Self-publishing: Is it a viable alternative for authors?

Usually self-published authors are either graduate students or first cousins who somehow manage to convince you to purchase six copies of their 600-page novel Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Hungry.

But now a two-time PEN/Faulkner winner and National Book Award finalist is stepping into the mix. John Edgar Wideman will be releasing his latest collection of short stories via Lulu, a self-publishing company that releases submitted work either as an e-book or printed-on-demand. Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, available starting March 14, will be one of few works from an already established author to bypass the mainstream industry entirely. Another is JA Konrath, who, after having a collection of his stories rejected by publishing houses, turned to the Internet and self-published his own  Kindle ebook. Less than one year later, Konrath has sold nearly 30,000 copies and he expects to earn as much as $43,800 this year on that e-book alone. Proof positive that profit is possible with this model.

If self-publishing becomes a more acceptable practice for big-name writers, it could lead to an interesting shift in the landscape of the book industry. Authors would clearly exercise greater control over their work, its distribution, and, importantly, its price. There may always be a need some sort of intermediary like Lulu, which takes a 20 percent cut of the revenue, or Amazon, which will double its royalty rates for self-published authors beginning in July, but those mechanisms are negligible when compared to the established industry. It could even make the market more Darwinian: Without advances or heavy advertising, success or failure would  be wholly dependent on whether or not people are willing to pay to read your words. Clearly, established authors would have a leg up here, which is why it’s remarkable how few of them aside from Konrath and Wideman are willing to try to establish some vertical integration for their own output.

How about you? Do you support self-publishing? If this practice caught on, do you think it’d end up being a good or a bad thing for books?


Comments (28 total) Add your comment
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  • keepinghouseinpensacola

    My daughter, a 16 year old, is publishing the first of 3 novels with Lulu this year.

  • realisticexpectations

    I think it’s a viable alternative.

    For example, one self-published author sent dozens of submissions out to publishers and was repeatedly told that no one would want to read her book about someone with Alzheimer’s.

    So, she self-published, got several good reviews from her readers and the Boston Globe and ended up with a publishing deal from a major house.

    Her book went on to the New York Times best seller list.

    So much for those people who didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading this woman’s book.

    • Mandy

      Did you notice that the “happy ending” to her story involved her getting picked up by a traditional publisher?

  • Matt

    My wife had a book published using a “self publishing” company and although I am proud of her book the experience left me upset. They kept wanting to charge us for small things (we didn’t pay) and in the end her book had mistakes and issues. I have high hopes for her book because of the subject being so provoctive but she’s said she won’t use the company ever again.

  • Mandy

    Full disclosure: I’m an author. I am published by one of the larger publishing houses. I’m not famous but I make a living at it. My take — self-publishing can work in some circumstances, but for the most part, you are absolutely better off with the traditional model. First of all, you get an advance, so you get paid for your work upfront; second, you have your publisher’s marketing and distribution team working for you. JA Konrath made the right call; the short story collection was a viable product, but publishers didn’t agree — self-pubbing brought a profit there. You might see other big-name authors doing this for atypical projects that aren’t as obviously commercial. But the reason I dislike most “so, is self-publishing the future?” articles is that they ignore the realities of breaking into the business, and most people drawn into self-publishing are new writers who aren’t being realistic. The average self-pubbed book sells MAYBE 400 copies. Maybe. You can’t get them into many bookstores. Sure, they’re on Amazon — but without a real marketing push, the likelihood of anybody looking for the book on Amazon is remote. A new writer is absolutely better off trying to go the traditional route — and even established authors are likely to stick to big publishers for their most commercial products.

    • Sue Collier

      “The average self-pubbed book sells MAYBE 400 copies. Maybe. You can’t get them into many bookstores.”

      Actually, the average number of books sold when put out by so-called “self-publishing” companies such as Lulu is less than 100. On the other hand, authors who truly self-publish–they start up their own publishing imprint, purchase their own block of ISBNs, and oversee that production (editing and design) is done professionally–tend to have much more success than that…frequently selling into the 1,000s and 10,000s.

      “but without a real marketing push, the likelihood of anybody looking for the book on Amazon is remote”

      That’s true of all titles–regardless of how they are published. Most traditional publishing companies put the majority of their marketing budgets into books they “know” will sell well. Midlist authors are generally left to their own devices when it comes to promotions and creating demand for their books.

      There is a lot of misinformation out there about publishing and self-publishing. Authors need to educate themselves on whether it makes sense for them to go to a subsidy/vanity press, which is what most of the so-called “self-publishing” companies are, or if they want to become independent publishers, which is what true self-publishing is.

  • doesn’t work

    Tried it. Had an established online audience who said they wanted to read the book. Was a previously professionally published author (a couple of books). Spent two years working on it. Had exclusive, well researched content unavailable anywhere else. Sold 100 copies. Went $15,000 in debt for not having a real income to pay bills during that time. Complete and utter waste of time.

