25 Things You Should Know About Self-Publishing

Time again for another list of 25, this time about the trials and triumphs of self-publishing. This article could be titled, Things I Think About Self-Publishing, or, One Penmonkey’s Ruminations Upon The Subject Of Self-Publishing, and is not meant to be an end-all, be-all list, but rather, little nougaty nuggets of contemplation. Feel free to drop down and add your own if time and inclination allow.

1. A Sane And Reasonable Part Of The Ecosystem

Self-publishing has become a real contender. Major authors are self-publishing now. And self-publishing has its own scions who have attained epic success in that space. Self-publishing is now a very real part of the ecosystem. Some truly excellent self-published storytelling is at work. Anybody who turns their nose down automatically at the practice should be kicked in the junk drawer.

2. Not Better, Not Worse, Just Different

Publishing your own work is no magic bullet; it guarantees nothing and is not a “better” or “smarter” way to go than the more traditional route. It’s also not a worse path. Each path has its own thorns and rocks, just as each path offers its own staggering vistas and exhilarating hikes. Self-publishing gets you out there faster and tends to give you a better return on every copy sold. But it’s also a more self-reliant path, putting a lot of work onto your shoulders. The self-published author dances for every dinner.

3. Self-Publishers Can’t Just Be Writers

This is true of all writers, really: these days, every author must contribute a deeper share of editing and promotion. But the self-published penmonkey does even more. You’re a carnival barker, web designer, customer service agent, CEO, porn fluffer — wait, maybe not that last one. Point is, you’re now a publisher, with all the responsibilities that come in the package. Don’t want those responsibilities? Don’t self-publish.

4. Some Doors Are Presently Shut

Media reviews? Major and not-so-major awards? Foreign and film rights? Libraries? Book signings? Sexy book signing groupies? Not so much. Self-published inkslingers will find that many of these things are not necessarily opportunities that exist for them. Not yet, at least.

5. This Is Not The Path Toward Credibility And Respect

You will not find a great deal of credibility and respect in self-publishing your work. Part of this is due to old prejudices. Part of this is due to the fact that self-publishing still represents a vibrant and virulent catalog of glurge and slush. Of course, if you were looking for credibility, you wouldn’t be a writer in the first place, would you? You want respect, go be a zookeeper or a sex worker.

6. Most Self-Published Books Suck A Bucket Of Dicks

This bears special mention: you’ll still find that a lot of self-published books are basically canker sores on the prolapsed anus of good writing, good storytelling, and good publishing. Contrary to what some will say, this crap can and does sometimes float: I will from time to time peruse the Kindle Charts and gape in amazement at how superheroically buoyant some garbage can be. And yes, I acknowledge that legacy publishing offers some real stinkers, too. But I thought the  goal was to be better than that, yes? And for the record, I have every confidence that the fucking Snooki book at least meets minimal standards compared to some of the piles of midden that pass for books amongst some self-published authors.

7. Your Book Is A Boat Which Must Ride Upon Sewage

Those ass-tastic self-published books are your competition. But they’re the competition of any author. It just bears mentioning that, whether traditionally published or whether you DIY, come to the field with the best motherfucker of a book you can bring. Don’t half-ass it. You’re here to tell stories, not pleasure your ego. Let your book rise above all the effluence.

8. Pinocchio Wants To Be A Real Boy, Goddamnit

Treat your book like a real book. Not like it’s some part-human mutant hybrid, some stumbling thing with half-a-brain and a bison’s heart. Send out review copies. Get blurbs. Make it look nice. Sound nice. Read nice. Force the book to command the credibility and respect that others of its ilk are lacking.

9. Two-Fisted Team-Ups

A good self-published book does not need to be the product of some lone weirdo in a closet jizzing his foul-skinned word-babies onto the Smashwords marketplace. It comes to fruition with the help of a good cover designer, editor, beta readers, and others within the self-published community. It’s why I don’t like the phrase self-published — you should rely on others beyond yourself to bring your book to life.

10. Money Out Before Money In

For the record, that might mean spending some money. It’s worth it. The reward of having a professional-grade product and not the remnant of some amateur hour karaoke will earn out.

11. Please Don’t Let Your Cover Look Like A Three-Fingered Smear Of Dog-Shit

So many ugly covers. So many ugly covers. Once more for the cheap seats: SO MANY UGLY COVERS. Listen, I know — a cover does not make a book. But it’s the first line of offense at a place like Amazon, where I’m almost universally seeing the cover before I’m seeing the description. I will click a kick-ass cover because, I dunno, I’m an attention-deficit raccoon who likes shiny trinkets? A great cover shall be your standard-bearer. If you use Comic Sans or Papyrus on your cover, you should be drowned in a washtub.

