The pitfalls of self-publishing, part 3

Aurora and my brand-new roaster!
Aurora and chicken…in my brand-new roaster!

In case you’re wondering, there’s no particular reason I’m attaching a photo of my wife and a chicken, other than I don’t have an image that illuminates the issue of self-publishing, and I enjoy bragging about my cooking.  My blog, my rules.

In my last post, I talked about the valid reason why an author would want to self-publish.  In this post, I want to address, briefly, the bullshit reasons to self-publish.  None of them are untrue, mind you; they’re just bullshit.

1. “You get to keep a bigger piece of the sales when you self-publish.”

This is true.  The pay rate of a publishing house is a bit complicated, but you can expect to receive 10 to 15% percent of hardcover book sales, depending upon how well it sells (less for paperback, and I don’t know what it is for e-readers).  From your cut, your agent will receive 15%.  Conversely, you get to keep around 70% of book sales if you self-publish through Amazon.  The problem is, publishing houses deal with tens and hundreds of thousands of book sales (and, yes, occasionally millions), whereas five thousand sales of a self-published book is considered a pretty good haul.  So, the math doesn’t work.

2. “Blah-blah-blah did it, and now they’re famous!”

The “blah-blah-blah” is almost certainly E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey), Andy Weir (The Martian), or Hugh Howey (Wool).  I’ve had this conversation at least half a dozen times:



Fellow drinker: “Why don’t you self-publish?”

Me: “It’s not for me.”

Fellow drinker: “Really?  Well, it worked for—”

Me: “Stop.”

Fellow drinker: “Why?”

Me: “Because you’re about to say either E.L. James, Andy Weir, or Hugh Howey.

Fellow drinker: (stunned silence)


And again, it’s true.  All three of these authors did some variant of self-publishing, and now they’re making bathtubs of money.  But this is what’s known as the “Outlier Fallacy.”  I don’t want to go into it too much, but suffice to say, for every E.L. James, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of self-published writers on Amazon who end up selling only a few hundred copies.  “To get rich” is simply not a sane reason to go into writing, let alone self-publishing.

3. “You get your name out there.”

Okay, this one is tricky, because “getting your name out there” is critical for an author.  So, the question is: Is self-publishing a good way to do that?

Self-publishing doesn’t bear the same stigma that it did just a few decades ago, when it was called “vanity publishing,” and I credit Youtube.  Today, musicians who can’t score a contract with a record label can still get their music heard by uploading a video.  And there’s a logic: many musicians have been discovered on Youtube by record companies, so maybe an author can be discovered on Amazon.

Do agents troll Amazon, looking for clients?  Maybe.  I know that publishing houses are loath to publish a book that’s already been downloaded a lot on Amazon (it does happen, but it’s rare), but maybe, if an agent likes your book, they might ask you what else you’re writing, and you can win a contract that way.  Seems like a longshot, but what isn’t?

I guess I think of it as bullshit because there are, in my opinion, better ways to “get your name out there.”  Take my web series, Martinis with Nick, which is, ultimately, about me, whereas self-publishing is about the book, i.e., the product, i.e., what you’re trying to sell.  Martinis with Nick is an advertisement; a self-published book is the thing, itself.  To me, that’s not the same as “getting your name out there.”

And, what happens when your book only sells 300 copies?  You might chalk it up to a learning experience, but nothing goes away on the Internet.  What happens when an agent has some interest in your next book, and she googles you?  Will your status as a failed self-publisher affect her decision to take you on?  Maybe not, but it sure as hell won’t help.


I think the question every novelist should ask herself is, “Do I want to be a publisher?” because that’s what we’re really talking about.  For me, the answer is no.  I’m sure I can do it with some modicum of competence, but there are real, honest-to-God, full-time publishers out there who can run circles around me, if one of them ever took a chance on my book.  I don’t know if that will ever happen.  I like to think it will.  But one thing I know for sure is, my chances are better if I spend my day writing the best book I can, rather than pleading with a blogger for a review.


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