So what about self-publishing?

by Alex

This week I’m going to be on a panel called “How to Get Published” on which I am the representative for traditional publishing – as opposed to self-publishing.

Sometimes I’m not so sure I should be doing panels like this until I get another year or two’s worth of experience under my belt – I am still so new to publishing in general and a little terrified of saying the wrong thing.  We are, after all, talking about people’s dreams.

On the other hand, as a lot of you know, I have been OUT there on the circuit a lot this year, and arguably have crammed much more than a year’s worth of experience and observation into that year.

But in this case I thought I’d try soliciting as much information from you all on this subject as I can coax out of you so I can go into this panel at least a little more informed than I am.   Maybe we can all learn something.

In my experience and observation, the steps to publication, likewise the steps to a script sale, are really pretty simple.

!.   Write a great book (script).

2.    Get a great agent.

3.    Agent sells book to great publisher (studio/prodco).

4.    Repeat, hopefully minus step two, since you’ve already got that covered.

Now, of course, none of that is simple at all.   (It’s like Steve Martin’s advice on how to become a millionaire:  “First you get a million dollars.”)

But those really are the steps, and they make utter sense.   First you have to write something good enough to publish.   You have to get an agent because so many people write so much that is NOT good, and agents are one of the key filters for all that bad stuff that’s out there that we really don’t ever want published.   On one very important level, agents are quality control.

A good agent also serves the very important purpose (among many others I won’t be going into today) of matching material to publishers.    Your book has a much better chance of success if it’s placed with a house that is enthusiastic about it and is capable of putting it out to its specific market.

Now, I went the above very traditional route to sell my first script (and each subsequent script) and I went that very traditional route to sell my first two books, and it really never would have occurred to me to go any other way because I always figured those established routes were there for a reason.   Self-publishing perplexes me, because it seems a much, much, MUCH harder way to go, with about a million times more chance of failing utterly in what you’re trying to do.

That was my unschooled feeling about self-publishing even before I started getting out there on the convention circuit and hearing the vitriol directed at self-published authors from professional authors’ organizations and traditionally published authors and booksellers, many of whom will not deal with self-published books at all (“That’s not self-publishing, that’s self-PRINTING.”)  That’s already a huge reason not to self-publish. 

My own impression is that some people self-publish because

1)    They don’t know enough about the publishing business and don’t understand the logic and benefits of following the traditional routes to publication

2)    They’re too impatient or too afraid to follow the traditional routes

3)    They actually have a vision that might be a little ahead of its time and instead of taking no for an answer they take on the vast task of publishing and marketing themselves.

I don’t have any statistics to give you but the anecdotal evidence points to the first two reasons are responsible for MOST of the self-publishing.    And I can’t see anyone who self-publishes for one of those two reasons ever having an actual career as an author.   I understand that there’s an instant gratification about self-publishing, a feeling of self-determination about it – to barrel through and get your manuscript into a book form, choose your own cover, be able to hold it in your hands.

But then what?

Then you have to market the book, and there is no way that most individuals have the same capacity, resources, experience or savvy to market the way a publisher can.   Self-publishing seems like a short cut but in reality, much more often it’s a dead end.

Still, there are situations which absolutely call for self-publishing.   Family histories, local histories, community cookbooks – these are valuable records and resources for limited but avid audiences which a traditional publisher would probably never touch, but which should absolutely be collected and printed, and which might enjoy quite a lot of local success.

And there are those breakout exceptions, like THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, which really was a landmark New Age book that traditional publishers didn’t “get” at the time the author, James Redfield, shopped it.   But he had a vision, and the requisite passion to market it himself.   He self-published, got the book into New Age bookstores himself, and the book became an international phenomenon and cottage industry (over 20 million copies sold worldwide, translated into 34 languages, independent film adaptation, workshops, classes, lectures….)

