The No. 1 Most Important Factor for Writers Considering the Self-Pub Option

I am frequently asked by writers what self-publishing company or service I recommend.

That’s an immensely difficult question to answer succinctly because it depends on so many variables. However, the most important factor, above all, is:

What is your primary goal for self-publishing?

That affects EVERYTHING else. It affects what advice I give you, it affects what service you choose, it affects how much money you spend, it affects the format, it affects how satisfied you are at the end of the process.

While I can’t possibly cover every goal a writer might have in self-publishing (in one blog post), I’ll cover the top three.

GOAL: I want the satisfaction of seeing my work in traditional book form.

This goal assumes that, even if you don’t sell any copies of your book, or see it distributed in chain outlets, you will be satisfied with just having your work in print.

If this is truly your goal, then the key question becomes:

How much help or service do you need or want in making this happen?
(Do you prefer to hire one firm to take care of every aspect of this project—a very hands-off approach?)

AuthorSolutions is the biggest full-service publishing provider today. Of course, their full service has a significant price tag on it.

If you’re comfortable handling some aspects of the process yourself, or if you can privately hire a professional to manage this process for you, then consider services that cost less and serve more as printers rather than service providers. For example:

  • Lightning Source – cost-effective print-on-demand services
  • BookMasters – good for traditional print runs (but other services offered too)

Some people in the industry don’t like service providers such as AuthorSolutions because they are perceived as very expensive while not giving authors absolute full control and profits.

But if your goal isn’t to sell books or turn a profit, then this shouldn’t make a big difference to you. It’s the service you want, not the money.

For those who want strict control over the process, you’re much better off hiring a private individual to help you project manage, or learning enough about how books are made to contract out services as needed.

One-question test to see if you’re lying to yourself about your goal:
Imagine your finished book in your hands. Imagine giving it to friends and family and colleagues. You never sell more than a handful of copies, and you never see it on store shelves. No agent or editor ever hears about it. Do you feel satisfied and happy?

GOAL: I want a book to convey my expertise and credibility in a specific field or profession, and to build my platform.

Self-publishing has always been an excellent option for professional career and platform building—especially those who speak often, have a ready audience, and are experts in their field.

Often such authors (who are businesspeople, not writers) know more about the market and audience than a mainstream publisher, and the topic is too specialized to ever be seriously considered for trade publication.

In this case, the next important question becomes:
How much profit do I want out of this?

If you want to maximize your profit from book sales, you should avoid full-service providers, since they will collect a royalty on every book you sell. Instead, you should look at a true DIY option (as described previously), where you contract out all services yourself, or privately hire a professional to project manage the process for you—so that you control all property, rights and profits after the book is finished.

One-question test to see if you’re lying to yourself:

Imagine your book being available in your place of business, or through your site. Imagine it available at speaking engagements, and referenced by colleagues as a good resource. It is not visible outside of your own professional circle, and it is not marketed to a general audience or seen in stores. Do you feel satisfied and happy?

GOAL: I’m going to prove all those gatekeepers wrong and publish a book that catches the attention of the world—then I’ll get a traditional deal!

This is probably the secret desire that a lot of self-published authors won’t admit to having.

In this scenario, there is “right” way to go about conquering the world. But before you go down this path, you need to be brutally honest with yourself:

  • Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
  • Do you have marketing experience and savvy?
  • Are you active online or in your community of readers?
  • Are you ready to be business-minded about every aspect of your writing career?
  • Are you ready to spend money on people who can help you (e.g., freelance publishing professionals who know how to make success happen)?

Few people are able to break out into the mainstream as self-published authors (currently). It usually takes someone who already has business experience and understands how to develop a business model.

If you envision yourself as an indie author, I highly recommend taking a look at this post that asks, “Do You Have a Marketing Plan or Do You Have a Business Plan”?

You can also read an article just posted today that discusses successful authors of the future as entrepreneurs.

Again, unless you have a readership to market to, you aren’t going to see sufficient sales to either earn a living or attract attention from traditional circles (or traditional media). You really have to know what you’re doing.

(That said, most authors who publish with a traditional house aren’t going to earn a living from the book sales, or get media attention, etc. But there’s a better chance of recognition when your book is widely available and visible in stores, and validated by a traditional house.)

For any author who wants to go indie, consider debuting with digital editions first (no expense). It makes little sense to invest in a print product before you demonstrate market demand for it. There are some exceptions of course (like here), but make sure you really KNOW you are the exception before dropping a load of money.

Tomorrow I’ll be a guest on the Digital Book World Roundtable, where we’ll discuss self-publishing. It’s free for everyone to listen live!

