To self-publish or not to self-publish . . .

Every day it gets easier (and less expensive) to self-publish your writing. And under certain circumstances, it can be a great idea.

Your title here?

Self-publishing is good for people who have a specific topic they teach. They want their students to be able to find their research/examples/philosophy in a concise package. Good idea.

It’s good if you have a niche of special interest you can share with other enthusiasts. My brother, for instance, has researched the possibility of discovering Ropen (similar to pterodactyls) in Pau Pau New Guinea and has self-published his travel adventures – fans of his topic find him on the web every day.

It’s good for people who want to write fiction especially for someone — a picture book tailored to the author’s child or grandchild, for instance.

It’s good for a personal memoir produced for one’s own pleasure or to send to family members and close friends.

But self-publishing is usually not so good for novelists. One of the editors who spoke at a recent Willamette Writers conference told her workshop audience that if you’ve self-published, do NOT tell the agent you are trying to sign with unless you have sold at least 5,000 to 10,000 copies of your book.

Without meaning to, self-publishing a novel while you’re waiting to break into the industry might send one or more of these unintended messages to the agent or editor you are approaching:

I’m not patient enough to wait for a real book deal.

I’m not smart enough to listen to people’s advice about improving my work before I send it out.

I’m not organized enough to market my work to agents and editors successfully.

I don’t really want to put in the work it takes to hone my skills.

I think my writing is great, but actually my novel isn’t good enough.

Once in a while a self-published book can lead to a traditional book deal. For example, in fiction: Eragon by Christopher Paolini (2007), Spartacus by Howard Fast (1952); Non-Fiction: The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (1931), What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles (1970) were self-published and later picked up by big houses and became bestsellers.

But self-publishing does not usually lead to critical and financial success. For instance, here is a list of extremely important things you probably won’t get with a self-published novel:

Distribution – it’s almost impossible to sell your book in big numbers without getting it into book store chains and distributors’ warehouses;

Reviews — most periodicals don’t review self-published books;

Blurbs – it’s unlikely you’ll get famous authors to endorse your work if you don’t have a publishing house behind you;

Placement on prestigious lists  — recommendations that are sent out to public libraries, school libraries, and indy book stores will probably be out of your reach.

If you want to self publish in order simply to hold your novel in your hands (with your name on the front, an ISBN number on the back, and a nice cover),  to see it listed on Amazon,  to be able to give it as Christmas gifts to your relatives and friends . . . than more power to you. Self-publish away! But if you want to take a step closer to an agent and a nice book deal (and advance) from the publishing house of your dreams, look at the issues before you leap.

If your dream is to make a living as a full-time novelist, to land an agent like William Morris or Ann Rittenberg, to get a fat advance from Random House or Houghton Mifflin and glowing reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times, keep writing. Keep rewriting. Give your work to readers you trust and listen to their notes thoughtfully. Research agents. Take the time to write a well-crafted query letter. Send out those letters and when you get rejections, don’t fret. Keep writing, rewriting, resending. Never give up. Every day you keep trying you’re one day closer to breaking in. (And remember, if you’ve already self-published, it’s okay. Do everything I listed in this paragraph, but don’t mention that you are self-published in your query letter. Believe in your story. All will be well!)




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