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Marginal Notes

The Perils of Self-Publishing


Iím not an expert in self-publishing. I havenít looked into all the new venues that let writers get their work out in the world on their own. I havenít run the numbers -- what kind of sales you can expect and what return youíll get on your investment. The only research Iíve done is to watch whatís been happening with my clients over the last 25 years.

Iím not saying that no one should ever self-publish. I know that it has worked well for a lot of writers, and it has sometimes been the right choice for my clients.

But I am saying that there are dangers to self-publishing that you need to hear. If you decide to do it, you should at least know what the pitfalls are.

The biggest pit that you donít want to fall into is self-publishing before your book is ready. Iíve had a couple of fans of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers proudly send me their self-published books. Almost without exception, they were full of unlikable characters, obvious plot twists, stilted dialogue, and basic stylistic awkwardness that canít be cured just by reading a book on writing, even a really good one. The problem is, itís almost impossible to judge for yourself whether or not youíre ready to publish. This is what critique groups, independent editors, and submissions to agents are for Ė to let someone other than yourself size up your manuscript.

Premature publication doesnít just waste money. A lot of modern self-publishing companies, particularly e-publishers, let you get your book on the market on the cheap. The real danger lies in the time youíll spend designing and marketing your book -- time that you should spend either revising it or starting the next one.

Thereís been a lot written about the importance of having an internet platform to sell your books, for instance, so Iíve known a few writers who start blogs that quietly die after three postings. Others solicit reviews from other writers, which puts them in touch with the round of people soliciting reviews from other writers, so that they start spending all of their time reading and reviewing other self-published works. And you can always annoy your Facebook friends with weekly offers to buy your book.

Thereís also the time you need to invest in learning things that have nothing to do with writing, such as book design. A few years ago, a client sent me a copy of his self-published sci-fi thriller. It was a good, fun read Ė tense and fast-paced, with an intriguing premise, a fascinating hero, and a sweet twist at the end. But the cover illustration looked like something a talented tenth grader might draw on the back of a notebook. Iíve also had self-published books arrive in the mailbox with tiny margins, shoddy paper, minuscule (or oversized) print, odd fonts -- there are hundreds of ways to undermine the reading experience that you wouldnít know about unless you were a professional book designer.

Of course, many self-publishing houses offer professional design services, for a price. And since you get what you pay for in design as you do in any other profession, you will have to pay a reasonable amount to get the kind of quality you need. You can also hire yourself a good marketer, but again you need to pay the kinds of fees respectable professionals charge. So weíre back to investing money in a book that may not deliver a return.

To be honest, learning to market yourself is something you may need to do anyway, if you plan to be a successful writer. Most major mainstream houses are interested in blockbusters, and breaking into that market is slightly less likely than winning the lottery. So your first publisher will probably be a small, independent house or a house specializing in genre. Either way, you probably wonít get a lot of help with your marketing.

One of my clients has published a series with a small, traditional house. This is a good thing in some ways Ė he has a strong personal relationship with the publisher, for instance. But small houses donít have the marketing budget or clout of a larger house, so he has had to learn to market himself. This has meant investing both money in a professional marketing firm and time in giving interviews across the internet.

So marketing a traditionally-published book can be nearly as much work as self-publishing. The advantage to traditional publishing, even with a smaller house, is that you know a publishing professional thinks your manuscript is worth the investment. When you self-publish, it may be, but you canít be sure.

In the interests of fairness, there are big pits in traditional publishing as well. One of my clients signed a two-book deal with Hyperion on the strength of a terrific dystopian YA. But the editor who signed her left, and her new editor kept demanding rewrites that never seemed to satisfy her. After months of trading drafts back and forth, they mutually decided to pull the plug on the deal. The client got to keep her advance, but, despite my encouragement, hasnít written anything since.

Another relatively recent pitfall to watch for is the multiple-book deal, something that shows up mostly in genre publishing. This may sound like a godsend, but while genre publishers might be more open to new voices, they also have a tremendous turnover Ė the shelf life of mass market paperbacks is down to a few weeks. Some authors find that the multi-book deal they thought was the turning point of their career actually destroys it when theyíre faced with deadlines and pressure from an editor eager to keep the titles churning.

It wasnít too long ago that self-publishing houses were known as ďvanity presses,Ē and the whole industry brought to mind sad, would-be authors with boxes of their books moldering in their basements. But as traditional publishing moves toward e-books and POD Ė and major houses move deeper into their search for the next blockbuster Ė self-publishing is losing that stigma and becoming more mainstream.

That doesnít mean itís easy. But if youíre considering it, at least now you know the pitfalls and can keep your eyes open.