Should I Self-Publish? A Motherfucking Checklist

Writing Advice

Depending on who you listen to, you’ll find that self-publishing is either:

a) The best thing since blowjobs and lip balm. “I self-publish. I sell a billion books a month. I can afford a Kindle made out of the bones of the last known Dodo bird. It is a magical panacea that cures all ills. Last month I self-published my new novel, HOT FLASH: A Spaz McGillicuddy Mystery, and after ten minutes of being posted it saved a baby from a house fire.”


b) The worst thing you could possibly do (next to thrusting your private parts in and out of a badger’s mouth). “You self-published a book? You are the bastard son of four publishing abortions. Your novel is a miscarriage of language. It is completely illegitimate. It is without substance. It does not have the gatekeeper’s seal of approval, and so I spit in your mouth.  I spit in your mouth. Ptoo!”

Of course, both arguments are generally put forth by proponents of either position — those with something to gain or something to lose on the either side. But most authors — like, say, me — are somewhere in the middle. We’re dizzy with confusion. Our mouths taste of vomit, and somehow, our pants are unbuttoned. It’s like we’ve been Rufied. Don’t know which way is up, left, right, or down. For us, what is the reality?

The reality — like with nearly all things ever — is in the mushy middle. Self-publishing is neither the next coming of Book Jesus, nor is it a self-inflicted perdition.

A few quick caveats.

First, I have a short story collection I will be self-publishing in the new year. (Irregular Creatures: see the cover here.)

Second, I have two books out on submission through my agent to traditional publishers.

Third, I have a novel due to a traditional publisher, Abaddon Books, in April.

Fourth, this post is inspired by J.A. Konrath’s YOU SHOULD SELF-PUBLISH post.

Fifth, I don’t know shit about shit about shit. I am no expert. I’m just a dude mouthing off into the void. Maybe some of what I say makes sense, maybe it doesn’t.

Finally, this is a long, long post. Hell, I just made it longer by writing “long” twice. It’s like I hate myself. And perhaps you, my audience. But seriously, you can just skip to end if you’d like. That’s where my conclusions scamper and scurry.

Now, should you self-publish? Let’s hit the checklist.

Do You Like Money, And Are Also Impatient?

Self-publishing is the way to Money Now. I punt my book up onto one of several marketplaces (from Amazon to Lulu), I can start earning coin pretty damn immediately. And in most cases, the author retains a greater percentage of the sale in self-publishing.

Assuming you suckle at the teat of that old equation (Time = Money), this makes the most sense. Finished my book on Tuesday, it’s up on Thursday, I have dinner by the weekend. Huzzah. Of course, that book is probably a giant hunk of crap, but hey, whatever.

However, look deeper, and things get fuzzy. Let’s say you make about two bucks per book sale, right? I’m just making up numbers, so roll with me. If you want to make a thousand bucks, you’re going to have to sell 500 books. Do you have 500 people who are willing to do that? Maybe. Could you amp up marketing around it and sell the book? Possibly. Five hundred sales isn’t an unholy number.

Still. I write free blog posts every day, and up until recently I was lucky to get 500 views on a post. Again, key word, free. Reading my blog costs you naught but a twitching index finger and functional eyeballs.

An average advance on a traditionally-published novel is… well, a moving target. Let’s just call it $5000.

That would necessitate 2500 sales of your self-published book. Not impossible, but not a snap-your-fingers-say-a-magic-word-and-that-shit-happens kind of task, either.

Let’s say it takes three months to write a novel, and three months to edit it. You could seriously tighten this time-frame up, but overall this lets you write two books a year. If you’re a fledgling novelist, the novel you wrote is going to take a long time to publication. I wrote Blackbirds in 2009 and got an agent for it at the end of that year. Went on submission very early 2010 after some edits. And it’s been there since. About to cross over into 2011 and… no pub deal yet. And if I get one, how long will it be before it hits shelves? Another 6, 9, 12 months? In the grand scheme, not a long time. But like Konrath points out, those are months where the book isn’t earning poopy squat zip zilch nada zero. At present the novel is this thing I can talk about but can show no one. It’s getting me little except my name out amongst publishers (which is nice, but doesn’t put food in my mouth).

