Self-publishing pitfalls

Today I want to talk a little bit about self-publishing. Unlike some, I think self-publishing is a viable option for certain authors, for certain manuscripts. However, I do think self-publishing fiction is most risky. Non-fiction topics generally fit into a niche that self-published authors can utilize to find "stranger" readers. (Stranger readers being the general public--not the author's friends/relatives/co-workers). Fiction doesn't work in that same way, and so finding stranger readers for a self-published novel is infinitely harder. (Not impossible, as we have seen such phenoms as The Shack, but still harder). Invariably what happens is, the author garners a small readership--mostly family and friends with a few stranger readers sprinkled into the mix. Some time later, the author realizes what a huge and lonely--often unprofitable--venture this has become.

Since self-publishing means the author is on his own, if he doesn't have the marketing knowledge, skill, or opportunity, sales quickly falter and fall to nothing. Because of this, and for several reasons, publishing with an established publisher is almost always better (even if it's with a small press that may not have the marketing budget of a large publisher). Let's look at some of the reasons why.
  1. The author has no up-front costs, no publishing costs, no marketing costs, no design costs. 
  2. The book is edited by a non-related, objective party. Let's face it, critique partners are excellent, but they are your friends, and at times, even CPs can be lenient in their appraisal. 
  3. Even if the author goes with a small press that puts NO money into marketing, that publisher has several titles available, which adds up to quantitative marketing and cross-selling exposure. Perhaps a reader isn't looking for XYZ novel by LMNOP author, but when searching for ABC novel by DEFGH author, said reader finds both books--and both authors benefit. 
  4. A self-published book out there trying to find an audience in the vast sea of available novels usually doesn't have the SEO boost generated by link volume and name saturation that a publisher has.

Are there advantages to self-publishing a novel--especially in this technological age where popping a book onto the Kindle or publishing through LuLu or CreateSpace, etc., is so easy? You bet. The author has total control over her manuscript, over the cover, over distribution, and gets to keep a greater percentage of the profits. . .if there are any profits after laying out the expenses.

But, there are also many pitfalls and the one I want to shed some light on today is the pitfall of sealing that particular manuscript's fate--probably for life.

Periodically we get submissions from authors who want us to consider a manuscript that he/she has self-published, and I always feel bad as I'm sending the email that informs him/her we are not interested. Don't get me wrong; I love technology! The amazing things that can be done, created, manipulated with computers and electrical circuits fascinates me, but I fear the ease with which authors can self-publish these days sometimes put their writing careers at a disadvantage. Authors can easily jump to self-publishing without having to invest the several thousand dollars that option took just short years ago, and so the patience authors of a decade ago had to cultivate in order to hone their craft, gets thrown out the window. In the process, a budding career may be squelched.

Let me illustrate it like this: When an author comes to a publisher with a currently self-publsihed project, what he/she is basically saying is, "I've already branded this book (with a published title, cover, etc.); I've told as many people as I could about it, and I've sold as many copies as I could. Now I'm coming to you because I've realized I can't make money on this project on my own. I can't generate interest in this"--(because if she could, she wouldn't be seeking an alternative to the self-publishing she's already done)--"so, would you please spend your money? Please spend time and money editing the manuscript, spend time and money developing a marketable cover. Spend time and money on a marketing plan, on distribution fees and file conversions."

As a publisher, my silent question is: "Why should I?" If I were actually to ask the author that question, I've no doubt the most common response would be, "Because I know this project will sell well and touch people's lives." Ah, but if that's the case, why didn't it sell as a self-pubbed book? If the audience is there, if the demand is present, why did it not already perform well? And, the author's response would most likely be something to the effect of, "Because I didn't know how to market it. I didn't know how to find readers." (Which may be a valid and true point, but since publishers want authors to be actively involved in marketing, it's not a very compelling argument in making the publisher want to take on the project.)

Even with these points notwithstanding, let's take a look at the publisher's perspective a little further. Perhaps this novel is the next previously self-published NY Times bestseller (it has been known to happen on occasion). But, more often, it's a novel that has already sold copies to family, friends and co-workers; because it's been on the Internet for weeks, months or years, it's also found any inadvertent stranger readers it's going to find; the title, concept, and cover art are already stale and the life of the title has run it's course; thus, the odds of a publisher recouping even production costs, let alone marketing dollars, is too slim to take a chance--especially on an unproven, virtually unknown author. (Now, if Nora Roberts, John Grisham, Barbara Michaels or Stephen King wants re-market and re-publish their previously-published, out-of-print titles, that a publisher might consider.)

In trying to come up with ways to make this already-published novel saleable, one may think that changing the title is a possibility, but what happens when a reader who purchased the self-pubbed version also purchases a publisher-published version of the same book? Angering readers is not the goal of any publisher. So, title-changing isn't really a viable screen for reissuing a story that is previously/presently self-published.

All that said, I don't want to complete discourage authors from self-publishing. As I started this post, for some, it is a viable option. What I do want to do is urge authors who are considering self-publishing, to truly ponder the pitfalls. If you know you have a ready audience and can recoup any investment you make, then maybe you should go for it, but if you have any doubts about that at all, reconsider. If you believe the possibility exists that you will want to submit that manuscript to a publisher one day, I advise you not to self-publish. Be patient. Try to discover why you're stacking up rejections on this manuscript, and hone your craft. There is no rush. Remember, self-publishing is always out there. The opportunity for that isn't going to disappear if you don't do it right this minute--but the possibility of that manuscript being picked up by a publisher if you do self-publish it right this minute, probably will disappear.


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