5 Important Things to Know About Self-Publishing–Part 2 … by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Part 1 of Laura's post was published on Friday, January 27th.

The Work Has To Be Competitive.

There’s a common refrain, heard around writers conferences and discussion forums, that runs something like, “If I can’t sell it traditionally, I’ll self-publish.” While there are some perfectly legitimate uses of this phrase, quite often it’s either meant or interpreted as, If the work isn’t good enough to sell traditionally, it can be self-published.

Well, it can. But it shouldn’t.

A self-published book should be indistinguishable from a traditionally-published book in quality, from cover to editing to layout. You know how you can spy the self-published book in a roomful of books for sale? That’s not good.

I will be among the first to say that self-published books can be just as amazing – or perhaps better, since they don’t have to be edited to a lowest-common-denominator committee – as any traditional book lineup. But the truth is, the off-cited tsunami of crap does exist, and we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.

The first time I made a piece of clothing, it wasn’t good enough to sell at a mall retailer. My early music lessons were in no way good enough to press an album. And my 5k time will never earn me a spot on the leaderboard. So why do we think early, developmental, or subpar writing should be published?

Imagine a boy, maybe 17, who isn’t sure he likes movies. He had to watch a few for school, stuff that never really caught his fancy and just didn’t connect with him because it was not his style or because the teacher made too much of the symbolism and camera angles and he hated writing the papers, but now he’s hearing from his friends that movies are really good. But he doesn’t want to drop $15 on a theater ticket to start, he’s going to try something cheaper first to see if it’s worth the investment, right? So he goes to Amazon Video to find a free or $2 flick. And he finds somebody’s basement-shot action wannabe with party-store costuming and bad sound obscuring the lame dialogue and whatever fight stunts their sixth-grade kid brother wanted to do before Mom got downstairs. (There are some… striking self-published movies on Amazon streaming video.)

Maybe that fledgling filmmaker will be the next Spielberg. But his current work isn’t impressive. And not only is he turning off his current audience (and setting up a hilarious retrospective to surprise him during his big talk show interview once he’s a household name), he’s probably just convinced our kid that movies really aren’t worth his time.

Okay, I know it’s hard to imagine anyone not familiar with movies in today’s society. But the truth is, a lot of people think they don’t like to read, because of bad school experiences or because reading was never valued in their family or whatever, and when they finally go to pick up a cheap book, they get something which just turns them off further.

Put out work which creates more addicted readers. Have a good critique group which constantly pushes you to be better. Make sure your stories are well-edited – both for structure and for grammar/typographical errors.

We Don’t Have to Be Competitive.

Look, we authors are not competing against each other. We’re really not. We’re competing against television and streaming movies and phone games.

No reader buys just one book a year; getting a reader hooked on another author just creates a bigger market for all of us. Promote other authors whose work your audience will also appreciate. But note that last phrase – I don’t promote just anyone I want to owe me a favor, I share stuff I think my readers will also enjoy. That does everyone good – other author gets a boost, my readers get something they like (they can’t spend all their time just waiting for my next release), and I gain a bit of additional reader trust so they’re more likely to stay with me. Pushing unrelated genres at readers will just confuse and annoy them. (And while I may or may not tell another author when I’m enthusing about their work, I never do it in anticipation of a favor owed. That’s not the point.)

I do several live book fairs a year, and I always if possible do a circuit before it starts to find out who is selling what. Then if I get someone at my table looking for something else – a Western romance, perhaps, or a middle grade adventure – I can point them directly to another author. They’re happy, the other writer is happy, the book fair organizers are happy, and I don’t have to deal with frustrated or disappointed shoppers. Everybody wins. (Well, except I didn’t make a sale – but then, I wasn’t going to, anyway, if they weren’t looking for what I sell.)

Help other authors with their writing craft and their marketing. (And just as important – take critique and advice professionally, not personally.) And remember, there isn’t really a divide between traditionally- and self-published authors. In fact, many of us are hybrids, doing both! It’s all about creating readers, not outselling the guy at the table or website next down from yours.

Enjoy it.

Okay, this is sixth in a list of five, but it’s true – self-publishing is more work than traditional publishing, but it’s also much less constrained and carries a great potential of fun. If you keep your eyes open and your hand to the plow, you can create an enjoyable career following your dreams.


Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy (epic, urban, and historical), mystery, and non-fiction. She enjoys helping other authors and will be teaching on writing craft and self-publishing with Ireland Writer Tours in August 2017. Find her at her website, on Facebook, and Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “5 Important Things to Know About Self-Publishing–Part 2 … by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

  1. Great advice. I hope more early writers take it to heart. I see so many books that appear to have been written in a vacuum – no critique, no workshops, no concept of grammar or spelling or …anything. Some likely paid to published with an unscrupulous vanity press (worse than DIY because many overcharge and under deliver) or self-published something that no one will read, even if the actual story concept is good. Thanks for the list.

  2. Thank you. Out of the 500 or so “self published” books and short stories I have looked at, 3 were worthy of reading. Seems to me the only reasons a person will “Self publish” is if she is in a great hurry to get a book “out there” in the hands of readers, or if the book is not worth reading (i.e., not good enough for traditional publishers).

    My first book was planned for “self publishing” because it is meant for just my fans to read— maybe 300 copies. My “beta reader,” who has had 17 New York _Times_ best sellers and is currently enjoying massive success with his latest book (The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story) told me my manuscript is “too good” for going the “self publishing” route, so I got an agent. If the MS wasn’t excellent I would have “self published” b y now.

