What You Need to Know Before You Self-Publish Your Novel

Sophie Playle

I wonder if the following scenario sounds familiar.

You know a writer who has self-published several books. They bashed them out at a dizzying speed. You’ve seen their writing – extracts they post on Facebook or their blog. It’s always riddled with typos and full of stereotypical characters, and the plots suspiciously resemble current bestsellers. Their books are over-priced and the covers makes you want to push pins into your eyes. Every few days you get a Facebook request to ‘like’ their author page, and your Twitter feed is flooded with blasts of BUY MY BOOK.

URG. This is not the way to do it.

But a writer with the right attitude and the right story that’s produced and marketed in the right way could definitely make a success of self-publishing their work.

Even so, there are a few things you should consider.

Why Self-Publishing is a Bad Idea

Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. If the idea of being that guy in the above scenario hasn’t already put you off the idea, here are a few reasons an author might be nervous about considering this route to publication.

If it’s not good enough for publishers, how is it good enough for the public?

Many people think that one of the main reasons someone would self-publish is because their manuscript simply isn’t good enough for the investment of a publisher. Publishers understand the market. If they think a novel won’t sell … they’re probably right.

But not always.

And on top of that, not every self-published book is a one that failed to impress a publishing house. There are lots of reasons people self-publish. Because they want a larger chunk of the profits. Because it’s their dream to publish a novel, no matter the method. Because they revel in the creative control. And so on.

There’s no quality control

There’s no editor, there’s no typesetter, there’s no cover designer, there’s no proofreader … So many self-published books are littered with errors or are simply not yet ready to be considered a final draft. Yet there are no barriers in place to stop people putting such books out into the world.

The reality is, quality control is the responsibility of the self-publishing author.

Which means quality control does exist – it’s just that the self-publishing author has to have the instincts, knowledge and (often) budget to make sure their book is up to scratch. Generally, if an author doesn’t pay attention to the quality of their book, they won’t be successful.

Self-published books look terrible

See above. Most people have no idea how to put an attractive cover together. Authors aren’t designers. And not all designers understand the psychology of bookselling – you really need to hire a designer who understands book marketing. So many self-published books look bad aesthetically – from the cover to the internal layout of the text.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!

It’s difficult to get your book into bookshops

Bookshops deal with publishing houses – not individuals. Though it’s not impossible to negotiate a deal with a bookshop, it’s pretty hard. If you dream of seeing your book on shelves, self-publishing might not be for you. Saying that, with the internet (and print-on-demand and ebook technology) you don’t have to sell your book in bookshops to be successful.

You don’t get an advance

With traditional publishing, once a book is sold to a publisher, you get a nice juicy advance on your royalties because they know they can sell your book … However, the amount of an advance has dwindled in recent years – and many books never earn-out their advance. Which sucks. So maybe choosing the route that doesn’t get you an advance isn’t that much of a sacrifice?

You have to spend all your time marketing

This is potentially a sad truth. If you self-publish your novels, the time you spend writing will need to be dwarfed by the time you spend marketing if you want to sell a lot of copies. This is one of the main reasons some authors choose to pursue traditional publishing routes.

However, no author is off the hook with this one.

Even traditionally published authors are expected to do a boatload of marketing for their books. Publishing budgets aren’t what they used to be, you see, and there are so many books being published each year that you really have to do you utmost to get noticed.

Why Self-Publishing is a Good Idea

Hey, it’s not all doom and gloom! Here are some reasons you might decide self-publishing is for you.

You aren’t restricted by trends

Publishers aren’t there to publish the best writing. That may be one of their aims, sure, but essentially a publishing house is a business. They want to make moo-lah. If your book is awesome but the publishers don’t think they will make enough money out of it, you’re going to get rejected.

For the self-publisher, this isn’t an issue. You can either take a punt that people will like what you’ve written, publish knowledgably in a smaller market, or build your own readership.

You have more creative control

Publishing houses usually know what they’re doing. They’ll publish a book in the way they think it will sell the most. But did you know an author gets very little say in their cover design? And sometimes how their book is categorised by genre? Sometimes even how the story is written?

So many important decisions are made by the publisher, with little or no input from the author. But by self-publishing you could do something different. Something creative. Something that completely breaks the mould, if you want! You have control.

You get a higher percentage of royalties

Ooh, yes, now we’re talking.

Publishers take most of the money from the cover price of a book. And that’s understandable, considering the huge cost involved in producing and marketing a book. The percentage that the author earns in royalties varies, but it is usually around 10–15%.

By self-publishing, you can take up to a cushty 70% of the cover price, depending on your method of distribution.

This also means …

You can price your novel competitively

By self-publishing, you can set the price of your book. And because you’ll take home a bigger proportion of the sales income, you can sell your book for less than a traditionally published book if you like. You can even change the price of your book, experimenting with the optimal price that earns you sales and money.

You can make a name for yourself

It can be done. You don’t necessarily need the marketing power of a publishing house. The internet is a powerful tool. Word-of-mouth is a far stronger sales tool than any advert. If you’re savvy, you can do it. And because you can earn more per sale, you don’t have to sell as many copies to earn what you might if you published with a publishing house.

Sounds good, right?

Before you jump into self-publishing, though, you should ask yourself a few questions …

What Does Publishing Success Mean to You?

If you’re considering self-publishing, there are things that you need to ask yourself about what you want from your writing career.

Do you want …

  • the prestige of being published by a recognised publishing house?
  • the thrill of seeing your book on the shelves of bookshops?
  • to go on book tours organised by your publisher?
  • the quality assurance gatekeepers provide?
  • the confidence you gain from having industry professionals invest in your writing?
  • to focus on your writing and leave the publishing to the experts?
  • to not have to pay for editing and design out of your own pocket?
  • to receive an advance?

Or do you want …

  • the opportunity to be creative beyond the act of writing?
  • control over the publication of your book?
  • control over the marketing of your book – no scary book tours?
  • to have your words read – regardless of the number of readers?
  • to earn a bigger percentage of book sales?
  • to be a bit of a rogue and publish something that bucks trends?
  • to make use of modern technology?
  • not to be pressured into writing more books before you’re ready?

There are even more issues to consider.

Keep in mind that it’s really hard for unknown authors to make a lot of money with just one self-published book. Though you’ll earn a higher percentage of each book sale, it’s likely you’ll make a lot less money overall. At least at first.

Self-publishing success stories are plastered over the internet, but these are the exceptions. A lot of work and time (and a little luck) goes into becoming a bestselling self-published writer. You need to build your readership through effective marketing, and also build a catalogue of work. Then again, traditional publishing isn’t an automatic road to success either.

Is self-publishing right for you?

Maybe. Maybe not.

To help you decide, think deeply about what you want from your writing career – and what you’re willing to do to make it happen.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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