How We Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Self-Publishing

Fair warning: Today’s post is less art and more business. I’m going to very briefly touch on why I self-publish.

I didn’t start out as a proponent of self-publishing. When I first knew I wanted to grow up to be a writer, it was simply “vanity publishing,” and to be honest that’s still out there. Vanity publishing was expensive and mostly low-quality material that couldn’t get a second look from “real” publishers. Those who used a vanity press rarely made money and were not taken very seriously.

That’s changed now, and there are a lot of reasons why self-publishing is now “legit.” And I’m not even talking about admitted outliers like Hugh Howey making $150,000/month and walking away from seven-figure offers. Sure, those success stories are awesome and I applaud! but there are other benefits to self-publishing as well.


I used to console myself that Kitsune-Tsuki did sell traditionally before falling into contract-carbonite for several years. So it wasn’t that I just couldn’t sell, I had, I was just pursuing other options afterward.

But now I’m pretty much over my initial embarrassment of being a self-published author. I still pitch and query to traditional markets, mostly for short stories but some novels as well, but now I consider first if the terms look favorable. The cachet of being a “real” author by virtue of being published traditionally is still there in the authorial social sphere, but it’s lost a lot of its shine. It’s pretty well acknowledged that authors have real reasons (everything from creative control to significantly improved royalties) to stay independent.

I certainly don’t hate traditional publishing, though! And I don’t think other writers are wrong for pursuing it. What matters to you, matters.

Snobbery is Silly

Con Job

Interestingly, I’ve never been dissed by a writer for being self-published. (Once for self-publishing digitally, because this guy thought ebooks were for losers, but I’m not sure he had a problem with the self-publishing part itself.) But I do have a couple of non-writer friends who regularly point out that they refuse to read any self-published work, because clearly if the books were any good they wouldn’t have to be self-published, but that’s so easily disproven that I almost feel bad taking pot-shots at their flimsy arguments.

It’s not gonna stop me, though. ;-)

  1. The artist argument, part one: Sometimes an author might self-publish because she can produce a better work, as self-published authors have total control over their product. My own example: Almost all cozy mysteries in the market now have female protagonists, and it’s hard to sell an editor on something different. But I considered Jacob’s character in Con Job and really felt that it should be a guy. Because I was self-pubbing, I didn’t have to fight a marketing department to avoid a sex change.
  2. Kitsune-Mochi coverThe artist argument, part two: Self-publishing doesn’t have to support an enormous publishing house, so the writer can take some risks and inhabit a niche rather than the mainstream. (Just like an indie film doesn’t have to be a summer blockbuster, right?) My own example: Kitsune-Tsuki and Kitsune-Mochi are never, ever going to be mainstream bestsellers — I mean, the titles aren’t even in English! — and they would have been hard to place traditionally. But I can find them a slow, steady market of their own.
  3. The math argument, part one: Sweat equity pays off in houses and in books. By doing work myself, by bartering, and by hiring directly, I can get a book to market for a much lower cost (and much faster) than a traditional house would. My own example: Con Job came out in May, and as of this writing, it’s less than $4 from earning out its costs and switching to pure profit. That means, too, that I carry a much lower risk, while in traditional publishing an author whose first book isn’t a big splash is going to have a hard time selling the second.
  4. The math argument, part two: Typical traditional royalties on ebooks are 20-25% of cover cost. Typical self-pub royalties on ebooks are 65-70%. You don’t have to be terribly good at math to figure that one out.
  5. And finally, the oft-cited quality argument: Traditional publishing is a sign of quality? I guess that explains why such literary greats as Justin Beiber and the Kardashians have earned traditional book deals. And you know, I’m not even going to bother taking a cheap shot at After, the semi-erotic One Direction fanfiction which just sold for six figures, but you can click here for a short and considered author’s take. Even Kanye West, who says he hates books and is a “proud non-reader,” has been published traditionally. So you know a traditional imprint is a sign of real literary quality.
English: Kanye West performing in December 2008
Kanye West performing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph.”

