why i won’t self-publish.

It must be the week to write about self-publishing, because I’ve read three blog posts on that subject in as many days.

Joe Konrath is wildly in favor of it.  Chuck Wendig is on the fence about itSo is Paul S. Kemp, although he comes down a bit on the “traditional publishing” side of the argument.

M feelings on the subject are not at all ambiguous.  In the past, people have asked me why I don’t just self-publish my novels, and I’ve always kind of given the generic answer about wanting to go the traditional route.  Well, I’ve never considered self-pubbing an option for me, and here’s why.

  • The ebook thing has done a lot to level the playing field when it comes to distribution, but the print market is still king, and a self-published novel has no distribution in bookstores.  Book buyers won’t order it, bookstore managers won’t stock it because it’s non-returnable, and customers won’t know about it.
  • I want to sell more than just seventy-three novels out of my trunk, and another twenty or thirty ebook copies.  I have no illusions regarding my current potential market—if I offered copies on my blog, I’d sell maybe two dozen to readers who sampled my short stories or practice novel, and another dozen or two to those friends and family who won’t be mortally offended at not getting a freebie copy.  Once my circle of friends and interested blog readers is tapped, I’ll have maybe a thousand bucks pre-tax to show for a year and a half of work.  There’s no guarantee for vastly more money if I get the same novel under contract with one of the Big Six, but even a paltry advance will most likely represent multiples of what I can sell by myself, because I have a limited reader base and no distribution network.
  • As a believer in Yog’s Law (“Money should flow toward the author”), I loathe the thought of having to put money into getting my work printed.  I’ve already invested a lot of hours writing, editing, and submitting the novel.  I don’t want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars with a print-on-demand outfit to have a stock of novels that may or may not yield a return on that kind of cash outlay.  Ebooks don’t carry print costs, but they also don’t have nearly as much of a market as print books do.
  • The things I want out of writing books are much more likely to come my way via traditional book deal.  I want a sustainable career that earns me more than just pizza money, I want a satisfied readership that will pony up the cash for new novels without feeling cheated, and I want peer respect and critical recognition.  The money may be better with self-publishing if I get lucky (although I’ll have much more work doing all the stuff a publishing house would do).  The satisfied readership depends on the quality of the work, but the size of that readership will depend on distribution, marketing, and exposure.  Peer respect and critical recognition…well, let’s be honest here: Self-publishing has lost some of the stigma it used to have just a year or three ago, but the smell of “couldn’t hack it” still surrounds you when you try to sit at the adult table with your trunk full of Hulu-printed books, or your ebook-only, self-edited Kindle edition, as good as those products may be in the end.

For my last reason why I don’t want to self-publish, let me be entirely frank here for a moment.  I know that self-published authors don’t get the respect of traditionally published authors because I don’t accord them the same respect.  Yell at me for it, flame me in comments, or whatever—the fact is that I personally have a negative reaction when someone pushes a self-published book on me.  It’s something along the lines of, “If you’re any good, why can’t I pick that up at Borders?”

(Note that this assessment doesn’t include writers who commission a small print run of their books for the proverbial shits and giggles–to give to friends and family and have a copy on one’s own bookshelf, not to put them in the trunk and try to hand-sell to every bookstore in their area code.)

Yes, there are gems out there, but the majority of self-published books are self-published because they didn’t make the cut—they failed to interest an agent or a publisher.  (An awful lot of them are self-published because the prospective author didn’t want to bother subjecting themselves to the traditional agent/publisher query gauntlet.)

Yes, there are exceptions out there, too.  I’m aware, for example, that John Scalzi sold a novel to Tor after publishing it for free on his blog, and that Larry Correia self-pubbed Monster Hunter International before it was picked up by Baen.  Those stand out because they are exceptions, not the rule.  I may sell enough copies of a self-pubbed novel to get the interest of someone at Baen or Tor, but I don’t have the kind of personality (or the kind of checking account) that lets me bet a few thousand dollars on that possibility.

(Also, with all the talk of “bypassing the gatekeepers” and “revolutionizing/democratizing the publishing industry”, the fact remains that those two writers took the traditional contracts.  If one of the Big Six offered contracts to the authors of the hundred best-selling self-pubbed novels on the Amazon sales list, ninety-nine of them would sign them so fast the pen would leave contrails.  If the respect, earnings potential, reader base, and peer regard were the same with self-publishing, Larry Correia would still be his own publisher.)

Anyway, that’s why I’ve never considered self-publishing, and why I don’t see myself doing so any time soon.  Instead, I’ll go the traditional route, long shot that it is, and I’ll keep writing and submitting until I get one of these novels under contract somewhere.  Time will tell if I’m being a moron, passing up a lucrative career as my own publisher.


17 thoughts on “why i won’t self-publish.

  1. FrankC says:

    Keep the faith. It will happen eventually.

  2. scotaku says:

    You’re hardly being a moron – you’re doing what your own intuition tells you. For me, I’m writing without pay until someone offers to pay, to quote Mr. Twain. More than anything, though, solid critical review is what’s rarer than hen’s teeth. But that’s for another post.

