Should You Self-Publish After a Near-Miss?

Writers often ask if it’s wise or helpful to self-publish their work if they have “near-misses” with agents or publishers.

There’s no one answer that works for everyone. But I’ll try to help you come to the right conclusion.

YES: Go ahead and try self-publishing a book

  • You know how to reach your readers (online or offline). Expressed another way: You have a platform that makes you visible to your intended audience.
  • You already have credibility with readers in your genre/category.
  • You have a marketing and promotion plan, with achievable goals. (Read more from JA Konrath on achievable goals.)
  • You’re comfortable being online and have already experimented with online marketing and promotion; you have an online identity and have participated in online communities.
  • You have a current website and can update it yourself.
  • You have an entrepreneurial spirit.
  • You’re in it for the long haul.

NO: Do not self-publish

  • You don’t know how to find or reach your readers (online or offline).
  • You need physical bookstore distribution to be satisfied that you’re successful (or that you’re reaching your readers).
  • You don’t yet have your own website.
  • You don’t have a marketing and promotion strategy, but hope that someone will notice you.
  • You don’t like spending time online and/or dislike social media.
  • It’s your first manuscript and you don’t want to see all that work go to waste. If that’s the case, wait until you’ve written book #2 or #3 or #4 before you decide to release that first one. It’ll still be there, trust me.
  • You’re looking for quick success and an agent.

No. 1 myth to be aware of
: Self-publishing does NOT kill your chances at a traditional deal later. BUT: Do not spend any significant money on self-publishing—whether print or digital—until you’re certain of two things:

  1. You’re sure of your reach to your audience and your ability to market to them.
  2. You’re confident of the editorial quality of your work.

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27 thoughts on “Should You Self-Publish After a Near-Miss?

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  4. Rebecca Burke

    Thank you for that advice, Jane. There are so many considerations, and so many of them take time away from writing fiction.

    I appreciate the solid information you get out here.

  5. Rebecca Burke

    Good post, though I’m afraid I would not have self-published if I took to heart your pros and cons checklist! I still don’t have a website and am even dragging my feet about a blog. Why? I fear my writing juices will go into the blog and not into my fiction. But, from all I’ve read a blog does seem like the minimum thing a self-pubbed writer has to do to keep an online presence.

    My YA novel (When I Am Singing to You) was represented by a big agency but its timing was poor (the Great Recession of 2008) and it doesn’t really have a commercial bone in its body. But I still strongly believe in it…so I self-published. Why wouldn’t I? I could spend another three years looking for a small publisher (and one wonders about the fate of small publishers, given the e-boom…what will happen to them?).

    Like you and others have noted, ebooks are more likely to catch fire if they fit some genre with large, identifiable markets (sci fi, fantasy, thrillers, and self-help, etc.). It helps if their readerships are more likely to have ereaders, I’m sure. I look around at my women friends and see only a couple who have Kindles or Nooks. That’s even more true for YA readers, probably, though I am pretty sure that that will change quickly.

    Fortunately, my book(s) will still be online…for all time! Pity the fate of the poor traditionally published writer who gets into print, doesn’t sell, and is remaindered within a year. It happens. And try finding an agent after your first book doesn’t sell…

  6. Erika Robuck

    This is a great post and one I couldn’t agree with more.

    I would almost recommend that most writers try to self-publish first. I did, and I learned so much about the process. I was able to test a market for my book and become savvy with online and in person marketing.

    In my query letter for my second book, I mentioned book club testimonials, awards, and good, old-fashioned sales numbers and reviews for my self-published book. I had 95% of agents I queried request a full or partial read of my second book, had a top notch agent within one month of querying her, and a two book deal with NAL/Penguin one month after that. I believe that my previous experience self-publishing, in addition to a fairly strong online presence, had a lot to do with that.

    My agent is very forward thinking and understands that a variety of self-published and traditionally published material is a good thing. She would like my contract to allow for me to publish any short or novella length fiction (<50,000 words) on my own, while NAL/Penguin gets the rights to book length fiction. I probably won’t have a lot of time for writing short fiction, but it’s nice to have the option, nonetheless.

    Self and Traditional publishing don’t have to be an either/or anymore, and might each work best for an author at different stages of her career. Many thanks to you, Jane, for demonstrating that with your posts.

  7. Kiersten Fay

    I was just speaking with a friend of mine about this. She has already self-published a book and an agent told her to take it down if she wants her series to be traditionally published. I’m not sure I agree with that.

    With the way things are changing these days, it’s a bit of a mess for agents and publishing houses to catch up with the times. The thing is, we want to write, but we still have to make money. So then our writing needs to make us money so we can write.

    Not everyone can wait around for an agent to get a spark under their asses for your book, and then they still have to query a publishing house and light a fire under them.

  8. Raima Larter

    Great post and great advice. Thank you!! My first book is with an agent right now, but I’m not at all sure she’s going to be able to place it with a publisher, so I started experimenting with e-publishing short pieces (short fiction and essays) to see how it worked. In just a month’s time, I already have six of these out for both Kindle and Nook and they’re selling, slowly but surely…and I suspect that’s because I have a lot of what you advise for a full book (an online identity, a website, a social media presence, and the willingness to spend time and energy promoting my work). I’ll give my agent a little more time to try and sell my book, but I’m seriously thinking about going this route with it as well…now that I see how easy it is!

    BTW, I totally agree with you about the importance of editing, but I have also seen way too many print books in recent that were poorly edited, so the problem is not at all restricted to e-books.

