By Lu Ann Brobst Staheli
(Originally published in The Writer, February 2010)
Publishing has gone through a dramatic upheaval in recent years, with conglomerates gobbling up small houses, while desktop publishing and print-on-demand options have opened the doors for anyone to become a published author. With publishing budgets tightening and promotional dollars almost nonexistent for all but the guaranteed bestsellers of “brand” authors, traditional publishers are passing over many well-written manuscripts.
A number of well-known authors with high- volume sales have come from the nontraditional route, and traditional, bestselling authors have turned to self-publishing for niche or quickturn-around products, rather than wait for a publisher.
But a history of poorly designed and edited self-published books leaves most authors struggling with the age-old dilemma: What do you do when you can’t find a traditional publisher for your work? Should you self-publish or continue your search?
Several self-published bestsellers have proved themselves and their authors worthy of notice. Authors William P. Young (The Shack), James Redfield (The Celestine Prophesy), Rhonda Byrne (The Secret), Christopher Paolini (Eragon) and Richard Paul Evans (The Christmas Box) all made their debut with self-published works, thereby launching their careers.
For every successful self-published book, though, a thousand more sell only a handful of copies, mostly to family and friends, often leaving cases of unsold books. According to Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, a nonfiction marketing title, the average book in America sells about 500 copies, so perhaps traditionally published books face a similar fate.
Neither kind of publishing is a guarantee of success. Traditional publishing has fewer risks, but self-publishing could be a place to start if the conditions are right for your book. As someone who has published both types of books, let me offer a few thoughts to help you weigh the pros and cons.
Why traditional publishing?
The obvious answer is because that’s the way the market currently works. Books that traditional publishers put out offer a sense of built-in credibility that self-published books have a hard time earning.
Plus, big name, big-budget houses can offer authors advances and promotional materials and garner book reviews from important publications—perks that are often difficult, if not impossible, for the author of a self-published book to arrange. These houses can also get your books into stores where customers can buy them, whereas self-published books may not be accepted by book buyers for retail stores.
Do you want to publish in order to begin a writing career, or to obtain self-gratification—to be able to say, “I’ve published a book”? Earning royalties is a more secure route than paying for editing, design and printing costs yourself. Having a professionally prepared product represents your talent better than the poorly produced book you might get if you choose the wrong self-publisher.
First of all, a rejection by a traditional publisher does not automatically mean self-publishing is right for you. Perhaps your book isn’t as ready as you thought. Maybe its scope is too large or the competition too fierce, or the readership isn’t there, or the writing lacks polish. A rejection could also mean that a house’s list is full, that it recently published another book on that topic, or that your book doesn’t quit fit what it needs. None of these reasons would necessarily keep
your book from success.
Second, don’t self-publish to impress a traditional publisher. It might be a foot in the door, but few small houses will elect to reprint a book that’s already been self-published, especially if your book sales have saturated a niche market. Larger houses might be impressed by a significant sales volume and offer a contract because of your efforts, if they think they can tap a new market.
These caveats aside, let’s look at whether self-publishing might be right for you. Consider whether your book fits into one of the following categories:
Your project doesn’t fit the format of the traditional publisher’s other releases. “When I first tried to publish The Christmas Box,” Evans says, “publishers didn’t know what to do with it. The manuscript was too long for a short story and too short for a novel—so they rejected it. The book had already proven it had an audience when I printed copies for my friends and family, so I went the self-published route to satisfy local demand. Four hundred thousand copies later, Simon & Schuster bought the rights to publish the hardcover.”
You don’t have time to wait for acceptance. With my book When Hearts Conjoin, speed was of the essence. The book is about conjoined twins Kendra and Maliyah Herrin, of Salt Lake City, who were separated in a 25-hour surgery in 2006. The twins had been invited to make their third appearance on Oprah, and the TLC Network was doing a documentary about them that would air soon. We were working on a tight deadline to have the book published in time—a deadline that did not grant us the luxury of writing, pitching and working within a publisher’s calendar. It was only nine months from the time the twins’ mother and I started writing until the book was in our hands.
