From self publish to self storage

By Joe Moore

My Kill Zone blogmates and I are all professionally published mystery and thriller authors. You can visit your favorite bookstore to find and purchase our novels. We have agents that represent us on a commission basis and publishers that pay us advances and royalties based on our sales. We all have multiple books published. There are literary award winners in this group. Many of us have been on bestseller lists. If anyone asks us what we do for a living, without hesitation, we declare that we are writers. If you’re a writer and you want to get published, in general you have to follow the same accepted publishing business model that we did.

But it’s not the only way to wind up holding your published book in your hands. There’s always the method called self publishing or subsidy press. And getting published in this manner is a subject that comes up often in writing forums, especially with new writers. So I thought I’d use up a few inches of blog space today to comment on the virtues and evils of self publishing.

First the evils.

In general, the world of self publishing is fed by desperation. Someone writes a book, sends out dozens if not hundreds of query letters to agents and editors with no takers. At some point, out of desperation, the writer decides to give up on the normal channels and turn to self publishing his book. He finds that there are many self publishing companies out there with beautiful websites, exquisitely designed brochures, hard-to-turn-down promises, amazing testimonials, somewhat reasonably priced publishing “packages”, and a way to put him on a fast track to finally holding that precious book in his hands. When asked why he is going the self publishing route, he brings up examples of books that were originally self published but went on to become huge international bestsellers such as THE SHACK and THE CELESTINE PROPHECY. If it could happen to those authors, it could happen to him.

But the bottom line is that when a writer turns to self publishing, it’s usually out of desperation.  He’s impatient and misguided, but mostly desperate. These are not the qualities of a successful author. And in most cases, the result will be a disappointed writer with a garage full of boxes of books no one wants. Here are some reasons why.

  • Self publishing comes with a stigma, deserved or not, that the author could not get published in the traditional manner and therefore the book probably sucks. Self publishing usually means weak, unsalable writing. Some people call these type of publishers vanity press because they prey on the vanity of the writer.
  • One of the mainstays of promoting sales is to get your book reviewed by publications such as newspapers and magazines. A self-published book has virtually no chance of being reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, the New York Times book review, USA Today, and similar publications.
  • You will not get your self-published book into national distribution channels, and therefore booksellers will not be able to order it.
  • Booksellers must have the option of returning unsold copies of a book for credit. That is normally not an option with subsidy publishing.
  • Pricing is almost always higher with self-published books and cuts into the discount expected by the bookseller. This discourages them from stocking your book even on a local level.
  • The quality of production, editing, printing, and artwork is usually sub-standard. Most self-published book covers are laughable and amateurish.
  • Self publishing companies can and usually charge for just about all phases of the process including cover art, copyright registration, purchase of ISBN number, etc. Writers never pay for these or any charges with normal publishing channels.
  • Despite those rare self-publishing rags-to-riches stories, you aren’t going to sell many books. Once you get past your immediate family and circle of friends, you can expect the numbers to be in the tens, not tens of thousands. Most self-published authors sell 40-100 copies. The rest of the books will wind up in a self storage rental unit to collect dust and grow mildew.

So what are the virtues of self publishing?

The best candidate for self publishing is an author who writes a non-fiction work with limited market interest or appeal. These can include cook books created for church or school fund raising, a family history to be distributed exclusively to a particular family, local or regional historical guides, and supplemental books that accompany a live presentation or motivational program. These are usually sold on the spot at a particular event.

These type of books and others like them may very well be worth publishing, but the number of potential sales are so small and the marketing potential is so limited, that they would not be attractive to a traditional publisher.

There are other reasons to self publish, but they are almost always restricted to a small group or area of interest, and are usually works of non-fiction. Self-published novels rarely earn back the writers investment.

If you’ve written a novel and so far haven’t had any luck getting it published, don’t give up. Persistence is the key, not desperation. If it’s on the page and between the lines, it’ll rise to the top and find a real home at a real publisher. And look at how much you’ll save on self storage costs.

Any experiences out there with self publishing? Can you think of more evils or virtues?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Philippa Martin, Eric Stone, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.

