The Perils of Self-Publishing

Now that electronic publishing is cheap and easy, and places like Amazon make online sales as simple as one-two-three, a lot of early-career writers are thumbing their noses at established agents and publishing houses as they surrender to the blandishments of self-publishing; however, before anyone rushes headlong into this utopian paradise of 21st-century authorship, prudence dictates first examining some of the rather treacherous perils along the way.

Scrutinize the Pros:

Avoiding Editors – Finding a publisher for your novel can be a daunting, soul-taxing task.  Editors seeming to love to say no, and you hear the statistic batted around that only 1 in 2,000 novels written is ever published.  I know, as the gate-keepers of the literary marketplace, editors can seem like the enemy of writers – after all, they’re the ones keeping you outside the gates.  But editors are trained professional with a highly acute sense of the readership they serve, and that vast readership (which writers eye so eagerly) rely on those gate-keepers to ensure they don’t spend time and hard-earned money on books that don’t meet their expectation.  For all the faults you can find with many a published book (and there are often faults), books that pass through an editorial process tend to be well-crafted and entertaining in the right ways.  Those books are also coherent, free of typos and grammar problems, and generally, well, better than the original manuscript our hopeful writer sent to the editor.  This is an important, even vital process for readers.  I’d also suggest it’s important for writers.  (See “No Rejection” under Consider the Cons).

Avoiding Agents – Getting an agent seems impossible.  Here’s why, as I see it: if finding an editor who wants to publish your novel is like trying to date a high school cheerleader, then finding an agent who wants to represent you is like trying to date the friend of a high school cheerleader.  The high school cheerleader won’t go out with you unless she really likes you or you’re the captain of the football team or your dad is the mayor or something along those lines, but the friend of the high school cheerleader won’t go out with you even if she does like you unless she also believes the high school cheerleader would approve.  But, like editors, agents provide a valuable step along the way to publication because they also act as a way to filter out things that (they believe editors would find are) not ready for presentation to mass reading audiences.  But agents are also important because they know the ways to help writers ramp up their careers – selling movie rights, tackling foreign markets, etc.  These are all things that most writers will have no clue how to do on their own.  Self-publish and you lose out on all that expertise.

Better Royalties – Self-publishing advocates like to cite the vastly improved royalty rates they expect.  Selling your own e-book on Amazon nets you seventy-percent of the sales price.  That’s great until you start doing the math.  For the first thousand copies at $2.99, you could expect to make about $2000.  Subtract from that your initial publishing and preparation costs and you just might break even.  Except that very few self-publishers have enough friends and family to sell that first thousand copies, which means you’re probably looking at more like 300 copies if all your Facebook friends come through to buy a copy.  300 copies nets you a little over $600.  You can’t rent an apartment for that any more.  And meanwhile all the time and energy you’ve put into the publishing efforts is time and energy you have not spent writing that next book your little readership are (perhaps) eagerly awaiting.  Okay, okay, no need to beat this dead horse.  You’re not doing this for the money anyway, right?  Then why did you bring up better royalties?

Success Stories – At the last Willamette Writer’s conference, one of the early sessions presented the success story of a writer who self-published her first three novels electronically and sold them through Amazon.  She not only spent over $50,000 of her own money getting this undertaking off the ground, but she really worked her ass off – personally emailing every person who bought her book and asking them to give the book a rating and write a brief review.  And over the course of several years, she broke into the list of top-sellers on Amazon.  Her reward?  Her success attracted the attention of a fancy NY agent who was able to get her a three-book deal with a major NY publishing house.  Am I the only one who finds this story sadly ironic?  And stories of big-fish authors who were originally published by major houses and then jumped ship to self-publish and rake in the profits are an entirely different kettle of fish than the newbie minnows who will be struggling to keep from starving or being eaten by the other bigger minnows.

Consider the Cons:

No Rejection – Believe me, I dislike a rejection notice as much as the next guy.  But I’ve learned to appreciate them.  Not form rejections – nobody appreciates those – but a personal rejection can provide you with valuable information and can spur you to do better and better work.  When you get personal rejection from an editor, that’s code to try them again.  They noticed you.  It’s also a way to learn how to revise your manuscript or at least adjust your pitch before you submit your work to the next editor.  Literary history is rich with stories of rejected authors who tried and tried again.  James M. Cain’s first novel was supposedly rejected so many times that he titled it The Postman Always Rings Twice in reference to the code ring his mailman gave when he was returning the damn thing yet again.  But eventually Cain did get that novel published, along with many more novels.  But ask yourself if it would be considered an American masterpiece if he’d self-published it as print-on-demand and sold 300 copies to his friends and family.

No Market Placement – Publishing through a reputable house generally automatically gets you in the loop as far as market placement.  The publisher will send out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs in the biz) to bookstores and newspaper reviewers.  Do this on your own and you’re cutting even further in to that $600 you made.  And you’re wasting your time as well because (fairly or not) most bookstores and newspaper reviewers can’t be bothered with self-published works.  Okay, maybe they haven’t gotten the word that self-publishing no longer has the same stigma attached to it.  You go ahead and have that discussion with them.  While you’re at it, think of yourself as an overwhelmed reader trying to find a good book to read in a world where instead of only 1 in 2,000 novels being published, all 2,000 of those un-edit manuscripts are available to you.  Not to be an elitist fuddy-duddy, but yikes!  Where does the democratization of the process end and where do the virtues of a juried meritocracy start?  Maybe it’s just because as an English teacher I’ve read too many badly written papers in freshman comp classes, but I don’t want to wade through everything that everybody writes ever in order to find something decent to read during a weekend at the beach.  Do you?

No Publicity – Okay, sadly, very few first time authors get much out and out publicity from their publishers any more.  Gone are the days of the full page add in the New York Times for someone’s debut novel.  But by going through a publishing house you still get all sorts of indirect publicity.  You show up in their catalogs for one thing.  That means you’re also automatically available through Ingram Books, etc.  Don’t know who Ingram is and you’re still set on self-publishing?  Well, you better stop reading this and get cracking.  You’ve got a lot of work to do.


About Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic View all posts by Chuck Caruso

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