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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

To Be Self-Published, or not Self-Published – That is the Question

I was recently asked my opinion about self-published books. Would I ever contemplate it? Yes – in fact I’m actually self-publishing an anecdotal/photographic local history of wrestling in the autumn. The reason I’m doing it is that I know it’s a niche market and I have very little chance of getting it placed with a mainstream publisher. I’m doing it for charity – and this way I control all editorial and the profit will be bigger. There are some fabulous sites out there which suit photographic books especially – Blurb and Myphotobook come to mind. The results are very professional – these books make fabulous gifts and are ideal for someone playing to a small audience.
But – here’s the question – would I have self-published my first book if I couldn’t find an interested publisher? The answer is: no I wouldn’t. And here’s why.
1) Quite simply I want someone to pay me for writing a book, not me to pay them. I want a career, not a hobby. And, for their cut, which I am grateful to pay, an agent and publisher will market me and use their contacts to get me features in magazines etc that wouldn’t even contemplate me as a direct sales person. Why should they? They know that if my PR guru approaches them with a pitch they can trust him because he knows their readership, how they work, what they are looking for and he can supply it with ease. My agent liaises with foreign sub-agents who sell on my books to international publishing houses who translate my books and market them all over the world. It’s hardly likely I would get my book published in Italian if I can’t even get an English publishing house to take it on.
2) It might seem a small point but I hate the paper. A lot of these self-published books look as if they have been cobbled together from cheap scrap pads. The covers are often dodgy too – no raised artwork or cut out/metallic effects which help grab attention and talk quality. There are all sorts of tricks of the trade to get noticed when designing book covers which artists attached to publishing houses are savvy to. It’s not just a case of sticking a pretty picture on the front which the author likes. A book has to both look and feel right to be attractive to the masses.
Selling your book to Kindle will skip past the paper problem, of course, but ebooks still only command a very small part of the market compared to traditional books. It’s growing, but they will take years to make a major impact on printed books – if ever (remember virtual greetings cards vs traditionally printed ones?). And even then you are competing with professional authors who have their books ‘Kindle-ified’.
3) It’s hard enough to sell books which have the might of a publisher behind them these days. Yes there are success stories of self-publishing like Stephen Clarke and his ‘A Year in the Merde’. But for every one of these mavericks-made-good which are heralded in the press, there are thousands of flops which you don’t hear about. If you can’t say that you’ve got a publishing deal the traditional way - and this is the important part - then you can’t say that you have a representative of the market’s trust in you that you’ll sell. Local bookshops might give you a little order on a sale or return basis – but are you likely to woo the national Waterstones buyer? If he’ll even give you an appointment. Buyers know the self-publishing houses and that the books coming out of them are very unlikely to be viable options for their companies.
4) This one is the big one for me. When I think back to the submitted draft of my first book – which I thought was nigh on perfect – I cringe. Editing a book isn’t just about correcting the spelling mistakes, it’s a full team effort from a host of people in the publishing world who know what they are talking about and are in place to drive the story to its final polished edit. My story was seen by an editor – who suggested all sorts of changes – and 99% of those changes were the right suggestions and worked. Then it was looked at again – more tweaks suggested. Again, they worked. Then a copyeditor looked at it and suggested changes - which worked. Then it was typeset and checked again by another proof-reader, whose changes were spot on. This continual process of refinement is what moulds a story into a book that a publisher can put out there with confidence. I know that if I’d self-published it, it might have felt the best I could do, but it would have been shockingly lacking for the want of the input of a team of experts at my disposal.

My personal conclusion would be that if your main ambition is to see your name on a book, then go self publish. But if you want a career as a national/international successful author there is no real short cut and leaping to self-publication is not the ideal option it might appear. You need an agent to recognise your work is good enough to sell, then hook you up with a publisher. Then you need a team within the publishing house to propel you upwards and onwards into every possible outlet in Britain – and then onto the rest of the world. In a traditional publishing environment you are supported by professional cover designers, editors, a production team, a distributing team and a publicity department – and all are trained for their purposes. Can any author boast an equivalent expertise in all of these fields?

