Saturday , April 20 2024
New authors need to research their options before deciding on self-publishing, unless they don't want to sell any books.

Self-Publishing: 70% of Nothing is Nothing

Lately, I’ve run into a lot of new, inexperienced writers who have chosen or are preparing to choose self-publishing for their work instead of going through the usual (and slow) rounds of agents, e-publishers, small presses and the Big Six. Self-publishing has caused a tsunami in the book industry, flooding the market with thousands upon thousands of books all available on Amazon and other third party retailers. Supporters of self-publishing are waving the banner, yelling out, “Why pay percentages to anyone for YOUR work? Self-publish and keep 70% of the profits for yourself!”

Many new authors are rushing headlong to self-publishing sites, forking over their money to get their books on the market as soon as possible without consideration for what they’re really doing.

While self-publishing is a good choice for certain types of books from a debut author, like some non-fiction with a limited market or niche market fiction, I don’t believe it’s the best choice for fiction writers.

Let me put it this way: if all you want is to hold your book in your hot little hands, then by all means: self-publish. But if you’re thinking about a career as a writer, then make sure you research what you’re doing before you do it. Because when you do the research, you find interesting little tidbits like this:

“…, one of the most popular and cost-effective of the POD services and still independent despite the apparent trend toward consolidation among POD services, is explicit about its long tail business model. In a 2006 article in the Times UK, its founder identified the company’s goal: ‘…to have a million authors selling 100 copies each, rather than 100 authors selling a million copies each.'”

That quote was supplied by the blog How Publishing Really Works, one of my favorite go-to sites regarding the publishing industry. And that quote accurately defines the sales models of most self-publishing outfits. This model also allows them to publish anything and everything, without regard for the quality of the work.

It’s right there in black and white. They have no interest in how many of YOUR books are sold. They only care that there are ten thousand OTHER people just like you, selling their ten or twenty books.

Even more unfortunately, the self-publishing boom has also flooded the market with…well, no way to say this politely so…dead awful books. Right now there are so many unedited first drafts published as “novels” on the internet that the market is seriously glutted. As a result, many readers and most review sites avoid self-published books, and some very good books subsist in limbo without attracting any notice.

Or sales.

This problem was addressed by another industry blog I follow. The American Editor said in June of 2010, “One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.”

That’s what it all boils down to. A book can be beautifully written, well-edited and nicely packaged, but it’s not going to get the attention of either the self-publishing company or readers.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. Anyone who’s following current publishing news will instantly know about Amanda Hocking’s amazing success with self-publishing, one that led her to a big money contract in trade publishing and a worldwide readership. But Hocking sacrificed a great deal of her writing time to promote her books, and as any professional writer will tell you — you always have to be working on your next project. Sure, writers like J.A. Konrath, who already have a readership, are going to consider self-publishing.

After all, if J.K. Rowling decided to release an eighth Harry Potter book and self-publish it, her sales statistics would be ridiculous.

But the odds are that’s not going to happen to you, the unknown, previously unpublished writer. Rowling and Konrath already have readers. You, the unknown, previously unpublished author, don’t — outside of your family and friends. The sad fact is that most self-published books sell less than 50 copies — and many of those are sold to the author.

So before you dive into self-publishing the novel you’ve spent months or years working on, stop and think. Do you have an established readership already? If not, are you willing to spend a lot of time and money promoting and marketing your book yourself? Or, would it be wiser to go the traditional route — submit to agents and acquire representation, then have your book sold to a trade publisher who will edit, format, produce cover art, package, and promote your book, getting it onto bookstore shelves and into the hands of reviewers? Are you more willing to sacrifice time or opportunity? Is it worth risking your future as a writer just to get your book in your hands as quickly as you can?

There are other options available. Not feeling quite ready for the horrors of submitting to agents? Consider submitting to e-publishers, or some of the outstanding small independent presses out there. Then at least you can learn the editing and production process as the publisher prepares your book for release. And, as you can see, the final result can be quite spectacular; this is the cover of my last e-published book. This quality of artwork would have cost me hundreds of dollars if I were self-publishing. Or, use a service like Lulu to print a version of your books to give to your family and friends — that’s a nice thing to do, and will provide you valuable feedback as you develop and refine your story for submission.

Whatever you do, research your options thoroughly. Join a writers’ community and learn from the experiences of others. Keep an eye on watchdog sites like Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, or Absolute Write. It’s much better in the end to have all the information right at your fingertips than to anxiously watch your book sales every day, hoping that someone will find it in the millions of other options available. And that information is readily available – from the self-publishers themselves. For example, this from a New York Times article from January of 2009:

“…For many self-published authors, the niche is very small. Mr. Weiss of Author Solutions estimates that the average number of copies sold of titles published through one of its brands is just 150.

Indeed, said Robert Young, chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, N.C., a majority of the company’s titles are of little interest to anybody other than the authors and their families. ‘We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,’ Mr. Young said…”

Or maybe this perspective will help even more. Seventy percent of nothing is…


About Celina Summers

Celina Summers is a speculative fiction author who mashes all kinds of genres into one giant fantasy amalgamation. Her first fantasy series, The Asphodel Cycle, was honored with multiple awards--including top ten finishes for all four books in the P&E Readers' Poll, multiple review site awards, as well as a prestigious Golden Rose nomination. Celina also writes contemporary literary fantasy under the pseudonym CA Chevault. Celina has worked as an editor for over a decade, including managing editor at two publishing houses. Celina blogs about publishing, sports, and politics regularly. A well-known caller on the Paul Finebaum Show and passionate football fan, when Celina takes times off it's usually on Saturdays in the fall. You can read her personal blog at and her website is at

Check Also

Music Reviews: Lulu, Plus Shannon McNally, Beth Whitney, and Ben Brown

An American one-hit wonder who has had a long and notable career in the U.K., plus an album of Waylon Jennings covers and more.

One comment

  1. Amber Skye Ferreira

    Yeah, but that author will have to pay back the advance, so said author may never see royalties for years. In the meantime, self-published authors will see royalties and might make the advance the traditional published made in the few years the trad author is waiting to start making royalties.