  3. Carteach says:

    Okay…. then I have a question. If I wanted to support a writer who had rather expensive firewood and ammunition habits, what titles might I search for?

  4. Charles says:

    There are arguments and you sketched them.

    I tend to agree with you though. Say what you want about peer reviewed academic ~journals~ especially when someone fools them into publishing overt garbage, but your points transfer. Want a seat at the fancy wooden table with catered crap for lunch? Get published. Then start sweating about getting tenure. Commercial fiction has many merits. Profit is an honest motive.

    Fair, right or not, with a self published dissertation, good luck gaining anything beyond a smirk. It might make a dandy ebook however. You covered exceptions.

    All that said.. hope springs eternal and I’ll not stop anyone from throwing themselves out there even if it is done poorly. Bring on the gems.

  5. Braindouche! says:

    For as much fun as the self-publishing scene can be, very few people seem willing to admit that it only really works well for the folks who have already established critical success from inside the system. Look at the hoards of rockstars who are leaving the record labels in herds to make 10 times the money on 10 percent of the sales by going independent. Writers aren’t quite there yet, but they will, and it’ll be the big-name-bigger-than-the-title types that can make it work, and pretty much nobody else.

  6. Gaston says:

    I echo your sentiments on self-publishing. Part of the stigma is the identification of self-publishing with the Vanity press. Print On Demand (POD) publishing does not does not preclude later success with one of the big houses. Even a thousand copies of a book in your car trunk, does not consign an author to perpetual failure. There is an apocryphal tale about Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, the one before A Farewell to Arms. The one he tossed off the fantail when returning to the United States.

    Are you writing for yourself?
    Are you writing because you have a message?
    Are you writing to make money?
    Ask yourself “Who are you and What do you want?”

  7. alan says:

    The forces of disintermediation are at work in the publishing world just like everywhere else. Barnes and Noble is now selling more ebooks than paper books.

    You can’t make the argument that paper is king any more.

  8. Larry says:

    Read the comments at Amazon on Correia’s second Monster Hunter novel and you will see one that basically says “He self-published the first one, so he can’t be a very good writer…”

  9. emdfl says:

    Larry Correia would probably be on the other side of the fence.

  10. Roberta X says:

    Larry took the publisher’s contract when offered. –I would, too.

    I am in the process of self-publishing. You end up monkeying with the mechanics a LOT more than you would taking a more conventional route. I even had to buy a newer version of Word!

    It makes sense for me because the writing is a hobby. I have a day job. And it makes sense because I have a very limited market; the connected tales of the Hidden Frontier, mostly seen from the perspective of a mid-level technical worker, appeal mostly to techies and similar folk. The chances that a slush-reader at any publisher or magazine would give it more than a passing glance are nil.

    My goal is to not lose too much money. I have republished a couple of amateur radio books from the 1930s and managed to just about break even (and all of it hands-on, physical layout and a big stack or artwork for the printer to work from); if I can do the same with my fiction, I will count it a win.

  11. Samsam von Virginia says:

    “they didn’t make the cut—they failed to interest an agent or a publisher … didn’t want to bother subjecting themselves to the traditional agent/publisher query gauntlet.”

    This point applies to lots of business ideas, not just publishing. If you can’t attract investors, maybe your idea is crap. We denigrate the herd and celebrate the lone hero, but the truth is there *is* a certain amount of wisdom to be found in the standard way of doing things. But damn, it sure feels good when you go it alone and win. That’s why folks keep doing it.

  12. karrde says:

    My first thought when I hear of a self-published work is this: “Has an editor seen that thing?”

    The work of an editor is never credited on the cover of the book, but the editor’s input is part of what transforms the author’s ideas and writing into the finished work.

    (Same with typesetting, error-checking, etc. But the editor has the most effect, in my opinion.)

  13. correia45 says:

    For the record, I always tell people that if they can make it the traditional way, DO IT! Self publishing is the kiss of death for the vast majority of books that go that way. Self publishing and actually being successful at it is much harder. You’ve got to be a good writer, and a businessman, and a marketer. Take the publishing contract.

    Konrath is having big success, but he already had a fan base and a considerable backlist.

    I’m an exception to the rule, as is John Scalzi. Keep in mind that I got rejected by everybody first, and only went POD when I was absolutely convinced from a busines perspective that I could make a good profit off of a POD MHI.

    Marko is right. You will not get professional respect until you are traditionally published. You will not be stocked in stores. And it will be a thousand times more difficult to build an audience.

  14. correia45 says:

    Plus, Marko is a good writer. He’s got actual talent. Terms of Enlistment is better than much of the published sci-fi out there.

    From what I’ve seen, once you’ve broken a certain talent threshhold, then all it takes is sticking to it until you end up in front of the right editor/agent. I’ve seen it over and over. I’ve seen it with friends of mine that are Writers of the Future winners and who have already made some sales.

    A lot of this business is based on being in the right place at the right time. Believe me, I’m thankful for luck. (luck just happens to come along more often after you’ve spent 10,000 hours typing)

  15. changterhune says:

    So well put I’m linking to it on my blog and saying, “What Marko said!”

  16. […] in point:  my boy Marko Kloos drops science from Castle Frostbite on why he won’t self-publish.  I […]

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