The Case for Self-Publishing

Until a decade of so ago, self-publishing had a terrible reputation. As the last refuge of rejected authors, “vanity publishing” was tantamount to an admission that a book wasn’t any good. In recent years that picture has been changing rapidly and drastically. With the advent of on-demand printing, both the hassles and the cost of self-publishing have been greatly reduced, while online booksellers have helped to solve the problem of distribution. More and more authors are choosing to self-publish because they want to, not because they have to. As a result, traditional publishers are beginning to lose their status as the sole arbiters of quality.

It remains true that the average self-published book sells far fewer copies than its commercially published equivalent. But many authors are not looking to profit directly from sales of a book itself. Instead, they regard a book as a marketing investment: a prop for a publicity campaign to promote whatever it is they do to earn serious money. In the hands of an energetic publicist, a book that sells very few copies can still generate a lot of media buzz and open the way to lucrative opportunities: seminars, speaking gigs, consulting jobs, and so forth. Most of my clients fall into this category, and have been very satisfied with the decision to self-publish.

I must admit that my own rather snobbish preference for established publishers died hard. I believed that books I’d ghostwritten deserved this industry seal of approval and tried to talk my clients into pursuing it. But over the years I’ve found that clients who elected to self-publish were, without exception, happier with their overall experience. Conversely several clients who went with commercial publishers came to regret their decision. Off the top of my head, I can think of five clients who’ve had multiple previous titles published by big name houses (McGraw Hill, Random House, etc.) and who now self-publish by choice.

I’m just saying.

Here’s a quick rundown of the beefs about traditional publishing I hear most often:

1. It’s too slow.
Getting a manuscript accepted can take months, or even years. On average, another year passes between acceptance and actual publication. To business people, this delay in bringing a product to market is unfathomable. Some feel they simply can’t afford the opportunity costs associated with letting a manuscript sit in limbo.

2. The rules are unfair.
Most publishers object to multiple simultaneous submissions. You’re supposed to let your manuscript molder in one slush pile at a time. Until you’ve gotten an answer, you’re left sitting on your hands.

3. The book goes out of print.
Titles that don’t get off to a brisk sales start tend not to be restocked by booksellers, and may go out of print in under a year. Should you wish to reissue an out-of-print title on your own, you have to arrange—and sometimes pay for—a reversion of the rights. This can turn into a major hassle if the publisher has meanwhile folded or been acquired by another company.

4. They want you to have a platform already.
What publishers mean by “platform” is an author’s public visibility prior to the release of a book. They would prefer that the book have a guaranteed audience, which the author has usually built by doing something other than writing. Paris Hilton and Kermit the Frog have platforms. You probably don’t. This causes a chicken-and-egg dilemma for professionals who hope that writing a book will create a platform. No publisher, no platform. No platform, no publisher.

5. Promotion is disappointing.
In an interview on CNN, a very well-known politician once held up a book written by one of my clients and said that every American should read it. You might expect that the publisher would hastily print more copies to meet the surge in demand. They didn’t. When the author called the company to find out why his now famous book was unavailable for purchase, nobody there seemed to recognize his name. While that might be an unusually heinous example, the fact is that publishers do very little to promote the average author. If you want a book tour, you’ll probably have to arrange and pay for it yourself.

6. You’re not in full control.
The tendency for authors to come into conflict with their editors is as old as publishing itself. To lobby for changes that will improve a manuscript is the editor’s job, and when based on literary considerations alone, their recommendations are usually sound. It is changes based on a publisher’s idea of how to make a book “more commercial” that many authors resist and resent. They are dismayed to find that they have little or no control over their book’s title, cover copy and cover design, that they have to battle at every turn over its internal content, and that some of these battles are lost. Many editors are themselves dismayed by this state of affairs. They job hop a lot in quest of a better situation, and often quit the industry altogether. It’s not uncommon for authors to sign with a particular publisher because they like and trust their original editor only to find that their project is reassigned midstream to someone less compatible.

7. It’s a lousy business deal.
The great advantage of an established publisher used to be the level of service they provided free of charge: professional editing, page and cover design, indexing, fact-checking, clipping service, advertising and publicity. While it remains true that the physical quality (design, binding, etc) of commercially published books is superior to that of their self-published counterparts, other desirable services to authors have been scaled back or phased out altogether. Authors are often expected to provide indexes, charts, graphs and other internal illustrations at their own expense, solicit their own cover endorsements, hire their own publicist and track down their own press clippings and reviews. At the same time, the average advance on royalties has significantly declined. From a strictly economic point of view, many authors are concluding that the gain doesn’t justify the pain.

The Small Press Alternative

Small presses are, for the most part, traditional publishers with low budgets and high standards. If anything, they’re more selective than the big name companies. To promote literary excellence is often their very reason for being. Their advances to authors range from scanty to non-existent. Some even expect authors to foot the bill for part or all of the production costs. On the face of it, this sounds like the worst of both worlds. Yet the authors I know who have published with small presses have been very satisfied with their experience, and would do it again.

Many publishers themselves are unhappy with the current state of commercial publishing. As more and more of them are bought up by corporate conglomerates, they find themselves under increasing pressure to turn a quick profit. People who went into the business because they love good books feel awful when they have to turn down a worthy but financially risky project. Many of them have struck out on their own to form companies that better reflect their values.

What a good small press lacks in money, it often makes up in effort and care. Some take great pride in the quality of their books as physical objects, lavishing attention on every detail. You’ll have more control over design decisions than you would with a large publisher, and more talented helpers at your disposal than you would as a self-publisher.