and has ground down some writers such that they have quit, even though they have viable books.

        4. Getting the traditional deal is no guarantee of success.

        5. Rejection without feedback does nothing to help improve a work.

        6. Neither process is easy if done right, and both require a lot of work for success. – the point I think is the best of a list of great points.

        7. Having a book out there can (a) help to build a fanbase and (b) give valuable feedback that the traditional process might not.

        And lastly, your conclusion:

        I think the mistake people make is in assuming either route is a get-rich quick scheme. Both could take years to get any significant success. Both involve long-term commitment. Both involve hard work. The bulk of the really high earners are traditionally published, but that’s an extremely small group. Even many traditionally published authors supplement their income from other sources. A number of people I know who are self-published have managed to quit their day jobs. Also, we know a lot of self-published books sell only a few copies, but we forget the number of people who try to get traditionally published and never succeed. If we had those figures to weigh, we might see the two pathways aren’t as different as we think.

        Is dead on accurate – Very well said – thank you for your great post!

  12. So I thought I’d chime in as one of the #SPFBO writers.

    I went down the left column. Over the course of 5 books, I saw my rejections go from form letter to 80% full manuscript requests and responses of “I really loved this! It isn’t for me, but you’ll have no trouble selling it.”

    I have to say, it’s super disheartening to have a pile of “You’ll have no trouble selling this” rejections.

    At the same time, I workshopped my books with other professional writers. My writing group includes a writer who has won a Hugo, three Nebulas, and a World Fantasy Award. All those people said, “This is great! You’ll have no trouble selling it!”

    And yet, rejection after rejection.

    Sometimes timing is bad. You can write a book that doesn’t fit into the trends publishing is looking for. Sometimes you just can’t find the agent/editor who loves that work. And sometimes you read articles like this: http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627 where a woman got 8 times as many manuscript requests when she put a male name on her cover letter.

    While it’s true there are writers out there who follow the path of the righthand column, I worry about trying to fit a huge, diverse community into a simplistic narrative. There are plenty of reasons people can’t/don’t sell their books to New York that aren’t “I don’t know any better.”

  13. Well if you were going for catnip clickbait for the self-publishing set, congratulations on achieving your goal.

    I have to confess up front that we’re coming from two vastly different places here: I view self publishing as the punk rock of the written word–anyone can play, and they will–so rough edges are going to be everywhere. If you’re willing to play exclusively to your scene, you can get away with rough edges and still do pretty well. If you want to break out, you have to do a lot more work and accept that you’re going to get judged harsher, because you’re a dirty punk. That’s how it goes.

    So yeah, different places.

    But I do disagree rather strongly with one point you make, which is that rejections make you a better writer.

    This is not true. It might be true if all rejects were customized replies explaining in detail WHY a manuscript was rejected, but that’s almost never the case. The standard rejection is “we’re sorry but your submission does not fit our needs at this time we wish you luck in all your future endeavors” which tells you absolutely
    nothing about what it was that caused the manuscript to stumble.

    It could be that you wrote a book in a genre that was over-saturated, in which case maybe you need to try a different genre, but how do you determine that? It could also be that the editor decided your writing style wouldn’t sell, in which case you’re out of luck because nobody has given you that note and unless you figure it out, your next submission will have the same problem. It could be your minor characters are flat. It could be your minor characters are fascinating, but your protagonist is flat. It could be a lot of things, and the chances of you repeating those mistakes the next time are not insignificant because all you got was a form letter.

    Rejections don’t make you a better writer. Learning to assess your own work makes you a better writer. The only way they’re connected is that a standard rejection letter makes you think about it.

    That said… that process isn’t tied to a rejection letter. If you happen to figure out how to assess your own work, you do it with the stuff that gets published too.

    It’s a different story (I imagine) if your book gets bought and you interact with their editor, assuming the editor and the rest of the team is any good (having a book bought doesn’t guarantee that it will be handled well–I’ve heard plenty of those stories), but we’re talking specifically about the rejection process here. If your book is rejected and you try again, you might be getting better. Or you might be doubling-down on the things that got it rejected to being with. How would you know? All a form rejection letter tells you is they didn’t want it, and they didn’t not want it enough to tell you why.

