Young Writers: Don’t Self-Publish

Allow me to preface this article by saying that I know a lot of good people who self-publish. I fully recognize that it’s possible to become a successful author by self-publishing. This article is not meant deny anyone’s accomplishments or talent. It is simply the advice I wish someone had given me three years ago.

If writing is your passion, self-publishing is a gratifying option. When you tell people that you’re a writer they’ll say, “So, is your work available?”

And you can say, “Yes! It’s on Amazon. You can get it on your Kindle or you can order a physical copy. They’ll print one and send it to you. That’s how print on demand works.”

The stranger’s eyebrows will lift. “Wow, isn’t modern technology amazing?”

You’ll smile. “It sure is!”

It’s a nice exchange, one I’ve experienced many times during the last three years as a self-publishing author. If it’s this experience that you’re looking for, you should self-publish.

However, if you want to make writing your profession, not just your passion, traditional publishing is the best way to go.

For an unknown author, it isn’t even close.

This is the tough love missing from the conversation around self-publishing right now.

Or, maybe I just didn’t want to listen to the warning calls when I was making my decision. I don’t know. All I can do is share what I’ve learned and hope that someone will listen to the advice that I did not.

So, here’s why authors who want to make a living selling books should not self-publish.

Publishing Costs

When you self-publish, it’s possible to produce a book for free. You can upload anything to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or Createspace and you will have a book. However, if you want to produce a professional quality manuscript, you’re going to incur some costs.

At minimum you will need:

  • A professional proofreader, $1-3 per double spaced page (I paid $585 for my first book)
  • A professional ebook formatter, $50-75
  • A professional cover artist, $300-2,000

Estimated total: $900

This calculation assumes your work is novel length (around 70-90,000 words), that you have beta readers you trust to give honest feedback, and that you’re willing to take your manuscript through several drafts alone.

To be fair: you might have art professionals in your life that could help with the book cover. That would bring the total down to $500-600, assuming they are as good as the $300 cover.

At this point you have a “professional” book. I put “professional” in quotes because it probably isn’t really publishing house quality yet.

Hopefully it’s free of spelling, grammar, and consistency errors, but unless your beta readers are truly incredible (by which I mean they are literary professionals, not just incredible people), they simply aren’t viable substitutes for a professional editor.

I can’t find this quote, but I clearly remember reading an author interview a couple years ago in which the author said something like, “the difference between my work before my editor took a look at it and after he (she) was done is like the difference between chicken salad and chicken shit.”

This quote is burned into my memory because it made me feel incredibly guilty. I was a young self-publishing author and simply didn’t have $1,200-3,000 to spend on a professional editor.

So, let’s take a realistic look at what it would cost to produce a book that’s just as professional as you could through traditional publishing:

  • Editor, $1,500
  • Proofreader (they’re different), $500
  • Cover artist, $500
  • Formatter, $75

Total: $2,575

Traditional publishers cover all these costs. That’s a HUGE perk.

Too good to be true? There are other costs. Instead of money, working with a publisher takes patience, emotional fortitude, and a loss of creative control.

When submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher, you must accept that you will face rejection, probably a lot of rejection. Because the agent or publisher is going to invest significant time and/or money into your book, they are very selective. Their entire business model revolves around them betting on the right horse and it takes something really special to convince them that you’re a good bet.

The difficulty of getting through this door is one of the main reasons self-publishing is so popular, particularly among young writers. That’s what happened to me.

I couldn’t get the first book I wrote traditionally published and was unable to let it go. I heard other writers say things like, “the first million words you write will be garbage,” and my cheeks burned with an internal understanding that I didn’t want to admit.

My first book wasn’t very good. I think it had many redeeming qualities and, for a first effort, it’s surprisingly readable, but it wasn’t publishing house quality.

To pursue traditional publishing you must be prepared to hear that your work isn’t good enough, or isn’t right for a specific company, and still go on. This takes the proverbial “skin like rhino hide,” but it also takes an understanding of what professional quality writing actually is and when it’s time to rewrite, or scrap, a project.

