I’m at a conference this weekend and there was a small session at the beginning where we went around the room and everyone had a chance to say what they wanted to learn. And two of the participants said some variation on the above question. They wanted to know at what point they should give up on the trade publishing path and self-publish instead.
My answer: You don’t.
(I wasn’t on the panel, hence this blog post.)
It’s a question I encounter somewhat frequently when I venture outside self-publishing forums or groups. There’s still this very prevalent idea that new writers have that they’ll try to find a trade publisher and if that fails that they’ll just self-publish.
And it’s quite possible I thought that way, too, at some point. I suspect if I went back to my M.H. Lee blog and read through my early posts when I was considering self-publishing that I was thinking or saying something similar. Like, hey, those short stories didn’t sell to the pro-paying markets why not self-pub them rather than pursue token markets? I’ll be building my own brand! And making more money!
But let me tell you why you don’t do that.
As a self-publisher I have to know not only how to tell an engaging story or write an informative easy-to-read non-fiction title, I also have to handle all other aspects of production and marketing. It doesn’t matter if I pay someone else to do it or do it myself, I still have to be able to identify a quality product.
Would you know if that person you just hired to edit your book is a good editor? (Many have found that the person they hired to edit their book was not and only figured that out when the bad reviews rolled in.)
What about your cover? What kind of cover will tell your readers that this is the book for them? A cover designer will design the cover, but most will look to you for direction. And you need to know when something isn’t working. The font on the first version of Rider’s Revenge was not OK. I had to tell my cover designer to redo it. Would you know if you ran into a situation like that? Would you be able to stand up to them and tell them to make the change?
What about the blurb? Can you write appealing back cover copy? Can you recognize appealing back cover copy if you pay someone else to write it? (One of my weak spots.)
What about categories? Where do you list your book? What have you written? Do you know the difference between non-fiction and fiction?
And then there’s advertising.
Let’s assume you wrote a book that people will enjoy, it has the right cover and a strong blurb. Now how do you find your readers? Where are they? How do you reach them? You’re not going to be in physical bookstores. So how do you rise above everyone else online to get that cover in front of your readers so they’ll see and buy your book?
You need to be able to do all of this. On top of writing a good book. There are reasons to self-publish. Timing, control, more potential profit. But it should not be the “I failed on a path that required A so let me try this path that requires A, B, C, D, and E” choice.
If you think of self-publishing as what you do when you give up, let me give you this advice:
Write another book.
Actually, write three more books instead. Novels. Three novel-length works.
Do not rewrite the same book five times. Write new novels. Brand new ones. Pay attention to your market. Read a ton in the area where you want to publish to understand what readers want.
Write. Read. Write. Read. Write some more.
And then query those novels. To agents.
Chances are, you’ll sell one of them. And you’ll be on the path you wanted to be on.
Take all that time and energy you would’ve spent learning how to be a publisher and spend it on improving your writing. (There are multiple levels of writing skill. Chances are you’re competent at the first one but have yet to master the others. Or failed on one of the others with that particular novel.)
If by the time you’ve written those three novels you still want to self-publish (not as a fallback, but as a way to get your words out into the world in the way you want to get them out there), then self-publish. You’ll be better off for having waited because you’ll have that many books ready to go and you’ll be driven enough to make it work.