    The only way having a book rejected makes you a better writer is that it forces you to handle rejection–perseverance is something you have to learn over time. But here’s a secret: there’s plenty of rejection on the self-publishing side of things. The people who stick with it learn that one too.

  14. John Brown says:

    If I book isn’t working, it’s not going to sell to agents, editors, or to anybody on Amazon. Rejection by the marketplace is rejection. I don’t think it matters which source the rejection comes from.

    What matters is what the author does about it.

    Is there really any difference between an author being rejected by an agent, then writing another novel and trying again versus an author being rejected by Amazon readers, then writing another novel and trying again?

    I don’t know any indie authors who think that a whopping 28 sales and then oblivion means they’re rocking and rolling. Maybe they’re out there. But in the indie circles I move in, that means failure. It means you either didn’t write a book that worked, or your marketing/visibility stinks, or both.

    There are many of us who have done the traditional publishing ladder and the indie ladder. There are pros and cons to both ways of reaching the market. One con to the trad pub method is that publishers don’t mirror the wants of the actual market. There are many sub-genres with good markets that traditional publishers don’t touch.

    For example, PG romance is very underserved by publishers, but there are tons of readers out there with voracious appetites. Someone writing for that market might be rejected time and again by editors and agents (and I know a few) when their work was just fine. When talking to my agent about shopping my action thriller to NY, I was told we might have a tough sell. The editors were all too secular, and the problem would be getting it past them. I went indie with it and sold 23,000 copies its first year. I could point you to dozens of stories like this.

    The issue isn’t the distribution channel. That’s just a business option. You weigh the pros and cons.

    The heart of the matter is whether authors are trying to provide the best product that they can. Some authors strive to do so. Others try to cut corners. But that’s the same with any business. We don’t tar the whole restaurant business because the pizza parlor down the road chintzes on its crust.

    Finally, it was suggested that everyone ultimately wants a trad pub deal. You mention Brandon and others who have done very well. But you don’t mention the large trad pub author graveyard. For every Brandon, there are thousands of trad pub authors that came and went. Some of those took their stuff indie and are now doing much, much better.

    Again, let me suggest it’s not the distribution channel. It’s how the author approaches the business 🙂

  15. What I’ve begun suggesting to folks is to read up on and talk with the indie authors in their own professional writing organizations (such as SFWA, whose voting membership supported self-publishing by an 8-to-1 ratio). There is a wealth of information there for folks who don’t consistently and primarily self-publishing, and knowledge would go a long way toward bettering the lot of self- and trade-published writers.

    And if one doesn’t qualify for pro membership, I still recommend seeking out those who do. Rather than tell writers what is best for them, I prefer writers to understand options by hearing from those who are exercising their options professionally.

    The story of self-publishing isn’t about the writers who don’t know their craft anymore than the story of trade publishing is about writers who draw unicorns on the margins of their cover letters and scatter glitter in their manuscripts. There is a learning curve for both professional choices. What I’ve lately heard from up-and-coming writers and writers who have just broken in is that they’d much prefer to hear about exercising their options than be told which option is right and proper.

    The first question writers need to answer is not, “Which path is best?” but rather, “What are my goals?” Indie publishing and trade publishing each have different incentives and drawbacks. Which one is “best” depends far more on the writer than it does on the method.

    • Overlord says:

      Lots of good points here 🙂

      • John Brown says:

        Yes, good points, Blair.

        The indie channel is a LOT of work. The trad pub asks for a LOT of rights. But in both channels, many authors strive to constantly try to improve their product and the way they get, keep, and grow customers.

      • Blair said, “The first question writers need to answer is not, “Which path is best?” but rather, “What are my goals?” Indie publishing and trade publishing each have different incentives and drawbacks. Which one is “best” depends far more on the writer than it does on the method.”

        Exactly! As someone who has success in both routes, I get asked the “which path is best” question a lot. My response is always, it depends on what your goals are. The beauty is we now have viable choices – where once only one existed. Writers need to inform themselves on the differences between the two, then look at what they want out of their writing and a clear right path for THAT author will appear.