That level of self-awareness is hard to develop. It’s hard at any stage in your writing career, but particularly with your first book when you’ve just invested however many months, or years, of your life and creative energy. It hurts to think that this energy was wasted.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t wasted. It was just an apprentice piece. If you’re serious about being a professional author, keep chipping away at those million words. The only way past is through.

Let’s pretend you’ve been accepted by a publishing house. The next thing working with the team will cost is creative control. The publishing house gets to choose your book’s title, your cover design, and they pick your editor, who will probably make some painful changes to your manuscript.

As artists, this loss of this creative control rankles deep.

Yet, as I continue to grow as an author and a person, I’m beginning to recognize that most great books are collaborative projects. I’m starting to grasp something that should have been obvious long ago: most people in publishing (editors, agents, publishers) love books.

I’m not a traditionally published author, so I can’t tell you any of the specific frustrations I’m certain accompany working on a team of disparate personalities. However, after attending the Antioch Writer’s Workshop and actually meeting a few publishing professionals, it’s clear that most of them are readers.

If you find the right team, I’m convinced the collaboration between author and publishing house can be harmonious.

Bottom line: weigh $2,500 against the time it takes to get pulled out of the slush pile at an agency or publishing house (generally on the scale of 1-5 years).

Marketing

Whether you self-publish or are picked up by a publisher, you will have to promote your work.

As an aspiring author, I thought that getting traditionally published meant they handled all the icky business stuff. I would write and they would sell, that was deal circling my fevered imagination.

This is not the case. However, in the self-publishing community, there seems to be a lot of hate directed at publishing houses for doing a bad job promoting books, which really confuses me.

The way I see it, any help or money you receive from the publishing house for marketing your book is more help than you’d get if you self-publish. It’s all net positive.

“But they’re taking so much of your money,” you might be thinking. “They need to bring something to the table.”

Ignoring book production costs for a moment, let’s talk about that.

Money

This is what successful self-publishing authors like to crow about. The royalty rates for self-published books are undeniably better. Most self-published KDP books are earning 70% royalties and while physical books published through Createspace, or IngramSpark, don’t earn quite so much, they still pay better than the 8-10% that you’d get from traditional publishing.

Yet, I’d still argue that any debut author will still make more money with a publisher.

Why?

Because they’ll give you an advance against royalties. The standard advance for a new author is between $5,000 and $7,500. To be conservative, let’s work with $5,000.

To earn $5,000 by self-publishing a book you’d need to sell around 2,000 copies. It might be more or less depending on the price of your book and how you made the sales, but I think 2,000 is a fair estimate.

Few debut self-publishing authors sell 2,000 copies.

There are exceptions. There are stories of instant sensations that were passed over by publishing companies only to become bestsellers on more than just Amazon. But that’s not what happens to most people.

The only self-publishing authors I know of who make the kind of money traditionally published authors do either a) were traditionally published for a while and have an established following, b) have a side business in the self-publishing industry (like starting their own PR firm), or c) have the time/money to travel and promote their work around the country.

You can’t fit into category “a” until you have a following. Option “b” will work, but it will divide your energy, and most people simply don’t have the resources for option “c.”

Also, people in categories “b” and “c” often get joyfully scooped up by a traditional publisher, so I’m not really sure they count as examples of “successful self-publishing” unless you want to argue that the goal self-publishing is to get traditionally published.

It happens. Publishers do sometimes pick up a book that was self-published, pretty it up a little, and then re-release it. However, it doesn’t happen often. To impress a publisher, you need to dazzle them with your sales. You must be able to say, “look, I sold 10,000 copies all by myself, if we work together we could sell 100,000!”

The road to financial security as an author is far more direct if you just work hard, endure your rejections, and get traditionally published.

Respect

As a whole, self-published books will never be as good as traditionally published books.