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35 thoughts on “From self publish to self storage

  1. Yep, that’s one viewpoint, and a few years ago, I would have agreed completely. I still do agree, to a large extent. Most fiction is not picked up by major publishers because it’s badly written and poorly plotted.
    I’ve been published by Berkley, St. Martins, a few others, and been on the USA Today bestseller list. I still write thrillers and mysteries for major publishers but I also publish a series of novels as fundraisers for dog rescue groups. They are available through mainstream distribution, though my primary sales venues aren’t bookstores. http://dogbooks.org.
    But for me, it’s a bit different. I have a defined group of readers and a solid following — and I’ve already got my street creds from the biggies.
    Cyn Mobley
    Follow me on Twitter! CynMobley
    Facebook: Greyhound_Books

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  2. Hey Cyn, thanks for dropping by. You dog books sound like a perfect and appropriate example of going the self-publishing route. And it’s fortunate that you have that option to get your books out and help a worthy cause at the same time. It’s sad that so many others do it for different reasons and wind up disappointed. And we also have to admit that many self-published novels should never see the light of day to begin with. Thanks for your comments.

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  3. I would say self-publishing is not the correct route to get published, 99.99% of the time. There are always exceptions, of course. Sue Ann Jaffarian comes to mind. Her first two novels were self-published through iUniverse then picked up and rereleased by Midnight Ink, and now she has a slew of books out. I’ll send her an email and see if I can get her to drop us a comment about her experience!

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  4. Mr. Moore,
    I think vanity press is an appropriate term in many cases. I’m always going to be hopeful about each WIP, that my self-doubt is unfounded. I am also aware that it probably won’t be picked up by an agent, and if that’s the case, I will file it under the bed and work on the next one. But the fact is, most professional writers I know are riddled with self-doubt. They crave that reinforcement, because they firmly believe their (bestselling, in some cases) books really aren’t that great, and they’re just fooling themselves. They all have books that didn’t get picked up hiding somewhere in their homes (or the circular file), never to see the light of day. Because they aren’t cocky or arrogant about their writing.

    By contrast, the two people I have met in person who self-published were not only confident, they were CERTAIN that traditional publishers had missed their greatness, and after 50-100 rejections had decided “why should I share my profits with some agent, when self-publishing brings it all to me!!” No way would they let their hard work (even their first try ever) just disappear where no one could ever read their brilliance. Now does that mean all self-pubbed writers are like that? Of course not. But I’d be willing to bet a large percentage of them are.

    I’m also well aware that there are people out there who have created their own imprint and put out a pretty good product that a vanity press could never do. Thing is, even those people, if you ask them, will usually admit they still dream of being traditionally published because they realize there’s a difference.

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  5. You said it all, Joe. Desperation and impatience usually fuel the self-pub route. Unless you have a niche and a platform and a way to identify your audience, as in some area of non-fiction, when self-pub might make some sense.

    There are those one in a million exceptons. Eragon, for example. But in that case a lot of things came together to get it picked up, not the least of which was the commercial appeal of a very young author, etc.

    The Shack is more didactic than a pure novel, and hit a particular spiritual vein.

    The e-book revolution is bound to increase the smog. It will be easier and cheaper to publish (Anybody can publish to Kindle format now, I think, just by uploading a Word doc). But the ease of this isn’t going to help the collective quality quotient.

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  6. I love self-published novels, and would happily consider them for review.

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  7. Kathryn, you’re right about Sue Ann. MJ Rose is another example of a successful author who started out self-published. But those are definitely the exceptions, and in both cases, the quality of the writing was there to begin with.

    Jake, thanks for your comments. All appropriate and thoughtful. You’re absolutely correct that writers experience self-doubt. I know I do. I expect any day for the publishing police to burst through my door and accuse me of being a fake—not a writer at all but a mere typist. Actually, some may say that without a search warrant right now. But self-doubt should not lead to self-publishing. It should lead to determination. Every bestselling, highly successful writer started out as a no-name amateur struggling to compose that first query letter. They didn’t take the fast, easy way out. The persevered and became successful one reader at a time. If this writing thing were easy, everyone would be a bestseller.

    Jim, you’re right, the whole publishing landscape just seems to get goofier all the time. There are many in the self-publishing business that are there only to prey upon the venerable. It’s a shame and a crime in my mind. One well known vanity press company recently proclaimed that they would rather have 100,000 writers selling 100 books each than one writer who sells 100,000 copies. Pretty obvious what their business plan is all about.