You face closed or limited publication opportunities. Sometimes a story needs to be told, even when publishers don’t have a place in their catalog. David Farland, author of Chaosbound, a bestselling novel from a traditional publisher, recalls, “I felt deeply touched by the story of the Willie Handcart Company —a group of Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains with only what they could carry in handcarts—and so I began to study it with an eye toward writing the tale. Unfortunately, In the Company of Angels [a novel] was too long for my regular niche publisher. I knew the other few houses within the target market had recently released books on the same topic, so I decided to self-publish.”
You have a targeted niche market for your book. Annette Lyon, author of the novel Tower of Strength, has a loyal fan base not only for her traditionally published inspirational fiction, but also for the weekly Word Nerd column on her blog. “Readers of my column kept asking for a grammar book,” she says, “but I knew the kind of thing they were looking for wouldn’t be a good fit with a traditional publisher. I decided to self-publish and promote a book [titled There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar From the Word Nerd] for my readers and [to sell it] at writing conferences where I taught grammar and editing workshops. So far, I’ve been pleased with my sales, I’ve satisfied my target audience, and I continue to look for ways to expand my readership.”
Here are some other issues to mull:
Do you have a built-in readership? “After rejections by the big publishers,” author Kenny Kemp says, “I self-published my first novel, I Hated Heaven. My next book, Dad Was a Carpenter [a novel], won the grand prize in the 1999 International Self-Published Book Awards. Within days I had secured a top-flight agent and in just a matter of weeks, we made a great deal with HarperCollins to reprint Carpenter. My writing had found a wider audience, but that never would have happened if I hadn’t first taken the step of self-publishing.”
Do you know how to market to your audience? When Evans wanted to publish his first nonfiction book, The Five Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me, he returned to his fictional roots in self-publishing. “I’d been teaching the concepts from ‘The Five Lessons’ at workshops for a while and I knew I had an audience, but I wanted to experiment with how best to sell the book,” Evans says. “So, I self-published in order to test it. Once I knew how to market it, I sold the book to Fireside.”
Do you have access to your audience? Many authors find themselves giving workshops, lectures or performances that put them in front of an audience that wants more. Making books available for purchase after a presentation can play an important part in your marketing plan. A great example is Psychic Madman, which I’m collaborating on with mentalist/magician Jim Karol. Most of its sales will directly follow Karol’s college appearances. The Betrayed, my collaboration with a former police officer who believes he was unfairly fired, will be pitched in his TV appearances. Another of my collaborations, The Book of Alan, an upcoming memoir by Alan Osmond, part of the performing Osmond family, will be marketed to the vast number of Osmond fans around the world. In other words, if you already have a platform—an audience to sell your work to—then selling the book is easier.
What types of books lend themselves well to self-publishing? Self-published nonfiction books tend to be more successful than fiction. Business and self-help books in particular find success because they can be delivered so many ways: as e-books, PDF files and print-on-demand books. Fiction can find an audience when the marketing is done right, but the process of building a readership may take more time.
What do I do when I publish? If you self-publish, nonfiction or fiction, plan on doing the following, or your book is unlikely to ever be successful:
• Hire a professional editor/proofreader and follow her advice.
• Hire a professional illustrator or graphic artist for your cover design and interior illustrations.
• Consider hiring a typesetter to design the interior of your book to look like those currently on the market.
• Read the fine print in your book producer’s contract before signing.
• Know what your remunerations are and what rights you keep.
• Obtain endorsements.
• Have a marketing plan in advance.
• Make personal appearances.
Of course, this list is nearly the same when you are marketing a book with a traditional publisher. The differences are that the latter provides editing, design and typesetting, and may help you get endorsements. In addition, the work of its marketing department (theoretically) leaves you more time to write instead of using your time to self-market.
Self-publishing can be a rewarding proposition when the book is right, but weigh your options carefully before you decide to go with this more difficult road. It can be a springboard to future projects, but so can a successful release from a traditional publisher.
Know what you want, then don’t be afraid to follow your dream. Whether it leads you to a traditional publisher or to self-publishing, a book will move you into the enviable category of published author—a place thousands of people would love to be.