If you’re just joining us, I’m in the process of working through my notes from the Chicago Writer’s Conference and turning them into digestible, topical tidbits on the publishing process. Last week I talked to you about how writers can tell when their book is ready to send out. This week, I want to talk about what comes next: choosing whether to pursue traditional publication or publishing your work yourself.
I’m going to start this post off by saying that as I haven’t even made this decision for myself, I can’t possibly presume to make it for you. All I am going to do today is summarize what was said at the conference about the choice between traditional and self-publishing, and point you to a few reliable sources where you can learn more about both options.
What traditional publishers had to say about self-publishing
At the Meet the Publishers session, Jonathan Messinger of featherproof books frankly admitted that the stigma long associated with self-publishing is gone. In fact, demonstrated success through self-publishing can be very attractive to a prospective publisher.
“Simon and Schuster may hate you,” Messinger said. “A small press will not.”
Of course, there’s a caveat: If you were very successful marketing your previous book(s), your traditional publisher will probably want a new book from you. They are less likely to pick up any books you already have on the market on the theory that those books may have already saturated the market.
At the Meet the Publishers panel there was general agreement that certain books and authors were made for self-publishing. If your book will appeal mostly to a passionate niche market, for example, you should consider self-publishing.
In the traditional publisher’s opinion, authors made for self-publishing are the ones who want to:
- design their own cover
- have complete control over the marketing of their books
- continue tinkering with their manuscripts during the publication process
- impose deadlines on the publication process
- hire their own publicists
What the agents had to say about self-publishing
The topic of self-publishing came up at the Meet the Agents session as well. Turns out agencies are starting to develop services to support writers they represent who choose to self-publish.
Folio Lit, for example, has an imprint called Folio Unbound that publishes the out-of-print backlist books of the authors they represent.
The other agency represented at the Meet the Agents session, MacGregor Literary, has also created a self-publishing line for their clients. They focus on publishing books in areas traditional publishers aren’t currently operating, like Young Adult Christian novels.
(Of course, this method of self-publishing still requires you to find an agent.)
What the writers themselves had to say about the option to self-publish
Any self-respecting conference these days will have a session devoted to self-publishing. The Chicago Writer’s Conference panel on self-publication was staffed by:
- Samantha Hoffman, author of What More Could You Wish For, who used self-publishing to land a traditional publisher
- Shari Brady, Author of Wish I Could’ve Said Goodbye, who self-published because she wanted her story to remain true to what she wanted it to be, not written for a market
- Jill Salzman, Author of Found It! and founder of Founding Moms, who self-published because she wanted to get her book out to her market more quickly than was possible with traditional publishing
Everyone agreed that self-publishing is a tremendous amount of work.
In fact, in the Journey to Publication session, Mary Robinette Kowal, author of the Glamorist Histories, frankly admitted that she would never consider self-publishing because of the work involved. “You can write another book in the time it will take you to market and distribute your self-published one,” Kowal said.
Not surprisingly, the writers on the self-publishing panel saw things rather differently. Yes, it’s hard work, but Samantha Hoffman pointed out, self-publishing was no more labor-intensive than her traditional book deal.
“The editing and writing steps are the same,” Hoffman pointed out. “With a publisher, you get more editorial support. They provide a copywriter, proofreader, and editor. They created the cover. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t change it. As for marketing, traditional publishers don’t spend money on debut authors, so you have to do as much work there as you would in self-publishing.”
Shari Brady agreed. “You are going to have to market your own work no matter what you do.”
Whatever method you choose, don’t expect to get rich quick
One thing both the traditional and self-publishing routes have in common is that authors can’t expect to make much money from their first book. You need to have multiple books out there before you can expect to make any real money.
“People buy the author, not the book,” Kowal said in the Journey to Publication session. “First book sales are slow. ”
Consider what happened with J.K. Rowling’s crime novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Released under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, the book originally sold only 1500 copies. Sales didn’t really take off until J.K. Rowling’s name was attached to it.
In his essay An Argument for Writers Taking Charge, Johnny Temple points out that it’s the rare blockbuster hit that sells more than a few thousand copies.
National Book Award finalist Christine Schutt has been ridiculed for the fact that her book had sold scarcely 1,000 copies at the time of her nomination. But the fact is, other than blockbuster hits, few books sell more than a couple of thousand copies….
Once the pitfalls of today’s publishing terrain are understood, writers can readjust their expectations. Start with a basic truth that is rarely presented in MFA programs and writers conferences: 5,000 copies sold is a fantastic number, particularly for a first-time author. This goes for books published by either indies or majors.
“This is your small business,” Jill Salzman told us in the session on self-publishing. “No one opens a business and makes a million dollars on Day One. You need to publish four or five books before you achieve success.”
So I want to self-publish. What’s next?
Time constraints prevented the panelists in the self-publication session from providing many details on the process of self-publishing, so I don’t have much to share here. Fortunately, there is a lot of great information out there on how to self-publish.
The panelists at the self-publication session recommended starting by reading Helen Gallagher’s book, Release Your Writing.
Personally, I have also found David Gaughran’s blog to be an invaluable source of information about self-publishing.
I also adore the blog, Writer Beware. Born as an off-shoot of the work of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams, Writer Beware alerts aspiring writers to publishing scams and other perils of the writing industry.
Next week: How do I find an agent?
- Writer Beware blog: “Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls”
- David Gaughran: Self-publishing advocate and mentor
- Writer’s Digest: Website chock-full of articles, blogs, and other resources for writing navigating all stages of the business
- Traditional publishing: And the odds are… (Crows Dream)
- Release Your Writing (Helen Gallagher)
- An Argument for Writers Taking Charge (Johnny Temple on AlterNet)
- Not a Gold Rush: The Taleist Self-Publishing Survey (Taleist)