Why you should or should not self-publish your book…

Years ago there was a time when self-publishing was new and exciting for me. And before that, yeah, there was a time when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Way back when, like most, I learned from the web. I searched blogs and sites for the best advice. I took notes. I blogged about it myself. Asked questions on other blogs. Bought books about self-publishing. Eventually, and after three self-published books, I felt comfortable enough in giving advice to other newbies and sharing my experience. I started a blog called The LL Book Review which was devoted to helping indie authors and reviewing them. I had a team of almost ten bloggers by the time our five year run was over.

Today, when it comes to the subject, I admit I’m out of touch. I feel like I’ve been out of high school for a few years.  I remember “the good old days,” but I don’t go to the football games anymore.  I don’t really talk about self-publishing. I don’t read blogs about it. I don’t blog about it myself much. I don’t even read self-published books anymore unless they are from friends or unless the author is willing to exchange reviews with me. I’ve been traditionally published now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a POD fan anymore. Sure, in the back of my mind I’m still rooting for the team from the sidelines, but I’m not on the field.

That being said, I’m not sure why I chose to read an article called Discrimination Against Print-on-Demand Books Is Out of Touch and Bad for the Environment Too written by Brooke Warner for Huffington Post.  After reading and enjoying one of her books, I followed Brooke on Facebook so the post came up in my feed.  It’s not a bad article, but in my feed a particular quote from the article was featured that immediately caught my attention.  It reads: “My advice to authors who have POD books these days is simply not to talk about it. If someone asks, I encourage them to say that they got a print run, and leave it at that. If you get a “run” of ten, twenty, or one hundred books POD, that constitutes a print run, albeit a small one. If no one can tell that a book is POD then it doesn’t matter–end of story.”

I admit this advice really pissed me off.  I know it sounds extreme but it’s kind of like telling black people not to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. or asking gay people not to talk about gay marriage. Like I said, yeah, that’s an extreme analogy but if you aren’t proud of self-publishing your book and you aren’t going to admit to it, then you should not have self-published in the first place.  I replied to Brooke’s article and shared my frustration, to which she replied, “But for authors who aren’t prepared to talk about POD and/or defend it, the whole topic can bring up more problems than it’s worth getting into.”

I agree with her, but again, if you don’t know enough about POD then you have no business doing it. And I say that with experience. In 2003, I self-published my first book with a vanity publisher and it was the biggest mistake, and the first mistake in self-publishing, that I ever made. I admit, like many, I didn’t know anything about the industry. I just wanted my book published. I thought it was good enough. I thought it would sell. I thought people would love it and I’d make enough to become a full time author and quit my day job. I thought Oprah or Ellen would mention it and I’d sell a million copies overnight and become a NYT bestselling author. And… I. Was. Wrong. Reality quickly slapped me in the face and I woke up and went back to work.

Self-publishing with a vanity publisher only put me a bit further in debt.  Nothing else changed. Nothing! Sure, it was nice to hold a copy of my book in my hand. I was proud of that. I even landed a book signing which was even better! But no one else, besides close friends and family, even knew about the book. It was almost impossible to get it into stores no matter how hard I tried. And then I found mistakes in the book, came to a realization it was overpriced in both paperback and hardcover, and then some bad reviews on Amazon really got my blood boiling.

I wouldn’t self-publish again until four years later. And in those four years alone, the industry really grew. Not to the maturity where it is today, but it grew. Authors wanting to self-publish suddenly had more options. (We still didn’t have Kindle or Nook or Smashwords though!)  I chose to publish with Lulu.com.  Compared to my first book, the only real investment I made was in a book cover program.  And I made that money back very quickly by offering to help other authors with their covers for a small fee.

In 2007, the Amazon Kindle came along. In 2008, Smashwords.com began operation. Nook followed in 2009. And in 2010, I published my third book – with almost no investment whatsoever outside of rights for the cover art and a professional editor. By then, I had also republished my other two books in Ebooks on these multiple applications and pretty soon I was making a bit more money.  I should say I was finally making money because I certainly had nothing to show for it before Ebook technology. I was getting more reviews. I was doing more signings. But most importantly, I was reaching more readers.  I would end the decade with the publication of my fourth book which was picked up by a traditional publisher.

Now, all of that being said, yeah, there was a time when self-publishing felt taboo and I felt like I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. And so I didn’t. And I certainly felt the blows of being self-published. As I said before, it was almost impossible to get my books into any bookstores. Even independent bookstores snubbed their noses at self-published authors.  Just because my books were self-published, people thought they were poorly written or not edited. Why would they think that?

Because a majority of the books being self-published at the time suffered from that. Don’t get me started on bad book covers! And authors soon discovered they could have their own “imprint” so they touted that their book was published by such and such press or publisher to cover up the fact their book was really published by CreateSpace. Yep, I did that too. Brooke said, “If no one can tell that a book is POD then it doesn’t matter.”  Ha!  Everyone who matters CAN tell, and it definitely matters!!! But I like to think that as technology improved, so did the industry, and so did the books. There are some really good self-published books out there these days, with authors who are proud of their work and not hiding the fact that they are POD.

