Almost everyone has a story to tell. Some of those stories would make good books, and some probably wouldn't. But everyone's got at least one idea, concept, or story that could be compelling. It's no surprise, then, that many people dream of writing a book.
The 21st century and the proliferation of publishing methods has, in one sense, made it easier than ever to see that dream come to fruition. There's been a great democratization as avenues to publication have multiplied. But that same proliferation, has, in some ways, made it harder than ever for talented, legitimate writers to see their work meet success in the marketplace.
I self-published my first novel, Boarding Pass, in 2012. Three years and another self-published book later, I've got some good perspective on the process. Here are my answers to seven frequently-asked questions. Remember: these are only my answers; that doesn't make them the only answers. Do some research and you'll find broad perspectives.
1. What's the difference between "traditional" and self-publishing?
There are many differences, but here's the quick and easy answer: Traditional publishing involves an author being represented by a literary agent, who in turn sells his or her manuscript to a publishing company. The book is edited, designed, packaged, marketed, and sold by the publishing company in hardcover, softcover, and eBook formats. Self-publishing is an independent process, wherein the author is ultimately responsible for all aspects of writing, editing, design, marketing, and sales--either himself or with assistance of a paid service (and there are many). Furthermore, he or she (or that paid service) purchases an ISBN, registers the Copyright, and submits to the Library of Congress. Generally, self-published works are produced as eBooks and in softcover via a "Print on Demand" (POD) process through an automated, online-based service. Depending how involved one wants to get, hardcover production is possible as well. Among the most popular services and platforms for self-publishing are IngramSpark, Amazon CreateSpace, and BookBaby.
2. Why would an author decide to self-publish?
The reasons are many. Changes in the industry have meant that many of the distribution and printing services once available only to big publishers are now more widely accessible. And the road to traditional publishing is a narrow, arduous one indeed. With more and more people writing books, it has become increasingly difficult to secure the attention and services of a literary agent. Many talented authors query agents for years without success because their work doesn't fit current perceived marketable trends. Also, if one's standards are low, it's fairly easy from a practical standpoint: Anyone can publish a book of just about any quality in 2015 with a few simple steps. Print-on-demand (POD) and eBook format delivery services have made it virtually effortless to get a manuscript available to willing buyers over the internet. But the best reason why a legitimately talented writer would choose to self publish is the independence and control the process provides. Everything from content to cover art is ultimately up to the author. That level of independence is appealing; however, it also involves considerable personal investment, lots of hard work, and some level of liability.
3. Isn't self-publishing just a cop out for second-rate authors, then?
It can be. And at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think that's the case for a great deal of self-published work. There is a lot of low-quality, poorly-written, poorly-packaged stuff out there. Self-publishing is a wide-open gate; whereas the door to traditional publishing by the big conglomerates is really quite narrow and incredibly selective. The big publishers (and even the highly reputable smaller presses) got that way by maintaining these high standards and/or a precise, narrow marketing focus. But that's not the case for every self-published work. There are exceptionally talented writers who choose to self-publish for a variety of reasons. Some wish to maintain complete editorial control, from the plot to the cover design. Some are simply not concerned with selling many books or making money. Some are excited by the entrepenurial spirit. I think the decision to self-publish has much to do with one's expectations and ambitions.
4. Do self-published books make money?
Yes, but probably not much. First of all, I should say that I'm assuming we're taking about a professionally edited, well-designed book in which the author has made some financial investment. So it takes quite a few sales just for an author to recoup the expenses. Now, the per-copy royalty for a self-published author is very high compared to that of a traditionally published book (usually about 70% vs 10-15%.) But most self-published books, without the marketing muscle of a major publisher behind them, sell only a couple hundred copies (probably to friends and family) upon release. (It's worth noting, though, that, some traditionally published books sell only a couple thousand in the same space, at which point the big publisher pulls the rug out from under them and they disappear from shelves. At that point, they're not necessarily in much better shape than the self-published author, who at least still has full rights and control of his book.) So my perspective--very subjective--is that a "successful" self-published book is one that sells maybe a thousand copies within the first couple years, print and eBooks combined. Depending on the marketing resources of the author, a self-published book could sell tens of thousands of copies. But that sort of marketing takes time and money. So the answer is: it depends. Certainly, writing doesn't afford most authors (self or traditionally published) the luxury of quitting their day jobs!