12. E-Book Designers Are Non-Essential

The e-Book designers out there are probably mad — let me get ahead of that and say: you may find them useful. They do good work. But for many DIY authors, you may not need one (and may not be able to justify the cost). Formatting an e-book for the major services (Amazon, B&N) can at times be an exercise in soul-squishing agony, but over time you figure out the tricks and learn how to make it work. And once you do that, it’s not even all that hard. (For Amazon, can I recommend Mobipocket Creator? Free software, totally useful.) Hell, for the basics, Amazon and B&N will auto-format.

13. Editors Are Your Bestest Friends

Get a good editor. Can you self-edit? Sure. Is it a good idea? Not usually. Bare minimum: seek the advice of people you trust, and implement their advice in some way, shape, or form. Give them wine and chocolate and hookers and four-wheelers and kites made from the skin of their enemies and anything else they ask for. Pay their price. A good editor is your best friend.

14. Traditional Legacy Publishing Is Not Your Enemy

You will find little value in slagging those in traditional publishing, particularly authors, agents and editors. They’re not your enemy. We’re all part of the same ecosystem, swimming around in the pond where we a) tell stories and b) hope to not starve and die in the process. Most of us are here because we love what we do, so hold hands, kiss each other on the cheek, and stop casting aspersions.

15. Agents And Gatekeepers Are Still Your Friends

Iconoclasts love to hate on those that keep the gate, but those that keep the gate aren’t universally bad people. Further, they’re trained to a certain standard. Agents in particular don’t deserve scorn, and can, in fact, still help the self-published author. They may know when a book is right for a published market. They may be of aid in selling rights (print, foreign, film) that you otherwise might not have had access to. And, let’s not mince words: many self-published authors would jump like a cricket at the chance to have a book on bookshelves with a big publisher. For that, you will find an agent potentially quite helpful.

16. Amazon Is The 800-Pound Gorilla (And He’s Got A Gun)

If you sell anywhere, you’re going to sell at Amazon. Start there. Talking to other self-pubbed authors, the majority of their sales come through Amazon. And, since we’re talking, if Amazon is the big-ass gorilla in the room, I suppose that makes Smashwords the anemic marmoset who keeps scratching his balls and falling asleep in his own waste. Uhh… yeah. I might not be a fan of Smashwords.

17. The Term “Indie” Makes Some People Vomit Fire

Indie has been a term used in publishing for a while now, meaning a publisher who is not beholden to a Big Faceless Corporation. Thus there is some scorn at those who would use that term — “indie” — to describe self-pubbers. Of course, everybody just needs to pop some quaaludes and calm down. Language changes for better or for worse: the definition of “indie” is a moving target, and has been in film, music, and now publishing. We can all share the language. If we can’t agree to share, you’ll have to fight in the arena with poison-tipped fountain pens.

18. Beware The Insidious Whispers Of Froth-Lipped Zealots

Eschew false dichotomies. Avoid loaded promises. Spurn those self-proclaimed oracles who claim to know the future. Nobody knows what the truth is regarding self-publishing or traditional publishing, and anybody who thinks you need to jump one way and not the other may not have your best interests at hand. Make your own call as an Informed Human With A Super-Computer Inside Her Head Called A “Brain.”

19. This Is The Time For Bold-Faced Brave-Ass Experimentation

So much of self-publishing is doing what’s been done. (Another Twilight rip-off? Tell me more!) But the advantage of DIY publishing is that you are beholden to no one but an audience — so why not go big? Fuck the rules. Hell with the genres. Experiment. Play around with storytelling. Do something different instead of traipsing the same paths, la-la-la-lee-la. Got a picaresque cyberpunk novel loaded with ciphers and clues in your head that links up to some kind of bizarre geocaching transmedia experiment? Fuck it. Why not? You want to write penguin erotica? Transgender adventure tales? Bible II: Son Of Bible? Find those things that no major publisher will touch but you have passion for, and put it out there.

20. A Future Found In Format

The future of self-publishing isn’t merely in storytelling. It’s in the format. The format now is a clumsy foal stumbling around on wobbly legs. Find ways to break free from that. It’ll be up to the DIY authors to find new formats — transmedia initiatives, app-novels, stories told across social media. Do not be constrained by the formats that exist. Story does not begin and end with a physical book. It doesn’t stop at e-books, either.

21. You Are Not A Spam-Bot

Self-publishers have a lot of their own promotional work to do. That means it’s very easy to accidentally become naught but a megaphone hawking your wares. While you should never be afraid to ask for sales or market, you need to market as a human being. Connect. Be funny. A lot of this is going to succeed based on that most ephemeral of market drivers: word-of-mouth. The way you generate that? Nobody knows. But it starts with writing a kick-ass book. Well, that and human sacrifice. But you can’t make an omelet without killing lots of innocent people in the name of dark literary entities living beneath the earth.

22. Do Not Buy This Book

Let me just be frank: you don’t need this book. Anything it contains can be found elsewhere. For free.