    Here’s a fun exercise. Next time any of us visit our local chain or indie bookstore, ask the manager to direct you to the Self-Published section.

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  8. Thanks for the help, Joe. It’s time to start composting again.

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  9. Joe, I’m waiting for Lee Goldberg to respond with a rebuttal 😉

    Seriously, for 99.999% of the people who do it, it’s a huge mistake. There’s a lot of enthusisasm in the industry with both reviewers and awards for a first novel, and it’s such a waste to throw that away by self-publishing. And in the vast majority of cases it’s not much better to go with a sincere but underfunded POD publisher either.

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  10. Thanks, Kathryn, for inviting me to comment on this particular blog. I’ll admit, I’m more of a lurker at The Kill Zone.

    I agree 100% with Joe’s blog posting (hey, Joe!). Often, because of my successful leap from self-publishing to traditional publishing with my first two Odelia Grey mysteries, I’ve become a somewhat reluctant poster child for self-publishing. My advice to people contemplating self-publishing their novel is always – don’t do it! I won’t list my reasons because Joe nailed them all efficiently.

    That said, when people are persistent in discussing/arguing this with me, I ask them one simple question: What do you honestly want from your writing career? Because that is the key to whether or not someone should self-publish a novel (non-fiction is a whole different animal).

    If you want to be considered a professional writer, you cannot do it via self-publishing. What happened to me, or to the handful of others who made self-publishing work for them, is rare and involves a long, difficult path. More so these days. A path that most people cannot sustain for the length of time it takes for it to work.

    But if you’ll be happy simply seeing your book in print, happy with very small, limited sales, happy carting books around in the trunk of your car and hand selling them at family functions and local fairs, it might be for you. It all boils down to personal expectations and goals. Unfortunately, the vanity/subsidiary presses are cashing in on people with big dreams who don’t understand or are uninformed about the limitations of a self-published work of fiction.

    Then there are those folks who have already self-published a novel who ask me the best way to get it picked up by a traditional publisher. My advice: Start a different book and don’t tell agents and editors that you were ever self-published.

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  11. Dave, sadly, everything you say is true. Once a book is self published, it’s hard to take it back. Some vanity press contracts throw up lots of roadblocks on getting your rights back. Thanks for coming by. Best of luck with SMALL CRIMES.

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  12. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us, Sue Ann! I was tempted to self-publish Dying to be Thin to avoid the effort of querying agents, enduring rejections, etc. I’m very grateful that I didn’t try to take a short cut. For me, it would have been a huge mistake.

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  13. Hey Sue Ann! Stop lurking and start posting more at the Kill Zone. Your opinion and comments are always thoughtful, valuable and welcomed. And in this case, you’re speaking from first-hand experience. Hard to beat that. Let’s hope those first-time novelists out there who are considering the self-publishing road will heed your advice. Thanks for dropping by.

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  14. The most valuable thing a writer can learn is patience. The second is a thick skin.

    Believe me, I’ve learned both.

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  15. Joe, I almost turned to self-publishing after a publisher had accepted my MS, worked up a proof and then, unexpectedly became ill and had to pull out of the process. I decided to self-publish, hand out my 32 copies to family and move on to a new project. The day before I went to print with a POD printer my agent called with interest from a second publisher. Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean will be published in two weeks time by NorlightsPress. Having seen the final copy of both processes I am thrilled that I was saved from self-publishing. I now have a professional book instead of a scrapbook of writing!

    http://www.victoriaallman.blogspot.com

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  16. Victoria, thanks for your comments. That’s really great news and the kind of war stories we all like to hear–the ones with happy endings. As others have said here, there’s always going to be exceptions to the rules, but no doubt you’ll be way ahead of the game by publishing the traditional route. Best of luck with SEA FARE.

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  17. I was nearly sucked into the “self-publishing vortex” a while back, but apparently wasn’t desparate enough. Like you folks said, if you want to make a living at this stuff don’t go that route.

    I’m hoping for the day that a big house will lift me off my feet and make me a star, but I’d just as soon get a one time movie deal that pays my kids college (3 sons, one wants to be a doctor). I don’t even care if anyone ever hears my name or the movie ever gets made…well, OK I would at least like to the see the movie made, but only if its good. I want to see a paycheck, otherwise I would just stick to giving the stories away online.

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  18. This one thing I haven’t seen commented on is self-publishing ebooks, which is now a viable option because of the Amazon Kindle.