‘Everyone has a book inside them,’ is the saying. But the truth is that most of those books would bore the masses into a coma. And agents aren’t interested in taking on someone with just the ‘one book inside them’. This is a business – first and foremost. Agents look at the long game with potential new clients: ‘has this writer got at least ten books in them?’ they often ask before taking anyone on. Because, give or take the odd massive first advance story that hits the news – and it hits the news because it’s so rare - most authors have to build up fairly slowly to the sort of advances that allow them to give up the second – and mortgage supporting – day jobs.
It’s not easy to get a publishing deal. Most books you see on the shelves have been turned down over and over again: Harry Potter had been rejected so many times it was virtually on last chance saloon when it was submitted to Bloomsbury – who took it and ran with it. Twilight was turned down fourteen times, Stephen King’s Carrie had been rejected so many times he threw it in the bin, only for it to be retrieved by his wife. Super-best-selling author Jill Mansell wrote seven novels before getting published – ‘they live in a drawer’ she says. Authors clock up years of rejection but it’s all part of the refining process and why it is a true vocation and not just ‘a job’. We abandon rejected manuscripts and go to bed resolving to scrap everything and find a different career, then wake up with renewed vigour to begin fighting again to get that deal. We learn more with each rebuff. Determination and resilience is as vital to a writer’s make-up as talent. The road to publication truly is paved with blood, sweat, toil and tears and that’s why it’s worth everything when a deal comes through. The best things in life just don’t come easy – and to a writer, a publishing deal really is one of the best things in life.
And what becomes clear when you sign that first contract is that your work isn’t by any means done – rather it’s just begun, because then you have to STAY in the game. And that’s why you need to have developed a backbone of iron during your apprenticeship to this point.
In the words of Joe Konrath : ‘There's a word for a writer who never gives up . . . published.’ I really couldn’t have put it better myself.


  1. This is great to hear, and so inspiring. I'm an aspiring novelist also from Barnsley (I'm 20, doing a degree in Warwick at the moment!) and am looking to break into journalism upon graduation, and then roll out my tentative plans of novel writing when I feel I have experience with genres/markets/readership and the 'real world'. I love your blog for its honest hints, tips and for telling it like it is! It's going to be a long hard slog for me but I've chosen my path and I can't wait to get stuck in! Love your books as well by the way :)

    And where did you get the fish from in your sidebar?! I want them for my blog! Haha


  2. Love this article.
    I've read several pieces recently on the traditional/self publishing debate and this is by far the most sensible.
    Completely agree that if you're looking for a career (rather than a niche, one-off, publication) it's vital to have your abilities/ideas validated by a third party who knows what they're talking about and knows what sells.
    No point kidding yourself you're a brilliant writer with a fantastic idea, just because your mum/friend says so!
    Thanks Milly for providing the voice of reason in this on going debate.

  3. Great article

    Whilst I agree with most of what you say about traditional publishers. Yes they do all the work for you and with self publishing you have to do it all yourself.
    I have never sent any of my manuscripts off to any of them, not that I thought my work would be rejected but because I don't have the time to wait years on the off chance that I may get picked up by one of them so I chose to self-publish which cost nothing.
    I fear you are confusing 'Vanity Publishing' with 'Self-Publishing'
    Vanity publishing is where the author pays a stupid amount of money for the company to produce their book.
    Self publishing, sometimes know as indie publishing is free, cost nothing except for the proviso that you have to purchase one proof copy at cost price, they then advertise on Amazon etc. I get 70% royalties the other 30% is shared with the online retailer and the self publishing company.
    Unlike some traditional publishers and depending on what type of deal you have with them, I am my own publisher and retain all rights to my work.

    Granted the books are not available in high street shops but they are available all over the internet which most people nowadays use more than the traditional high street shops.

    With regards to Kindle and various formats my books are in every format possible, for every e.reader on the market, this was also done free via another online indie company.

    Sales in e.books are quite good, in the last month my books have been downloaded 5,000+ times.

    You say: "ebooks still only command a very small part of the market compared to traditional books. It’s growing, but they will take years to make a major impact on printed books"
    Take another look, even Amazon admits it’s selling more Kindle books than traditional books. E.books are the way forward and traditional publishers are now realizing this by putting their back catalogues online.

    May I recommend for your anecdotal/photographic local history of wrestling book.

    Peter Knowles