I have never talked about self publishing on this blog. Of course, I have many thoughts on how to self-publish and the topic of self-publishing in general, but they’ve largely been quiet. Why? Because a small minority of self-published authors blame agents and editors and other gatekeepers for “having to” self-publish. The establishment is The Man. Agents keep literary geniuses down. So the geniuses circumvent The Man and self-publish. But, luckily, as the self-publishing market has matured, this type of writer gets less and less traction in the conversation, and I’m happy for that.
Self Publishing Considerations: Is It Right for You?
What finally got me to articulate myself on the topic is a fantastic Salon article. The average person has no idea what lurks in slush. The writers querying agents obviously think their stuff is up to snuff, or they wouldn’t be querying. Even so, most slush is not ready for human consumption. Why? Because writers are notoriously erroneous judges of their own work. A lot of them think they’re ready for “prime time,” and that is often not the case. It is my informed opinion—having read what most people call their polished, submission-ready work—that most self published books, unless professionally edited beforehand, will read like my slush pile, not like the New American Literature.
Most of the time, when you get a query rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.” (Learn about at types of agent rejection here.) The questions that would go through my head when I would evaluate submissions as a literary agent were: Is this saleable? Can I sell it? If the answer to one or both questions was “no,” I would reject. If the answer to both was “yes,” I’d pursue the project. It really wasn’t more complicated than that.
I do have to say this about self publishing: it is a very useful tool for people who have a niche audience or their own book sales channels. Ideally, both. Or people who have figured out how to writing to market and game the system with tools like K-Lytics to build up their readership in an intentional way.
These are the types of writers who should be learning how to self publish. Most traditional publishers may not do “niche” projects (not a large enough target market to justify general trade publication). If you have a book about a very specific subject, say, a kid with heart disease, and you also have access to the American Heart Association’s mailing list through your day job, for example … you might be successful at zeroing in on your target readers through direct sales.
For fiction, it can be a little bit more nebulous, but that’s where strong genre and category specificity comes in, as well as keyword research.
Looking to Self Publish for the Wrong Reasons
But most people wondering how to self publish don’t have a niche book or a good marketing strategy: they want to target the mass market. They have a project that would appeal, in their opinion, to everyone and anyone. And self publishing a book intended for a trade audience is where these would-be authors get in trouble. Because reaching a mass audience of casual readers when you self publish a meant-to-be mainstream fiction project is very difficult.
From now on in this article, I’ll be talking about these people. The people who don’t believe what editors and agents keep telling them: their work isn’t ready. Just because a shortcut exists, doesn’t mean you need to use it, nor does it mean that you’ve hit upon a secret goldmine. And just because you use it, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results as people who publish traditionally (your book distributed in stores … readers for your work … reviews … sales … any kind of profit).
The Internet disproves a simple, old-fashioned idea: “If you build it, (throw it up on Amazon KDP or any of these other websites) they will come.” Readers will not come. They have too much other stuff on their phone and ereaders and browsers and smart TVs. Every other author with a dream is uploading to KDP today as well.
The Internet is flooded with content. As a reader, my time and psychic space are limited. I seek only the things I’m looking for or already know about. I don’t go trolling for complete unknowns just to check out a new ebook, in most cases. Sure, maybe a Kindle ad will hit me in a curious moment, but those ads cost money … which is one of the pragmatic realities of self-publishing that not many people think about when they want to “prove all the haters (agents who rejected them) wrong.”
There’s definitely a right way to self-publish, and a wrong way. The right way takes an incredible amount of research, planning, skill, and execution.
How to Self Publish the Smart Way
But it’s not my job to sway anybody from wanting to self publish. All the people who want to self publish, should. Be prepared, if you go this route, to market. I don’t want you to be surprised at how difficult it is to get their books in the hands of readers. It’s also one thing to self publish once you already have a reader base, like Kindle evangelist Joe Konrath, who now has Amazon releasing his books, but quite another to rustle up some hungry eyes as a rank debut. But if you’re wondering how to self publish and your book is a good candidate, you should check out the Self Publishing Blueprint, a very comprehensive course full of great information.
It all depends on what will make you really feel like you’ve accomplished your goal. Each goal can be met in different ways, and each project can have a different path or outcome. While it is possible to traditionally publish something that was self-published originally, do know that this is unlikely. There are agents who will consider self published projects, if they have gone on to sell big (like, thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies). But a lot of literary agents and publishers prefer to focus on bringing something to market for the very first time.
Sure, there are exceptions. Christopher Paolini started out self publishing, and Fifty Shades of Grey is everyone’s prime example of a self-published project hitting the mass market. But it’s unreasonable to expect to be the next big hit, at least not without a lot of knowledge and elbow grease. The great news is, self-publishing tools (and educational resources) are more robust and plentiful than ever before.
For a client’s firsthand experience with how to self publish, check out this self publishing case study.
Many of my clients either want to self publish or have self published in the past. No matter your goals, I’ll work with you as a self publishing editor to help you arrive at the strongest possible project for any market.