  16. Brian says:

    Also worth noting that most public libraries, as a general rule, won’t add self-published works to their collection. People constantly send libraries free copies of their self-published books, and nearly all of them go straight into the recycling. Is it possible libraries are missing out on some self-published gems? Sure, but library staff don’t have the time to comb through what’s essentially a slush pile to look for the very few items worth cataloging and adding to the collection. We depend on traditional publishers and professional reviewers to do that vetting for us.

    And contrary to popular belief, people still use libraries quite heavily to discover and obtain new material, especially your power readers who might otherwise be likely to generate buzz for you online and by word of mouth. There have been a number of informal polls on Goodreads asking where users acquire most of their books, and “borrow from the library” commonly gets a plurality of votes, somewhere in the 30 to 40% range.

    If you do self publish, though, you might get your local library to make an exception. There’s been a trend in library circles lately to focus on encouraging community content creation and building local collections, so authors might stand a chance at getting their book added to libraries in their local area, especially if they offer to do a reading or similar library program for free. Outside that area, though? I wouldn’t bet on it.

    • Annie B says:

      Actually, while this might be true in general, it’s not impossible to get into libraries. There are a couple start-ups that will do it (Konrath’s is one, another is run by an agent I believe). Plus if you have paper versions set up through a wide distribute like Ingram or B&T, libraries can order your books.

      I know at least a couple library systems across the US from me ordered some of my own books, for example, because I’ve had readers tell me they found my books in their local library, liked the covers, and tried them out and are now fans who are going on to buy more of my work.

      So perhaps not something to bet on, but if you sell well, it does seem that libraries notice and will pick you up on occasion.

    • Brian,
      A good point about libraries, and this expanded exposure (in addition to bookstore shelves) was one of the factors that made me decide to sell my self-published series to the big-five. Yes, I had some of my self-published books in some of the libraries, but not nearly as much penetration as I have these days.

  17. Martin L. Shoemaker says:

    “My opinion is though that for every 1 person who does become a success thanks to the increase and ease of self publishing, hundreds upon hundreds will choose it as the easy opinion and not learn the correct way of responding to rejection – picking yourself up and refining what you tried before or trying something new to achieve the original goal.”

    True enough. Of course, the exact same thing is true of traditional publishing. Of all the people who submit to agents and publishers, how many even make one sale, much less become a success? 1 in 10? 1 in 100? Or 1 in “hundreds upon hundreds”?

    If long odds are going to stop you, don’t just give up on self-publishing, give up on writing.

    • Overlord says:

      Self Publishing means that people who are writing to get Published can be Published easily and do Publish themselves easily.

      I guess if that is the goal then they’ve done it and that is fair enough, but the problem for readers is that the quality of titles is plummeting and the quantity of titles is increasing incredibly quickly. The 2/3 titles out of hundreds or thousands of good ones mean that the good Self Published authors are even harder to find and the odds of their success are getting stacked higher and higher against them. Both by the fact people are not trusting Self Published books (such as me) and the fact that your book is a small fish in a large ocean.

      I want people to succeed. I know this post was pretty brutal, but the advice I offer my friends / writers within the genre is because I want them to continue their development as artists and feel as little pain as possible along the way as well as not compromise any future opportunities.

    • Martin said, “Of course, the exact same thing is true of traditional publishing. Of all the people who submit to agents and publishers, how many even make one sale, much less become a success? 1 in 10? 1 in 100? Or 1 in “hundreds upon hundreds”?”

      I said this elsewhere but it bares repeating here. When a book is finished it has two possible trajectories:

      Group A – all the who seek traditional publication and ride the query-go-round.

      Group B – those who self-publish.

      I think both of these groups are about equal in numbers and have similar success metrics – which means 98% get no where. 1.5% sell resonably well, .4% sell well enough to earn full-time income and .1% (or smaller) become “well known brands”

  18. John Brown says:

    They may choose what they THINK is an easy option, but they very quickly learn it’s anything but.

    Not selling anything tends to wake even the most heavy sleepers out of their rags to easy riches dreams.

    What do they do then?

    What they would have done when submitting to agents and editors. They will either try to up their game or bow out.

    How long will people persist in writing and indie publishing books when they sell nothing?

    Probably about as long as they do when they can’t get any agent or editor to pick them up.

    Nobody can escape the market.

