I’ve had a few people ask for my take on self-publishing. I haven’t got a clue why; as somebody who’s never published anything, I’ve got zero personal experience to speak from, but it is something that I’m interested in. As an aspiring writer and editor, I feel like this is an area I should make some effort to understand, and so I did what I (almost) always do when faced with an interesting topic I have no expertise in. I turned to Twitter for some first-person accounts.
Lots of lovely people from the writing community came forward to share their take on self-publishing their work, and those who had first-hand experience of both routes also gave me some incredibly useful perspective on the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing. I’ve organised the (detailed, wonderful) responses into some of the themes that emerged from them, and I’ve credited the people who helped me out at the bottom of this post.
Reasons for choosing self- or trad-publishing
Of the people that I spoke to, some had set out on the traditional route and changed their minds, some had gone all the way through with traditional publishing and some had always planned to self-publish. I wanted to know why people had gone for the paths they had.
A commonly cited reason for avoiding traditional publishing was a desire to retain control over the whole process, which makes a lot of sense. If you’re just working on your own, you won’t have anyone weighing on or disputing your first choice when it comes to deciding the title, cover, formatting, blurb, etcetera. This might sound great or, if you’re anything like me, it might sound totally terrifying. One author I spoke to, who has experience of both independent and traditional publishing, pointed out that having total control over every aspect of the book could also be a challenge. She enjoyed working with a publishing house for her fourth book, enabling her to hand over the reins and have a team of people sharing responsibility for all of those details.
Another element of the decision that came up more than once was marketing. Pretty much everybody I spoke to pointed out that publishing houses put almost zero money and effort into marketing unknown authors (and almost as little into better known ones in a lot of cases as well). With that in mind, going through an extensive query process to gain the seal of approval of a publisher seems a lot less useful to authors. The odds just don’t feel like they’re in your favour. One author mentioned that a vanishingly small number of new High Fantasy books were signed across the major publishing houses (five, two of which were by George R. R. Martin), so he knew from early on that he was going to go straight to self-publishing for his own High Fantasy series.
About the process
I was fascinated by the beta reading and editing processes I heard about while researching this post. I think both beta reading and editing are extremely valuable (I thoroughly enjoyed Meg Trast’s guest post on the topic!) and I’m clearly not alone in that. One author told me about taking her story through multiple rounds of revisions with a range of audiences, including (crucially) an audience made up of her target readers. At various stages you’re going to want different types of feedback, from high-level plot and character analysis to fine-combing the work for spelling and grammar issues. In order to come out with a highly polished piece of work you’re going to need more than just your own eyes on it, that was unanimously agreed.
There were logistics that came up that I hadn’t considered before—the ISBN, for example. If you’re interested in your book being stocked by retailers, many of them can’t and won’t buy your book without an ISBN number, and these are only obtainable through specific places depending on the country you’re based in. In the UK, that’s the Nielsen ISBN store. In the US, Bowker.
Another thing that became clear was that self-publishing can get expensive fast. High quality cover design, editing and formatting are all vitally important to the success of a self-published book and, unless you know somebody who can help you out with these things, they don’t tend to come cheap. If you want your book to be indistinguishable from traditionally published work, you’re probably going to have to invest in that. That said, one of the upsides of self-publishing is that any profit that does come in is all yours, so there’s always that to consider.
Then, of course, there’s the marketing. When I asked people what the most challenging aspect of self-publishing was, almost everybody went straight to marketing. Getting the word out, gaining publicity, raising awareness of the book amongst its intended audience. There were some great strategies suggested; social media teaser campaigns, book fairs or conventions, book signings and running promotional offers all came up, but at the end of the day everybody acknowledged that getting your finished book into reader’s hands (and getting precious reviews off those readers afterwards) can be really tough.
Familiarity with different parts of the process that don’t look like writing can be a massive help. A couple of people said they had marketing or business experience, either from education or work experience, which helped them out when it came to the self-promotion element of self-publishing. And it’s not just about the personal experience you can bring to marketing your book either, having contacts who can help you out can be a significant help.
Similarly, I spoke to a couple of people who had work experience that made formatting their books for printing or e-publishing a much more straightforward task. The formatting is another one of those logistical pieces that I feel like I’d skimmed over in my mental image of self-publishing, but it came up frequently enough in the conversations I had that I realised it’s a much more important step than I’d given it credit for.
Self-publishing can be hard, but it can also be great
As much hard work as self-publishing can be, plenty of people told me it had been well worth it for them. One person said seeing their cover come to life had been the biggest highlight, another said reading reviews and getting positive feedback from readers. I would imagine that all of the positive moments take on an extra significance when you’ve done everything yourself, and that could definitely be a selling point for self-publishing.
I’ve always been quite attached to the traditional publishing route, largely because the idea of being in charge of all of the different aspects of bringing a book to life feels completely overwhelming to me. That said, talking to some of these people about their experiences definitely made me consider it. After all, for a book to be picked up by a publisher it’s going to need to be pretty highly polished, and if I’m going to be doing most of the marketing myself anyway it does beg the question; what does a traditional publisher actually add that I can’t do or organise myself?
I can’t really answer that since, as I noted previously, zero experience over here. I think it’s a fascinating topic though! If you have any personal experience with publishing, via any route, I’d love to hear about it. Comment below if you have any advice or stories that you’d like to share!
Massive thanks to the kind souls on Twitter who spoke to me about their self-publishing journeys: Christine Bernard, Lydia Deyes, Terri Jones, Liz Delton and Eric Sparks. They each have a wealth of experience, and they were so generous with their time in talking to me. I’d highly recommend following every one of them.