Many people choose to self-publish a book because they are unable to find a commercial publisher. Often, this is because a book is tightly focused toward a specific niche market, so that it doesn’t have sufficient audience to attract a commercial publisher.
Others choose self-publishing because it provides them more control of the finished product. A commercial publisher may require revisions, editing changes, cuts to a manuscript, etc., that the writer prefers not to make. A writer also has little control over a book’s design or cover, or in the promotion process (e.g., making sure that the book is reviewed or advertised in publications that target its most likely readers).
If a book is particularly “timely”, a writer may choose self-publishing because it provides a means of getting the book on the market immediately. Commercial print publishers may take as long as two years (or longer) to bring a book to market after it has been accepted, while a self-publisher could get that same book to the marketplace in a few weeks.
Bad Reasons to Self-Publish
- Greed. Never go into self-publishing because you want to get rich. If you discover that you can produce your book for a per-book cost of, say, $3, and market it for $14.95 retail, it’s easy to envision huge profits from that $11.95 profit margin. Unfortunately, self-publishing involves many costs besides the actual production cost of the book itself; if you’re not investing in ongoing marketing efforts, for example, you won’t be selling books (or making profits). In addition, a large number of your books may be sold at deep discounts (up to 60%), which seriously reduces the profit-per-book.
- Laziness. Some people actually believe that self-publishing is the “easy” way to get a book on the market — that, for example, it’s “easier” than trying to find a commercial publisher or agent. It isn’t. You may be able to get your book published faster — but your work is only beginning. Keep in mind that when you self-publish, you’re taking on all the tasks that would normally be handled by the staff of a commercial publishing house. Unless you’re willing to invest significant time and effort (as well as money) into the business, you’re going to be disappointed.
- Arrogance. Many writers self-publish because they are convinced that they are beyond the need of editing or “tampering” on behalf of a publisher. Others assume that the only reason commercial publishers keep rejecting their books is simply because their books are “too edgy,” too “unique,” etc., for the “mainstream” market. Unfortunately, this is rarely true — and this attitude accounts for the proliferation of badly written, poorly edited self-published books on the market (books that, sadly, give the entire self-publishing business a bad name).
What Types of Books Are Best-Suited for Self-Publishing?
Tightly targeted nonfiction books are still the best bet for self-publishing. The most successful self-publishers are those who (a) are experts in their field and (b) are familiar with the target audience for their books. It can be more difficult to persuade a commercial publisher to accept a book that has a relatively small target audience — which makes self-publishing the ideal venue for this type of book.
Books for which the author has a “built-in” market or audience (which often fall into the previous category) are also likely to do well. If, for example, you regularly speak or teach on a particular topic, you may be able to take advantage of that audience by self-publishing a book that you can market at your talks or seminars. You might even be able to self-publish a book that you can use as a “required text” in your classes. If you belong to a particular professional organization, this can also provide you with a built-in “market”.
Self-published fiction still has a low success rate overall. Most fiction is still purchased through real-world bookstores, where one can browse the shelves for titles that look “interesting” (and then flip through the book itself to review a few sample pages). The fiction “readership” is also too vast and diverse a market to target effectively with a direct-mail campaign — and the competition with other titles is too fierce. There are, of course, notable exceptions that are often cited as “proof” that self-published fiction does sell — e.g., Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box or M.J. Rose’s Lip Service — but the reality is that these books stand out because they are exceptions to the rule, not because they are representative of the success of self-published fiction as a whole.
Children’s books and collections of poetry are also poor candidates for self-publishing. Buyers of children’s books, like buyers of fiction, tend to prefer to browse the selection at bookstores, where they can easily review a book before purchasing it. In addition, many children’s books are illustrated and/or produced in special large editions with high-quality paper (or added features such as pop-ups), which are extremely expensive for the self-publisher. As for poetry, its market is limited at best, especially if a poet does not already have an established reputation.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed in self-publishing with a work of fiction, a children’s book, or even a collection of poetry. It simply means that to be successful, you must have an exceptional product AND the willingness to make a major investment in promoting that product.
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.