    • Overlord says:

      Well said, John. I guess I am too nice to want people to find out that way.

      The way I generally approach Self Publishing as an option is just not to do it… it is heart breaking to see your baby come last in a beauty contest… you know? Better not to enter her!

      • John Brown says:

        🙂

        From my experience, it’s no more heartbreaking than to have it rejected again and again by editors and agents.

        And the bonus is that there are many stories that are rejected, not because of quality, but because the publisher has already filled the slot for that type of story in their schedule, or has no slots at all, or, as I pointed out before has totally missed and underserved market, or because it wasn’t to their taste. Do you know how many times one editor at a house will reject, but another won’t?

        I really don’t think rejection is easier or harder on the author in either channel. Remember, if you don’t sell in the indie channel, it’s not that everyone is looking at you and booing. If you don’t sell, you’re invisible. Nobody sees you at all.

        The key differences I see are the business pros and cons. As far as craft and the emotional side, I really don’t see a big difference.

  19. Troy says:

    While you do make some good points, I think you are doing people a disservice by convincing them that they shouldn’t self-publish, if you are also suggesting that they should pursue the traditional route and try to get an agent and publisher. You are doing them an excellent service if you are suggesting that they should refine and craft their work to the point that they are telling their story in a rich and enjoyable tale, before publishing via any route.

    One comment you made – “Finally, there just isn’t good money in being a self-published author.” – seems simply wrong-headed. The Authors Guild recently reported “full-time authors’ median income down 30%, from $25,000 to $17,500.” (in April 2015, since 2009 – search Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative). It certainly doesn’t seem like there is good money in being a full-time traditionally published author, either. And that’s not even counting the unknown numbers of authors who are never-published. Even your poor self-published author example who lost 2522 pounds on the affair (mostly be spending WAY too much for everything, truth be told) still managed to earn 128 pounds on their hobby – and how many people make ANY money from their hobbies?

    So, more advice and encouragement on writing the best book you can, less advice on how to get it out there, please! Or whatever, it’s your site after all 🙂

    • Overlord says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Troy! ^_^

      The latter, in my eyes, is exactly what I am doing. I am saying: don’t write your first novel and when it gets rejected stick it on Amazon. Instead go away, work on it or work on something else. You might write 4 novels before you get one snapped up by an Agent, you might write 10, probably more. The point I was trying to make is that the ease of Amazon shouldn’t tempt you away from putting in the work.

      I don’t feel, for first time novelists, that there is good money in Self Publishing. Maybe there is, maybe someone has written their first book ever, but it on Amazon and made six figure numbers… but I bet it is incredibly rare and will continue to be so. I also think that if you put your book on Amazon and it doesn’t sell (which is very likely, again, as a first time novelist) you will do way more harm than good:

      1. You are ignoring an Agent’s opinion that your work is not ready for market. It is a dangerous path to start out upon, presuming an Agent is wrong and you are right. After you’ve been around SFF for a while and been writing a while your experience may catch up to his, but as a first timer? Unlikely.

      2. The fact you sold 0 copies will surely hurt your moral.

      3. When future agents ask for previously published work and you list it they will inevitably ask for sales. When you provide them your poor sales figures they will obviously take this as a sign your work doesn’t sell. It might be old and you may have grown as a writer, but it will count against you.

      As I said in the article, Self Publishing will probably continue making people good money and maybe even making some rich. However, I think the dangers of seeing Self Publishing as a ‘good’ option are that you will be cutting into your writing time by promoting novels that probably won’t make you more than a week’s wages.

      If someone considering Self Publishing believes they can be one of the few that make a living and are able to project manage their book in a way that it is to the standard readers expect then I wish them the best of luck. Being proved wrong on this article certainly won’t make me unhappy 🙂 I’d love it if all my Self Published friends who are really struggling to make sales come back to me in a year’s time and tell me they are now on six figures ^_^

      • John Brown says:

        I know of very few trad pub authors who made six figures on their first novels. I know of none in the SFF field.

        But it’s not just new authors. I know of very few established trad pub authors who make six figures.

        There is no good money to be made for first time authors in either channel.

