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The Perks and Perils of Self-Publishing

I wrote the original article (below) in 2011, based on my authors' experiences at the time with self-publishing. Back then, it was a fairly new, untested venture. Now, more than seven years later (November 2018), I'm a lot more optimistic about self-publishing. Some of my authors are making a go of it today. One essential key is self-promotion of every type, but, of course, you need a great book to promote. Then your readers' excitement and word-of-mouth praise (along with reviews on and elsewhere) will boost your efforts to publicize the book.

Three Self-Publishing Success Stories

One of my self-published authors has been incredibly diligent and Web-savvy in seeking out places to publicize her five books. She sends free copies to people who write blogs on her book's genre, and they review them. She seeks out groups interested in the topic and posts on their sites. I can't even remember some of the angles she's told me about, but the marketing advice is available out there, in books and online.

Another author seems to be riding a wave of rapid success. Even he expressed surprise at the jump in sales lately. He sells about 20 books a day on Amazon, and one day last year he sold 400. I'm not sure what he does in terms of marketing, but I find his books so thrilling to read that at first I speed along, adrenaline flowing, until the end. Then, after I've satisfied my curiosity about the plot, I can slow down and work on minute details. I know that his books must resonate with his target audience, because I myself always feel impatient to read/edit the next one. His books are proof that if you offer readers a complex, fascinating world to explore, you will attract multitudes. It also helps to be prolific, so that readers can't wait for your next book. This author also recently got a contract for an audiobook with Audible.

And the third author I'll mention lined up a lot of publicity and marketing efforts before her book launch. She is already in the public eye, so people who know her, or know of her, have bought her book, and she is currently in discussion with a production company that wants to make a feature-length film of her book. If the show goes on the air, her audience will increase exponentially. Some people who've read her book said they "couldn't put it down," so she's getting a lot of positive feedback.

You Have to Blow Your Own Horn

Yet self-publishing is not everyone's cup of tea.  I've edited a slew of books that I thought had a great message, unique insights, and everything needed for success, but when I followed up with these self-published authors, they'd apparently dropped the ball after minimal publicizing and self-promotion. I think that many authors, being naturally introverted, don't like playing the role of marketer and PR agent. Maybe they take rejection too hard, but they need to remember how many times successful authors were rejected at the beginning of their careers. When I look at my log of books edited, I sometimes Google their titles to see what happened to them. I might find four 5-star reviews on, then nothing else online. I imagine that the author probably asked friends and family to write reviews but did nothing else to promote the book. It breaks my heart (well, a little) to see good books languish in obscurity this way. So in cases like these, the authors might have been better off looking for an agent, who would then try to find a publisher—all to let the author avoid the task of marketing and publicizing the book. (For advice on how to approach agents and traditional publishers, see "What Do Book Publishers Want?")

As for the following section, my original 2011 article, I stand by the warnings to read your contract carefully before signing with a self-publishing company. I haven't heard as many horror stories lately from my recent self-published authors, but it doesn't hurt to know that predatory practices still exist. If a self-publishing house tries to force you to use its editors, even after you insist that you've had your book professionally edited, then walk away. Period. End of story. Plenty of reputable self-publishing companies out there will be glad to have your business.

Advice on Self-Publishing Your Book

If you self-publish, your book needs a professional edit, because you won’t have access to a publisher’s copy editor and proofreader. (For a free sample edit of your manuscript, contact me.) Even the most accomplished authors must go through the editing process when they sign with a publishing house. Too much is at stake, financially, for the publisher to send a flawed book out into the market. As a self-publishing author, you face the same economic risks. If your written words don’t connect with readers, the book won’t sell, and the money you invested in printing will simply become a tax write-off. (See "The Many Ways a Book Can Go Wrong, or 22 Reasons Every Author Needs an Editor.")

You might decide to self-publish for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you’ve written a book aimed at a niche market, rather than targeting a mass audience. Maybe you tried to find an agent and/or a publisher but were rejected enough times to consider other options. Or you might be inspired by self-publishing success stories about authors who were subsequently picked up by Random House or Simon & Schuster, and their books became best-sellers.

Most of the books I’ve edited since 1995 were subsequently printed by established publishers, but in recent years I’ve also edited a number of manuscripts for authors who self-published. In their choice of self-publishing companies, some authors were happy with the experience, while others felt angry and “ripped off” by predatory clauses in the publishing contracts.

It’s important to thoroughly research the self-publishing company you choose and to have a lawyer read the contract. Some companies are very laid back and don’t ask their clients to do anything except pay for the printing. They say that the author is the publisher, and they are simply the printer. They do not provide editing, and they will print the book exactly as the author gives it to them, with misspellings, syntax errors, and atrocious grammar. The author supplies a jpeg or a photo for the book cover and writes the jacket copy. The rates per copy may be quite reasonable, even cheap, but authors need to have their books professionally edited first. Otherwise, they’ll be stuck with 500 copies of a book that immortalizes their mistakes and probably will never be sold.

Other self-publishing firms seem to exist solely to trick the author into spending a king’s ransom for their services. Sometimes the contract demands that the author use the company’s editors, even if the author has already paid a professional editor out of pocket to refine the manuscript. Many companies also offer book cover and jacket design, and the cost per copy may ultimately be so expensive that the book ends up pricing itself out of the market.

Spend time analyzing the contract. Try to negotiate better terms before you sign it. The company may be so desperate to get you as a customer that it will eliminate certain clauses that do not favor the author. Once you’ve signed and paid a deposit, however, you have very little control over your fate. If you later decide you don’t like the company’s policies, your only option is to walk away and lose your deposit.

As with any business venture, try to compare companies and their services before you sign on the dotted line.