Other resources:

My past blog posts on self-publishing:

Photo
credit: Martin Heigan

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8 thoughts on “The No. 1 Most Important Factor for Writers Considering the Self-Pub Option

  1. Dee Stewart

    Great post, Jane. I shared it with my clients and publishing friends today.

    There are many reasons why those choose to become independent publishers. The reason determines the method to achieve it. Having a business and marketing plan, as you said earlier is so important for all reasons. With the business plan having a plan for distribution is imperative. Many can’t fathom the expenses involved in distribution and building a relationship with a great, reputable and dependable distributor.

    I am traditionally published(fiction), but want to independently publish a nonfic book about the book business in the near future.

  2. Jane Friedman

    @Joel & others: Regarding a fourth category (people who simply don’t prefer to work with a traditional publisher, and/or want to start a small press) – as Camille points out, my advice for #3 applies to these people as well.

    Sometimes it does shock me that people want go down the publishing path for financial success, since it’s so difficult to achieve, even for a traditional house. But if you have a solid business plan and you’re filling a need in the market, then it’s like making money from any other business idea.

    Most people I meet aren’t that invested or passionate about publishing per se, just seeing their own work in print.

    If the "fourth category" is growing, it is because the tools/tech are now available to give people the power and inexpensive capability to publish where they didn’t have it before. While it may be easier to produce your own work and distribute it digitally, it is not any easier to market, sell, and financially benefit from it. And that’s where most people get tripped up.

  3. Sue Collier

    Great post, Jane! I have to agree with Joel, though, in that I am finding more and more frequently there are authors who are seeing the financial and creative advantages to self-publishing. The traditional publishing model doesn’t appeal to them.

    Although many who are in traditional might protest, I am finding that it is losing its lustre as the "ultimate" achievement for many authors. Luckily, these authors have educated themselves on what all is involved in self-publishing (and I am referring to true indie publishing here, not subsidy publishing via some of those "self-publishing" services companies) and they are putting out good works.

    May I also mention that although you’ve cited the 4th edition of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing as a good resource, the 5th edition of that book (by myself and Marilyn Ross; published once again by Writer’s Digest) is due off press in about a week!

  4. Joel Friedlander

    Jane,

    Very good advice, clearly given. I love your device "One question test to see if you’re lying to yourself."

    This whole business of clarifying your aims comes up for me constantly in dealing with new self-publishers. As you say so well, it’s a decision that affects everything downstream.

    I’ve done books for self-publishers in all three of these categories recently, and what strikes me is that people do seem to be getting better educated and more aware of their publishing choices. I think that’s a good sign. And the satisfaction of an author getting exactly the book that they envisioned never loses its excitement for me.

    What about the author who seems to fall in a fourth category: someone who wants to self-publish to be a commercial and financial success, but who does not have the aim of signing a contract with a traditional publisher? This is a group that seems to be growing. Do you think it’s a separate category?

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post. I’ll look foward to the panel tomorrow.

  5. Mike Southern

    Just a note about digital editions. Even if you want to go the hardcopy route, take the time to do digital versions as well.

    I have a golf book, called "Ruthless Putting," that I self-publish through Lightning Source. (I did all the artwork myself because I enjoy it. If you have a little decent art and design ability, it’s both very satisfying and very cheap!) I also decided to do a PDF version (which I sell myself), but as an afterthought I decided to do a Kindle version as well.

    The Kindle version is currently outselling both the paperbacks and the PDFs, although the PDFs are gaining ground. I think having the paperback is very important, but you shouldn’t underestimate PDFs and especially formats for electronic book readers. I’m now looking into creating an ePub edition (for the new Nook reader), although that’s a tougher format to learn.

  6. Magdalen

    I can think of only one reason I might opt for self-publishing. I sincerely hope it doesn’t come true.

    If I found that my voice, my stories, my characters just weren’t fitting the pre-fab shapes already carved out by traditional publishing — but all my beta readers LOVED them and clamored for more — then I might think about it.

    But there are so many easier ways of getting one’s foot in the door, such as winning contests, that I think I would continue to try the traditional approach for a long, long time before I gave up. Self-publishing for Goal #3 above seems like a LOT of hard work.

  7. Camille

    Um, you missed one, and I think it’s the most important one.

    GOAL: I want to be a publisher as well as a writer.

    Yes, the advice that you give in the third option suits that group too, but please acknowledge that not everyone who self-publishes has a problem with traditional publishing and gatekeepers. We’re not all amateurs looking for validation or people building a platform for something else either.

    More and more, we’re people who are going after this as a profession. Writer/publishers. We’re doing this because this is what we prefer to do for a living. It’s not a step to something else.

    But as I said, the advice you give for group 3 is good for us as well.

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