THE BLOG

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish

08/27/2010 06:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I was looking for a publisher in the olden days of 2008 (47 years ago in ebook time), it seemed clear that the way to make a living as a writer was to get an agent, find a publisher, sell your book in stores, and wait for the money truck to back into your driveway, even if didn't always work out that way. But now that Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and other ebook vendors let you self-publish your books electronically (also called indie publishing), many unpublished writers think it's a no-brainer to forgo traditional publishers.

As someone who has seen both sides, first as a self-published ebook author and now as traditionally published author with Simon & Schuster, I can tell you that each avenue has its pros and cons, all of which I can sum up by saying: if you think writing is hard, wait until you try publishing.

Bestselling author Seth Godin ditched his publisher to sell his books directly to readers because he feels that he no longer needs his publisher's support for packaging, marketing, and distribution. On the other hand, Philip Goldberg wrote his own post about why he thinks a traditional publisher is still both relevant and needed. I'm sure both of them thought a long time about why they write, who their readers are, how they'd find those readers, how they want to spend their time, and what resources they have.

I know I considered all of the same issues that Godin and Goldberg did. When I self-published my three books last year, it was extremely gratifying to post my novels to the Kindle store and see my sales progress on a daily basis. I had total control over my cover, the title, the release date, and the pricing of my books. When I received the offer of publication, it meant taking my books off the Kindle and having them unavailable to readers for another year or more, but I felt that what I gave up was more than compensated by what I was getting in return: editing help, bookstore distribution, credibility with foreign publishers, and an advance payment against future royalties.

My decision wouldn't have been right for everyone and for every situation. Electronic self-publishing knocks down huge barriers to entry and gives writers a choice they've never had before, which is fantastic and is energizing the writing industry in a new way. But when deciding whether to indie publish, don't overlook all the questions traditionally published authors have been dealing with for years...

  • Who will translate my book into Chinese? If you want a world-wide presence, foreign language translations open you up to a much larger audience. Stieg Larsson has sold four million books in the US, but he's sold forty million worldwide. I know many writers whose foreign sales outpace their US sales.
  • How do I get Entertainment Weekly to review my book? It is difficult for any author to get media attention, let alone from a national magazine. For self-published authors, it's even harder unless your book is already a major phenomenon. Respected publicists are out there, but they don't come cheap, and you may decide to hire one anyway if you are traditionally published.
  • If I don't get an advance, how will I pay my Netflix subscription while I write my next book? E-publishing is changing this equation because money can start coming in immediately if you self-publish, but it may not equal what you could get with an advance. On the flip side, if you have an idea of what you can make on your own by self-publishing, it gives you more negotiating leverage for a possible traditional publishing deal.
  • What financial risk am I willing to take? Any kind of business is always a risk. If you self-publish, you are putting your own money into the venture with no guarantee of success, and you may be foregoing an advance of guaranteed money to do it. Even if your sales are great now, they may not continue that way forever (ask any real estate agent). If you go with a traditional publisher, you're selling the rights to your work for an advance that may never earn out. Both directions have great upsides and downsides, so crunch the numbers to see what's right for you.
  • How will I get substantive and knowledgeable help editing my manuscript? Everyone needs an experienced editor to give them feedback on their book. You can hire one, but make sure you're getting your money's worth. And if you are approached by a traditional publisher, interview the editor to see if there is a good fit for your style.
  • Do I care if I see my book in print? For some people, it still doesn't feel like you have a book until you can hold a paper one in your hands. I know when I was publishing electronically, it felt like I wasn't a "real" author because my book wasn't in stores. That stigma, however, is quickly vanishing, and indie writers can hold their heads up high and say they're authors.
  • How much of a control freak am I? Let's face it: writers love control. We create whole worlds. We get to control every single thing our characters say, do, and feel. We control whether they live or die. However, we have very little control over whether someone picks up our book, buys it, reads it, and likes it. Self-publishing gives us that sense of control we crave, but it comes at a cost in money, energy, and time. Publishing independently may very well be worth it to you, but be aware those costs exist.

The great thing about both self-publishing and traditional publishing is that writers can make money doing what they love. If you have a passion to write, there is no better time to be an author. But if you want to make writing your business, be sure you're asking all the right questions before you choose a path.