Today the #followreader conversation on Twitter covers self-publishing, and I just wrote this post to the Utah Children’s Writers list in answer to a similar question, so I’m reproducing it here for a wider audience:
I think you could pretty much group everyone’s comments on what someone who self-publishes has to do under the umbrella of “you’re the publisher.” That means you take on ALL the roles that a publisher does, without the clout a mainstream publisher has. That means you’re no longer just the writer — all the pre-production and production issues are yours (editing, copyediting, proofreading, design, interior and cover artwork, administrative tasks like ISBNs (beware a vanity publisher who says they’ll get your ISBN — often they’re getting it in THEIR name, not yours, which causes problems in reprints if you get that far), copyright registration, getting quotes from printers and other vendors, etc.), and then the marketing, PR, sales, and distribution are a major hurdle that you’re handling yourself as well. As many have already noted, you’re not going to get your book in most bookstores unless you have several books, and the quality of the book in presentation and editing are always going to be an issue.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some great self-published books out there — look at Schlock Mercenary and several other webcomic artists’ books. But they definitely fall in a niche — a niche for which they already had a built-in audience from the webcomic of tens of thousands of fans. If you don’t already have an audience in place, it’s definitely something you’ll have to consider, because building an audience for most books, at least fiction, tends to be easier through a mainstream publisher.
Again, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but it is definitely daunting. It’s daunting for me as I start my small press, because I’m taking on a lot of these roles myself, roles that when I worked with a larger publisher were delegated to other employees. I will have to use all these kinds of skills — skills tha t I’ve gained through working in a publisher — and be very active on the selling end (going to shows, etc.) until we get at least five books out because no distributor will even look at a small press who isn’t a self-publisher until you have at least five titles out.
The stigma against self-publishing in the publishing world is simply that with all that up against the average self-publisher — and nowadays the average self-publisher *tends* to be the kind of person who insists they know publishing better than the experts, despite never having worked on either side of publishing as a writer or editor/other publishing staff — few people have the expertise to manage all those roles and come out with a well-written, well-edited, well-designed book that also sells well. Heck, it’s hard enough to do it when you’ve got a team of experts on your side.
Now, when I said “the average self-publisher” that often rules out anyone who’s doing their research, like networking through lists like this and so on. Already you’ve got more knowledge than the literally millions of self-publishers out there — most people who go to self-publishing honestly think that’s how a book gets published. I had an old roommate, who knew I was an editor, ask me how much it costs to get a book published by Random House — she honestly thought you had to pay to be published, and without more information, would probably have ended up going with a scam.
The reason why the number of books published every year is so large is because of all those self-published books. Few can stand out from a crowd in the sea of all those books. But the ones that do know how to capitalize on the skills everyone’s talking about here. And it can be a very good option for all the reasons Rick and several others have mentioned here. I know an author who just wanted a copy of the book to hand to her daughter at a certain age, so she decided to self-publish her picture book. For that goal, it succeeded. She hasn’t succeeded in selling out her print run, but the emotional reason was more important to her at that time, and she has other books she’s writing for the traditional publishing route. Certainly family and local histories have a limited, niche audience, and self-publishing can be a great boon for those kinds of stories. Self-help nonfiction, as someone mentioned here, can do very well in self-publishing because of all the opportunities to use your platform at conferences and such to sell the book, especially if you’re already an expert in your field. I’ve heard the same about real estate and finance kinds of books — again, those are authors with built-in audiences, so the books will probably sell themselves.
But the thing to remember as you consider self-publishing is whether you truly want to take on the roles of the entire staff of experts — or if you don’t want to do it yourself, if you want to enlist the help of independent experts (there are a lot of freelance editors out there who would be glad to help, but as Rick said, good help doesn’t come cheap — I myself charge $50 an hour for a developmental edit of a full manuscript) or if you have family members with these skills. It’s definitely possible, but it’s a whole lot easier to have a team of experts who are paying *you* to work on your book.
Keep in mind that the Eragons of the world are literally one in a million. There are a million books out there, wanting the limited attention span of the audience you’re trying to reach. It’s definitely wise to consider whether you can and want to take on all the roles necessary to really capture that attention. If you do, go for it. If you don’t, keep going for a regular publisher, working on getting your polished book into the right hands at the right time — and they’ll have that team of experts ready to go at the right time.
Sorry if this appears pessimistic. I may have been the editor at last year’s WIFYR that someone said told them that “all” self-published books are bad. If it was me, I believe I was misquoted. As I said above, *many*–not all, but MANY–self-published books tend to be of a low quality simply because the author doing the publisher is a *writer*–not any of the other roles that you have to fill to publish a book. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s always best to consider these things and consider how they’ll affect the end product of your book.