When to Self-Publish

Karen Opas-Lanouette, a freelance editor and ghostwriter, believes it only makes sense to self-publish if you meet three criteria, which she's posted on LinkedIn. I think her list is great:

1) You have written a memoir or cookbook that you want to share with family and friends. Professional editing and cover design/interior layout are not an issue. A POD self-publisher like Lulu or iPublish is an inexpensive way to put a book into the hands of friends and family.

2) You have a successful business and a book will enhance your authority as an expert. You prefer the 50%+ of the cover price you will receive via this process than the 7-15% you will receive via traditional publishing. You can write the initial expenses off against marketing, and declare income as you hand sell books to clients and at lectures. In this case, it is worth the money to hire a professional editor, an experienced book designer, and create a combination of printed physical copies and a POD set-up with someone like Lightning Source.

3) The expenses involved in creating a professional quality self published book are worth it to you in the same way that going on a vacation is worth it–you are unlikely to make a profit, but the mental and emotional rewards of having your book out in the world, along with the statistically slender chance that your book will hit, make it worth the money.

That is one of the most-clearheaded, accurate, and helpful posts about self-publishing that I've read in some time. I agree with everything she's said. But I would add one more important criteria — self-publishing makes sense if you have written a non-fiction book and have a built-in sales and promotional platform. In other words, if you lead seminars, have a TV or radio show, teach a class, preach to a congregation, etc…a stage from which you can promote the book and a ready-made venue/audience for selling it yourself.

UPDATE: Jane Smith pointed me to this excellent post that makes some excellent points about self-publishing Here's a taste:

4) Nearly all self-published books sell in minuscule numbers. How many friends do you have? How many could you persuade to part with cash? Well, that's how many books you will probably sell. Unless you are a seriously brilliant and dedicated salesperson and are prepared not to write any more ever again because you will be selling, selling, selling. You will lose hair, weight (hmm, good idea), self-esteem and years off your life; you will gain wrinkles, bags, and new respect for book-led publishers. You will probably not make any money but if you do, you will be rightly proud of it. But too tired to do it again. 

5) Whenever someone tells you that publishing is "broken", ask yourself who is saying this and why. Is it a published author? Is it an author who has won awards, received good reviews, has a genuine fanbase? Or is it someone who has either failed to get published or who has decided to make money out of other people's failure to do so? 

6) When you hear about a self-published book becoming "successful", (and this does occasionally happen, but much less often than you are led to believe) realise that this success nearly always happens when a book-led publisher takes on the formerly self-published book. So, is that a self-publishing success or proof that publishing is neither dead nor the future?

11 thoughts on “When to Self-Publish”

  1. Lee,
    I notice the type of writing is limited to cook books, memoirs, and an expert at? Whatever.
    Thank you from the bottom of my humble, developmental editor’s heart…..
    I will copy and paste your link and send it to every writer I know. LOL

  2. One need not have a “built-in sales and promotional platform” if one has a kick-ass book concept and the skill to produce it. Check out InterCourses at http://www.intercourses.com/. Self-published in 1997, it’s sold more than 240,000 copies. Of course, the two people who created it were a cookbook editor and an award-winning graphic designer BEFORE they began work on the book.
    Alas, not many of us have both a kick-ass book concept AND the skill to produce it.

  3. Sounds like a clear and helpful set of guidelines.
    Another niche might be where the self-published author can get virtually free pubicity for his or her book. The former Chief of Police of Toronto may be getting, I think, a free quarter page ad for his memoirs in the back few pages of the “Toronto Sun.” Helps the Chief, helps the police, helps the “Sun’s” community relations.
    Similarly, free publicity might come from local radio and TV if a biography is written about a hot celebrity and it’s any good and the author is a good interviewee.

  4. Lee, thank you for pointing more people to Nicola Morgan’s excellent blog (and to my less worthy one on the way–I appreciate the courtesy). She’s a clever woman, and a wise one too, and despite her fondness for lots of colour her blog is well worth reading.

  5. From a slightly, every so slightly, different perspective, I’m considering starting a publishing company for a specific niche topic for e-newsletters. I could envision expanding that to book–in say, a related niche, ie., business of medicine sort of thing–but I would, as a publisher, I think, be looking very hard at “need” and the author(s) platform and ability to promote the book via seminars, etc. And the reason I even think about that is because I was hired to write a nonfiction book proposal for 2 guys with exactly that and our agent is marketing it now, but I’m wondering what to do if publishers pass it up for a variety of reasons. Would it be worthwhile for me to go ahead and do that? Have them pay me to write it, take my name off it, publish it myself, going in knowing exactly what they both bring to the table?
    Maybe. Not a simple thing, though.

  6. I would add a sub-category to #2 on Ms. Opus-Lanouette’s list: Books published to be given away to existing and potential clients. All of the expenses are written off as marketing.

  7. I’m in complete agreement with you on self-publishing and the niches where it works (and the many ways in which it doesn’t). But just out of curiosity, what about short stories? It seems like there’s almost no traditional publishing aftermarket for short stories anymore. Is self-publishing (particularly electronic publishing nowadays with things like the kindle and other e-book readers, where there’s little upfront cost) a reasonable consideration for someone whose stories have been published in magazines, and maybe they even have a small following, but face long odds against getting them published in book format as a collection?

  8. Ken, there’s certainly still a market for short story collections, having published one already and with another on the way I can assure you of that. Traditional publishers, small presses and university presses all publish them regularly. Admittedly, it’s a smaller marketplace than novels, which would make self publishing your stories even less viable commercially. A small following in short fiction does not translate to sales unless you’ve been in BASS or the NYer several times.

  9. I’ve heard it said that self-publishing is standard for poets, but well-known poets, who are also novelists, have their own imprint for their poetry collections, Jim Harrison, for example. No matter what kind of a book you have though, self-publishing is not the goal. It’s guaranteed failure.

  10. > Whenever someone tells you that publishing is “broken”, ask yourself who is saying this and why. Is it a published author?
    Spider Robinson. 15 or so novels, that I can think over, over 30 years, including several that launched in HC; columnist for the Globe and Mail for several years, reviewer for Destinies.
    Yeah, I’d have to say that he’s a published author, well liked, with little trouble getting shelf space, several awards, including a Hugo, and the “2008 Robert A. Heinlein Award for Lifetime Excellence in Literature [which was] announced at the 66th World Science Fiction Convention, Denvention 3”. His agent just sold *3* sequels to the novel he co-wrote with Heinlein, then 18 years dead.
    I’ll have to hunt a little for the quote, but it was in one of the authors’ notes to one of his paperback series novels, at least 10 years ago.
    Spider ain’t rich.
    But he’s not self-publishing, either; I don’t think that was implicit in the theory, though.
    On an unrelated front, Lee: you got your start on Spenser; do you have any deeper insights at all than any of us civilians as to why it’s *never* come out on DVD? Do they just not have clean enough master prints, and they don’t want to admit it? Or what? I’m sure it’s not music licensing… well, pretty sure.

  11. I recently self-published a book called Murder at the Mikvah. My experience with iuniverse has been a positive one, but now I am sorry I didnt at least TRY to find an agent or publisher first, especially since people who have read my book really like it. Truth be told, I was, and still am completely overwhelmed by the publishing industry, specifically how to “break in” if you are a nobody. I am working on my second book now and wonder if having self published will help or hurt in my efforts to secure an agent. Any advice is appreciated!


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