There are exceptions. Great books are sometimes self-published, but because the hated “guardians at the gate” are gone, there’s an ocean of substandard fare as well.

Readers know it. Other authors know it. You know it.

Even successful self-publishing authors struggle with the perception that they’re only self-publishing because they couldn’t get picked up by a traditional publisher. This goes double for young authors.

You know why?

Because it’s probably true.

Writing is a craft. It takes time, practice, and possibly those million words to get good enough that people want to part with their hard earned cash for things you’ve created. Be patient.

As hard as it is, give yourself the time to write something amazing and get it noticed.

Also, I urge you to attend writing workshops and to take writing classes. They makes a big difference.

What Now?

“So,” you might be thinking. “You’ve convinced me. But aren’t you a self-publishing author? What are you going to do now?”

I’m going to take my books off the market.

All of them.

It physically hurts typing those words. Not only because taking my books down feels like failure, but because of the conversation at the beginning on this essay. For the last three years when someone asked, “What do you do?”

I could say, “I teach yoga and self-publish books.”

Their eyes would widen and a slight smile touched their lips. “Wow. That sounds like a charmed life.”

I always smiled back. “It is.”

And it was, for the most part. I loved working on my books and writing for this blog. I even enjoyed building a social media platform. I really did not enjoy fighting with Createspace, KDP, and trying to learn IngramSpark, but I didn’t have to deal with those very often.

What I hated, what sucked the joy out of the journey, was feeling like a failure and an imposter.

I’ve self-published two books and neither has sold more than 200 copies. I do not introduce myself as an author. I am a yoga teacher and I have self-published books, but I’m not a professional author. I’m not.

People (aka my mother) have tried to convince me that I’ve accomplished something these past three years. I’ve written four books and self-published two of them. I’m making “measurable progress” they say. But it doesn’t feel true. It feels like I’m spinning my wheels.

I’m not alone. The “imposter syndrome” is common among authors. Yet, I’d argue that for a young, self-publishing author who’s experienced very limited success, it’s much worse.

To join the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, you must either get professionally published, or make $3,000 in a year from one of your books. That’s almost certainly not going to happen for me through self-publishing.

Beyond conventional literary acceptance, however, I want to make money selling my books. I don’t want to turn 30 (or whatever age responsibility is supposed to strike) and have to get a “real job.” Teaching yoga supports me right now, barely, but there’s a limit to how much it can grow. If I can actually make money with my writing, suddenly my lifestyle becomes a lot more sustainable.

So, as always, I’m striving, dreaming, going for broke…or, hopefully less broke. That’s the goal.

Taking my books off the market isn’t a sign that I’m giving up on my dream of becoming an author. It’s a reaffirmation of that dream. This is what I want to do with my life. Getting there is just going to require some course adjustments.

 

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Comments

  1. What a courageous post. I stumbled across this by accident, but I’m in a similar boat. I’ve self-published several novellas as an experiment, none of which sold well, but for my full-length work I’m chugging through my million words and rejections.

    After receiving a string of rejections on my first manuscript and then writing three more (which haven’t been seriously queried yet because of medical reasons), I’m really glad I didn’t self-pub my first full novel. It’s just not good enough. Frankly, my earliest novellas are nothing special, either, but I haven’t quite reached the point of choosing to unpublish them. I salute you for taking the road increasingly less traveled and being brave enough to blog about your reasons for it.

    • The Ink Slinger says:

      A.S.

      Thank you for your kind words! In the last several months I have reconsidered self-publishing again and must admit to being tempted. I still think that if you want to be a professional writer, it’s probably easier going the traditional route, especially for an unknown author. However, it was nice having my art out in the world and available. In your hesitence to unpublish your own books, I see some of that same feeling.

      Right now I’m considering giving my books away as ebooks on my website and accepting donations if people feel like giving them. What do you think of that idea?

      Yours in common pursuit,

      Zac

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