06/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Self-publishing: The Debate, With Details

I recently had lunch with two writer friends, and the topic turned to self-publication. A lively disagreement arose. The conversation seemed like it would be useful to writers thinking about publishing a book on their own, so I've reconstructed it here.

Marsh Muirhead, an essayist, poet, short story writer and author of Key West Explained, has had success with self-publishing. For Susan Hauser, poet and nonfiction writer whose books include Full Moon (poetry) and You Too Can Write A Memoir, self-publishing was not worth the headache. Both writers, it should be noted, publish regularly in the juried market.

Marsh: Self-publishing means more books than ever, quality not withstanding, while we have fewer readers by the hour. However, I don't think this is the end of civilization. First, if you self-publish, you need to sell the books via an effective distribution system; and second, you need to reach your specific readership with a quality book. Nobody but the writer will spend much time and effort in distribution-which puts a limit, I think, on horrible, unreadable books.

I published my Key West Explained with the idea that it had little competition, and a very focused readership. The best way to sell that kind of book is on Amazon. Recently it was ranked 39,800 over-all, and #2 in books (it sold 5 copies yesterday, a very good day) in the category of "books about the Florida Keys." Sales continue to slowly increase; it's at about 60-70 books per month now. The printing of 2000 copies should sell out late next year (I have one other distributor in the Keys who supplies the bookstores -- they sell a few copies a month as well). The book is over-priced at $21.95 but I still clear $9 a copy after Amazon takes its cut and I pay for mailing the cases to them. When all 2000 sell I will realize a profit of about $6,000, unless I deduct four trips to Key West.

The key to sales was a particular technique: I reviewed all the other books (25) on the Florida Keys so that my review directs anyone browsing Key West books on Amazon to get my pop-up tab directing them to KWE. Since creative work -poems, collections of stories, novels- compete with hundreds of thousand of like books, a successful self-published literary work would be very difficult.

Susan: The big thing about self-publishing, which Marsh acknowledges, is that you have to do everything: write the book, get it printed (and hopefully edited and proofread beforehand), then package it and mail it. When they are selling well, as KWE is right now, Amazon will take a whole box. If they sell less well, as is the case with more literary works, Amazon will not stock any copies. Instead, when they get an order, they send you an email and a mailing label and you package the book and send it out. Eventually, Amazon deposits a payment in your bank account. I did this with Full Moon and You Too Can Write A Memoir. When I started, Amazon took a dozen copies at a time. They shipped them and as they sold they paid me for them. After a while sales declined to a dribble. Now I get occasional orders, but I find it is not worth it to me to keep packing materials and postage on hand (weigh the package or put out money for the postal carrier). I'd rather spend my time writing.

Of course, self-publishing starts with the production of copy for the printer. As Marsh knows, this can be time-consuming. Even if you hire a company that does that, you still have endless decisions to make. I have a friend who paid a well-known company to do that and she had no end of trouble. In addition, she has not sold enough books to recover her costs even though the book is a good one.

Publishing is like writing: if you haven't done it, it looks like it can't be too much trouble. But in reality, it is. Lots of trouble. I occasionally self-publish things because I like figuring out the placement of text on the page, etc. But I would not want to do it with the intent of providing income. Marsh is being smart about KWE, writing reviews on Amazon, etc., but for me, all of that would be time away from writing.

That said, I have a couple of manuscripts I have not been able to place with publishers, and I plan to self-publish them when I retire. Maybe. The decision, in the end, is about how one spends one's time.