Should You Self Publish? One Writer’s Take

By Guest Blogger Mary Andonian

It’s been quite the journey.  My teen book, Bitsy’s Labyrinth, has just come out in both paperback and e-book after it spent nearly three years with a reputable agent, endured two revisions, garnered one movie deal, and now has finally seen the light of day at your favorite .com outlet.  That’s because I decided to self-publish.  

Here’s my story in case you’re considering this option.

Twenty five hundred dollars bought me: ten Bowker ISBN numbers, a state filing for personal incorporation, domains and web hosting for three unique names, book cover and interior design (the book, not my house), press logo, Print-on-Demand set-up fees, a post office box, and an announcement in Publishers Weekly.

Notice I didn’t mention books. That’s another few hundred. 

These I can sell from my website, book signings, Amazon marketplace and eBay, but I also need to give them away to reviewers, the Library of Congress and any other entity that can help spread the word. I did receive from my designers all of the files to my book, including cover art, .ePub, .pdf and .mobi files (the latter file mandatory for Amazon’s Kindle). These are invaluable and I’ll tell you why a little later.

Also not listed in the figures are the opportunity costs of my time. I spent a good two months working with the designers, Lightning Source, and Godaddy.com to create a product and an on-line presence. This was time siphoned from my next writing project.  I consider time spent on promotion a wash since you’d have to spend that time regardless of who publishes your book.

I chose to pay my own way because my agent and I noticed some alarming trends in the Publishing industry. To name a few:  

  1. Even if you do get a book deal, the advance is paltry to none.
  2. You lose the rights to the look and feel of your book, including the title and sometimes even the way your name is displayed.  
  3. Publication of your book can run anywhere from 12-24 months from time of acceptance. This is after rewrites and negotiations are finalized, which can run many months more.
  4. Houses are playing it safe. In my case, Young Adult books are only getting nods if they’re of the vampire, paranormal, romance, or dragon variety.
  5. You lose e-rights. My agent negotiated many book deals and not once could she secure e-book rights for the author.  Why? Because Publishers know this is a lucrative market. According to Forrester Research, 10.3 million people owned e-book readers in 2010, up from 3.7 million in 2009. E-book downloads topped 100 million last year, over triple the amount from 2009.

So those e-book files I received? That was money well spent. I can post my book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in perpetuity and the revenue will always be mine.

Larry recently posted a question about whether you should put a story in a drawer or keep working at it. That’s the same question I faced when I decided to self-publish.  Items to consider when self-publishing:

  1. Have you had any outside indicators that your book should be published? In my case, a movie producer read the manuscript and liked it well enough to ask for the screenplay, and then pursued money to get it filmed.  My book was good enough to attract an agent, and my critique group encouraged me to publish.  Do you have people telling you to go for it?
  2. Do you get nauseous at the thought of public failure and/or humiliation?  I must admit this was the biggest reason why I held back for so long. You have to ask yourself, “Does playing it safe help me or hurt me?” For me, a chronic perfectionist, getting it out there was a liberating experience. I could finally say it was finished and I wouldn’t have to revise it ever again. But guess what? The beauty of self-publishing is that I can revise it again in the future. I own it. All of it.
  3. Do you need to spend this money elsewhere? I am fortunate. Investing $2500 into a dream was costly but didn’t break me financially. I could’ve easily spent the money on a vacation to Vegas.

At least here I might get a little something back on my investment.

  1. Speaking of investments, do you need to quantify your success with money? Initially I thought I would need to see $dollar signs$ in order for me to feel like Bitsy’s Labyrinth was a success, but I learned that wasn’t the case. (Although it still might happen!) The simple act of completing something –creating something out of nothing –was a good enough reward for me.
  2. Do you need validation from outside sources? This is a play off number two: Do you care what other people think of you? Yeah, me too. But over and over again I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages, and it goes like this:

 It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt
April 23rd, 1910

I love that speech. It gives me the freedom to know that even if I receive bad book reviews, I have already succeeded. I am in the arena.  What about you? Do you believe you’re a gladiator?

More about financial success:  Unless you’re the author of The Christmas Box or The Celestine Prophecy, you might not make a lot of money self-publishing fiction. The non-fiction market is different. A gazillion people have made serious money self-publishing non-fiction, but they usually have the credentials to back them up. The books In Search of Excellence or The One Minute Manager come to mind.  The lesson here is your book should fill a niche if you’re going to make any money at self-publishing. Otherwise, it’s tough to compete against the traditional books that are already deeply discounted at Costco and Borders.  For me, I’m betting that the Christian/Spiritual market needs a teen book that isn’t dripping with Jesus or G-rated issues.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) A huge THANK YOU to The Shack author William P. Young for paving the way!