    • C

      “Went $15,000 in debt for not having a real income to pay bills during that time.”

      That doesn’t sound like the fault of the system…

    • dave

      Yeah, you only sold 100 books. Are you blaming the self-publishing company for that?

    • Penelope

      This story is why it’s so important to take your time, and spend a little at a time when self-publishing. I experienced a similar situation with my very first book, but then bounced back and published again in another genre. This time instead of printing 3,000 books I did 500 and analyzed my buying market more closely. Needless to say, the results were MUCH better.

      Penelope T.
      howtosellmybooks.com

  • Amy Edelman

    It’s not just indie musicians and indie filmmakers who want creative control. Indie writers want it too…to the tune of over 1/2 million books self-published last year. It was only a matter of time until more prestigious authors choose to go indie too (more control, more $$). As far as distribution goes, consumers need look no further than IndieReader (www.indiereader.com) where all books are vetted prior to acceptance onto the site, meaning the best indie books are easy to find in one place. Vive la indie!

  • Roger Pullen

    Self publishing is a viable alternative – having said that you need to have a number of criteria fully satisfied. I spent some years writing thriller / adventure fiction, fitting it in when and where I could. Did the usual sending edited scripts to publishers (UK) where in most instances they languished on the slush piles till some recent graduate picked it up and decided it was not for her. After two years of rejects – competing with 130000 new books every year including Z-List celebrity biographies, cook books, make-over books and chick-lit – I decided to set up my own publishing company – Tigermoth Books – and with the help of a friendly cover designer, editor, proof reader, set off into the world of book selling. It’s tough but if you are convinced that what you write is worthy then pursue it. Slowly I am making headway with both independent booksellers and multiples. Comments from readers underline that it was the right decision and has encouraged me to write and publish more. But, don’t loose sight of the costs involved as you progress; it is essential however that you present what you write to a very professional standard- as well of course the writing

  • Alessia Brio

    Do it. Love it.

    I’ve taken books that’d reached the end of their small press contracts and re-released them under my self-publishing label. I’m earning far more than I ever did when signed with a publisher, AND my sales numbers are higher.

    When Amazon makes it’s jump to 70% royalties in July, it’ll only get better.

    I doubt I’ll ever return to traditional publishing.

  • George Colon

    I paid the publisher iUniverse $1,400 to print and bind my teacher novel, Confessions of a rogue Teacher, and their artist to draw a cover with my instructions. Got 20 paperback copies and two hard cover copies. They put the book on Amazon .com and Barnes and Noble.com. The author can but books for 40% of the cover prize, in my case $13 for the paperback and $22.00 for the hardcover. My publisher suggested an edit job for an additional other $1,400 and a promotional package for another $1,400,namely a press release sent to newspapers and magazines in the northeast. Additional press releases would’ve cost more. I’ve bought about 200 additional books.
    The whole thing ran about $5,000.
    So am I happy?
    Generally speaking yes, but not totally.
    The cover was all right, but not totally what I wanted. I asked for a blackboard, with the title in chalk on the board, and an apple with a worm eating through it to symbolize the rotten state of American education. There was no blackboard, and the worm didn’t look exactly like a worm. I could’ve gotten redone for more money, but in my desire to get everything done before Christmas, 2008, decided it was good enough.
    My edit job wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. It had a few typos, which while not seriously take away from the story were embarrassing.
    My press release also had errors and was done in a style of writing the publicist called the “ journalistic style” common in that line of business. Reuters picked me up and I was interviewed on universe Internet radio. I landed another radio interview with a Midwest station and got five minutes with Mantel Williams. But generally speaking, I was hoping for a lot more. I also got some bookmarks and postcards, which do help. I also got a very positive book review on the Internet.
    But I’ve done most of the footwork myself. I did a book talk in an East Harlem book store since gone bankrupt, and another one in the Barnes and Nobles store in Coop City, the Bronx. I’ve gotten some coverage on Latino Internet sites, the Lehman College and Dewitt Clinton alumnus magazine newsletter.
    I got involved in the Latino literary scene, but am disappointed with my lack of support. Also, I sought to market to teachers, but was not as successful as I wanted.
    To date, I’ve sold about 300 copies, mostly on my own, with very few on the Internet. I’d need to sell about a thousand to make back my money. So what happened?
    – the economy, stupid, I tell myself
    -more people want to write books these days than want to read them.
    – that New York City Mayor Bloomberg pays people not to buy it as it contradicts his contention the schools are improving, when in fact they’re not. They’re dumbing down the tests, coaching students who are cheating like crazy and bribing principals, who “turn around” failing schools, falsify statistics, downplay school crime, or simply not report it. Students who shouldn’t get diplomas do as administrators twist teachers’ arms to change failing grades.
    – that the notion of student-teacher love affairs simply shocks people, although I go to
    great pains to explain it is a work of fiction and not a true memoir. In fact, in my 30 years in a classroom, unlike my protagonist Manny Quesada, I’ve never had a romantic or physical relationship with a student, though I know of many who have. The point I try to make in the novel is that’s it’s not a good idea.
    But I had a story to tell and I told it and do not apologize to anybody.
    I wrote another novel, but this time want to go commercial.

