“Should I self-publish?” No. No. No.

It’s one of the most frequent questions I get from aspiring writers and 99 out of 100 times my answer is no. If it’s Grandma’s recipes you want to put together, your wedding photo album, flash or fan fiction, or a poetry chapbook, then maybe. But I don’t recommend authors self-publish. This doesn’t make me popular and I’m certain to get lots of flak from some writers who need to justify their decision to self-publish. No. Just no.

Authors who majored in English and not accounting, economics, business or advertising always surprise me when they seem to think they know how to run a publishing company single-handedly. Even the best of the self-publishing houses makes its profit from authors, not from selling books. And now AuthorHouse (owned by Penguin Random House) faces a class-action lawsuit from its authors.

This seems to surprise writers who have heard about the success of E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey, or Amanda Hocking with her Young Adult series. What the self-publishing gurus won’t tell you is that these two examples are the rare exceptions to the rule. And both are genre fiction – not memoir or non-fiction – and both happened in 2011, a fluke year for self-published book sales.

Developed as a Twilight fan fiction series, 50 Shades of Grey was originally titled Masters of the Universe and published episodically on fan-fiction websites. Its release as a book was a well-orchestrated marketing campaign by the author who is a former TV executive who knew exactly how to work her inside-the-media connections to garner sufficient book buzz on this derivation from Stephanie Meyer’s vampire thrillers. No one nominated it for any literary awards.

Amanda Hocking is the only other self-published novelist who hit bestselling lists.  She signed a 4-book contract with St. Martin’s Press in 2011. Like Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James, Hocking writes novels which appeal to a fan-based audience within a Young Adult subgenre. Hocking signed with a traditional publisher because she didn’t have time to write with all that is involved in the business of self-publishing.

That so many memoir and nonfiction writers generalize from two exceptions – mommy porn and troll fantasy – to their own success with self-publishing makes me shake my head. Romance and dystopian fiction offer some promise to self-published authors, but the myth of success is a dangerous one for writers who want to be authors.

Self-publishing may be the kiss of death to your aspirations for a contract with a traditional trade publisher. Unless your sales go through the roof in the first 60 days of release, few publishing houses are likely to be interested in acquiring your title. Furthermore, the trade press is reluctant to work with self-published authors. Dirty six-letter word: Amazon. And if you don’t tell them you have self-published and you sign a contract for a new work, they will cancel your contract. Why? When you release a new book your back list sells again. If a publisher is going to invest in your new work they aren’t interested in you reaping the benefits of their efforts with sales on other titles. The non-compete clause of a publishing contract covers this issue explicitly.

So how much money do self-published authors make? It’s a dirty little secret but nearly 20% report they derive no income whatsoever in data from a new survey from Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest. The median income range for self-published authors is $1-5,000. Only 1.8% of self-published authors made more than six figures from their writing last year, compared to 8.8% of traditionally published authors. Bottom line a tiny fraction of authors make enough from book publishing to quit their day jobs. And the job of self-publishing is full-time.


5 thoughts on “Why you should not self-publish your book

  1. Thanks for the straight facts. I suspected that I wanted to find an authentic publisher and I did. I wanted someone else to believe in me and give my voice credibility. It was worth the long wait!

    • Thanks Kim. When I read your writing in the MWSA Anthology, it took my breath away. Grief is our common companion.

  2. I agree with Kim. It was worth the wait to get professional support. Having a publisher and book development editor helps me focus my time and work productively. I wanted and needed experienced guidance all the way.

  3. I both agree and disagree with you. I’m a ghostwriter. I’ve written books for many nationally recognized speakers, CEO’s and sports figures who do self-publish. Their goal is not fame and fortune, but self-promotion to an existing following. They sell their books at conventions, key-note talks, tours and conferences as well as their personal websites. The goal is to give eager followers more of what they already love and want. That said, there is a place for self-publishing. For the average person dreaming of becoming rich and famous? You’re totally right. It’s not the way to go.

    • Thanks Becky Blanton for sharing your views here. I agree with you that many writers see a book as their business calling card today and there are business-to-business publishing opportunities which require the author subsidize the production costs (including the expense of a ghostwriter or good editor). Between self-publishing and traditional publishing there is plenty of middle-ground and it is growing. Subsidy publishing, cooperative ventures, and new models like She Writes Press. I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond here.

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