Kanye West

Well gee, Kanye, we’d just hate to see self-absorbed.

“You See Self-Published Books, Walking Around Like Regular Books, and You Don’t Know They’re Self-Published”

Bourbon Street Books is a line from HarperCollins.
Quick, which big publisher owns this imprint? (Mouse over or right click to find the answer in the Alt text.)

Really, self-pub snobs, are you sure you’re drawing your lines correctly? You probably are familiar with the Big 5 (Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillian), but do you know all their imprints? My casual count came up with just under 200 imprints for just the Big 5 alone. [Update: Penguin Random House has 270 just by themselves.] And then there are about 400 mid-sized presses in the United States; do you know all their names? And their various imprints? And then there are more than 85,000 small presses (defined as 10 or fewer titles released per year), which is going to include the self-publishers too, but you’re sure you know the difference? You’ve memorized that many business names and imprints?

Black Ocean is a small press in Boston, New York City, and Chicago.
Quick? Self-pub or traditional? (Mouse over or right click to find the answer in the Alt text.)

I think it’s more likely that if you find a book with a terrible cover and poor writing and worse editing, and you hate it, which is fair, then you say it’s self-published and that all self-published books must be like it. But odds are pretty good that you might be reading other self-published books with good production values and you’re liking them without ever knowing their provenance.

And what does it matter? Really, if you like a book, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. Does the signature on the check to pay the cover artist really affect your reading enjoyment?

The Lines Are Blurring

With so many hybrid authors now (both publishing traditionally and self-publishing), it’s getting hard to say who is and is not a self-publisher. Many traditionally published authors are self-publishing some experimental or newer works, while many of the traditional publishing houses scan the self-published market for rising stars.

Author Solutions logo

And some traditional gatekeepers are getting downright predatory and losing their “legit” reputations. Penguin Random House owns Author Solutions, a “self-publishing company” with the worst of notoriety. And a couple of months back, I was at an event which asked $100 just to pitch. Um, do I look like I fell out of the stupid tree and bounced off every branch on the way down? If the idea’s good, he makes money when I do. Not off me.

In short, self-publishing is a thing now. Really.

Self-Publishing Has Responsibilities

Unfortunately, it is true that there’s a lot of junk out there in the self-published world. But remember Sturgeon’s Law, and remember that comparing the dregs of self-publishing to the superstars of traditional publishing is hardly fair — 90% of everything is crap, regardless of its source.

When I choose to self-publish, instead of paying (with my sales) a team to do it, I take on the responsibilities of their jobs. I need to be or acquire an editor, a cover artist, a layout designer, a marketing director, etc. If I don’t, I make myself and my self-publishing peers look bad. So I need to recognize my own limitations — for example, there is no excuse ever for my own artwork on a book cover, and so I need to hire a professional.

When I see a poorly-produced self-published book, it makes me angry. That reflects on all of us! Have some respect for yourself and your peers! On the other hand, I confess that when I see a poorly-produced traditionally-published book, I feel a bit smug. See? I knew I could put out a better product.

Self-publishing is professional, too.

Self-Publishing Has Possibilities

Just while I was writing this post, a writer friend tweeted:

To the self-publishers, do you think your self-publishing has restricted you from ever doing traditional?

Michael Simko (@MichaelSimko1)

And no, I don’t think so. I still query to some traditional markets, as I said, and if anything I think my self-publishing background shows that I am serious about my work and what I can bring to the joint effort in terms of marketing, etc.

So don’t fret about whether it’s okay to read self-published work, or young adult work, or whatever the trending media dilemma might be. Read what you like, and support what you like. Life’s too short for reading tribalism!


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One Comment

  1. I agree with you — but it took me years to do so. There was a long time I wouldn’t knowingly touch a self-pubbed book, because I associated them with poor quality. Right now, though, my very favorite series is self-pubbed.

    Currently, my plans are for a hybrid approach for myself, but I keep an open mind and a careful eye on the industry. The Big 5 are making extremely stupid decisions, and there well could come a point where I wouldn’t touch them if they offered.

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