    If a MS is worthy of reading and therefore worthy to sell, then it’s good enough for traditional publishing.

  3. Actually, there are a number of reasons why an author might choose to take a “worthy” manuscript on a self-pub route instead of a traditional route.

    To point to the gorilla in the room, Hugh Howey was making millions on his self-pub works — why should he want to give up a significant percentage of that profit to someone else? (He eventually sold print rights and kept e-rights, to take advantage of a new market.) Many other successful writers see no reason to share profit on work that can sell well. I bought a car with self-pub royalties which I could not have afforded with traditional royalties.

    Also, timing can be an issue. I realized a story I was writing was going to be very timely in the next year, but if I went the traditional route and waited two years or more to reach market, it would be passé. I can self-publish much faster — yes, “in a hurry,” as you say, but with an eye to good market sense rather than merely in a rush.

    Control can be a factor. I have a manuscript which a big name offered to take to a very big name, and I’m instead going to self-publish it. Not because I don’t respect these people or the industry — I absolutely do! and honestly the prestige was very tempting — but because I want to handle this series differently than a traditional publisher would, and it’s easier for me to do that if I self-publish.

    There are likewise advantages which come with traditional publishing: easier access to chain bookstore shelves, an upfront advance instead of upfront costs, a cachet in some parts of the writing community. It’s all about what you want at that time, and there’s no single right answer for every writer.

    I always tell writers that self-pub or traditional isn’t a career choice — it’s a choice for one particular project. You might make a different choice the next time around, based on timing or market or goals.

    Discussion often adds more info all around, so thanks for pushing back!

    • A few days ago David Morrell mentioned self-publishing briefly in the podcast THE LAST WORD http://thelastword.libsyn.com/

      The issue is chiefly one of maximizing economic success; if a writer does *NOT* want to earn an adequate income from writing, she will be happy self-publishing. For people who wish a decent income writing, the route to take for 99.9999% of writers is to find an agent and a “real” (i.e., traditional) publisher.

      The exceptions regarding financial success and self-publishing are extremely few, and a tiny percentage of the entire writing market. A good writer must follow traditional routes to publishing if she wants paid for her work— the odds favor her doing so.

      Self-publishing has been overwhelmingly bad for writers and readers: crappy books are being purchased for $1 or $2 because readers look at price first— according to Writer’s Market and http://authorearnings.com/. Excellent books are forced to compete with garbage books, and the garbage books sell well because they cost almost nothing to read. One would think readers would spend $30 to buy one good book instead of $3 each to buy ten shitty ebooks, but the book market numbers show they do not. Readers will buy 30 ebooks at $1 each and be happy to find one or two of the thirty are worthy of reading.

      Six months ago I asked David Morrell why he doesn’t write a Western novel. He said his agent would kill him: there is no market for Westerns. But two weeks ago he said he is considering a Western— and self-publishing is one way he can get his new Western to readers, bypassing his agent and the need to find a traditional publisher. Established authors can do this, but the rest of us cannot do this and also expect to be paid for the work.

  4. As a rule, the exceptions regarding financial success and publishing in general are fairly few. Only 5% of self-published authors make over $20,000/year, true — but only 10% of traditionally-published authors do. Making a living at writing remains a sketchy proposition for most.

    If one decides that potential income is the best determining factor in path, then AuthorEarnings,com does suggest that self-pub might be the way to go, particularly for a new name. It’s worth chewing through their May 2016 “definitive study” (http://authorearnings.com/report/may-2016-report/) but here’s a catchy soundbite and a striking visual:

    “– There are twice as many indie authors who debuted in the past 5 years now earning a six figure run rate than Big Five authors who were first published in the same time period and are able to do the same.
    — Recent small- or medium-publisher authors are even farther behind: there are four times as many indies earning six figures as small- or medium-press authors who also launched in the last five years.”


    Note those numbers only include traditional authors who made it through the traditional publishing route to start, and if we’re going to talk about actual odds, we should really include the daunting odds of landing a traditional contract (or why Jim Butcher’s nickname is Longshot: http://www.jim-butcher.com/jim/). But that would get needlessly complex for a blog comment.

    “If you were starting out now?”
    “Oh, I’d definitely go the self-publishing route.” — Neil Gaiman, BBC’s Front Row, Feb 14, 2017

    I don’t think blaming customers is the answer. I find it hard to believe that anyone would deliberately buy a “shitty” product 30 times if it didn’t meet their expectations and desires, and anyway I can’t say readers only want the cheapest and worst and then expect them to buy my high-end offering. 😉 If the argument is that cheap books threaten good books, then that argument is as old as pulp fiction and older, and we’re not going to add anything new here. If there are two different reader markets, one for shitty books and one for good books, then no worries! there’s no competition, anyway.

    As I said before, many successful authors are hybrids; it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Some are gradually moving in one direction or another, but that’s their choice (http://elizabethspanncraig.com/5424/why-im-turning-trad-pub-deals-down/).

    “Self-publishing is not the best choice for everyone….” That was me, in Part 1 of this article. Traditional publishing is still a thing, a big thing, a powerful thing, and it’s not going away anytime soon. If your goal is traditional publishing, then I wish you the best of luck with it! Any self-publishing guidelines will likely be irrelevant directions to someone not on that road.

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