Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Big Question About Self Publishing Successes

If self-publishing is such a brilliant thing for a writer to do, why is it that most of the writers who are said to have achieved true success through self-publishing have only done so after their books have been republished by a mainstream publisher?

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the idea, however erroneous, is that self-publishing will lead to mainstream publishing.

Bradley Robb said...

Because, so far, the definition of success through publishing is still to be published by a mainstream press. As it stands now, there isn't truly a self-publishing supply chain that match that of a traditional publisher. Not in printing power, not in price.

As it stands now, success in self-publishing translates to working around the query process and establishing a market share which leaves little work left for the publisher.

Hopefully this will change as the general reading public becomes more accepting of eBooks as legitimate books. But I fear that is still a year or two away.

Jana Oliver said...

Actually, self-publishing can lead to mainstream publishing, but not necessarily in a direct fashion. I self-pubbed my first three books to learn how to market and distribute a product. Those books landed me a series contract at a small press which resulted in multiple awards. Those awards, and my track record, allowed me to sign with a top NY agent who is now shopping proposals to the big publishing houses.

Everyone who self-pubs would love to have their book hit the big numbers. Reality is a cruel mistress. But DIY publishing can help you learn about the business and prepare you for what lies ahead.

Anonymous said...

Your statement wasn't true of me. I started to self-publish only after a book of mine published by a big publisher became a niche bestseller with 5 copies in ever Barnes & Noble store.

I was writing about entrepreneurship and thought it proper to demonstrate entrepreneurial behavior in how I conducted my own business. I earned far greater profits from my self-publishing efforts than from my bestseller and I enjoyed being in control of the process and not having to stand helplessly by on the sidelines while the Big Publisher's staff did very stupid things.

I'm still self-publishing almost 15 years later because I enjoy it. I don't sell as many copies as Big Publishers do, but I sell enough to make it worth doing.

Needless to say, I'm publishing nonfiction. I would never dream of self-publishing my fiction.

NICOLA MORGAN said...

Bradley - to blame supply chain is to miss the point. Too many self-published books simply aren't good enough to be published - ie they're not good/interesting enough to be marketed and sold in acceptable quantities to cover costs. Some self-published books are great but those tend to be the ones we hear about - they're successful because they're good; the rest disappear, unwanted.

Anonymous (2) - you're certainly right about non-fiction being more self-publishable than fiction. Way too many mistakes to be made in fiction, unless you're prepared to pay for fab editing. The novelist's mind needs an editor!

Nothing wrong with the idea of self-publishing - just that the end result too often underlines why it wasn't taken by a publisher. And it's a shame because it's a perfectly honourable (though difficult) thing to do.

Good post, Jane - pithy as always!

DanielB said...

With all the self-published fiction I've ever seen, it has been blindingly obvious from page one why it was never accepted by a mainstream publisher.

Jana Oliver said...

Alas, about 99% of self-pub is crap. A rare few are wonderful and if the author can fight their way upstream, they can sell their book to a big publisher.

The supply chain is a problem, even for mainstream publishers, though to a lesser extent. Even small presses have to fight to keep books in stock at the distributors, to fix database errors that claim a book is out of print when 3K copies are sitting in the publisher's warehouse. Until that mess is cleaned up it's a wonder any book makes it into the bookstores and into the readers' hands.

Jane Smith said...

I'm with Daniel: almost all of the self-published fiction I've ever read has been absolutely dreadful. Not just a little bit bad, but a huge amount bad. Confusing, dull and sloppy. It doesn't matter how the supply-chain works if the books are that dreadful: nothing can help them.

I made this post because I've read so many internet comments lately from people who insist that self-publishing is the way forward, and that it's challenging mainstream publishing: that it's cutting-edge and brilliant. And yet all the books which are trumpeted as big self-publishing successes have only really become successes after they've been published via the mainstream route (and a lot of the writers who are claimed to have self-pubished simply didn't).

DanielB said...

Some of them are particularly good at not just self-publishing but also self-publicising - one is tempted to say they put more effort into this than into the actual writing. There are one or two in particular in my home city who seem very much tapped into all the local publicity channels. They get the airtime/column inches without mentioning the minor inconvenient fact that their "published" book is not, in fact, properly published at all - and there appear to be journalists and presenters who either can't tell the difference or don't even think to ask.

BuffySquirrel said...

Using an alternative route to get into mainstream publishing is like my cat worming her way around the room at meal times, only to present herself at the other side of you as a completely different cat who obviously deserves some of what you're having. The only challenge is to your ability to detect cat machinations.

Sally Zigmond said...

What a fabulous image, BuffySquirrel! And how true.

Word verification: tringl. What you get when you come across a great bit of writing.

behlerblog said...

I second Sally; great imagery, Buffy.

Jane, are you talking about vanity - subsidy/pay to play - or those who put their own money into forming a company to publish their own books?

Subsidy/pay to play goes without saying. It's not the best idea if you have visions of success dancing through your head because those who you're paying have absolutely no incentive to "edit" your work or cough up decent cover art. And distribution? Not a chance. The only "distribution" you'll see is your name in lights on all the online databases. Those books will never be on store shelves, nor will they be reviewed by the trade magazines.

True self publishing - where you form your own company - is another story. The sky is the limit in terms of success. I know a number of writers who did this the right way. They hired professional editing, cover artists, and signed on with a good indie distributor.

My friend Brunonia Barry - author of The Lace Reader - did this very thing, at a huge expense. I met her because we have (had) the same distributor. She and her hubby poured thousands into her promotion, and she got picked up by a big press for 2.1 million.

Yes, it's a Cinderella story, but had she pubbed through AuthorHouse or iUniverse, this would have never happened because her books wouldn't have been on the store shelves.

So it's important to be clear because one can parlay itself into something quite wonderful, and another is pretty much a guarantee of anonymity.

NICOLA MORGAN said...

Crucial phrase in Lynn's comment: "hired professional editing". Without which all is lost before it's found.

Also loved buffysquirrel's cat! Sounds a lot more understandable than Schrodinger's Cat...

DanielB said...

'Eragon' was pretty much self-published,wasn't it? Not through a small press, but through a company which happened to be owned by the author's uncle. Sorry if I have got the details wrong.

Matador said...

What is successful self-publishing? Most people assume that a successfully self-published book must have sold a million copies and made a mint... but if a self-published book gets a good sales track record and reviews it is invariably picked up by a mainstream publisher, and then it is no longer self-published.

So a commercially successful self-published book is possibly one that recoups its costs of publication, and perhaps gets a good review along the way.

But there are other forms of self-publishing success that are usually overlooked. What about the local history book that will only ever sell 500 copies? Or an author who wants to publish a book of poetry as the culmination of a hobby? How do you quantify success in those cases? Certainly not in terms of the authors going on to make a fortune and sign up with Random House.

Self-publishing is a way to get your work out there and get noticed by a mainstream publisher if that is what you want, but not all authors want that. That's not to say that they have a right to foist a badly written and poorly produced book on anyone, however. But as long as the author is clear about their own aims in self-publishing, who are we to deride them because they haven't been snapped up by a large corporation?

Polly Courtney, Melanie Rose, Steve Dunne, Jerry Murland... four of our self-published authors who have signed up with a major publisher in the past six months (three fiction, one non-fiction). It does happen.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Add Maggie Anton to the list of a self-published success. She sold something like 5k copies of her first novel, by marketing directly to her audience. She was a household name among the people who love Jewish historicals long before Penguin picked up the series.

I'd say that's success. Being a household name among your target audience.