Still. The money from traditional publishing is slow to manifest and slow to get into your hands. Self-publishing money is smaller at the outset, but hops into your hands a lot faster. Is the money really better for the self-published author? On average, probably not. Of course, here’s the secret: if you’re getting into novel-writing for the money only, I hope you savor the bitter tang of disappointment.

What About Legitimacy?

Self-publishing comes with fast money, and slow (to no) legitimacy.

Sorry to say, but self-publishing will forever have a hard time earning full-on legitimacy. It’s like that saying, “If everybody is special, nobody is special.”

If everybody can self-publish, no guarantors of quality exist.

As such, what comes with traditional publishing does not come with self-publishing. You don’t have easy access to reviews (whether in the local paper or in Entertainment Weekly). You won’t win awards or be able to join certain writer organizations. You probably won’t end up on a book tour or on speaking engagements (unless you’re Konrath).

Now, some of this is la-la-la ego-stroke fantasy unicorn bullshit. Awards? Awards don’t pay a mortgage, don’t diaper your baby, don’t keep you in chocolate, bacon, or beer.

Or do they? One could make a case that reviews, awards, and book tours are a good form of externally-driven marketing and, indeed, they may sell books. So, that’s a consideration.

Oh, legitimacy also brings with it a few other perks — financial ones, actually. Foreign rights, film and TV rights, transmedia rights. These are at present far likelier to come to the traditionally-published author and can represent a fairly large source of income.

Are You Willing To Compete With Utter Garbage?

Anybody can self-publish. Which means your book is going to compete with all that garbage — and that is what it is. I believe in my heart of hearts that most self-published material is the equivalent of a child’s drawing on the fridge — it’s bare minimum, lowest-common-denominator fol de rol. Hey, most blogs are crap. Most photos on Flickr are crap. Most fan fiction is crap. The world has always been home to a mighty heap of crap-stench, except the Internet has made it very easy for all that crap to splurch forth into the public space like so much formless Play-Do. No filter. Pure crap. Everywhere.

Now, on the one hand, that’s good. Competing with garbage is easy if you’re not garbage, right? Ehhhh. I dunno. I’d rather find a needle in a stack of needles than in a mound of wildebeest snot. Self-publishing runs the risk of creating a very real signal-to-noise issue. See, right now, if I walk into a bookstore? If I pick up a random book, I know that book has been vetted. It has passed the gatekeepers — which, by the way, is why those gatekeepers exist in part. Now, that’s still not an ultimate guarantee of quality and it’s damn sure not a guarantee I’ll actually like the book. But it does mean that the book has passed hurdles that the self-published book has not.

Of course, the bookstore also has its own signal-to-noise ratio. Shelves after shelves of forgotten books with no marketing oomph behind them, lost to the eye and forgotten to many. No clear win either way.

Do You Hate The Gatekeeper Model?

No better way to give those gatekeepers the ol’ double barrel middle finger — PACHOW, PACHOW! — than to skip them entirely, self-publish, and make a fortune! Yeah! Woo! *guzzle Pabst Blue Ribbon*

Of course, be careful you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve heard horror stories about agents, editors and publishers. I personally have had wonderful experiences with agents and editors — and all of my work, from freelance till now, has been made better by the presence of editorial agitation. Like stones in a rock tumbler, your work will in theory be made better by those outside the story.

Gatekeepers will also stop some authors from making a critical mistake: putting sub par work out into the wild. You put weak work out there, it’s like breaking a pony’s leg and then letting it wander out into the veldt where the lions lie sleeping — they will bring down the weak and whinnying beast fast as anything.

Also keep in mind that you might find a different experience by going with a smaller publisher. Smaller publishers may be better suited toward bringing your best work to light rather than making safe (read: boring) choices for the currently demented publishing marketplace.

Still, self-publishing remains a viable way to cobble together your own boat and launch it toward the sea without a care in the world.

Can You Do It All? (And Are You A Control Freak?)

Can you market? Can you edit? Can you sling together a kick-ass book cover? Can you write back cover copy? Can you advertise? Can you format? Can you this, can you that, can you *head asplodes*…?

