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Why self-publishing is never an option.

Posted on 2010.05.12 at 06:17

A fellow writer recently told me that after a number of rejections, his agent suggested that he consider self-publishing.  This shocked me, as I’ve never heard of a reputable agent saying that.  I’m quoting at length from my response to his email, with the hope that it helps writers avoid this pitfall.

Aside from being a writer, I'm a manager for one of the highest volume bookstores in the country (a merchandising supervisor, to be exact), but beyond that, I handle all our in-store author events, which puts me in contact with publicists and editors.  My job’s given me an inside look at the publishing business, above and beyond what I've learned from trying to get published.

The big reason self-publishing is never a good option, is that companies like Borders (and to my knowledge B&N) won't even consider stocking self-published titles, and their warehouses won't stock them either.  Distributors like Ingram and Baker and Taylor might, but only because they contract with some self-publishers (and are compensated for doing this).  SPs charge authors extra fees to guarantee that these distributors will take returns, which makes the SPs more money and covers their risk, as well as covers the costs of the distributors.  A bookstore won’t purchase SP books if they are non-returnable, which in most cases is the case.  The SPs say paying a premium to accept returns will get an author around this obstacle, but this simply isn't true. Borders still won't order self-published books, unless it’s a handful of copies for a local market.

A self-published book gets no significant publicity, though for an additional fee some SPs offer a publicist’s services.  If the author is lucky and very polite, he or she might get the support of a local bookstore manager, but that only generates sales in a single market.  Most booksellers wrinkle their noses at self-published books, assuming they're poor quality, or worse, wasted endeavors.  And never hire a publicist on your own, unless they worked for a major publishing house, know the business/have contacts, and can show you what books they've successfully promoted.  Many for-hire PRs don't know what they're doing; they're just fleecing you and have no real connections.  I've received calls from for-hire publicists and self-publishers who don't know what an ISBN is, don’t know about BIP(Books in Print), don't know how to submit books to corporate buyers for review, and haven't even read their authors' books.  Worse, they often have no connections with newspapers, magazines, genre blogs, online reviewers, etc.

SP is a big black hole for your time, money and novels.  Most agents don't want to hear if you've SP'd a book—at least when it comes to your publishing credentials.  An agent wouldn't be impressed unless you've racked up truly spectacular sales (not to mention written a terrific book), and even then most likely would ask for your next book, not the one you've self-published, because publishers don't want to hassle over rights, and want to do the first printing themselves.  If your self-published book is the first in a series, you're in real trouble.  There are exceptions, like Chris Paolini, but they are like the winners of the lottery.

If you do self-publish a book, you can't get away with sending it to agents/publishers without disclosing your book’s history.  This is severely frowned upon, and will lead to a quick rejection.  The first thing an agent/editor will do is Google your name and book title, and research both on the web.  They're very canny, and will even look at your online presence to see if you look like someone they would want to work with, ie, professional, non-confrontational, and write-well online.  If you have a big ego, abandon ye hope.  If you sold your book to a small press like Cemetery Dance, Subterranean Press or Nightshade Books--all of those would be considered legitimate publishing credentials.

If your book is worth publishing, don't self-publish it.



slakala at 2010-05-12 16:11 (UTC) (Link)

Self Publishing

I'm a tad sorrowed that such is your opinion, Rob. Though, of course, you are entitled to it. I, at least, have vastly more respect for those who self-publish than those who've passed their work on to others. :\

Best wishes regardless!

rjcrowtherjr at 2010-05-12 20:36 (UTC) (Link)

I have great respect for authors who not only believe in their writing, but take the risk of trying to get it published, and for those few who publish it through their own printing ventures. The self-publishers I want to caution writers against, are companies like iUniverse and Lulu, which make millions printing anything an author sends to them, regardless of quality, as long as an author is willing to fork out the cash. These companies promote themselves as legitimate publishing entities, but are nothing more than printing and binding services.

No respectable publisher charges editorial fees, printing fees, binding fees, art department fees, etc. Real publishers absorb all these costs themselves, and take all the financial risk, which is why getting published is so bloody hard. When major publishers buy a book, they are giving you a business loan, with no guarantee they will earn a return on their investment, and the only collateral being your intellectual property.

I have the highest respect for small presses, cottage presses, and micropresses, and for legitimate online magazines like Clarkesworld. The biggest obstacle for small presses is distribution, but more and more small press titles are making it into bookstores. I believe if you've invested your soul into writing a book, it should be given the best shot at finding an audience, and paying a self-publishing company doesn't do that.

My intention isn't to insult self-published authors, merely to point out that self-published books are in most cases only read by friends and family, and won't be carried by bookstores, regardless of what self-publishing companies tell you.

All the best, my friend,

Edited at 2010-05-13 09:04 am (UTC)
(Anonymous) at 2010-05-20 19:53 (UTC) (Link)
There's a reason they used to call it vanity publishing. My grandfather was persuaded to publish his sermons through such an outlet, and I can still recall the piles of books sitting there in the dining room waiting to be sold--although some of those copies are still out there 40 years later:


There may be reasons to self-publish rather than to publish through the conventional publishing routes: you want to be read and don't care about making money from your work, or you believe in free access to art as a matter of principle, or your ideas are so out there that you know you need to focus on reaching your own particular audience. But if you want to reach a wide audience, and don't want to starve in a garret while trying to do so, then listen to Rob.
(Anonymous) at 2010-05-20 19:54 (UTC) (Link)
Oops-- Forgot to sign. That was me, Victoria.
Steve Prosapio
no_bull_steve at 2010-05-24 21:38 (UTC) (Link)

"Never" is a long long time...

And times, they are a changin'

Rob if this was 1998 or even 2008, I'd agree with you...but as you know, my opinion is changing--not so much with the times, but with the evidence. The surest way to insanity is continuing to cling to old beliefs in the face of new information. I'd love to hear back from you regarding my email. I'll probably be blogging a respectful "counter point" to this blog some point soon. I hope you take it with the intention it's meant...as writers sharing information to stay abreast of this crazy market.

And here's some food for thought. Today from PW.

Deep down I'm shallow like you.
mythfish at 2010-05-20 21:08 (UTC) (Link)
I don't know that I'd say it's "never" an option. If you're not in it for the money, then who cares who stocks the book or how much publicity you get? Granted, most authors are writing because they want to get rich (or at least have more than a couple people read their book), but if I were to write a book that wouldn't have much of a market anyway (such as a cultural analysis of 18th century Bantu kinship examined through their various words for "hairball" for example) simply because I'm passionate about the subject, then why go through the trouble of trying to find someone actually willing to publish and promote it?

But generally speaking, yes, I agree.
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