Saturday, January 05, 2008

Self-Publishing Fiction

I've probably said here before that I think self-publishing fiction is a Very Bad Idea. I've certainly said it in forums and writers' groups and publishing workshops and anywhere else I happen to have been that the issue might have arisen.

It's not that I have anything against self-publishing. If fact, I once had great success with a self-publishing venture. But most statistics I've seen suggest that 95+% of self-published books lose money. That doesn't surprise me. They're harder to distribute, you lose a bigger chunk of the revenue when you try to distribute them, you don't have the marketing and network support of a publisher...there are many, many reasons that it's harder to make money with a self-published book.

Another reason is simply that most writers don't know the first thing about marketing their work. Self-publishing a book, setting up a website, listing it at Amazon and expecting people to discover it and buy it in numbers that will make it generate a profit is just an unlikely sequence of events without a lot more push.

That's one of the reasons that self-publishing seems to be an especially bad idea for fiction. If you self-publish a book about money management, you can set up a website and blog with financial tips and links and calculators and budgeting software, and the visitors to your site will learn to trust you on the subject and will be exactly the kind of people who might want to purchase your book. You can go out and do personal finance seminars in bookstores and community centers and park districts and make your book available. You might be able to get interviewed on local television stations or covered in the local newspaper, and all of these things will open up new markets full of people who might buy your book.

Fiction doesn't lend itself quite so well to that kind of thing. Even if you can generate some press you don't have the kind of "hook" you do when you're offering advice in conjunction with your book and the book promises to offer more.

And then there's pricing. The typical paperback novel costs about $8--at some stores they're routinely discounted by 10-20%. But a self-published novel will probably cost you about $7.50 per book to produce. If you sell it through Amazon, they'll keep 55% of the purchase price, which means that you have to price it at $13.64 just to break even...and I'm assuming that you'd like SOME profit.

There have been a couple of notable cases of self-published novels selling so well that they resulted in contracts with major publishing houses, but those authors had both great products and a full-time commitment to selling their books.

Now, having set forth every reason that I firmly believe self-publishing fiction doesn't work, let me get to the point: I'm thinking about self-publishing the romance novel I wrote last year. Thus, I'm very interested in hearing the thoughts of anyone with mainstream and/or self-publishing experience. I'm also interested in hearing from readers about whether or not you purchase self-published novels in places like Amazon, LuLu and others. If not, why not? Does the pricing issue play a bigger role, or simply the fact that a self-published book is more of an unknown quantity?

Here's why I'm thinking about doing something I'm pretty sure doesn't ever work:

  • I have three other novels in progress that I feel more strongly about, and I'd like to focus on those in terms of writing and seeking an agent or publisher;
  • I don't have a lot invested in this book--I wrote it entirely during my commute over a period of one month--and I won't be heartbroken if it goes nowhere;
  • I DO have a background in successful internet marketing, and I'm interested to see how much difference that makes and whether or not I can make it work;
  • I'm asked a lot of questions about self-publishing options, and the one book I self-published was very niche and not representative: I think it might be worthwhile to experiment with the process;
  • Given my tendency to move on to another project once something is written and lose interest in it, the chances that I'm going to persist in looking for an agent / publisher are pretty slim.
So what do you think? Should I try it? Any thoughts on presses or POD publishers or anything that you'd like to share? Would you be interested in a blog or maybe even a short book chronicling the process and what did and didn't work? Anything else you'd like to say?


DanPoynter said...

Be wary of “Self-Publishing Companies.”

Writers are confused and it’s not their fault. In searching for the best way to break into print, they come across self-described “self-publishing companies”. I get emails asking if I can self-publish for writers. That is impossible!

The problem is that many vanity publishers are calling themselves “self-publishing companies.”

We have been building name recognition for self-publishing for more than 35 years; there are more than 85,000 of us in the U.S. Self-publishers, write, publish and promote their own books.

According to Wikipedia, Self-Publishing is the publishing of books and other media by the authors of those works, rather than by established, third-party publishers.The only “self-publishing company” is you—by definition. If you contract with a publisher, your book is not SELF-published.

Now that people know what self-publishing is, we find we have to re-educate the public to the fact that we are the real self-publishers and the other DotCom digital publishers are really just vanity publishers masquerading as us. They are trading on the good reputation we have built.

For information on the choices for breaking into print, get the f-r-e-e Information Kit #2 on Publishing at

Let’s respect historical and common definitions. These publishers are “vanity” or “subsidy” presses. They should stop confusing people new to the book trade.
--Dan Poynter,

RockStories said...

Dan, I think you're splitting hairs. You are, I'm quite sure, aware that there is a much bigger range than what you've described here: who is listed as the publisher and controls the ISBN is a much more critical difference than what kind of company you use to get the book produced and whether or not you avail yourself of the company's distribution services.

I approved your comment anyway because I think your resources may be of some value to readers, but I think that your understandable frustration about the blurring of the terminology lines as it's expressed here muddies the waters further rather than clearing them.

Mark Stoneman said...

I haven't bought anything self-published simply because I've never run into anything self-published that I was interested in. Doesn't that bring us back to the marketing and distribution thing?

If I'm looking for something specific, I'll go online, but for browsing I use a more old-fashioned method, bookstores. Would you have access to them?

One thing I don't see mentioned in your post: the ebook phenomenon.