        Tobias Buckell did a big survey, and I think he recently updated it, of the average advance in the SFF world for first-time authors and established authors. I think the median and average were around $7-9k USD for that first novel. $12k UDS for established authors. And that’s SFF. Advances in the romance genre are much, much lower. I think $5k USD.

        So when comparing, I think it’s probably best to be using those types of numbers 🙂

        Some might say, well, what about royalties? Well, most books don’t earn out that advance, so the author never sees any royalties above the advance.

        If they have good product, many first time indie novelists can and do make trad pub advance numbers. Many make far more.

        As for cutting writing time by spending it on promotion, it’s true that you do put in more time on production in the indie channel. But not really with promotion. For most trad pub authors, you are on your own to do most of the same promotion you’d do as an indie. The promotion the trad pubs take care of is the catalog and sales force to get your books into the brick and mortar distribution channel, which indies don’t worry about.

        Regarding production work, some indies outsource all or parts of the production (cover, editing, formatting, etc.) But even when they don’t, the trad pub model usually limits your production to one book per year. Whereas the indie model lets you release as fast as you are able. And so indies are actually able, in many instances, to get their books out to market more quickly.

        One last thing to think about. Publishers and agents are not the customer. They’re middlemen. What matters is whether readers find, like, and come back for more.

        With trad pub, it might take you 3 years to find out if your product has a good market fit. That’s from agent to sale to publication. 4 years to see the carryover to the second book. Think about that. 4 years to get the insight.

        With the indie channel, you can get that learning in a fraction of the time.

        We shouldn’t be precious about authors’ feelings. What authors need is market insight. If my product isn’t working, I’d rather get that information a few months after I finish, rather than 3-4 years down the road. 🙂

  20. Brian says:

    This sort of thing used to really bother me. But I’ve come to realize it’s just an example of an old way of thinking that it fast becoming irrelevant. It make assumptions not based in reality. For example: Indie writers don’t use agents. That’s just silly. Of course we have agents. I do. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a successful indie who doesn’t. Another example: Indie writers self-publish because they have no other option. Again, silly. The truth is a large number of successful indie writers have works in the traditional world. But we tend to want to keep our money where it belongs. In our bank accounts. And the advances necessary for a NY publisher to tempt indie writers to give up their rights is a hell of a lot more than $10,000.

    The real reason you might not want to self-publish is that it involves an enormous amount of hard work. Most can’t cope. The pace is grueling and the stress unimaginable. There are thousands of successful indie writers out there making great money doing what they love. But, as in traditional publishing, there are tens of thousands who never make it.

    If you need real encouragement take a look at the Amazon best sellers lists. Indie books are everywhere. It seems the readers have decided that who published a book is less important than reading a good story.

    • Overlord says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Brian! 🙂

    • Self Publishing Activist says:

      Although Marc’s intent may seem like his entire agenda revolves around self publishing in its entirety, the article itself squarely focuses on a particular group of self publishers, the ones that aren’t successful in the indie world or published world. His point is that in the past authors whose works weren’t good enough to be shown to the world had two option, improve their craft or quit. And so authors would continually keep getting better and better until they’ve acquired a much higher understanding of their field of work than the first time they got rejected.

      Amazon has given these authors a far easier backdrop, self publishing. It allows any author to live out their dream of putting their works out there without the heartbreak of rejection. However it completely cuts out that valuable process of novelist development. No one likes rejection, but it’s necessary for us to get better. It’s a reminder that we can always be better at what we do. And it’s better if we received this rejection from agents and editors instead of the fans buying our books.

      • Overlord says:

        Thanks, man 🙂

        I do think a lot of people missed that… People thought I was suggesting anyone who Self Publishes is just releasing their first book on the Kindle and that wasn’t the case. What I was saying that people who do publish their first book on the Kindle are missing out on rejection, which, in my opinion, is hugely important to learning to write.

  21. Derek Siddoway says:

    I think you bring up a lot of points that many self-published authors refuse (and need to) to hear. At the same time, I also think you’re discrediting a lot of quality books readers enjoy that maybe aren’t best seller material but are still good enough to be read.

    That’s the short version. I published a post in response to this article and waxed a little more long-winded on my blog.

