Sunday, September 19, 2010

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish; That is the Question

“Self-publishing is for amateurs.” I’ve heard this bias repeated frequently, mostly by people who use mindless mantras to express derision. Contempt for self-publishing flourishes with many in the traditional publishing industry. Here are some comments I’ve heard, or read, and my thoughts.

Industry:  “Readers can’t trust self-published books to meet the same high standards of quality writing that are assured by rigorous competition for literary agents and limited publishing openings for authors.”

Me:  Let me clearly express my opinion...bullshit! Have you read some of the crap that makes the New York Times “best sellers” list? A lot are cookie-cutter drivel from authors forced by their publisher to engage in formulaic writing. I call it fishing. The publisher “catches” a reader with an author’s initial creativity and extracts maximum profits out of that reader by “fishing with the same bait”...several more nearly identical novels extracted from that same author. Is that the traditional publishing industry’s idea of high standards?

Last year, I read numerous novels by new authors. My favorites were Flank Hawk by Terry Ervin II published by a small press and Dereliction of Duty, a self-published novel by an Irish writer named Daniel McKeown. I also read three NYT “Best Sellers” that all left me disappointed.

Industry: “Since any writer can self-publish without the benefit of professional editing, the reader never knows what he or she is going to get.”

Me:  Fear the unknown. This industry caution reminds me of politicians who cannot stand on their own voting record. During campaigns, their message is “If you think I’m bad, wait until you see my opponent...she’s even worse! Vote for me.”

Okay, even I have to admit, there is some truth to the hype. Yes, anyone can self-publish without meeting writing standards of any kind. There’s no oversight provided by copy-Nazis (these are the obsessive-compulsive English majors paid by publishing companies to dot every “i”, notice when “to” should be spelled “too” or they remove those nasty extra commas). Of course, the publishing industry’s answer is to offer readers properly edited, cookie-cutter crap. What’s a reader to do? Take a chance on a self-published nobody, or invest time reading the same old storyline by the same old author with a few small changes in sequel after sequel. By the way, there is a simple fix to this problem in self-publishing...I’ll cover it at the end of this blog.

Industry:  “Self-publishing almost guarantees failure because it cannot compete with traditional publishing marketing and distribution.”

Me:  Uhhh...yeah...isn’t that obvious? The deck is stacked against self-publishers. Brick’n mortar bookstores won’t accept self-published books. Big name critics won’t “waste their time” reviewing self-published books. By the way, did you ever notice that big name critics always find something to like about the books they publicly review? I wonder if that has something to do with the publisher paying them for the critique? Hmmm?

I’m a Vietnam vet. I was there in ’69-70 and the war seemed to be going in our favor. Nightly body counts showed huge losses by our enemy with “minimal” losses by my good guys. So, how did we lose the stinking war? Simple. The Viet Cong and NVA refused to play by our rules. They took a lesson from our own American Revolutionary War where US soldiers quickly realized it was stupid to fight the British using their rules of war. We became guerillas, just like the VC did against us. What does guerilla warfare have to do with self-publishing?

Self-publishers (SPs) should not attempt to compete with traditional publishers, using the latter’s “rules of war.” Hell, self-published authors should not even measure success by the same standards. SPs have no access to the NYT Best Seller list. No big name reviewers are going to promote SP stories. Even internet marketing outlets like Amazon are a joke because SP books simply vanish in the vastness of Amazon book offerings. So, how do self-published authors compete?

Sounds pretty discouraging, huh? Okay, here’s the good news for self-publishers. Never in the history of mankind have authors had direct access to so many potential readers. The internet. This amazing “cyber world” bypasses bookstores, ignores the NYT Best Seller list and many internet users could not care less about opinions of stuffy critics. They draw their own conclusions based on whatever information you provide. The “job” of a self-published author is to spread the word about the story. He or she acts as the literary agent, reviewer, bookstore and infrastructure. The book’s target audience will spend about thirty seconds looking at the site of a self-published book before they “click” away to their next cyber stop. Thirty seconds...that’s how much time the self-published author has to capture someone’s imagination and interest.

Business is pretty simple. One of the fundamental truths about business is the single most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth...satisfied customers. The second most powerful marketing tool is price. If the traditional publishing industry sells a trade paperback for $10, you need to sell the self-published story for $8. Problem! They can manufacture a book for $2 due to mass production. There’s no way for a small-production run to beat those prices...but that would be fighting the war on their turf. Don’t do that. Instead, challenge them where YOU have the advantage. If they offer a Kindle book for $4.75, you sell your Kindle formatted book for $3.75. Remember, they have big overhead and will always have to price their cyber product a lot higher than yours.

Now, let’s get back to that “satisfied customer” thingy. Traditional publishers will always claim their product to be superior because of the rigorous process of editing and competition between authors. They assert that this process brings the cream to the top. How do you overcome that? Simple. If you own a restaurant and you want to gain new patrons, give potential customers a free taste of your best dish. That is the oldest trick in marketing and it works great for self-published authors. Let the potential readers have a taste of your book...give them a free chapter. They will draw their own conclusions about the quality of your writing.

