Five Important Things to Know Before You Self-Publish

So, you’ve written a book. You think it’s a winner, and you’ve decided to self-publish. You’ve read my last post about Fairy Tale Syndrome, and (after crying a little bit) you’ve renounced your misconceptions and are ready to tackle the hard work ahead. Now you’re left asking: if my book isn’t going to magically appear atop the bestsellers list on its own, how the heck do I get it there? Well, that’s a good question. This post will focus on whether or not self-publishing is your best answer.

With the rise of new technologies and innovative platforms, self-publishing is more popular than ever. In this NPR interview, Smashwords founder Mark Coker makes a strong case for self-publishers. Hugh Howey’s comprehensive report analyzing sales figures and trends also shows that authors find more control and better payoffs publishing themselves.

But not everyone agrees. As Nick Morgan not so delicately puts it, self-publishing can be “an exercise in futility and obscurity” if approached the wrong way. Publishing CEO Steven Zacharius agrees that aspiring authors “need a dose of reality” before counting on self-publishing to pay the bills. Skeptics are supported by piles of evidence (i.e. boxes of unsold books in garages around the world) showing that self-publishing doesn’t work for everyone.

Only you can truly know whether self-publishing is a good choice for you and your book. Here are five things to know before you make that decision.

1. Traditional publishing houses exist for a reason.

Publishers bring a lot to the table. They’re connected to all the major book retailers, they offer in-house editors and cover artists, and most importantly: they’ve done this before. Hundreds of thousands of times. So before you swear off publishers, you must recognize that you are taking on all of the responsibilities they would normally handle.

2. There is competition… lots of it.

According to Simon Carolan and Christine Evain’s article “Self-Publishing: Opportunities and Threats in a New Age of Mass Culture,” eighty percent of people want to write a book. And thanks to low-cost and low-risk self-publishing technologies, they can do it. In fact, a new book is published every thirty seconds!

Before you commit to self-publishing, realize that your book will be a tiny drop of water in the tsunami of material available to readers today. If you’re turning to self-publishing because traditional publishers rejected your manuscript, put your material under a microscope. If your book didn’t stand out to a publisher, why will it stand out to the public? There are lots of good answers to that question; make sure you have one.

3. Writing is solitary. Marketing is not.

Writing a book can be a very private and independent experience. It involves countless hours alone with a notebook or laptop, and can require little to no teamwork or collaboration. Author C.G. Blake asserts that introverted qualities and habits like listening, watching, reflection, and solitude are beneficial to the writing process. Acclaimed author John Green says, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story, but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

For a traditional author who sends their book to a publisher for marketing, introversion is a fine mode. But a self-publisher’s skill set must be broader. To create and employ an effective marketing strategy, the self-published author needs to be outgoing, dynamic, and unafraid of connecting with strangers.

4. People judge books by their covers.

If your self-published book is shelved next to ten traditionally published smash hits, it needs to fit in seamlessly. If the cover is subpar, your book will go unread. Publishers know the formula to make a cover look professional and appealing, so self-publishers must pay careful attention to following the same formula. Literary agent Andrea Hurst reminds us that she (and everyone else) “can often spot a book that’s self-published at a glance, and not for any favorable reasons.” Unfortunately, talented writers often make killer books with career-killing covers. Don’t be one of those authors.

5. Talent never guarantees sales.

In a perfect world, every creative book that was skillfully and lovingly written would be stocked in every bookstore in every city in the world. But as much as we want quality to equal distribution, it simply doesn’t (see point #2 about competition). Millions of talented writers will never see their books in bookstores, and your job is to not be in that category. Talent might not set you apart, but business savvy and determination will. Author Joseph Finder insists, “The most successful writers aren’t the most talented. They’re the most stubborn.” And I have to agree with him.

Fully consider the above points, and have an honest conversation with yourself. If you still feel like self-publishing is the right avenue, I tip my hat to you. My next post will discuss creating a promotional strategy, and building the skills and game plan you’ll need to succeed on your own.