  • Theresa M. Moore

    As a self-published author who publishes under my own imprint, I did all my homework before I started out. After receiving nothing but rejections for a variety of the usual trite excuses, I decided that the traditional route was too tough a nut to crack and went it alone. I have eleven perfectly readable novels and nonfiction books available for sale. However, until large online retailers like Amazon start publicizing the books I cannot realize any sales outside of it. It does not matter how much money I have poured down the drain (way, way less than $15,000), I have books to sell and I want people to read them. Yet, this economy is seeing major brick and mortar stores closing down, and I am but a blip on the radar as long as that is happening. It’s not how you publish, it’s what the market is prepared to pay for, and right now $0 seems to be the right price for the cheapskates. When readers lossen up their fists and start spending money again I will be right there waiting for them.

  • Bill Cunningham

    I am a small publisher of ‘pulp’ novels that have gone out of print and deserve to reconnect to their audience. We use all of the tools available to us via the web – Createspace for printing, Facebook for connecting, twitter and so on… Part of the reason I launched into this endeavor was the fact that there were a ton of cool books I wanted to read that would cost me a small fortune to get through ebay. I figured if I felt this way there were others who felt the same.

    I have 14 books lined up for republishing and have released our first, BROTHER BLOOD to a good response that we are building on. I haven’t begun to exploit the digital aspect of our books yet, but will do so within six months. Kindle, IPad, Sony E-reader – all are expansions on our plan to place high-concept, reasonable-cost genre entertainment into fan’s hands. We’re even making plans to develop our own original series books.

    This is a growing business, but it is a business. Lots of marketing and promotions to take care of, and lots of ‘little details’ that need finessing. Some people just want to write and not have to deal.

    But at the end of the day, it’s really nice to take a look at my desk and see an actual pulp book upon which I and my team have lavished our attention. I don’t see that happening at a big publisher because the return for them is somehow not worth it.

    Thanks for reading,

    Bill

    Pulp 2.0 Press
    Twitter: @madpulpbastard
    http://www.facebook.com/pulp2ohpress

  • Dalian Artranian

    I’m a self published Author. And yes, it is expensive from the publishing side of it and even more when marketing it. Self publishing is hard work, but unless you put forth a lot of effort no-one will really know your book. In the end of all this, it’s really your choice if you want to go with a publisher or just do it on your own. Either way you have to make some kind of sacrifice. I myself not really in it for the money, but to be able to tell my story the way I want to tell it and not give total control to any publisher. I like to have say so on things.

  • Barbara

    Heres the thing – between this story you have one about a teen star (i guess) whose getting a pile of money for “writing” a book and below that is a writer who is getting a very big advance for three books. So that will leave a lot of very good writers out there and no money to advance to them because its all spent on the three book deal or wasted on a celebrity who wants to be a writer, and so the writers opt for self publishing.
    Dont know about you but i get tired of celebrities putting out books and probably taking a lot of money away from real writers – the books wind up as remainders and everybody seems fine with that because all these celebrities want to do is to be able to call themselves an “author” – i can hold a tune but it wont get me a record deal just because i want to call myself a singer -but everybody thinks they can write!

  • Grace Owen

    I just self published my book ‘The Career Itch – 4 Steps for Taking Control of What You Do Next’ after many months of research and feedback about the concept and content. I have also written a 2 part article about my self publishing experience, which has just been released on The Bookseller website.
    Having engaged a small freelance publishing and marketing team, each of whom has proven experience, on a ‘as and when I need you basis’, I have accepted that I am in this for the long haul. I am very proud of my book and the immediate feedback has been great from a wide range of people (those who don’t know me and those who do). Most important of all it is doing what I wanted to achieve, giving people a simple, user friendly approach for career development. It is the book I wish I’d had when I first experienced The Career Itch some 10 years ago.
    I still have lots of other books to write and hope in time to do so…watch this space!

    • Betty

      I would love to konw more about your freelance publishing and marketing team. I’ve just posted my book for sale on my website “www.career-lifepossibilities.com” and am in the process of deciding “how to publish.” Have explored many options; want it to happen yesterday.
      My 48-page book is packed full of first-hand knowledge on “How to Interview and write a Resume” which makes you Soar Above the Crowds, Capture the Career you Desire.” (c)
      I’m a national exec. recruiter of 25 years. I have written this with laser-focus to get the job you want. It also suggests using the Law of Attraction in your search & life.
      –This is extremely timely so important to make it happen now.
      –There are many “hidden” secrets not normally revealed.
      –Thanking you in advance for any suggestions you might have. Betty M.

  • Eric Thacher

    My son and I are considering self-publishing a children’s book. It was written by another family member. This is a first-time for us. I found the article and discussion very helpful. Thanks to all.

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