A Word of Caution

James Scott Bell

John’s post on Friday sparked a healthy combox on the subject of self publishing in this new age. We all know it’s now possible to send an entire novel out to the e-osphere without having to pony up for printing or warehousing. Dreams of making a good sum of money this way, a la Joe Konrath, are dancing in many heads, like visions of sugarplums. Since it isn’t Christmas yet, I feel the need to offer a word of caution.

If you upload your self published novel before it’s ready, you’re more likely to turn off future readers than gain them. If someone plunks down even 99¢ to take a chance on your book, and is disappointed, they are not going to plunk down that money again. If you want to have a career as a novelist, you have to reverse that dynamic. You have to offer books that readers love and leave them wanting more.

Now, this is America. We have free speech and free enterprise. You can put your novel out if you want to. But before you do, I would urge you to consider the following:

It takes a long time to learn how to write narrative fiction. I would guess that 98% of traditionally published authors paid years of dues learning their craft. That same 98% would probably look with horror at their first attempt at a novel. That novel likely sits in a drawer, or on a disk, and will stay there—as it should. Many of these writers have multiple efforts that never saw the light of day.

But let’s say you’ve written and studied and been critique-grouped to the point of psychosis. You have determined you are ready. Hold the iPhone. Before you publish, do the following:

1. Get your manuscript to five “beta” readers. These should be people who are not just going to gush over your work, but people you can trust to give you direct comments on likes and dislikes. Make sure 4 out of 5 give it high marks, and the fifth is pretty close.

Note: this is not your critique group (if you’re in one). Such groups have their own peculiar dynamics. What you want are people who will experience the book as the average reader would. Be prepared to make substantial changes based on the feedback.

2. Hire a freelance editor. It’s well worth it to find somebody who can go over the manuscript, catch glaring errors, and offer fixes. Do your research, though, and make sure you get what you pay for.

3. Pay for a good cover design. Nothing looks cheesier than a typical, self-pubbed, self-designed cover. I recently went browsing at the Kindle store, looking at self-published works. The covers were, by and large, terrible. Unless you have strong graphic and artistic ability, find someone who can design you a great cover.

4. Even after your upload, do not get overconfident. The odds are stacked against you making walk-away-from-your-day-job money this way. If you want to be a real writer, and not just somebody who has made an e-book available, keep growing and working at the craft. Every single day. Then maybe your efforts will start to pay off, down the line.

The modern self-publishing movement, which began with Bill Henderson’s The Publish-it-Yourself Handbook (1973) has just taken a quantum leap forward with e-publishing. But the same caveat that applied then applies now: just because you wrote it doesn’t mean it’s ready.

Be patient. Take some time. And don’t go it completely alone.

Then, if you want to play, you’re free to try your hand at this. As Henderson wrote back in ’73: “Publishing-it-yourself is in the individualistic tradition of the American dream.”

Just do your dreaming with your eyes wide open.

Any other words of advice or warning for those who are itching to jump into self-publishing?


17 thoughts on “A Word of Caution

  1. Jim, your points are all spot on. All the little things matter, and even the greatest writers are not necessarily great editors. I like to tell the story about my next book, HOSTAGE ZERO (July), which wil be my 7th published novel, and the 12th that I’ve written. I’ve paid my million-word dues and then some, yet my editor at Kensington was able to cut fifty pages of my then 490-page manuscript. Each cut made the book better.

    A lot of those frustrated authors out there who can’t find a publisher focus so heavily on an editor’s decision (or refusal) to purchase the work that they forget about all the painstaking effort that is invested by that same editor prior to publication. And I haven’t even gotten to the role of the copy editor, the tertiary level of quality control.

    Those who go the self-publishing route confident in their marketing skills should never forget the old adage (from Tom Peters, I think) that great marketing is a bad product’s worst enemy.

    John Gilstrap

  2. Hi Jim,

    I am so glad that I never self-published. I know there are stories out there about writers that were successful doing this, but knowing how difficult it is to write an entire novel I personally would never do it.

    Okay, maybe I would for non-fiction but I doubt it.

    Now that I have, Secrets of the Heart, coming out in May 2011 (thank you Jim for being such a great mentor) and know the amount of work that has gone into this book and the series I couldn’t imagine self-publishing.

    And what John said: Those who go the self-publishing route confident in their marketing skills should never forget the old adage (from Tom Peters, I think) that great marketing is a bad product’s worst enemy.

    That gives me cold chills of dread.

  3. You are so spot on with your advice.

    I am utterly fascinated with the idea of self-publishing, but damn scared, too. And I cannot imagine offering a book to a reader without it being professionally edited. Editing is what I value most about print publishing. So yes, to what John said, “great marketing is a bad product’s worst enemy.”

  4. Here is a link to a fresh story from Publishers Weekly some might find helpful: Midlist Author Tries Hybrid Self-Publishing


    We have self-published our Adirondack Kids® series of books from the beginning, selling 100,000 in the series now entering our 10th year. But I understand our success is very unusual and I appreciate every word of advice on this post – every word.

    As money tightens and even established authors have difficulty getting solid work into print – the advice in Jim’s post will go a long way for those embarking in their own to avoid unnecessary disappointment and heartache.