I’ll wrap this up with some of the benefits, both tangible and intangible, of self-publishing:

  1. Your “break-even” point isn’t astronomical, especially if you have a lot of Facebook friends. After that, it’s a constant revenue stream.
  2. Your book is never remaindered so your revenue stream could possibly outlive you.
  3. You basically paid for a course in Publishing, Business, and Web Design, because you have to learn all of these skills during the course of self-publication.
  4. All of your future writing projects will be better because you‘ll evaluate them through the critical lens of a Publisher.
  5. You’ll no longer feel like you’re in limbo-land, waiting for a Publisher to bless you with her magic wand. Instead, you’ll be a nicer person to live with because YOU made it happen, and you’re moving forward in life.  It’s good to be the King.

And so to summarize: I hope you secure a seven-figure contract with a respectable publishing house. But if you don’t, you just might want to consider self-publishing.

Mary Andonian’s book, Bitsy’s Labyrinth, is available in paperback and e-book at www.BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, and the author’s website: MaryAndonian.com

Larry’s comment: I’ve ready “Bitsy” and I have to say, the one word that comes to mind is “beautiful.”  It’s a coming of age story of an early teen girl, recalling the voice John Grisham used in “A Painted House” (my favorite Grisham), and, as Mary mentions, the courage of “The Shack.”  It’s a terrific read, and if you have a young woman in your life on the cusp of puberty, it makes a terrific gift.  It isn’t “Twilight” by any means, it’s far more weighty and worthwhile as literature, yet just as entertaining.  Let’s support Mary and give this book it’s well deserved shot, and show the world how a great book published by its author really does stand a chance in this emerging, evolving and uncharted market.

22 Comments

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22 Responses to Should You Self Publish? One Writer’s Take

  1. Best of luck with the book and thank you for sharing your process with us. I have one question–how does self publishing work with your agent? Are you still represented, or have you parted ways and going it alone?

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    I’m not Marry, but agents still have uses even if you self publish

    1) foreign rights. When other countries come wanting to translate your book and sell the paper copy in that language, agents are still good to have

    2) film/audiobook/etc rights. Same idea, all the stuff that’s not the straight existance of your book in normal written form still needs someone who knows what they are doing to negotiate.

  3. Michael J Lawrence

    I have a question:

    How do you protect all this “e” from being copied and distributed without your control? How is a Kindle book protected against illegal copying?

  4. Patrick Sullivan

    Michael: Kindle offers authors the option to DRM their work (Digital Rights Management) which makes it harder to copy. It is crackable, but then nothing in the digital age is guaranteed.

    However a large % of people who pirate something that costs what an ebook does (2.99-9.99 if you’re smart, or .99 if you REALLY want to get out there fast) they weren’t going to buy your book anyway.

  5. Hi, to answer your questions:
    1. My agent and I did part ways when I self-published but that’s because she formed her own company that focuses strictly on women’s book club fiction. We remain close friends.
    2. Michael’s note above is correct. You set the DRM controls when you upload your e-book for the first time. It’s fairly simple and straightforward.

  6. Bravo Mary!

    To anyone else considering this option, for whom $2500+ is too much of an investment for financial reasons, I do want to say it’s possible to do this much MUCH cheaper and still come out with a viable, professional product. My initial outlay was a mere $150. I published only in e, did the layout and formatting myself (truly, for e-only it’s just not that hard if you bother to learn), had several grammar nazi friends catch all my typos and such, and found a talented graphic design student who needed to build her portfolio to do my cover for a mere $50 + the cost of stock photos. After that it was just the cost of copyright. I did not buy ISBNs, instead using the free one at Smashwords, or the ASIN at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I have not, at this time, registered a d.b.a. name for a small press (this is really only necessary if you want to use LSI or prefer that your book list some press as the publisher of record–most readers don’t notice this, particularly in ebooks). The budgeting and promo was all me, focusing on things that cost me nothing (I just did a long series on my blog about promo, for anyone who’s interested). I made back that initial $150 in 3 months and proceeded to use profits from that first novella to fund everything else–the audio version, copyright and cover art for future books, some promo stuff, etc., and still have profits left over. I’m now regularly selling over 1,000 books a month. Not enough to quit my day job yet, but nothing to sneeze at. Certainly POD is a viable option for getting your book in print (one I have not yet tackled), and there are numerous authors out there who can explain the pros and cons of LSI vs. Createspace. So if you’re starting on a shoestring, epubbing is the way to go without breaking the bank.

  7. Kait, that’s fantastic. My agent speaks highly of smashwords…I know they are going to create an “agent recommended” tab on the site soon (if they haven’t done so already) that will highlight those books that agents have tried to sell in traditional markets, but couldn’t. I haven’t posted there yet because they are picky about the copyright page. (It CAN’T list an independent press, for example.) WTG on getting out your books in such an economical way.

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  9. Mary – Well done and thanks for being a role model / inspiration. And your book MUST be good b/c Larry B gives it his thumbs up! I’m jealous.

    Kait – You’re a rock star! See you on Amazon.

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  11. Great tips and post, Mary. Best of luck with the book!