5. What goes into producing a successful self-published book?
The first and most important ingredient of any book is, obviously, the writing. If the writing is poor, the book (unless riding on the tide of a wildly influential market trend, which is alway fleeting) will fall flat. Nothing screams "AMATEUR!" louder than poorly-written content (except maybe a cheap cover). And so I'd say it has to begin with a talented, skilled writer. There's no way around that. Unfortunately, with the grand democratization of publishing has come a deluge of abysmally-written gobbledegook that makes its way into print every day. Beyond excellent writing, professional editing is required. This is an expensive undertaking. It can cost an author 2-3 thousand dollars to have a novel-length manuscript edited by a legitimately skilled professional (and frankly, if it costs less than that, the author should be skeptical of the editor.) Anyone can spot an amateur book by a cheap cover, but you can spot one just as quickly if the interior elements aren't professionally laid-out. Is the front matter and copyright page comprehensive? Is the paper of an appropriate quality for the type of book? Do chapters begin on fresh pages? Are the margins, bleed margins, and line spacing/kerning sufficient and readable? Is the book printed in a typeface that doesn't look like it just came out of a laser printer using default Microsoft Word settings?
6. Do traditionally published authors take self-published authors seriously?
There's no universal answer to this question. I'm sure that many traditonally published authors look down upon self-published ones as "wannabes" who couldn't cut it in the big time. (And frankly, in many cases, they're right.) But I think for most serious authors, there's a level of respect--at least if it's clear that the self-published author has legitimate talent. It might be patronizing respect more than anything, but there's definitely respect. The handful of traditionally published authors I know personally express a sort of puzzled fascination when I describe the level of hands-on control (and responsiblity) I have for my books. When I talk about cover design, editing decisions, and even distribution channels, they tell me I sound more like their publisher than another writer. In some ways, they're envious of this. That being said, I think they have a sort of sympathy, knowing that my books simply don't have the same distribution and marketing savvy working for them.
7. What's the better route for a writer to take?
It depends on the individual's aspirations, desires, and motivations. Many people simply wish to create the art for the art's sake. Others have a story they want to tell and see in print. I think it's safe to say that most writers combine those two desires with a legitimate desire to make money. The best answer I can provide is this: If you're a really, really talented writer, and you are willing to be patient and endure a long, selective process rife with disappointment and facing very long odds, you should absolutely pursue the traditional route. If you have an exceptionally well-written manuscript that you genuinely believe is marketable, then write the best query letter you can and begin querying agents. Be ready to engage in a years-long process before your book (potentially) goes to print, and be ready to yield significantly when it comes to editorial and design decisions. If it all pans out, you will probably make significantly more money in the long run than you would have self-publishing (though that doesn't mean you will make a significant amount of money!) If you're a talented writer and you have some resources to invest in the production of a professionally edited and designed book -- and you'd like to see your book in print in less than a year -- and you aren't too concerned with raking in big bucks -- and you're willing to push your own marketing -- then consider self publishing. Just don't go it alone: seek out a professional editor and cover designer. And whatever you do, don't rush it and don't go cheap.
8. HOLD ON! THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE SEVEN QUESTIONS! Bonus Question: What about your next book? Are you going "traditional" or self-publishing?
I finished writing my third book this summer, and I've decided to pursue the traditional path. My manuscript is out there in the query process, and I've had some early interest. It's too early yet to say whether or not it will pan out, but at least a handful of agents have been interested enough to request the full manuscript. I'm going to keep self-publishing this one in my back pocket. I'll always have respect for self-publishing, but I believe this next novel is a really compelling story that deserves every effort toward the professional production, marketing, and wider distribution that traditional industry channels might afford it.