Self-publishing – total confusion for a newbie writer

I’m not going to list, discuss or make any judgement about self-publishing – plenty of people have done that; blogs, conference workshops, books, newspaper articles abound. Just enter “self-publishing” in the search box on Google and wait for the flood.

I want to write about the confusion facing a fledgling writer. Me.

I’ve drafted three thrillers set in an alternate reality. Experts have given me feedback, some challenging, some encouraging, always plenty to work on. And now my polishing cloth is well-worn. Agents have given me praise: ‘well-written”, “intelligent”, imaginative”. Authors whom I respect immensely have been rocks of support and encouragement. Beta readers have raved about my work (Read the comments!).

Rejection is a normal part of the path to publishing. I blogged about it here. And any guidance or information gleaned from the process can do nothing but help/guide/refine. But the siren voice of an immensely attractive alternative is getting louder. Both traditionally published and not-yet-published writers are putting their books up on Amazon, Smashwords, etc. and finding success (whatever that is 🙂 ).

But there is so much opinion out there for the relatively inexperienced writer. My friend Talli Roland summed it up neatly in her recent post:

“If we believed all the rhetoric on the web these days, writers wouldn’t know which way to turn. Many seem to be divided into traditional versus self-publishing, each slinging dirt at the other for the decisions they make. But aren’t we all writers, struggling to make a living? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the options now available to us, instead of decrying how naive someone is when they sign with a traditional publisher, or looking down at a writer when they self-publish?”

So here’s the crux: we have so much choice and so much opinion about choice that we find ourselves in the middle of a whirlwind.

Writing a book is hard work, but marketing and selling a book is also hard and is a business. So there’s instant brain-split. Do not think that if you self-publish you can do it all yourself. How do we find a good editor/cover designer/publicist? A traditional agent/publisher mix would do much of the business work for you, but would you be content with a small percentage of the book sale price or does Amazon’s 70% beckon you? Do you yearn to walk into a bookshop and burst with pride as you reach up and touch the book with your name on or do you want into the digital bookshop at a few keystrokes?

One guideline to steer by may be to think why you want to publish your book? Is it working through a story that’s been in your head for years? Is it proving something to yourself or others? Do you want to make your living out of it? Do you have a message  for other  people? Or is it that you can’t you stop tapping on that damned keyboard?

I’m still out. I’m editing book3 but by the end of the summer, I will stop dithering and make a decision. Are you facing this same dilemma?

28 comments to Self-publishing – total confusion for a newbie writer

  • carol mcgrath

    I shall self publish if I draw nil with my current novel because I know it will be as perfect as I can make it. I , by now, trust my writing. Absolutely! Great post here.

  • Alison

    Thanks, Carol.
    This is the dilemma with choice, whether it’s in the supermarket or publishing your book.

  • Nice post Alison. If you want one more opinion from a writer, mine is to stick to going the mainstream publishing route as long as you possibly can. I wrote my first novel and was lucky enough to get a literary agent. But she let me go after a couple of years (by which time I’d written my second novel) and I decided to go self-publishing instead of sending out all those query letters, and getting the form rejection slips, again.
    The problems start after you self-pub, with having to market your books and yourself. This is without a doubt the most soul-destroying thing to do, as it requires arrogance, ego, pushiness and thoughtlessness. It is extremely tiring and very depressing. And unless you’re very pushy, very well connected, or very lucky, it is unlikely you will sell many books.
    The other thing about self-publishing is that you then throw your lot in with all the other self-publishers. Many will offer to “help” you on a quid-pro-quo basis: they’ll give your book a nice 5-star review if you do the same for them. That’s fine till you read their books and realise that some of them can’t write, can’t spell or punctuate, can’t handle dialogue or exposition, and have in fact published first drafts which will make you cringe.
    I’m not saying all self-pub’d books are like that; there are some very good ones out there, but my point is if you do choose the self-pub route, there is easily as much grief as the trad route of getting an agent, waiting for your agent to get you a publisher, then your publisher investing in you. Anyway, sorry this turned into a bit of a rant.

