Reader Request: To Self-Publish or Not

July 1, 2011

Fellow writer Jodi recently expressed interest in my thoughts on self-publishing, and suggested a blog post. I figure one doesn't snub one's first reader request, so here goes.

I'm not against self-publishing, and believe it's here to stay. I'm seriously considering it for my own works, but under specific circumstances. My personal approach is to make a concerted effort at going the traditional publishing route for my stories, however, before trying self-publishing.

I'll list some pros and cons. I'll probably miss some—I'm not exactly an expert.

Traditional publishing pros:

  • Publisher has access to varied distribution channels
  • Publisher has marketing and PR muscle
  • Publisher has internal departments for editing, copy-editing, and cover image generation

Traditional publishing cons:

  • Publisher and distributors take a large piece of the revenue
  • Long lead time from sale of novel to novel sitting on shelf and generating sales
  • Difficult for author without an agent to find the appropriate market for a book

Self-publishing pros:

  • Little to no lead time between completion of novel and novel earning revenue
  • Author keeps a higher percentage of revenue
  • Easy way for established authors to keep backlist earning revenue

Self-publishing cons:

  • Author in charge of entire publishing pipeline, including editing, and cover images. This is a lot of work, but one can pay independents to do this.
  • Author must handle all PR, marketing & distribution. This isn't for everyone. But if you can't do it yourself, readers will have a hard time finding you in the crowd.
  • Author may be tempted to release a work before it is ready.

It's that last point that has so far kept me from jumping into the self-publishing pool. I've had my fair share of rejections. Some of those indicate the work I submitted wasn't good enough yet for prime time. Some of those simply indicate my work didn't match the editor's taste, not that it's unpublishable. However, given the terse nature of most rejections, it's often hard to differentiate between the two cases.

Here's my plan.

For short stories: I don't write many of these, but the ones I have I'm submitting to pro markets. Once I've exhausted my options there, I'm considering going the Kindle Shorts route, or if I can gather enough stories together, self-pubbing an anthology. The other idea I'm toying with is giving the shorts away free on this site. I just don't have a large quantity of them, so they won't be what drives my career.

For novels: I told myself I'd take my first novel to a certain count of rejections before giving up on it and putting it in a box under my bed. I haven't hit that count yet. I've also received enough professional positive feedback ("professional" is the key word here) about it to make me believe it's not unpublishable, so I started thinking once I reached my rejection limit, I'd turn to self-publishing.

But now I've finished a second novel. I know this novel's better. My more experienced eye tells me so. Does that mean the first one's bad? No. But I'm enough on the fence about it to hold off on self-publishing the first one until I get a better bead on the prospects for number two. Should I happen to interest someone in my second book, I believe it's safer to ask that stakeholder (whether it be publisher or agent) if they think self-publishing the first will hurt the second.

The other reason I'm holding off on self-publishing is it seems the very successful self-published authors are quite prolific. They generate new novels at a pace that exceeds my current output levels. I believe this pace contributes enormously to marketing and PR: by generating a book or more a year, the regular release cycle keeps reader interest high in that particular author's brand. If I want to do this, I believe I need to get a few more novels under my belt, and manage their release cycle in such a way that it continually renews interest in my backlist. I'm not there yet, but I'm working on it.

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