  9. Steven M Moore

    You’re in luck…you have a whole world to choose from. I’m not going to say anything negative about any pBook (POD trade paperback) or eBook publisher, but for both I have recently had good luck with Infinity Publishing (no, they don’t pay me a commission). For $499 they do the pBook and for an additional $149 they do the eBook in all formats (Nook, Kindle, etc). I’m anxious to try Smashwords for eBooks–like Infinity, they take their cut, but the initial formatting is free (unlike Infinity, there is no cover service, as far as I know). It’s a changing landscape–beware of dragons (i.e. publishers who will take advantage of you). Maybe we need some sort of ranking service?
    I would avoid all the whiz-bang marketing services that almost any digital publisher offers. The best marketing is buzz–word of mouth, if you will. Spam turns people off and the marketing services tend to be just that. To establish your brand, get a website, start blogging, and start participating in other blogs. Join social media as a participant, not just to sell something.
    All of the last paragraph applies to small presses too, or even one of the Big 6 if you’re not an established author like me. That said, I’d still go for the book contract via an agent first. The contract is a feel-good element and the agent means you have at least one person who feels good enough about your work to shop it around to other, often irascible, people. It used to be that if you stopped querying agents, you’d have to just shelve your MS for later. With self-publishing, that’s no longer true. If you feel your product is good, today you can put it out there yourself and be in complete control.
    Just be sure that your MS is the best it can be–writing, editing and formatting. It should be that way if you’re querying an agent anyway.
    By the way, as a reviewer, I make no distinction between Big 6, small press, or self-publishing. I’m interested in the story–plot, characterization, setting–in short, how well the author writes. Hopefully readers will treat my work the same way.
    Take care.

  10. Najela

    I wanted to know the average cost to self publish a book with the cover art, formatting, and everything. I’m debating about self publishing, but I’m still on the fence. I read about people getting book deals and then I read about everything about the control people have with their self publishing. I also have another question, do you know of some blogs or resources for people who are still on the fence about it? I love reading your blog and I read Konrath’s blog often as well.

  11. David Mark Brown

    THanks again for the balanced post. I did just this after a close call last year. But I ditched the manuscript I had been pushing and wrote another instead. Indeed now I am discovering good editorial work the toughest thing to come by.

  12. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane,

    The best thing for me about this post was the reference to Joe Konrath’s post (this is by no means a critique of your info)–his opinions seem right in tune with mine.
    While I agree it’s traditional to visit "the gatekeepers" (i.e. agents and legacy publishers), I feel that they are more and more out of touch with what’s going on in the publishing industry. In particular, the surge of eBook sells hints that their opinions don’t match the reading public’s, possibly due to demographic reasons. Sure it’s nice to have that juicy contract, but remember, when you get past those gatekeepers who don’t really represent readers, you’ll still have to market your book, in general.
    To those people who think POD and eBooks are badly edited, Joe says something about this too–only self-publish your very best! I’m a reviewer for Book Pleasures–I’ve seen the full spectrum (one self-published writer was so embarrassed he did a rewrite–maybe I was stupid to help him out for free). If you can’t edit on your own, get the help of a pro. There’s no excuse for typos and misspellings…and beware of the things that will get past your spelling and grammar checker! As for books on how to write, I have never read a fiction writer that doesn’t break some of the rules! By the way, I’ve also reviewed some small press books and read big 6 books where the editing was not at all satisfactory (I’ll not mention either writer’s or publisher’s names).
    My main problem with the legacy route is that you might have a four- to six-month run in the bookstores, at best, then your books are returned to the publisher, and your book goes out of print. I’ll amplify what Joe says: the digital revolution means pBooks and eBooks are forever. It’s a matter of luck "to be discovered" but your legacy is that years down the road people will still discover you and start reading your work (Philip K. Dick is an example, for sci-fi enthusiasts). No agent can predict that.
    Take care.

  13. Janet Boyer

    Great post, Jane! I’m a trationally published author with two more books under contract (2012 and 2013). In the meantime, though, I’m also self-publishing eBooks through (Kindle Direct Publishing)and it’s working out GREAT. One eBook, which I wrote years ago (but recently had the "aha" to put it on Kindle after I bought one!), is selling about 2 a day…which isn’t bad for a niche topic!

    I couldn’t agree more on your points. I’m also an Amazon Top Reviewer (and print published reviewer) and I have a no-self-pub book policy precisely BECAUSE they aren’t edited well. (Or, in the case of fiction, a jumbled mess that screams "I’ve never read a book on writing craft!").

    Keep up the great work! (And D’oh! about the "potatoe" crack on Twitter. My bad! LOL)

  14. Claude Nougat

    Great post and very useful advice, I just tweeted it! You’ve nicely categorized the pros and cons. Self-publishing is definitely not for the faint-of-heart. And you’re so right, one needs a solid on line presence (and that means liking social media!)

    But it’s a fact that traditional publishers, presumably because they are buffeted by the double whammy of the recession and the digital revolution, are no longer providing the kind of services a newbie needs, mainly editing/polishing up the ms, including giving it a good cover, and marketing/distribution. They actually expect an author to have a blog or website BEFORE publishing. That really gives it away, doesn’t it?

    So what do you get from a traditional publisher? You get to ride on his brand name and that kind of piggybacking is very useful for a newbie who’s got no brand name. You take advantage of his "literary taste gatekeeping role" and have ready access to the better reviewers. Because reviews are SO important and so hard to get for indies!

    But what else? What else do legacy publishers give a newbie?

  15. Anne R. Allen

    You’ve put it so perfectly.

    I’m seeing too many writers who hear about Hocking and Konrath and think they can put something up on Amazon, get a few reviews and sit back while the money rolls in. Lots are in the "It’s your first manuscript and you don’t want to see all that work go to waste" category. Thanks for this!


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