Five reasons why self-publishing isn’t for me

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When you say you’ve written a novel, it’s common enough to be asked whether you’ve considered self-publishing. I usually mumble something non-committal about it being too much to take on, not the direction I want to take. But what is really holding me back?

Think of the pre-published author as a wannabe sailor. Actually want-to-be doesn’t cover it. This is someone who has dedicated years to developing their knowledge of sailing, they’ve bought all the gear, read all the books and bored everybody around them with their endless nautical talk. The only problem is they’ve never actually been out on the water.

Down at the harbour is the old respected yacht club. This is the gateway to sailing, the place where real sailors congregate. There are experts on hand, hot showers, a state-of-the art marina and opportunities to crew on fantastic yachts every day.

The sailing enthusiast grew up hearing about this yacht club and their only wish is to join the yacht club and become a real sailor. But the yacht club is exclusive. There is a long waiting list and the club selects only a handful of new members every year.

Why not just buy a little sailing dingy and launch it from the public slipway at the other end of the harbour? They’ll have to get the boat there themselves, carry it down to the water and drag it back up again. There may not be any wind the day they manage to get all this together but they will be sailing. They will have their place on the ocean. Why sit on the shore and wait when they might never get a chance to sail at all?

Here are five reasons why the single-handed option doesn’t appeal to me.

1. Drop in the ocean. Self-publishing has become hugely popular with close to 450,000 titles published per year! This massive democratisation of the sector has created legions of new readers and new writers and that’s a great thing. But it also means an incredibly crowded space for authors to be trying to catch a wind. Most of those little dinghies are still stuck inside the harbour and this is a frustrating place to be. Only a tiny minority make it out into the bay where they can pick up speed.

2. All hands on deck. Self-publishing requires strong project management and entrepreneurial skills and there is no avoiding the out-of-pocket costs, knowledgeably listed by Jann Alexander in this recent post:

Publishing is a teamwork-based business best navigated with the help of an agent. Do you really want to have to sort out the cover design, proofreading, printing and distribution on top of writing your next book? And I haven’t even mentioned marketing.

3. Pieces of eight. This is the part that gives me the shivers. The people I see who appear to be making a success of the self-publishing route have a big author platform and often a big personality to go with it. All their social media is strategic. They are manically engaging with people not based on any organic process of interaction but because they are pumping energy into an online presence that has to work for them – ALL THE TIME. Sometimes intelligent and interesting, sometimes inspiring but also a little bit scary.

4. Ship shape. No matter how much has changed in the publishing game in the past decade, having one’s work chosen by the industry as worthy of publication is still the most important measure of quality. It’s not that established publishing houses aren’t guilty of publishing poorly written books or that masterpieces can’t be found among the half a million. It’s just that self-publishing is an open door and that unavoidably lowers the value of the group.

5. Deep water. From what I’ve seen, self-published authors fall into two categories. There are the crusaders for whom self-publishing is a quasi-political movement and there are the pragmatists who have opted for self-publishing as the only viable way to get their book read, usually after trying and failing to go the traditional publishing route. The pragmatists are making the best of things and may even turn into crusaders in time but underneath it all you can sense the strain.

Obviously I’ve stretched the nautical analogy to the absolute limit at this point and probably managed to reveal how little I know about both sailing and publishing in one fell swoop. I’m aware that publishing your own work takes a lot of courage and dedication and that this discussion can be quite divisive. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to like one option without loathing the other?

(Please check out Marc Kuhn’s response to this post on his blog. A former radio journalist, Marc lives in Florida and is the author of two children’s novels and two adult novels.)

23 thoughts on “Five reasons why self-publishing isn’t for me

  1. We are in the same boat, Clare! I particularly relate to 2, 3 & 4, but these are all valid points. I also strongly believe that every sailor needs an apprenticeship period, and in writing terms, that often means the first or maybe first AND second novels – learning by doing etc.

    1. Apprenticeship is the right word. The struggle is not wasted because we all want to become better at what we do. But first AND second novel for learning only? Yikes!

  2. Wow. this is a real thought-provoker…your best yet. I have owned a sailboat and I have self-published. But the thing I was best at, I suppose, was merely sitting on the dock and watching everyone else. There is a lot to chew on here and I will attempt to do just that before I respond…nice job, Clare!

  3. Beautiful analogy, Clare. I think it’s so hard, waiting on the shore, watching all those fancy yachts out in the sea, yearning to join them, genuinely not knowing whether your own boat, for all you’ve worked on perfecting it, is going to sail or to leak. While I’m personally relieved not to be self publishing, I don’t think I’d completely rule it out for the future. I think the drop in the ocean applies also to traditionally published books, we’re all vying for attention: too many sailors and not enough passengers!

    1. I’ve also heard about well-established authors who get tired of the restrictions of their publisher and break out on their own. It’s obviously different when you’ve already built up a name and a following.
      You’re right about the drop in the ocean. The constant stream of books coming out means each one has such a short window to make an impression.

