Sunday, July 11, 2010

Self Publishing Part 2: A Calculated Risk

At the Columbus Writing Works Conference this year, one of the presenters was a novelist who had self published a handful of books and had finally landed a real publishing contract for her next book. She was doing a talk about marketing yourself, and she was urging writers to consider self publishing “a calculated risk.” She didn’t seem to have much faith in anyone’s chances of getting a real book deal for their first book, and felt that, as long as you’re willing to do all the legwork yourself, self publishing is a good way to get started as a writer.

Her lecture, for me, was the real low point of the conference, as I didn’t feel that she had a very firm grasp of the way the industry actually functions. Her history as a writer was strewn with what I would call mistakes (getting suckered in by a fake agent, for example, and publishing twice with Publish America). This would be fine if she was telling us about her own mistakes so that we might avoid making them for ourselves. The problem was that she didn’t seem to understand that these had been mistakes. In fact, she didn’t seem to understand that Publish America was a vanity press!

At any rate, she did successfully get me thinking about what benefits self publishing may offer the writer who doesn’t want to go the traditional route. Now first of all I think it’s important to make the distinction between the writer who can’t get his or her manuscript accepted by a real publisher and the writer who doesn’t want to publish with a traditional publishing house. If you can’t get a book accepted for publication, you should probably take that as a warning sign that there may be something wrong. The book might not be ready; it might not fit into the current market (which means, no matter how good it is, you’re going to have trouble selling it); or it might just not be any good. You need to realistically evaluate your manuscript and your goals as a writer before you even think about self publishing, in my opinion.

However, if you do decide that you’d like to take the “calculated risk” of self publishing, it is possible to make some money if you’re really able and willing to do some hard work. The lady at the conference, for example, did make a few hundred dollars a month from selling her self published books. In fact, Steve Almond’s account of the money he made from self publishing in the recent Poets and Writers article compared pretty closely with this random do-it-yourselfer’s financial gain from self publishing. The trick is that you have to get out there and really sell that book.

This lady did several readings, book store signings, etc per month. She actually retired from her full time job as an English professor to have more time to devote to really selling her books. She sets up tables at farmers markets. She does presentations at relevant museums (her books are historical in nature, but this might not work for everyone). She even does readings at cafes—she says that these places are usually willing to let you read if there is no cost to them and all you ask in return is that they let you sell your book. Her marketing savvy may well have contributed to her finally landing a book deal with a real publisher—publishers love writers who know how to get out there and market themselves. Many small presses these days even ask you to submit a marketing plan along with your query, so this sort of self publishing experience may look good to some publishers.

Some writers talk about self publishing as being more profitable than going the traditional route (unless you’re lucky enough to land a book deal with a major publisher, of course). As the writer, you see a very small percentage of the book sales if your book is published by someone else, but in self publishing the amount you take home for each individual sale is much higher. If you publish with a tiny publishing house, for example, and get say a $1000 advance, there’s a good chance that that’s all you’ll ever see. If you self publish that same book and really get out there and sell that thing, you could stand to make substantially more over time.

Now let’s not kid ourselves here. Self publishing is not considered reputable, it just isn’t. Virginia Woolf aside. However, if you’re willing to do all the work yourself and you don’t mind the stigma, self publishing may be right for you. It has opened doors for some writers (emphasis on the some) who really got out there and worked it and then turned the experience to their advantage, but please don’t forget that self publishing is not a free pass to a successful career. Proceed with caution, my friend. Make sure you calculate that risk.

1 comment:

publish a book said...

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