    First, I will say that I have not given up on trying to find a publisher. I have a literary agent, and I’m working on a new manuscript that I will have her submit to editors.

    But I also have three complete thriller novels that are unpublished. I feel they are good stories worth reading, so having them molder on my hard drive is useless.

    I decided to offer them for sale on the Kindle and also on my own web site for download to those who don’t have a Kindle. I paid a graphic designer a small fee to make nice covers for all three books. Uploading to the Amazon Kindle store costs nothing. Instead of a promotional budget, I priced the books low enough to get attention. I view that as my promotion.

    So far, I’m very pleased with my progress. The books went on sale in mid-March, and I should make back all my cover art expenses by the end of April.

    In the meantime, I’m getting great reviews from readers and building up a readership who will anticipate the book that my agent will submit to publishers this summer.

    This situation isn’t optimal of course. I’d love to see my books in stores, but while I wait for that wonderful day, people are reading my books and paying me for it.

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  19. I like self-publishing. In the case of my first book, it went from LuLu.com (in manuscript form + pick a cover) to Amazon.com (2 releases – same ISBN – nice!) between 2006 – 2008. Far superior results, as well as a way to gather excellent feedback.

    Gone are the days when a publisher would read a book, believe in its message, and seek to help the author promote his or her tome. Today it is all about risk management. Indeed, rather than seeing their catalogs as key marketing resources for authors, they tend to want to know what YOU are going to do for THEM…. -Even when you have a 5 Star title (like mine on Amazon), to date no one seems willing to take it on.

    Self-publishers will run into a lot of publishing scammers, too. One interesting way to avoid them can be to have your ISBN. (ISBN-13: 978-0979125201.) In general, whenever I have the slightest doubt, I google the name of the publisher (in quotes), followed by the word ‘scam’. This technique alone has saved me thousands.

    Oh well. Self-publishing has been a very interesting learning experience. For someone who has created a work more for the benefit of others than for themselves, the financial returns make little difference. For me the trek has been more about the message, than the money. Indeed, so many believe that the message is important that I do send promo copies and similar offers to hundreds of reviewers, newspapers, and radio stations. (Visit http://www.soft9000.com/dailycrumpet/ and click on “Postal List” if you would like to re-use a good resource.)

    I also agree with much of what people have said so far about self-publishing: Unless we have an audience eagerly awaiting our work, today a successful author is not merely a good writer. Today, she or he will also need to be good at finding where their demographic goes to “worship”, and be able to routinely show up there with their message.

    The rest is up to our readers.

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  20. You make a good point Boyd. We’ve had the discussion of e-books before here. I think that the use of e-books and/or serialized podcast audio verions, both of which I do, makes good pre-publication marketing, and not just for a dust collecting set of old work. It even works for books that we are still planning to sell traditionally. Having a pre-built audience looks good to a reseller.

    According to my agent, it won’t hurt and will most likely help, especially with getting those longed for movie rights.

    But those things fall short of paper self-publishing, which I think falls into the realm of bad marketing if you want to be a commerical success.

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  21. Before considering self-publishing, writers need to have a clear understanding of what their goals are, and a realistic assessment of whether or not self-publishing is the best pathway to reach those goals.

    To achieve the kind of results that most writers hope for, self-publishing is not the way to choose.

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  22. Allow me to add one more discovery: If you feel that the popular blogging places (like Blogger.com, MySpace, Squidoo, and FaceBook) help, feel free to give them a try… but do not forget to google / yahoo / msn your blog to see if your words are making it to the search engines! I have found that, like most publishers, most bolgger sites care more about the community that YOU bring to THEM, rather than the other way around!

    –Come to that, if anyone would like help setting up either a blog or a web site, feel free to drop me a line. These days, most sites cost well under $5 a month. I am often willing to work for free as long as the content is something that the majority of U.S would not mind kids learning about…

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  23. Brace yourself for the deluge, David 🙂
    Funny, I just had a long conversation about this last night with a young lady who was almost set on going the self-publishing route. And for a YA novel that sounds like it has mass appeal (and YA is hot right now). She hasn’t submitted to any agents, hasn’t even attempted the traditional route, but based on a self-publishing seminar she took thought that was her best option. I strongly urged her to reconsider, for all the reasons Joe so concisely detailed.
    The reason a self-published book like The Shack make the news is because it is so very rare for a book to cross over. And if you have something that would appeal to a large market, why settle for all the toil and trouble Sue Ann mentioned?
    Despite some of the problems with the industry, the established distribution network they’ve set up is tough to beat, even with the new ebook availability. And I agree, there remains a stigma attached to self-pubbed work, no matter how good some actually might be.