  22. H Gibson says:

    Hi. Loved your blog.
    I’m an independent publisher and a control freak, so being in control of the whole process is best for my nerves.
    There are various reasons I self-publish, but the reason standing out is cost vs profit. In South Africa you need to sell thousands of copies to make any kind of money when working for a traditional publisher. In our country the publishers admitted with my first book that they are not interested in the genre or the mega-saga’s I produced, so at least they were honest from the start, letting me know that my books do not have a future with local publishing houses.
    This was not the initial route I wanted to take in any case and having had previous experience in setting up text books and manuals, it was a natural transition to continue with the publishing process.
    Because of this question of ‘self-publication’ (not on any of the ‘normal’ platforms but directly from my own website) I even have a blog post dedicated to why I have become a private publisher.
    I see myself as successful in my niche circles. The Chronicles of Han Storm is not liked by everyone, but those who do, pre-order the books while in draft. This list of orders encourages me to continue with my stories and face the harshness of the editing process.

    • Overlord says:

      I think there are certain niches that couldn’t make it in a traditional market that deserve to be read. If an agent is n’t seeing what you are seeing or there is genuinely a place in the market, just not big enough to profit a Traditional Publisher, then Self Publishing sounds like perhaps the only option – best of luck 🙂

  23. Overlord says:

    I’m sorry so many people have taken this to heart. As with everything on F-F, the idea is never to upset people or offend anyone.

    I am SURE some beginner writers self publishing make good money, but I do feel they are in the minority. As I’ve said so many times above and in comments – my point was to a FIRST TIME novelist, you would be WAY better off writing your second book after finishing your first that you would putting your first on Amazon.

    If you’ve written 5 books, 10 books and you ‘know’ they are incredible. The agent’s aren’t seeing what you and all your friends / beta readers see… You know you have the money to invest in an editor and are willing to put the time in to do the marketing… then go for it.

    Maybe there is a niche that is ready and waiting for you. Maybe your writing style and content just isn’t in fashion right now (in the agent’s eyes), but you see and feel that they are missing the demand you feel is so obvious. It has happened before that authors such as Michael J. Sullivan have done as good, if not better, jobs than the traditional publishers and it will no doubt happen again.

    • Bill HIatt says:

      I think it was a vigorous debate, but I don’t think that means you upset anybody. While I don’t entirely agree with your point, I would heartily recommend that writers weighing their options read this discussion. There’s a great deal of useful data here, regardless of one’s position.

  24. An interesting article and a lot of great comments. As someone who was (a) mentioned in the article and (b) has found success in both paths I already added a lot of replies to the comments but I also want to add some of my own perspective.

    Marc was addressing beginners and suggested that instead of quickly hitting publish on Amazon, they write more and let the traditional publishing gatekeepers tell them when they’ve reached a “ready for prime time status.”

    For the record, my first published work – which started out with a small press, was then self-published, and is now with one of the big-five – was my fourteen novel and it came after a decade of consistent writing. I do think it takes time to develop a set of tools to craft a good story. Malcolm Gladwell says 10,000 hours and Stephen King says 1,000,000 words and I think both of those are “about right.” So let’s start there and say that with rare exceptions, most will need a LOT of work before they produce anything of value.

    Now, the question of this article is what to do with those “practice” books – self or traditional – to be honest, I can make cases for both, and in both cases the results will be less than satisfactory. For myself, the answer would be neither. I had 8 books that I didn’t show to any agent because I knew they were written to help me develop my skills and they weren’t worthy of the light of day. I just wrote them, stuck them in a drawer and moved on.

    But to me…the more important question is what to do with the book that is past the practice ones – that 14th novel of mine which I did feel was ready for prime time? The answer is there are three choices: self, small-press, and big-five – each has it’s pros and cons and there is no one universal “right” choice. There is a “best choice for that author” and to determine that you have to examine both the author’s goals and abilities. Also, I should note that the “best choice” will change over time. – As evidence by the fact that my Riyria books went through all three. 😉

    So let me get away from the “beginner” which is what this post focused on and talk about that other group of authors. The ones that have done their 10,000 hours or 1,000,000 words and can produce a book that would find an audience (of some size). Here’s my comments to that group:

    1. Both paths are incredibly difficult and a huge amount of work. This is not an industry for the faint of heart and most will fail or have only very limited success.