23. Embrace A Vibrant And Active Community

The self-publishing community is a helpful place, for the most part. Can be quite helpful and vocal in support. Discover through this community the best practices. Return the favor. Communicate and converse.

24. But Don’t Be A Cheerleader For Crappiness

On the other hand, some elements of the community can be toxic, and further, can act as cheerleaders for self-publishing’s own worst instincts. Don’t champion a novel because it’s self-published. How it got there is irrelevant to the end result. If it’s a good book, then talk about it. If it’s shit, then forget it. You have the freedom to self-publish; there’s no need to vociferously defend that right. But if you want self-publishing to be real, to earn the respect and credibility you think it deserves, then it needs fewer cheerleaders and more police — people who will call a rat-turd a rat-turd and not pretend it’s a Rice Krispie treat. Self-publishing also needs more sexy groupies, since we’re talking. Call me.

25. Calm Down, Twitchy McGee

Got a novel? Don’t self-publish it. Not right away. Give it time. Sit on it. My advice to you is to run it up the flagpole with agents and editors, with friends and readers and other writers. You need to know if it’s worth a shit, if it’s worth putting out there — do you want to contribute another bucket of crap to the ocean of effluence? No, you do not. Further, you want to be aware of the pluses and minuses to self-publishing. Some books have a shot at going big with traditional: you might earn a good advance and have a chance with film or foreign rights. Do not be hasty to ignore these benefits. Other books will do very well on the Kindle marketplace despite not having a great shot at traditional. Self-publishing can be transformative — and lucrative — if you put the right work, your best work, out there on the block.

My advice is the same I will continue to give when it comes to the fake bullshit battle between self-publishing and legacy publishing: do both. Write books for each — plant a foot in each world so you may reap the harvest of each. What say you, authors? What are your thoughts on self-publishing these days?

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

$4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

$0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

106 comments

  • I self-published my first book in 2007 (Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes http://www.followfornow.com), and though I did / have done / am doing most of the above, this would’ve been great to read before I went through the process.

    Props to Chuck for putting this together. Writers and self-publishers take heed.

    -royc.

  • I’m actually published through a small press, so I’m not exactly self-pub. But they are small enough so that I have to do a lot of my own marketing legwork. They are forward looking enough, however, so they didn’t look at my writing and ask: “What the fuck is this?” I write fusion fantasy. Basically, with a fantasy (or other genre if you prefer) as the base, you throw every genre you feel like using in a blender and put it on high. I’m not wracking up thousands of sales in a few months, but I am proud of what I am doing.

  • I was doing good until I read #25. I just self published my first book, Vacancy on blurb, it was easy and I did my own cover, editing etc. Lots of good points in this list. I wrote my book for myself, but also don’t want others to think it is a pile of crap.

  • Sing it, Chuck! Like the others here, I enjoyed your post. Great points, each and every one. I’d like to add that there are plenty of books that agents didn’t take, but that doesn’t mean readers won’t enjoy them. I know that having had an agent go through and offer advice on a novel only made my work better. I’m grateful for the advice – not bitter.

  • Thanks for this, I’ll be using it on my blog.

    When the company that had my novel under contract went out of business this year, the publisher said that I should consider self-publishing. I spent months following debates, reading articles, and I paid close attention to the professionals on panels at writers’ conferences. In the end, I founded a small press, and released the first book of my Grace Awakening series in July. In the first week, it was in the top 3.6% of Kindle sales (somewhere around #28,000, lol). I had a graphic designer do the cover, and hired an amazing editor who is taking a percentage of royalties until we reach her fee. She knows we might take years to get there. She believes it’s brilliant, and she’s willing to put her time and money behind that. I have had some negative feedback on the cover, so I’m trying to figure out what I should do about that. Not every cover is going to appeal to every reader, either. So much to learn. So many decisions.

    I live by that mantra: not better, not worse, just different.

    • @Gold/Robert:

      I’m not sure what you’re saying, exactly.

      It’s not for me to decide whether or not this is a great blog. You may or may not think so. Everyone’s mileage is sure to vary.

      – c.

  • Whoops! I’ve been using Papyrus on all my covers (just for my name, not the title).
    I regarded the typeface as part of my brand… and I’m certainly not complaining about my sales, although they don’t reach those of Debra!
    I hope you won’t be offended if I stick with Papyrus (at least for my “law firm erotic romance” sub-genre, where not too many other writers are active).
    Which typeface would work best for penguin erotica?

  • Brilliant! Especially #6. I have read so many self published books lately that are nothing but crap. It saddens me. If I’m going to self publish, wouldn’t I want to be successful? Writing a crap book is not going to help me succeed. Write the best book you can and run it up the flagpole. Great advice!

  • Sucking A Bucket Of Dicks by Chuck Wendig.

    Sir, I think you may have just found the title to your next novel.

    But if, for any reason, you don’t want it, give it to my ex-wife: I know she’d love it.

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