And thanks to Ebooks alone, self-published authors found each other. And most importantly, they found readers. Ever heard of Amanda Hocking?  She self-published 9 books on Amazon Kindle and was a millionaire (Yes, millions!) in just a few years which landed her a traditional publishing contract. She’s never denied she self-published. In fact, on her blog, she told everyone how she did it. And she worked hard doing it.

Amazon Kindle alone has helped authors increase sales of their books. More and more authors have gone to their blogs to talk about how they tried for years to get traditional publishing contracts. Some even got them! But after not being satisfied with the industry, they self-published on Kindle and got their backlist out there and finally started getting read. Now, I know I still probably make it sound simple and some newbie authors think it is. They think once their book is on Kindle, they can sit back and reap the rewards. Nope! That’s a pipe dream if anything.  There are more books these days then there are readers.  Think about it.

Ask any author whose done it, myself included, and they will tell you it’s hard work. Never mind the fact that you put your heart, soul, blood, and tears into writing the best damn book you can. And now you’ve got to give up your precious baby as a sacrificial lamb to the masses. If you aren’t going to invest time in a good cover or in good editing, then don’t self-publish! If you can’t afford it, find a way. Befriend people who are grammar junkies. Let your friends read and dissect your work. Read your entire book out loud to find those errors.  Search online for people who help make good covers (I can help!).  Find affordable editors (I can put you in touch with one!).

And I haven’t even mentioned book formatting, and Ebook formatting – yes, the two are different! You’ve got ISBNs to think about too. Don’t know what that is?  Look it up and learn! The point is don’t rush this.  Finishing your book today and getting it online tomorrow is not going to get you sales. If you have readers out there, you are going to spend months or years finding them. Don’t they deserve a good polished book?  So don’t worry about spending months (or years) giving it to them.

Seems like a lot of work?  It is.  And if you’ve taken the time to write that book, edit that book, format that book, give it a good cover, format that Ebook, and so on, and now you are ready to self-publish, then why in the hell would you not talk about it!? Don’t you dare deny that you self-published your book! Chances are bookstores know the publishing and distribution industry better than you do. If they ask if your book is POD, and you say no, you are going to look like an idiot and they’ll probably laugh at you (and they won’t stock your book).  Again, they CAN tell your book is POD!

Bookstores, especially chains like B&N, usually buy their stock from large book distributors like Ingram. Most self-published books, depending on what company you use, are not available from these distributors. And if they are, the bookstore doesn’t get a good discount off them or the books are non-returnable, so the bookstore is only going to order your book if it’s to fulfill a special order. So, how do all those books already in the store get there?  Well, you have those NYT Bestsellers, those names that everyone knows like Stephen King, any book mentioned by Oprah, any book being made into a movie, any teen book about a vampire, and so on.  Society pretty much dictates what people want to read these days. Sad, but true. It’s just like when you were in junior high and had to have that cool tee shirt or pair of shoes that everyone else would be wearing.  And orders for those books are usually made by some home office buyer who does what’s best for the company, based on what everyone is buying.  They have to do what’s best for the company as a whole, and they don’t care about some po-dunk local author with a trunk full of vampire fantasy paperbacks with a book cover you did in Photoshop. Yeah, all your cousin’s friends liked it, but who the hell are they and why do we care?

So what about independent bookstores? Believe me, they weren’t always open to talking to indie authors, but things have changed.  Self-published authors have dropped the attitude (or stopped denying they were POD in the first place), and indie stores have realized these authors can help generate income. Remember Borders Books and Music?  I bet you never considered that in some towns Borders was their only bookstore. When it closed, it didn’t mean that B&N followed in right behind them and opened up a shiny new store. B&N has been hurting for sales too and closing more stores than opening new ones. After all, they have stockholders to report to. A lot of these towns were left without a bookstore at all. And if you study the demographics, you’ll find that the very young generations and the much older generations still prefer paper books over Ebooks. What does this mean?  It means that more indie bookstores are opening and filling the void left by Borders closing. And with these indie stores, we have new blood supporting indie authors.

I can support this argument with my own experience from just a few years ago when a small indie store opened up here in St. Louis and quickly embraced local authors and sold their books on consignment. They devoted front shelf space to these books and carried over 100 titles, my first three books included.  What’s consignment, you ask?  It’s where the store agrees to shelve your book but you don’t make them pay for them outright. You work out a percentage and they pay you for each copy sold. So the store doesn’t end up with a lot of overhead, and your book is on a shelf in a store. Be nice to your local stores and support them though! Don’t go in there with an attitude about being a published author. You start out as a nobody to them until you prove yourself worthy of space on their shelf. Tell people to go there to get your book. Ask to hold a book signing or launch party and invite everyone you know. They’ve got thousands of other books to sell and every other customer still wants Fifty Shades of Grey. So yeah, now you get to add bookseller to your list of titles too.

My point is if you are proud enough of the book you’ve written, you should at least take the time to do the homework to make it the best book possible if you decide to go POD. Indie authors have suffered a lot of grief over the years, but there’s a great support group out there to help you through the process. Like you, they are authors. Like you, they want to sell books. Like you, they want to find their readers. If you don’t know the answers about self-publishing, it’s okay. Seek them out and learn. But don’t be an idiot and deny who you are or where your book came from. Be proud of it and put your best book forward!


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