    @Michael – In my opinion, you can’t be overly concerned with e-theft. Way I see it, the goal of most writers is to get read. If enough people read you (and buy the book), this will counter the smaller number of people who would steal. Several authors, like Cory Doctorow, GIVE their stuff away, and have been rewarded well for it by people who buy their work to support them.

    I also agree with Patrick who said that people who download your stuff for free weren’t likely to buy it anyway. So while originally you had no chance of converting a sale with someone who wasn’t going to buy the book, now that they’re reading, your odds go up for this book, or maybe the next one.

    Personally, I see it like a library system. If someone downloads my stuff and likes it, it’s not much different if they read it at the library. It’s my job to get them to like my work so much that they’ll buy it, or buy the next book. Or at least tell friends about it.

  12. Monica

    This series on self-publishing has been great, Larry, and may have just converted me. A few things Mary said struck me, like the 1-2 yr wait to see your book out there. I knew about that long lag time, but when you put it in the context of self-publishing, things start to look different.

    And then there’s the rights issue. Especially for e-rights, so important these days. You really opened my eyes, Mary, as did Larry’s previous posts on the subject. Thanks!

  13. Per Seth Godin, marketing mavin, we’ve got to _ship_. That means deliver your product. If we wait until it’s “perfect”, we’ll wait forever. I’m still finding typos in documents I wrote 20+ years ago after they’ve gone through 5 reviews by different people.

    Time-to-market is cruicial for technology products such as ereaders and computers. A time-to-market of 12 to 18+ months _after_ an agent and publisher has accepted our work is just too long for most of us.

    Larry’s choice of conventional publishing for his upcoming Story Engineering was probably based on a lot of factors we don’t know about. Can’t fault him for that.

    So far, although I’ve got my stuff up on Smashwords, all my sales have been through my blog/website. My shopping cart is PayPal, so I keep the email addresses of those luck people who’ve invested their $ in the work.

    I’d done quite a lot of cleanup work since the first offering. When the cleanup was done, I emailed those who’d bought the electronic editions and offered a free update to the latest and greatest. About 80% took advantage. So, rolling our own has that advantage.

    Work it up and ship it. Get it out into the world.

  14. I self-published some of my books, partly just to give myself an incentive to create a website and get an internet presence (didn’t want to advertise me, but okay to advertise my books). I certainly couldn’t imagine spending any serious money on it though. So yeah, I guess I still need the opportunity bought by dollar signs, and the validation bought by somebody else saying this is worth reading/buying/selling… And, with time, exposure, and effort, I think it’s beginning to pay off.

  15. I’ve looked at this for almost 9 months now and my thoughts keep swinging from agenting to self publishing by the day.

    My question is this; would/will you continue self publishing or would/will you now do the regular publishing route on your future endeavors, since you are now well known?

    And although I ask this question I think back how they will not consider you published if its done through self publishing.

  16. Mary,

    Thank you for showing the practical side of things and for giving a great overview of how things worked. It’s encouraging to hear how happy you are with the final product and the results it brought you.

  17. Thanks for all of the positive feedback. The jury is still out as to whether I would self-publish again. I’ve gravitated to screenwriting so I don’t see myself publishing another novel any time soon. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of people tell me to make Bitsy into a series…what to do, what to do. :0)

  18. I think the issue I’ll eventually come to grips with is that I don’t have the $2500 to invest. What do the rest of us do before we can become published? Is it really necessary to save that amount of money before trying? Even agents and editors seem to need cash up front, which makes it a trying world for aspiring writers that just need to get out there somehow.

    That being said, due to Larry’s comment and description of “Bitsy’s Labyrinth”… I think I’ll have to pick this one up and give it a chance.

    Great post, as usual.

  19. Patrick Sullivan

    Alexis: Read Kait’s reply, she did it on WAY less money and is doing quite well for herself. Money makes some of it easier (decent cover art usually costs more, and if you don’t have friends who are highly skilled editors…) but if you hustle enough there are ways to get by on less money. It just requires more time.

    Money vs Hustle is a common theme in any form of entrepreneurship. The harder you work at it, or the more money you can throw at the problem, the less luck you need (to a point, SOME luck is almost always required, though the more you put yourself out there the more likely to get lucky you are…)

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  21. Thanks so much for taking the time to write about this subject. I have just finished a manuscript and have been weighing the options. It is good to know that if my manuscript isn’t picked up by an agent that I still have options. Good luck with your novel!

  22. Mary thank you for this post! My own book was originally accepted by a university publisher then when the publishing house closed down I was left not only high and dry, but overwhelmed with self-doubt. It took me a long time to get the confidence to think about self publishing and like you, I started on the long journey of professional advice, edits and proofs. Now it’s about to come out and I’m still nervous about what to expect and how to manage the process. Your words are both insightful and encouraging. Good luck and thank you for a) following your dreams and b) telling us about them.