  • Alison

    Chris, you pinpoint the dilemma of agent/publisher or self-pub perfectly. Many writers (me included, I expect) probably think ‘bagging’ an agent is their Happy Ever After. But I’ve heard elsewhere that having an agent for Book 1 doesn’t guarantee anything, either publication or continuity.

    But self-publication can mean you’re standing naked in a chill Force 9 wind with everybody ignoring you, or even if you have a warm community around you, you end up living in literary apartheid, never to grace the shelves of Waterstones.

    This is my dilemma and that of many others…

  • Excellent post; excellent follow up comments. It is, indeed, a dilemma in this increasingly difficult world of getting published, staying published and selling the book.

    Liz X

  • Alison, thank you for quoting my recent article.

    As I said, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. I can completely understand why some writers would not want to go down that road. However, I don’t see what they need to be mutually exclusive. In the US, I know several successful writers doing both. I hope that eventually, that same scenario can exist here.

    There can be different ways to reach to a dream. I guess it depends on what your writing dream looks like.

  • Sorry – it’s just gone wine o’clock here and I meant ‘that they need to be’!

  • Jean Bull

    I didn’t self-publish until I’d exhausted the traditional route. I put my book on Amazon and Smashwords, and had 100 copies printed which I’ve been selling locally and in Devon where my novel is set. Would I have like to have been published traditionally? Yes, but self-publishing has been quite successful and I’ve had the satisfaction of holding my book in my hands and seeing it on the shelf. I’m going to try again with my next book and pitch it to agents, because I don’t think the fact that you’ve self-published stops you doing that.

  • Maybe there are wise words here from Chris. She has been there. Food for thought.

  • A great post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I have an eBook, published via an eBook only publisher (Uncial Press). The main thing I get from them is editorial input. I wrote the best book I could write and the editor made it even better. They also did the cover and set up the various formats. On the other hand, they control the pricing.
    I’d love to have an agent, but I got tired of collecting rejection slips (even the nice ones with encouraging little notes written on them).

    Whichever route you take, you need to promote your book yourself. That’s a huge learning curve in itself.
    Good luck with the novel(s).

  • Alison

    Wow! What terrific comments.

    Liz – I know you have been ultra patient and persistent as well as working hard for your success with ChocLit.

    Talli – you are the self-pub queen so your sensible words come from both your head and your experience. I hope that we will adopt a more flexible system like they have in the US. Wine o’ clock, indeed 😉

    Carol – I know that you, like me, have worked very hard with our oeuvres, so deserve success. I’ll buy a copy of yours!

    Jean and Rhoda – thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’ve been looking at the eBook only publisher option, but these seem quite new animals in the zoo. I have to admit that I’d like very much to have a physical copy of my book to hold in my hands, Jean. Although an avid Kindle reader, I still love the feel and smell of a paper book.

    But I heard from one writer today returning from a well-known conference on the south coast that self-publishing seems to be rapidly changing its second-class image. Perhaps we are in for an exciting ride as the whole industry gets rocked.

  • Great post Alison! I’m just now beginning my writing career alongside of continuing my marketing career with an online self-publishing company.

    I feel like I’ve been fighting my inner writer for too long. I never really saw the potential to make a living doing it, but I find that writing is what I always come back to… So now I work full time and then write in the evenings. I’ve joined the ranks! At our company we like to view the author as an entrepreneur, and I never thought of it like that, but once I did the prospect of writing became very appealing.

    As for your last comment, I totally feel you on the whole paper book thing. There is a certain romance to a physical book, and there will always be a place in my heart, but I also really dig reading on tablets now. I like to amass my classics in print and then all of the other stuff is pretty much digital now because I can consume more so much faster and easier, and it’s always right there at my fingertips.

    What conference on the south coast were you referring to out of curiosity? SXSW?

    Good luck with everything.

  • Alison

    Thanks, Heather. I have a judicious mixture of physical and eBooks, both fiction and non-fiction. Although I’m culturally connected to the UK, I live in a non-English speaking country so find eBooks brilliant, but when I go back, I do raid the local bookshops…

    The local writing conference on the south coast I referred to was the Chichester Writing Festival

  • Alison

    Sarah Duncan wrote:

    Hi Alison,
    I tried to reply to your blog, but gave up after 10 attempts to enter the captcha code correctly – no idea what I was doing wrong. But this is what I wrote…

    I think you have to decide what matters most to you.