And bestselling fantasy author Sherrilyn Kenyon started in e publishing with a series that was ahead of the paranormal curve – and got picked up by St. Martin’s after she clearly demonstrated that there was a huge audience for what she was doing.

And I can imagine that if marketing is a forte of yours, you could self-publish a specialty book (on, for example, ordinary household spells and love charms) that you could market online  to a target audience and make a bundle.    If you’re willing to work it.

I believe success in writing has a great deal to do with being very specific about what you want and about what you yourself are willing and capable of doing to get it.

I don’t think I have the skill set to succeed as a self-published author, but I’m quite sure there are some people who do.

Now I’m interested in hearing other perspectives on self-publishing, pro and con.    Scourge of the industry or viable option?   Any other examples of great – or moderate – successes, or great failures?

18 thoughts on “So what about self-publishing?

  1. Christa Miller

    In one case I know of, a blogger self-published a book based on her blog after her agent failed to sell it (quite possibly because the market was saturated, though I don’t know for sure). In her case I would have to say self-publishing makes sense, because she continues to write her very popular blog and to promote her book (via Amazon link) on her blog.

    So – if an author’s blog is so closely tied to her book as to be the actual marketing platform itself, for a very specific niche, I could see self-publishing being the way to go.

  2. pari

    I can think of three authors in the mystery genre who have self published and then made the jump to traditional publishing: Sue Ann Jaffarian, Kathryn Wall and M.J.Rose.

    If one of them is reading this blog today, i bet she’d have an interesting perspective.

    When I wrote book reviews and the literary column for the Albuquerque Tribune, I received quite a few self-published books. Overall, they were poorly edited and designed; they just didn’t look like professionally published books. That said, I always found a few gems.

    The problem, to me, is that there is no real vetting process for these books. And now, there are so many on the market that it’s affecting the author/bookseller/customer relationship.

    Used to be, you’d walk into a bookstore and introduce yourself as an author and people would be excited. Now, there’s this uncomfortable wariness. I’ve had booksellers tell me later, their first thought was, “Oh, no, not another one.”

    So, I now feel compelled to introduce myself as a two-time Agatha finalist in order to shorthand the fact that I’m traditionally published, that I’m “valid.” It’s odd.

    I believe everyone has a story to tell and that every person who wants to be published should pursue that dream.

    Most of the self-published writers I’ve met didn’t want — or refused — to take the years necessary to do this through traditional means. Some had remarkably good reasons for their decisions. Most didn’t.

    The vitriol some traditionally-published authors feel about this comes from the fact that the vetting process is tough. Once you pass through it, you don’t want to be lumped in with others who never have.

    I’m trying to come up with a good analogy, but am finding it difficult because I don’t want to slam the people who decided on this path for all the right reasons.

    Still, I know MY job would be easier if some of the assumptions about published materials had remained intact, rather than this glut we all now experience.

  3. Alex Sokoloff

    Great examples of self-publishing successes, Christa and Pari, thanks!! I knew if I asked you all would do my work for me. 😉

    And Pari, yeah, you have thoughtfully and tactfully outlined the reasons I keep hearing for the negativity directed at self-published authors.

  4. Naomi

    If you already have an established fan base (you are a motivational speaker, expert of some kind, performance artist, etc.), self-publishing may be a viable option. But the most successful and serious of these type of self-publishers don’t depend on a service bureau like or iuniverse, but set up their own small presses and work with Lightning Source or offset printers. If you fall into this camp, the yahoo group,, is really excellent. Very professional.

    In my opinion, fiction is best served by traditional publishers. Nobody HAS to pick up a novel, whereas another person who is in a particular predicament or has a very specialized interest may feel that she NEEDS a certain kind of how-to book. Traditional publishers have the distribution network. It’s easier to sell the foreign, audio, and large-print rights of a traditionally published novel. (That’s how a lot of midlisters make a big chunk of their money.) They have the experience and knowhow to sell to fiction readers. In terms of mystery writers, you may not even be able to become full members of groups like MWA without having been traditionally published. So there’s certainly a stigma.