By the way, self-publishing is NOT a writing decision; it is a business decision. Treat it like a business. Invest a little money with the expectation of profits. Without further discussion, here is my formula for successful self-publishing:

1. Write a great story...not a “good” story...good stories are a dime a dozen. Great stories generate word-of-mouth buzz and draw lots of readers. Good stories get you lots of acclaim from your best fan, mommy.

2. Invest in professional editing. Why? There are no objective writers. It’s nearly impossible to spot errors in a manuscript you’ve reviewed dozens of times. It's worth every dollar and can make the difference between a "good" story that mommy likes and that "great" story that everyone buys.

3. Home page:  Thirty seconds...that’s all you get when someone drops in on your website to see what all the “hype” is about. Thirty seconds! If your home page captures a potential reader’s interest, then you get another thirty seconds on each additional page. Spend a little money for graphics to support your story. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Don’t screw it up!

4. Free Chapter:  The traditional publishing industry warns that readers should not buy self-published books because readers have no way to know if the writer offers good writing. It’s a fair caution, but easily countered. How? Give your prospective readers a free chapter. This is your chance to turn a curious browser into a customer. If someone enjoys the chapter, it’s a pretty good bet the sale will follow.

5. Back Story:  Why is it useful to provide back-story in a website? Depending on your story, information leading into the current book may increase curiosity about your plot or foster an initial affinity for a character.

6. Marketing:  Format your story for sense in competing with traditional book publishers in their world. Price it to be a bargain...people love bargains...say $3-4 for a download. It doesn’t take many downloads to cover all your monthly expenses for a website and turn a profit. Then, insert links to your story in every email or forum post you make. Talk about your story every chance you get and encourage all your friends to help you “spread the word” about your story.

7. Finally...God Bless America!  Where else in the business world can you start a “business” for $30 a month with potential to earn thousands.  Self-publishing through the internet makes this possible.


  1. What a great post!!

    I'm torn between self-publishing and mass publishing. I'm working on querying agents right now - mostly because I'm from a town of 1,200 people. Perhaps 3 of those would pass on the news of a novel. Even with the internet, it becomes impossible for SOME (I'm not saying all) people to market themselves.

    Great post, Dean! I reposted this to Twitter, hope that's okay. :)

  2. Thanks, Bethany Ray. Living in a town of 1,200 is all the more reason to develop your skill with internet marketing. It's a cart before the horse dilemma. Successful word-of-mouth campaigns come from happy readers, yet happy readers come from successful word-of-mouth advertising. Self-publishing authors have to be both the cart AND the horse until a big enough fan base exists to sustain growth.

    You're right, though, some people simply don't have the ability, or brass balls, to promote themselves. Those are the writers who should submit dozens of query letters and hope for the best. By the way, one of the attributes agents and publishers look for in new talent is writers who can, and will, promote themselves...tirelessly. So, the chances of success for wallflower-writers are slim no matter which approach the author chooses.

    Thanks for the repost to twitter.


  3. With all of the options available for self-publishing and the number of small niche publishers, in addition to the large ones, I am guessing over time that the vanity presses will be the ones that will lose out. That, I believe, won't hurt readers one bit.

    The thing for a writer to do is to make sure any decision they make (route they attempt), they do it with being well informed and with eyes wide open.

    Excellent post, Dean!

  4. Ditto that, Terry. Vanity presses will morph into more POD publishers. There will be no market for overpriced vanity press books in the near future.

    eBooks will eventually take over the market for fiction novels. Another point I chose not to cover is that young people have less attention spans than older generations. For that reason, I expect sales of novellas or even chapter-a-month internet series to be attractive to future internet readers.

  5. Two minor/partial disagreements:

    1. Kids/Young adults have the attention span to read long works if it interests them. I see it every day. Certainly not as many as in the past (there are far more modes of entertainment available than in the past), but more than one sometimes might think. As I see it, a kid who isn't interested in reading, isn't going to read a short story for recreation, let alone a novella. Will they change as adults? Maybe, maybe not. In my experience, most of the nonreaders or reluctant readers are more open to nonfiction that interests them as they grow into their 20s and even early 30s (that's all the anecdotal evidence I have--from former students).

    I think the ebooks will doom the mass market paperbacks except for the top tier of best sellers. I think the hardback and trade paperback will reduce in market share but won't be doomed by the ebook as the mass market size.

    Who knows, maybe we're both off base.

  6. No disagreement here. Young adults are accustomed to fast paced entertainment in today's electronic world. For that reason, writers need to choose formats that address these needs of "modern" youth. I believe it can be done using short-story format for chapters and linking the chapters into a greater story, over time...kind of stories within a story.

    Again, I agree with you about the low-end, fiction paperbacks. They probably will not be a "growth market" for authors. I'm guessing publishers of the future will make their money from nonfiction, leaving fiction to the e-books, with exceptions being made for well-established authors with an existing fan base.

    Problem is, my crystal ball is foggy and Windex isn't helping...LOL

  7. A wonderfully informative article, Dean. I thank you for the kind words at the beginning.

    Having self-published myself, I know how difficult it is. I will say this to Bethany: I sold over 200 copies of my novel in my hometown alone, and that was through word of mouth alone. It's a very productive outlet.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this, Dean.


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