  4. Great post, Clare. Maybe that’s what delaying me. I’d love to have someone else do all the marketing, love to have a team of editors whip my novel into perfect shape, and I’d love to just do the writing part. The truth is I’ve taken so long to write this one novel (although I have a couple more half finsihed), I don’t want to spend forever looking for an agent or a publisher, waiting, waiting, waiting… Besides, from everything I’ve been hearing, even by going the traditional route you have to do a lot of the marketing yourself.

    1. That’s true. I read a brilliant piece by Lionel Shriver once about the pressure to produce articles, attend festivals, give readings / interviews. Even those on the top of pile have to work at it.
      I’ve entered a curious zen phase in my waiting on book one. Almost as if it doesn’t matter any more.

  5. Thanks for the shoutout to my Go Big or Go Indie post, Clare. Like your sailing analogy too. You’ve listed some reasons I hadn’t considered, nice to hear what others think–when I attended a recent Atlanta publishing conference to help decide on my own path (which forms the basis for my blog post and some related ones), hearing from industry experts helped me make my decision. Self-publishing is NOT for the faint of heart. I admire those who do. For my first book, I’m looking for an agent and/or a small publisher to work with and learn from; it’s not that I fear the entrepreneurial requirements of self-publishing. I know that a certain amount of that is required for either choice. It’s just that I understand all too well the need to be two people in one body when you’re going it alone.

    1. It sounds like you are informing yourself at a very advanced level. It’s great to have those resources. I look forward to reading more about the subject on your blog. Obviously this choice is highly individual, depending on what the writer wants and what they can manage. The small publisher option appeals to me too.

  6. I’m a novice too, but I think there are more than two possibilities; it isn’t just trad versus self-publishing. There have been any number of small publishers sprung up in the last few years to cash in on the flood of new writers who are daring to ask to be published. Problem is, many of these small pubs have no more idea about running a business than I have, and have hardly any more contacts. Without cash to pay for advertising and some kind of network in place for marketing, your little book is going to sit with your little publisher going nowhere exactly as if you’d done it all yourself. The real challenge is not to get picked up by a small, useless publisher who isn’t that fussy, it’s to get a proper, reputable publisher who will get your book noticed. If you can’t get the eye of a good publisher, can’t hook an energetic agent, you really are better off doing it yourself IMO. Just don’t expect to sell much unless you really put your every waking moment and a bit of cash into it. That goes for books published with small shoestring budget pubs too.

    1. Which shows how crucial it is to research when you are submitting. You really have to look closely to weed out the time wasters. As for finding a good publisher or an agent, it does seem like the eye of the needle these days. So you put in the effort and you wait – but for how long? At some point the majority of new writers are going to reach the end of that process unsuccessfully. Then comes the question – go it alone or never see your book in print, never have any readers for your work. Or back to the drawing board. Isn’t it great? (crazed laugh)

      1. I think that self-publishing points up the limitations of democracy. If you let everybody have the same amount of air time, the chances of hitting on something actually worth reading diminish as the tidal wave of choice grows.

  7. My first novel was self-published. If I self-publish my second novel, I don’t intend to send it out into the world until I have a good marketing plan set up. I still have so much to learn about marketing. Selling a book requires a totally different skill set than writing one.

  8. As a sailor and a writer the scariest but most exhilarating part is when you round up into the wind and pull the main halyard drawing the sail up into the wind. Single handing a sailboat requires footwork also. Getting back to the helm in time to prevent slicing that Sunfish in half and before the boom jibes and cracks your skull as you’re propelled over the rail. Help editing and marketing may make the difference and that is why I am fortunate to have a “first mate” aboard to launch my work. The “other” option presented itself to me and I went with a small press that saw what the much too busy New York crowd did not have time or energy for. I just hope the wind holds and I can stay clear of the rocks.

  9. Today is the day I was planning to submit my first novel to Amazon….but wait! Is it fate? I just discovered you and your post through Marc in Florida. Oh dear…. I need to get a gallon of ice-cream and read this through again.:-0……..If only I could find an agent…..

    1. Hi Angelika, major congratulations for getting to the point of publication. Only you know if this is self-pub is the right path for you. Let us know what you decide after the ice cream!

  10. Hi clareodea! I have tried and tried to find an agent… but not one even bothered to read my query, so I really have no choice but to go Amazon. I’ve heard of agents approaching new authors on Amazon. I wonder if that’s true. Can you tell…I’m a hopeless optimist. :-)..I really enjoy reading your blog…am I following you? Not sure… but I def. will now.

    1. I would say agents get so many queries they have to turn down that the last thing they would need to do is trawl Amazon to discover talent. I don’t think you’ve come up as a follower on my blog yet. You can always enter your email top right if the follow button is not working. Good luck with your book launch. I will follow you back as soon as I have proper Internet access again (temporarily off the grid).

      1. You’re probably right about that. I sent the email request -just to make sure. 🙂

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