  5. JT Ellison

    Two other major self-pub success stories — Christopher Paolini, the young man who writes the Eragon series, and one of my favorite all time authors, Vince Flynn.

    Paolini’s parents self-pubbed his book, and obviously they treated it like a business, touring Chris, taking him on a measured media campaign, etc. But it took money.

    Vince Flynn smartly started his own company, sold shares in the business, shared his profits with his investors and again handled things like marketing and distribution on a very professional level. And he’s huge now.

    BUT… the self-pubbed authors I’ve known have gotten into this accidentally. They didn’t know enough about the business to make an educated decision, and it bites then in the ass constantly, because there is a stigma about going this route.

    Considering how many traditionally published authors who don’t know the business, are on a learning curve about distribution and marketing (me being one, I’m constantly learning new things about the process) and expect that they will magically appear on the list without any work on their parts, self-published authors have an even larger challenge.

    Pari’s right, every time I go into a book store and talk to the folks, there is a certain level of distrust until I tell them I’m with Mira. And still many don’t know that Mira is Harlequin, and I need to explain the brand, etc. THEN they’re willing to talk. The glut of non-traditional published authors has sullied the traditional group.

    I made a decision early on that I would go traditional, and if it didn’t work out, then I wouldn’t self-pub. The stakes were just too high. I knew I had a product that would stand up to traditional publishing, but that’s because I spent three years studying the industry, participating in lists, and I made an educated decision about HOW I wanted to do this. More power to anyone who wants to try the non-traditional route, but man, I couldn’t have done it.

  6. Alex Sokoloff

    Excellent, excellent information and examples, everyone, thanks. Now I can at least direct the audience of this panel to this column if they want more information and perspective.

  7. andre

    Also:”Roddy Doyle’s first novel, The Commitments, was self-published in 1987 to great critical acclaim, and adapted into a hit movie in 1991. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha won Doyle the Mann Booker Prize, the United Kingdom’s highest literary honor. His A Star Called Henry was an international bestseller, and the much-anticipated sequel Oh, Play That Thing is a Fall 2004 publication.”

  8. J.D. Rhoades

    I’ve had a pretty “live and let live” attitude towards self-publishing, but I have to confess, I am getting more than a little nettled at the kind of attitude from booksellers that Pari described. The self-publishers are apparently so numerous and persistent that it’s getting harder and harder to drop in or even call a bookseller about an event without getting a curt “have your publicist call me”.

  9. Mike MacLean

    Does publishing a novel online count as self-publishing? This is a route I would consider. It offers one advantage to readers over self-published hard copies—fiction for free. As a reader, I might take a chance on an unknown if it’s not costing me anything.

    To my knowledge, I have never purchased a self-published novel, and I don’t see myself doing so in the future. This is not an elitist attitude. The traditional publishers merely meet my demands for new books. In fact, I don’t have time to read all the books I want to.

    But more power to the underdogs who can make a go of it.

  10. Fran

    From a bookseller’s perspective, we get people bringing in manuscripts all the time. I have one now; I can’t get past the third page. They want us to read them and make suggestions and help them find an agent. We’re an obvious resource, which means we’re way overloaded. Manuscripts are bulky and awkward and difficult. So unless we know who you are or have seen and offical ARC, unfortunately you’ll get more responses like the one Dusty brought up.

    Then too, selling books that are self-published is difficult for bookstores because without publicity, no one knows about the book. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, unless the book is offered to the bookstore at a reasonable wholesale discount, there’s no motivation to sell it either. The profit margin is too narrow and the overhead is too high. We simply can’t afford it. Bookstores are a business, which is easy to forget, and indies are fighting a losing battle to the big box stores. It’s hard to justify taking a gamble on something so iffy.

    Add to that, that frequently self published books are very expensive for what you get, so customers won’t take the plunge.

