To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish

Do it yourself publishing

I frequently get letters from emerging fiction writers, asking me what I think about self-publishing. What a difficult question. The truth is that (and these words may come back to haunt me one day) I can’t imagine self-publishing. I’m sure there are some reputable companies out there. I’m know there are wonderful exception-to-the-rule stories of authors who have self-published, sold a whack of books, been picked up by a great agent, sold the book to a major house and gone on to fame and fortune. And I’m sure some writers are just happy to have something tangible to show for all their months/years of hard work. However, I also know that the only happy self-published authors I know are those who had low expectations to begin with.

The few self-published books I’ve read have been pretty much what I expected — not great. One or two showed a writer with talent, but in need of experience, polish and good editing. (Not that I haven’t said the same thing about a number of traditionally published books.) Friends and acquaintances are asking me to read more… maybe one will prove the exception to the rule. I hope so, but I’m not optimistic. Please note — I’m talking about fiction here, not non-fiction or poetry. I actually think there’s far more potential if you’re self-publishing non-fiction and/or poetry. With non-fiction, self-publishing can be a good tool for reaching intended markets, or supporting workshops of various kinds, etc. And with poetry, since chapbooks are how most poets become known, it’s a great way to get your work out there. Also, I think non-fiction requires less intensive editing — and more on that below.

So, if you’re considering self-publishing, here are a few things to consider:

I have yet to hear from a self-published author who hasn’t been ‘awarded’ Editor’s choice or given the ‘opportunity’ of spending more money. It seems every book is considered better than the rest and, because of its higher-than-average quality, for a few (or many) more dollars it can go through a round of ‘professional’ editorial input, and be offered (again, for more money) a high-quality cover, and paper grade and so forth.

Now, maybe your book really is better than average, and maybe you do have the money to invest, but consider yourself warned. It’s very easy, as insecure writers, to lunge toward any bit of encouragement and praise, but it doesn’t mean we ought to. Like the agent who promises massive advances, auctions, and world-wide deals, it’s nice to hear, but best to be a bit skeptical.

And if your self-publishing company offers you the privilege of buying more editorial services, who is the editor they’re recommending? What else has he or she edited? Does he have a reputation in the industry? Do you read and admire the books she’s previously edited? Anyone can call himself an editor, it doesn’t mean he’s any good at it. An editor should be someone who really understands the intention of your work and is capable of drawing out the best in the writer – not merely someone who knows when to use a semi-colon.

My understanding is that most self-published books do get printed (eventually — there always seems to be delays for one excuse or another) and gets into some stores, and on Amazon, but the lion’s share of marketing and publicity is left to the author.

For me, that’s a problem. I’m not a salesperson, I’m not a marketing and publicity genius — I’m a writer, and as such I’m psychologically healthiest when I’m writing, not networking, schmoozing or self-promoting. On the other hand, some folks love that stuff…

For almost all self-published books, sales are small and centered around the authors family-and-friends. When you are told by a self-publishing outfit that your book will appear in stores, what they probably mean is that one or two copies will go on a shelf somewhere, but really, that won’t help your career as a writer. In most cases, the only books that sell in quantity are those on the brightly-lit tables in the front of the store, and that space is paid for by publishers. A book or two stuck on the shelf at the back of the store is little more than decorative wallpaper. And as for Amazon, I can sell anything I like (pretty much) on Amazon, I don’t need to pay someone to get my posting up; I can do it myself.

But self-publishing is a personal decision and perhaps your goal is to sell a few books to your family and friends, and if this is a memoir designed with your grandchildren in mind, fair enough. In fact, I have a friend, Brian, who recently self-published a memoir in the form of poetry and drawings. He designed the book himself and published with “” and the result is terrific. Of course, Brian, who is an accomplished architect by trade, understands design and was able to translate that to his book. Perhaps you are capable of the same thing… I have another friend who self-published a short story collection, and seems very satisfied with the sales she made at her book launch, albeit, again, to family and friends. Whether her book finds a larger readership or not is yet to be determined.

The other thing to be aware of is that all bookstores buy all books on consignment. Which means, they may order and agree to place a couple of copies of your self-published book, but if it doesn’t sell in a given period of time, say a month, they will simply return them, often damaged, and they will pay nothing, and that’s the end of that.