    2. Most authors won’t have the freedom of being able to do either. There are plenty of books turned down by the industry that are “worthy” rejection does not necessarily = a bad book. There is a very limited bandwidth in traditional so plenty of good books are turned away. To assume a rejection is because it’s not worthy – may or may not be true.

    3. If you do go traditional, you may spend years (or in my case decades) on the query-go-round. This may grind you dust and cause you to quit writing altogether – it did with me – and now there is over a decade worth of “lost books” that I’ll not have the time to create before I die – probably 20+ novels.

    4. If you go traditional, you have no guarantee of success. Advances are much lower than most people realize ($5,000 – $10,000 for debut authors) and even with modest advances 80% do not earn out. Many traditionally published “named” authors have day jobs because it is VERY hard to live on what traditional publishing pays.

    5. Self-published authors have two choices. Become author-publishers where they do all the things traditional publishers do: compelling covers and marketing blurbs, professional editing, price competitively, proper use of metadata. Or they can take the quick and easy route and slap something together to see how it goes. Personally, I see no value in doing the latter. To do so, is in many ways, worse than just sticking it in a drawer because you took something with great potential and hamstrung it into failure. So if you are going to self-publish you owe it to yourself, your readers, and the industry in general to make it every bit as good as a book coming from a traditional publisher.

    6. Many self-published authors don’t even bother with traditional. They’ve educated themselves on the market and are turned off by bad contracts, lack of control, and a relatively small piece of the overall pie. It shouldn’t be assumed that they self-published as a matter of last resort. They CHOOSE to self-publish.

    7. For those that “self-publish right” – the author-publisher I mentioned, it is EXTREMELY hard. You have to be able to have a wide range of skills including project management and managing freelancers who will (in most cases) be doing your covers and editing. Not all authors will have this ability, so for them it’s going to be traditional or nothing.

    8. There are far more “well earning” self-published author than anyone would suspect. Based on what I know it’s in the tens of thousands. Also, I happen to know more self-published authors earning a living wage then I do traditional. I think this is due to three factors (1) the ability to control price (2) the ability to control release schedules (c) the higher earnings per book.

    9. Structural editing is important, and the self-published author needs to get this through their own expertise, alpha readers, and beta readers. These source CAN be just as effective as the editors at a publisher, but it will take a lot of time and effort to (a) find them and (b) manage their feedback. If can’t skip this step. You either do it on your own (self) or go traditional – as they will provide it as part of their services.

    10. Copy editing is important, and in most cases the self-published author can hire the same people the traditional houses uses. These days most houses use freelance editors for this. This is also less “subjective” than structural editing and more of a “commodity” in that there are plenty of qualified people that can be hired for reasonable costs. If you are saying, “I don’t have the money for this” then you have two choices – go traditional as they’ll provide that for their cut…or do without something (beer, dessert, eating out) and/or get a part time job to pay for it. What you can’t do is skip this and self-publish – if you do you aren’t going to be one of those author-publishers I spoke of.

    11.As for marketing…I believe the amount of the work is the same regardless of the path. Most authors with a $5,000 – $10,000 advance receive only a listing in a catalog and a few ARC’s. I do get extensive marketing for my books, but they have six-figure advances – most will not see these kinds of contracts. Still, I don’t rely on what my publisher does – I still do the same marketing with my self and traditional books.

    12. Traditional publishing can boost one’s career and provide validity – it has a value, but it also comes with a huge cost – a significantly smaller piece of the pie. It does open doors to things like libraries, bookstores, and higher foreign sales. That said, many can and do well without any of these things as self-published authors.

    So here’s my bottom line. Once you get your skills to a level where the books you write are at a level of quality where an audience could be found – you have several choices.

    1. Go traditional – although ultimately that is not your decision to make as others have to make an offer.

    2. Go self and do it professionally – a very viable option and one that you have complete control over.

    3. Go self and do it unprofessionally – while an option, I don’t recommend it. It hurts the book, you as an author, and provides no benefits to readers.