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  24. Over the last 5 years how many success stories have there been with self-pubbed novels? 10? 20? Out of how many 100s of thousands that have been self-published? That should tell you what your odds are for self-publishing working for you. Just a tick higher than Bluto’s GPA from Animal House.

    If you’ve written three books and haven’t been able to sell any, then try to figure out why they haven’t sold and start working on your 4th. Look, I understand the frustration and randomness of this business. Small Crimes was rejected by probably every NY house, some several times, finally was published by a UK house, and ended up being named by both NPR and Washington Post as one of the best crime novels of 2008. And now I’ve got 6 additional books under contract for publication (as well as a movie deal). But I came to as close to throwing in the towel as you can get–I was probably only a few days away from doing that. What it comes down to is perseverance. You have to just keep fighting through until you break down the doors. Self-publishing is tantamount to giving up, at least that’s what the odds indicate.

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  25. I suppose I need to point out… Before emailing me with pitches for their self-published novels, folks should consider today’s date.

    For my real thoughts on reviewing self-pubbed novels, visit:

    http://is.gd/qaPW

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  26. Funny, David! I had forgotten the date, until I was skimming the headlines for today’s Shelf Awareness newsletter:

    -Administration to Bail Out Book Biz
    -BEA to Leave Javits Center, Disperse Across City
    -Robert Gray: Smashmouth Bookselling for Hard Times

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  27. Oooh…good thing you mentioned that Dave.

    I hope I have enough time to call and stop those cases self-pubbed poetry and the forty book thriller series about the cross dressing drag opera singer who was both a private detective by day and a serial killer by night that I overnight fedexed to you just before lunch.

    …I wonder if I put a return address on those?

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  28. Hi Dave,

    Your advice is exactly what I’m doing. I’m working on my 4th novel right now.

    As for the other three, I honestly don’t know why they were rejected. Obviously, my agent thought one of them was good enough to publish or she wouldn’t have taken me on as a client.

    With self-publishing, I think it comes down to what your goals are. My goal is not to get those three books published, although it would be great if a publisher picked them up. My goal is to gain a readership to show to publishers when my 4th book is ready to submit. If my ebooks don’t sell, the publisher never has to know. But if they do sell, I have ammo to show that people want my books, and I get a little money in the meantime.

    I have not given up on my publishing career, which is why I’m still writing. What I have given up on (for now) is finding a publisher for my completed books.

    The odds may be against me, but I’m betting on myself. If I won’t, nobody else will.

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  29. Great post, Joe. Great comments all. I, who wrote three or four unpublished novels as so glad I was never tempted to self-publish. I always believed when I wrote the right book and found the right editor at the right house I’d be published. I always believed I was as good as what was being published and I knew that, even if I wasn’t there yet, eventually I’d make it. I did find the right book for the right editor at the right house. It took five years and anguish and hard work to see the book in my hands. I guess you have to believe in yourself and your work and keep pushing and writing.

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  30. Boyd,

    Maybe it might be a better idea to try to develop a readership with short stories, and hold the novels–either for future revisions, or to sell when you break through? Just a thought.

    –Dave

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  31. I agree that most self-published books are written by people who shouldn’t get published. I myself am a traditionally published writer from the Netherlands. I published 6 books in two languages in three continents. As I wanted to reach the USA market, I translated my last two non-fiction novels in the English and published them with iUniverse. They are books people don’t look for in bookshops. I still have mixed feelings about self-publishing and though the books sell well through Amazon, I prefer a traditional US publisher to have a look at these books. As I am a Dutch person living in Thailand, I find it a bit of an obstacle to find an agent or publisher in the USA.

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  32. Isn’t blogging really a form of self publishing? surely a book in a series form, on-line, free to all who would read it would get people interested in your work enough to then write another novel/book for normal publication, with the right ammount following you whether you are published or self publish wouldn’t matter! Long term this might be a way of becoming a recognisable author.

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