There is a recent success story about a self-published novel, called “The Lace Reader, by Buronia Barry.” (Full disclosure — I haven’t read it.) I don’t know which company the author went with initially, but I heard her talk on NPR one day and she said she sank $50,000 into the book before it attracted the attention of an agent, and it was the agent who then sold it. It’s sold world-wide, but … let’s face it, for every “The Lace Reader” there are hundreds of thousands of authors who self-publish, spend tons of cash, and whose books disappear after a few weeks. Whether the book could have benefited from a terrific editor, I will leave for you to decide. Of course, those of us who publish with traditional publishers see our books fade away as well, but at least we got paid for the work, and not the other way around.

I don’t know many writers who have $50,000 to gamble on a book, and frankly, if I had an extra $50,000 I wouldn’t be putting it on what amounts to a vanity project. Think of all the people whose lives could be significantly improved by $50,000! I don’t know about you, but in these hard times I can think of any number of ways that money could be more usefully spent.

Self-publishing companies (and they are vanity presses, no matter what they tell you), make money not off book sales, as in regular publishing, but from the writers. If you get great sales, if it happens to go viral, wonderful, but they’re not counting on it.

As a writer, I need an editor, and a good one. I can’t do brain surgery on myself, and that’s rather what good editing is. I would much prefer to see emerging writers put their money into a good editor, or a program like Humber College’s Crea
tive Writing by Correspondence Program
, and then, when the book is the best it can be, approach reputable agents, or some of the wonderful small and midsized presses out there who will consider unagented manuscripts. I swear, such smaller presses can be the life preservers of literary fiction writers.

Books sell based on several factors – word of mouth, reviews and prize nominations are some. A self-published book, no matter how well placed in a store, will not be reviewed and will not be considered for prizes and will not be considered for awards. That’s just the truth of the matter.

The other reality is that the publishing industry as a whole is having a rough time right now, just like everyone else, and because of that they’re taking fewer and fewer risks on new, unproven authors. When people can’t pay their rent, they don’t buy books. So, if you’re a literary luminary such as Salmon Rushdie, Toni Morrison or Alice Munro, or an already-established commercial writer like Dan Brown or Stephen King, you’ll probably publish again with few difficulties. But this is not the case for even talented emerging and mid-list writers. Mid-list writers (those who don’t sell millions) struggle for publishers, and that often has little to do with the quality of the work and more to do with ‘marketability’. Modern publishers, it seems, especially the big houses, are more about the bottom line than furthering the cause of great literature. They are, after all, business ventures.

All of this makes self-publishing tempting, but like most temptations (donuts, booze, and that good looking guy/girl who isn’t our partner) it may not be satisfying in the long run.

Now, a friend recently asked me what I thought of starting, as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford did, a sort of United Artists for writers — or like Virginia and Leonard Woolf did with The Hogarth Press. Now, there’s a thought…

However, if you’re considering self-publishing, what should you do? You have to be clear about what it is you really want. Is it the writing which pleases you, or the idea of being an author with big sales? If it’s the former, there is every reason to believe that the writers’ life will be fulfilling, enlightening and will add enormous meaning to your life, regardless of whether you have publishing fame or not.

In the end, only you can decide how much money you are willing to throw at a project, and what benchmarks will indicate it’s money well-spent. Your benchmarks are yours alone and what will satisfy one person might not satisfy another.

Wish I could be more optimistic, but writing’s always been a tough game, and the only people I know who are ever satisfied, who find solace, wonder and grace in the writer’s life, are the writers who concentrate on the writing. Of course we want readers, and we want to publish, although a friend of mine says that publishing was the price he paid for being able to live is life as a writer. Just make sure, if you do decide to self-publish, that you don’t get so caught up in the product promotion that you forget why you became a writer in the first place. And good luck — let me know if you have success.


  1. […] I initially submitted. (Which is one of the many reasons I think self-publishing is a bad idea, but that’s another blog.)  And I know they were improved by a good editor.  My editor worked with a large brush — […]

  2. Margaret Gunning on June 4, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    Funny about The Lace Reader. I reviewed it for the Edmonton Journal in 2006. Published (in paper) by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. My copy is on my office shelf. So I wonder what’s going on here. She must have a reason for re-publishing it, or does it go back prior to 2006 and William Morrow picked it up?

    • Lauren B. Davis on June 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm

      My understanding, Margaret, is that the author self-published it prior to being picked up by William Morrow. One of those exceptions that prove the rule. However, I also heard her on NPR saying she spent of $50,000 in publicity. Who HAS that kind of money? I know I don’t, and if I did I think I’d rather spend it sending someone through school or helping with someone’s medical bills (down here in the US). Did you like the book?

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