    4. Put it in the drawer – which to me is sad for all involved.

    At the end of the day #1 and #2 are going to be a very, very small % of writers and they will usually be successful (to some degree) no matter which route they take. Ultimately, I think hybrid is the best of both worlds – but that is even more rare than group #1 or #2 as it is the intersection of both 😉

  25. Erica says:

    I seriously hope no aspiring writer gives up when AN agent or editor rejects their novel. The odds of any one being the right fit for your work is vanishingly small, and there are a number of successful writers who subbed their work to dozens, even a hundred or more places, before they found it a home.

    But other than that, the article raised many of the concerns I have when I see people in online writing groups who are looking to self publish their very first novel without soliciting much in the way of feedback from other writers, or spending the required money on pro editing, cover design etc. I know a couple of people who have found self publishing success, but they’ve worked hard at it, done their homework, and spent a goodly amount of their own money up front.

    • Erica said, “I seriously hope no aspiring writer gives up when AN agent or editor rejects their novel. The odds of any one being the right fit for your work is vanishingly small, and there are a number of successful writers who subbed their work to dozens, even a hundred or more places, before they found it a home.”

      That is a real concern…I know I stopped writing for over a decade because of 100+ rejections. Now I make a very good living as a full-time novelist. Had it not been for self-publishing none of my books would be out there and I wouldn’t be writing for Orbit, DelRey, and my own self-published stuff.

      • Erica says:

        Rejection hurts, and it’s especially frustrating these days, because it’s so rare to get much in the way of feedback about why it was rejected (many agents even send form rejections on fulls now). Did the query make their eyes glaze over, or did they get bogged down in the opening pages? Did they like the writing but not think the story, characters, or world building what they’re looking for right now? Do they love it, but it’s just a bit too similar to some other titles on their list? Who knows? A form rejection is a form rejection.

        Not dissing agents. They get so many submissions these days that even a few personal words on ones that were close would have to eat into their time.

        But do you think it might have been easier for you to find success self publishing back in the days when there was a smaller pool of people doing it? I confess I don’t read self published stuff at all, because I have absolutely no idea how to find new self-pubbed writes who are any good on amazon without plowing through a bunch of sample pages.

        • Without question…the lack of feedback is the most important thing to get and nearly impossible to do so. I’m a big supporter of beta readers and critique partners. Goodreads can be a really good resource for finding both. It takes time, but I have seen that it bears fruit.

          As far as “was it easier back in the day,” no, not at all. I was publishing before ebooks were “a thing” and truly no one in self-publishing was getting any traction. Life is much better after the revolution. Yes, there are more people in the trenches, but if you can cross the battlefield and get to the other side there are real rewards. Distribution changed everything – trust me, you don’t want to go back to the days when everything was controlled by the gatekeepers. We are much better off nowadays – by a long shot.

      • Patty says:

        Rejection never bothered me much. It was the months and months and months and months and years and did I mention YEARS of being kept on tenterhooks about decisions that killed me. I wrote a novel that ended up getting more than half request for the full ms, and then… nothing and uhm and errr and we’re still deciding.

        I can live with rejection. I can’t live with endless waiting, so I pulled the thing from everywhere and self-published. I’m smallfry, but it’s made me more than I would ever had received as advance.

        • Patty – congratulations on the success. Making more than the average advance is an accomplishment to be proud of. And yes, you are right about the long delays being maddening. I remember getting a “acceptance” letter from Baen for my novel over a year after it was released by Orbit.

  26. While the article makes several worthwhile points, I think first-time authors should also consider:

    -traditional publishers will spend little or no money on publicizing the work of a new writer and that the bulk of publicity work will still fall on the author’s own shoulders, whether self-published or not.

    -writers pay for editing, interior design and layout, cover design and art. etc. whether they are self-published or not. A self-published author pays for these upfront and then gets a higher % of royalties/sales. A writer who is published by traditional publishers pays for these by receiving a significantly reduced % of royalties/sales.

    -working with a good editor is like taking a course or earning a degree in writing. These courses/degrees are not free and working with a good editor is invaluable!

    Just further thoughts for consideration.

    Stephen

  27. Jeremy Szal says:

    In complete agreement, Marc. Bravo. It sums up exactly why I won’t ever be self-publishing.

  28. […] Aplin, Fantasy-Faction’s own Overlord, wrote persuasively and eloquently a few months ago about the absolute necessity of editing for self-published authors. “The worst […]

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