Traditional publishing in theory (note that I’m saying those two words a lot here) handles a lot of things for the writer. Things that go beyond a writer’s day-to-day grasp of the industry.

For many, this is not only awesome, but necessary.

For others, this is stifling — and worse, unnecessary. If you can do it all — and, more importantly, you want to do it all — then self-publishing is for you. Your work is in your own hands. You can’t blame failure or lend success to anybody outside yourself. One might suggest this is a pure way of letting your work sink or swim: you won’t have a good book fail because Big Publishing forgot to market it.

Are You Willing To Spend Money?

There exists a sort of free-wheeling hippie indie vibe when it comes to self-publishing, but in my mind if you want to succeed at all, you’re going to have to view it like any other business — you’re going to have to pay in to pay out. You’re no longer just a writer, you’re now a publisher. You’re not an artist. You’re a business that supports an artist (who, ahem, also happens to be you).

I already spent money on my upcoming short story collection. I didn’t want some bullshit cover. I wanted a kick-ass cover. A cover that looks professional. Legitimate. Filled with the milk of awesome.

If I were to self-publish a novel, I’d run that through my agent (who is also an excellent editor), which would absolutely necessitate giving her a well-deserved cut.

If I wanted advertising, who would pay for it? Santa Claus? Me! Me. Me me me.

Do You Already Have An Audience?

This is critical.

The notable success stories in self-publishing have a platform. Now, to be clear, this can be a platform you have built — it can still be all indie and shit, but you cannot — repeat, cannot — just write a book, self-publish it, and expect the fat sacks of gold to come crashing through your roof.

You can, however, be an author without a platform and get an agent if your book is really kick-ass. But even there, a platform and an in-built audience will help you along.

Is Your Book Niche?

Niche books just don’t get publishing deals. Sad fact, but fact just the same. Publishers won’t take risks on really off-kilter shit (though smaller publishers may). “This is a children’s book about two homosexual wombats and it teaches kids about how to repair the engine on a 1993 Toyota Camry.” Smart money says no publisher is going to touch that with a ten foot pole. But — but! — hey, some one out there might damn well want to buy that book. Self-publishing is great for niche work. It’s why I’m putting my short story collection up there. Short stories are not big earners. Collections in particular. So, fuck it. I’m going to let that collection be the canary in the coal mine — see if it sings a song or dies in its cage.

Remember: Your Mileage May Vary

The truth, again, is in the mushy middle.

Self-publishing is not a guaranteed magical path to success. And, drum roll please, traditional publishing is also not a guaranteed magical path to success.

Neither is easy. Each path takes a lot of work and patience. Both have their own sets of trade-offs.

You like fast money and don’t give a rat’s ass about easy legitimacy? Self-publish. Love legitimacy, and believe that money doesn’t matter? Traditional publishing is for you. Can you do it all and remain unconvinced that traditional publishing will find the audience you already know you have? Self-publish. Do you only want to be an author and don’t care two fuzzy shits about creating ad copy or book covers? Aaaaaaand back to traditional publishing we go.

Do you want to be just a writer? Traditional publishing. Do you want to be a publisher? Self-publishing.

But you want to know the secret?

You want to know the best path through this crazy horsehair tangle?

Come close. Let me whisper it in your ear, all seductive like.

“Do both.”

Remember how I said you can write two books a year? “One for you, and one for you.” One for traditional, one for self. Write a mainstream commercially viable blockbuster, then write a more personal or niche book. Put the blockbuster in its battle armor and send that fucker on query, then suit up the  niche book to fight in the arenas of self-publishing. Hedge your bets. Don’t go “all in” in one or the other. This is a mad world out there right now and you need to know what works best for you.

Don’t listen to all the pundits and talking heads. They have agendas, too. And they’re not telling you the whole story. Applaud their success, but to their stories apply the mighty scalpel of scrutiny.

And in the meantime, carve your own way through the bullshit.

Chime In, Penmonkeys And Word-Birds

You. That’s right, you. The one with the experience in either a) publishing or b) self-publishing. Muddy the waters. Shoot us up with your brain-think. Tell us your experiences or expectations. Go!