    Gary Allen VanRiper

  5. EC, you’re right. I have at least three edits of my books. First, my wife, who is the best. Then a content edit and line edit from the house. So many things are caught, and still little minnows of error sometimes slip through the net. I can’t imagine not going through that.

  6. Gary, it’s nice to hear success stories. The self-publishing movement (with exemplars like Dan Poynter) does, on occasion, deliver a victory like yours. But I suspect it’s because the success is deserved and shown in the writing itself. Thanks for the link.

  7. I think self-publishing is going to be worthwhile only for authors who have already published the traditional way. Once we’ve written 2 or 3 books, we basically know when a manuscript is ready to go. As things stand now, we have to get our manuscripts in shape before submitting it to an editor, because many NY publishing houses aren’t doing much editing anymore. However, self-publishing will not be a path to success for most unpublished writers. It usually takes a certain amount of experience to know when your stuff is ready to go out.

  8. Jim
    I think you provide some great advice – I see all too many writers who are in such a rush to get their manuscript out there that they forget all about the time needed to perfect the art of writing a good story. My advice…there are no shortcuts. Ever.

  9. Jim, I found my way the old fashioned way–a word, sentence, paragrapgh, page, chapter at a time. As an avid reader, I knew that my early works were not of professional quality. I never even tried to shop them around. I shared them with a few friends—one in particular, who showed me how and where I was over-writing.

    My biggest lightbulb moment came when I decided to write the story that became NATHAN’S RUN the same way I would tell it if I were relaying it to a friend. I stoped thinking about writing a book, and started thinking about telling a story. In fact, people who know me well say that when they read my books, they can hear my voice telling the story.

    After about 30 drafts (seriously), I felt comfortable that NATHAN’S RUN was ready for prime time. Fortunately, I turned out to be right.

    John Gilstrap

  10. Great post, Jim! You say it so well!

    I like John’s point, too! He paid his dues. Every struggling author should read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He reminds us excellence comes after years of work and focus and dedication.

    So far in my experience, those who self-publish are impatient, in a hurry and not willing to learn the craft.

    But e-publishing is a great solution to niche genre’s.

    Like anything — do your homework, ask the hard questions, consider all the options. Be teachable.

    And I agree, just tell the story is great advice!

  11. Not sure if this thread dead yet?

    Confess still somewhat sensitive about this distinction made between traditional verses self-publishing.

    Recently read (BEA stats) that 93% of all books published sell 1000 copies or less.

    So – if you learn the craft – pay your dues – get picked up and published by a traditional publisher – and you sell less than 1000 copies of your book over the lifetime of the book – have you yet become successful?

    I agree with all that is being said about working at the craft, and am well aware of the poor writing so often released through P.O.D. (which I do not consider self-publishing at all) but is the legitimacy of your work placed on how your work is finally published, or how many people read your stories?

    I’ve met quite a few authors who have published through traditional means but have sold hardly any books, and I simply don’t understand the condescension.

    This is a safe place to brainstorm while venting – yes?

    gary vanriper

  12. Gary,

    Venting is one of our great pasttimes here in the Killzone.

    I don’t think that success is the issue here. Rather, the issue is respect. Anyone who tries to carve out a living in this writing game knows how capricious it can be. I dare say that every author I know has put out what s/he thinks is a breakthrough work, only to be burdened with disappointing sales.

    I think I can speak for most of my traditionally-published brethren that self-publishing is an attempt to make an end-run around the system of checks and balances to which we all adhered. It’s something like the feeling you get during rush hour, when you wait your turn for the exit, only to have someone speed up on your left and cut you off. It shows considerable disrespect to those who understand that the rules are there for a reason.

    All too often, in my experience, the self-pubbed crowd feels it necessary to take gratituitous shots at the traditionally published crowd. After issuing the first shove, it’s only reasonable to expect people to push back. (I’m not talking about you, by the way; I’m talking about the obnoxious types who proclaim that publishers no longer recognize quality, and that traditonally-published authors and their support teams are all suckers. It may be true, but it’s impolite to point it out.)

    John Gilstrap

  13. There is an important edit pass that can make a big difference. 1) Record yourself reading your entire book. 2) Listen to that recording.

    A number of authors podcast their novels at podiobooks.com & as a regular listener, I am impressed with the quality of the works I’ve heard so far.

    I have interviewed several of these authors personally and I’ve gotten concurrence from them, including in my last two interviews.

  14. I started off with a publisher and the typical anti-self pubbing animosity. In fact my sister and I used to debate the subject during our speaking events. However, as she points out, if a reader has a choice of paying $5.99 for an ebook or $.99 for one, chances are they’ll try the cheaper one first. So that’s one advantage of self pubbing and setting one’s own price. If you sell 1,000 books at $.99 that’s roughly $1,000 without the publisher overhead. Plus if the reader(s)likes it hopefully word of mouth will kick in and assist the author’s promotional efforts. Since I’ve gone through the processes of publshing via ebook and print, I’ve really begun to change my views of self publishing and am looking at it as a possible experiment in the future. JMHO…

Comments are closed.