    If it’s prestige or validation, then you have to hang on until you get a traditional mainstream publisher. (This may change in the future, but right now it’s true.)

    If it’s money, then that’s uncertain either way – some self-publishers are making money, but not all by a long way. Those who are making money put in a lot of time on promotion. The traditional agent/publisher route should mean more money, if you get taken on, tho advances are down, ditto rights sales.

    If it’s getting the book ‘out there’ then self-publishing is the way to go.

    If it’s control, then self publishing is absolutely the way to go.

    If you only want to write and can’t be bothered/don’t have the time to do the editing, design, typesetting marketing etc, then a publisher is essential.

    Everyone will have different priorities – and some writers might have different priorities for different books.

    ATB Sarah
    Kissing Mr Wrong (Headline)

  • Alison

    Sarah – I’ve seen a significant shift in opinion over the past twelve months and as Talli and now you say, the wide choice of channels makes us examine in closer detail exactly what our motivation is for wanting to publish our books. I self-published “Military or Civilians?” straight to Kindle as it is of minority interest and not long enough to take to a mainstream publisher but is something which will appeal to people studying German women during the Third Reich. It would have saved me a great deal of trouble when I was doing so!

  • You’ve got to inform yourself as fully as you can, and then you have to make your decision.
    The fact that the old publishing model is crumbling doesn’t mean it won’t rise again, and it doesn’t make alternatives necessarily right. On the other hand, there are many writers who have found success outside the norm.
    In my case I write erotic romance which, until recently, has been the red-headed stepchild of romance. So I went with Ellora’s Cave and Loose-Id, instead of looking at mainstream, and it’s worked very well for me.
    But if I wrote mainstream contemporary romance, I’d be looking at Harleaquin and some of the major houses. I feel more comfortable working within the industry. I don’t want to take all the financial risks, and I need that editor to put me on the right track.
    Look at what people like Kristine Rusch and Chuck Wendig say about writing and the industry.

  • Alison

    Couldn’t agree more, Lynne, about research and informing yourself, whatever publication channel you pick for any one book.

    The choice is there now and I think rather than the previous publishing model crumbling it has to find a way to evolve.

  • One of the things I keep hearing is the word ‘niche’—it’s the word we used before some clever clogs thought up ‘demographic’—and I think it’s an important word to consider if you’re faced with this dilemma. Who are you going to be marketing to and how are you going to identify them? There are hundreds of sites out there who do book reviews but most of them only review books within a limited range—YA, paranormal, sci-fi—and suddenly you find yourself with a considerably shorter list and, of course, only a fraction of those you approach will be able or willing to do something for you but even if they do how many people are going to read their let’s-assume’it’s-glowing review and of that number how many will be willing to pay more than a few pennies to read it since there will be a dozen books of a similar ilk out there that they can pick up for 99¢ if not free? Me, I have the additional problem of being a literary novelist and I can assure you that promoting a book that doesn’t sit neatly in one of the more popular genres is a soul-destroying task.

    When I first started thinking about self-publishing no one was interested in ebooks. I’d been bought an eReader a few years earlier so they were around but they hadn’t taken off. Then came the Kindle and the world has been flooded with books so much so that you really can’t give them away especially at a time when people are watching their pennies. I still bring out a paperback version because I’m old and still don’t feel like I’ve been published unless I have a real book that I can flick through the pages of but as postage costs soar—there’s another big hike due in the UK—I’m seriously wondering how long that can continue as anything other than a vanity.

    The quality of self-published books is improving. Writers are realising they’re being held to a higher standard even than the traditionally-published authors and so are putting much more effort into getting their product—because that is what it is at the end of the day—right. And that usually costs unless you’re lucky enough to be married to an editor whose a dab hand with Photoshop. I think one of the things that needs to happen is for people to drop the ‘self’ from self-publishing. Why draw attention to it. It’s like talking about a black writer or a gay writer or a woman writer as if any of those things make a damn bit of difference. There is publishing, full stop. Traditional publishers publish crap and independent publishers publish crap and sometimes they don’t.