    But there are some success stories, so we’re never completely closed off from the self-publishing industry. Some great examples have been mentioned here, and I’d add Lowen Clausen and Clyde Ford to it, because their books are fabulous. No idea why a mainstream publisher didn’t pick them up.

    That’s my two cents, anyway.

  11. Stacey Cochran

    Great topic, Alex. And I’m sorry I came to to it late. (I’ve been on vacation at Atlantic Beach, NC the past week).

    I self-published my first novel because I could find no agent or publisher to publish it. I self-published my second book — a short story collection — because I knew no one would publish it, and I wanted to see if I could improve on my first self-published book.

    I self-published my second novel (third book) a year later, after more than 50 agents passed on it and around two dozen editors.

    I self-published my third novel after more than 450 agents (that’s right) passed on it.

    I have a fourth novel ondeck to publish next year because, though I got an agent to represent it, every editor the agent pitched it to ended up having to pass. Afterward, I tried querying editors on my own (more than 50 passed), and then started over with agents and queried close to 200.

    All total, I have written ten novels (I’m actually finishing up my tenth this summer), and the real heavy pushing for agents and editors has occurred with these first, say, 4-7 novels.

    I only recommend self publishing after everyone has passed on your work. I think it’s better to self-publish your book than to not publish it all.

    I try to keep a positive, healthy attitude towards agents, editors, and big publishing, and I will keep trying novel after novel to get an agent and editor. But if everyone passes on a given book of mine, I’ll most likely publish it on my own, do as much promotion and as many bookstore and library events as I can, and continue to learn.

    Believe me, though, I would like nothing more than to have an agent like Scott Miller, David Hale Smith, or Allan Guthrie to work with for life. I would like nothing more than to have my books published at Random House, Simon & Schuster, Holtzbrinck, Time Warner, Harper-Collins, or Penguin Putnam.

    Until that happens, I’ll continue to self-publish one novel per year.



    I, too, joined the conversation late. I literally get sick to my stomach simply reading headlines regarding traditional publishing vs. self publishing.

    I just went with a POD company for my first novel. I am so pleased with the results and am LOVING the fact that I’ve got a book in my hands. I’ve done very well doing the Nicholas-Sparks-selling-out-of-the-back-of-my-car thing. I have speaking engagements lined up and hope to sell more. I’ve been having a Hell of a time getting any bookstore to sponsor a signing. They claim they don’t have the PR staff to handle any more signings. Whatever! Okay, stepping off my bitter box now.

    Anyway, I chose to self-publish because as a full-time working, commuting, wife and mother of a first grader, I ran out of time to do extensive querying. I WISH I could have gotten gotten published in a traditional manner.

    Who knows, maybe that can still come true. Just because I self published to begin with doesn’t mean it has to STAY self-published!

  13. Stacey Cochran

    You’re absolutely right,

    You absolutely DON’T have to stay self-published. It is a safe way to learn some of the basics, though, without the pressure of having to earn back an advance for your publisher.

    Good luck with your book!


  14. Jeremy James

    I agree with Alex…went it comes to a book printed on paper. But sometimes it makes sense to look for an audience in different mediums, such as podcasting. Just look at what Scott Sigler has done recently, starting with EARTHCORE. Two “podiobooks” later and he’s leveraged the audience gained from his earlier pod-novels and landed himself a high six-figure contract with a traditional print publisher.

    So I think it makes sense to “self-publish” in mediums where the traditional presses don’t, and let them handle the paper books.

  15. Rachel

    Self publishing can be much more efficient for authors.I know of a self publishing website ( that is beneficial to an author for the following reasons…-You can get your book published without having to wait for a traditional publisher to accept your book-You can do your own marketing and also be listed in a database of other novels.-Your book is listed and sold online-You receive all of the royalties from the novel minus shipping and printing costs-You can print copies as needed with no need to store or preserve them.

    Take a look at the website and I think you will agree self printing can be MUCH more efficient.


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