  • Alison

    Jim – I think you’ve caught three essential things: we have choice, the whole publishing model is fluid because of this and self-publishing quality is improving.

    The digital revolution has pushed up some difficult questions for the traditional industry. This is an exciting time to be writing and publishing, but a confusing one.

  • Hello Alison
    I’ve been facing your dilemma exactly – and still am! This post and the comments echo my own recent quandaries including the new option of e-pubishers. I think one positive development is that self-publishing no longer has the stigma it once had, and althought it won’t necessarily lead to finding a ‘real’ publisher I get the impression it won’t count against either. And so the choice is a real one. What do do with it? We must keep each other posted!

  • Alison

    AliB – I think you’re right – things are changing rapidly and self-publishing is starting to lose the ‘sneer factor’.

    Good quality content will always be valued and despite the clever ways we have now of disseminating information and reaching people in all parts of the world, word of mouth and personal recommendation are still the best way to tell people about your work, however it’s published.

  • Hey there,

    I feel your pain! I have a small publisher for my staff wielder series, but I also have a ‘much polished’ piece of work that I’d love to get out there… I’ve been toying with self publishing, but I do fall into the camp of loving having a hard copy book in my hand! Decisions, decisions…

  • Hello, yes I am in a similar position with nonfiction. I am considering self publishing nonfiction and have told myself that I will make a decision by the end of this year.

  • Alison

    Clare – I think you could have a hard copy if you investigated POD providers; CreateSpace and Lulu spring to mind. Or you could oder a small print run yourself. Have you read Alison Baverstock’s “The Naked Author” or Catherine Ryan Howard’s “Self-Printed”

    I admit to the same desire…

  • Alison

    Denyse – I was very happy to put my NF book on Kindle straightaway. Although history books are a little slow to get on to Kindle, they are increasing in number each month. Today’s students are a download first generation…

  • Just adding my 2p worth: I am in the position of being both mainstream and indie published – not “self published” – I have a wonderful company who “assists” me in getting my books in print. Self Publish is the “do-it-yourself” level all through, from writing it to setting the text, designing the cover and getting it printed and distributed. I do not have the time or technical ability to do all that – I’m a writer, not a publisher. I therefore took my books to a company that does all the “publishing” side of producing a book (be warned – if you decide on this find a GOOD company. Many are middle-road, too many are rubbish) Check possible indie assisted publishers at Mick is fair and very honest.

    I have this advice:
    1) try mainstream first. If you get ten rejects then consider that maybe your book isn’t a good enough standard so

    2) get it critiqued professionally (Not just your Mum or old Aunt Ada who used to be a teacher. Their opinions will be biased and they do not understand the sellability of a book)

    3)get it professionally edited – this is an _essential_ step if going indie. And I don’t mean just copy-edited for grammar and punctuation, I mean _fully_ edited for technique and style.

    4)Re-submit to mainstream. If you are still getting rejections on grounds of “not quite for us – but good luck” then go indie.

    I would also suggest that Indie is a better way if your book does not fit into a comfortable genre – straight crime or historical fiction is fine – but historical adventure with a touch of fantasy….? My Sea Witch series was rejected because there was no comfortable marketing slot – it is a round peg in a square hole. Sadly publishers can be very blinkered and not very adventurous. “But how do we market it?” I was told several times. I’m still shaking my head in bewilderment about it!

    Yes if you go Indie you will have to take on the burden of marketing yourself – but keep this in mind: if you go mainstream you will have to take on the burden of marketing yourself.

  • Alison

    Helen – Good advice from one who knows! I would also recommend Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine website to give people a good grounding on independent publishing.

    I see an awful of cross-genre books now and being a fan of alternate history as well as mainstream history, I’m a happy reader. I even saw a tweet from a prominent agent encouraging authors to inject a little fantasy into their work. Hm. There seems to be a growing appetite fo something a little different…

  • The novel’s finished & on the shelf. Got tired of agents (the only avenue to a publisher) doing full reads and then saying they’re still not sure.

    Now, my memoir is done. Very proud to say I am going to self publish.