Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stacy Whitman's Comments on Self-Publishing

I think you could pretty much group everyone's comments on what someone who
self-publishes has to do under the umbrella of "you're the publisher." That
means you take on ALL the roles that a publisher does, without the clout a
mainstream publisher has. That means you're no longer just the writer--all
the pre-production and production issues are yours (editing, copyediting,
proofreading, design, interior and cover artwork, administrative tasks like
ISBNs (beware a vanity publisher who says they'll get your ISBN--often
they're getting it in THEIR name, not yours, which causes problems in
reprints if you get that far), copyright registration, getting quotes from
printers and other vendors, etc.), and then the marketing, PR, sales, and
distribution are a major hurdle that you're handling yourself as well. As
many have already noted, you're not going to get your book in most
bookstores unless you have several books, and the quality of the book in
presentation and editing are always going to be an issue.

That's not to say that there aren't some great self-published books out
there--look at Schlock Mercenary and several other webcomic artists' books.
But they definitely fall in a niche--a niche for which they already had a
built-in audience from the webcomic of tens of thousands of fans. If you
don't already have an audience in place, it's definitely something you'll
have to consider, because building an audience for most books, at least
fiction, tends to be easier through a mainstream publisher.

Again, that doesn't mean it's not possible, but it is definitely daunting.
It's daunting for me as I start my small press, because I'm taking on a lot
of these roles myself, roles that when I worked with a larger publisher were
delegated to other employees. I will have to use all these kinds of
skills--skills that I've gained through working in a publisher--and be very
active on the selling end (going to shows, etc.) until we get at least five
books out because no distributor will even look at a small press who isn't a
self-publisher until you have at least five titles out.

The stigma against self-publishing in the publishing world is simply that
with all that up against the average self-publisher- -and nowadays the
average self-publisher *tends* to be the kind of person who insists they
know publishing better than the experts, despite never having worked on
either side of publishing as a writer or editor/other publishing staff--few
people have the expertise to manage all those roles and come out with a
well-written, well-edited, well-designed book that also sells well. Heck,
it's hard enough to do it when you've got a team of experts on your side.

Now, when I said "the average self-publisher" that often rules out anyone
who's doing their research, like networking through lists like this and so
on. Already you've got more knowledge than the literally millions of
self-publishers out there--most people who go to self-publishing honestly
think that's how a book gets published. I had an old roommate, who knew I
was an editor, ask me how much it costs to get a book published by Random
House--she honestly thought you had to pay to be published, and without more
information, would probably have ended up going with a scam.

The reason why the number of books published every year is so large is
because of all those self-published books. Few can stand out from a crowd in
the sea of all those books. But the ones that do know how to capitalize on
the skills everyone's talking about here. And it can be a very good option
for all the reasons Rick and several others have mentioned here. I know an
author who just wanted a copy of the book to hand to her daughter at a
certain age, so she decided to self-publish her picture book. For that goal,
it succeeded. She hasn't succeeded in selling out her print run, but the
emotional reason was more important to her at that time, and she has other
books she's writing for the traditional publishing route. Certainly family
and local histories have a limited, niche audience, and self-publishing can
be a great boon for those kinds of stories. Self-help nonfiction, as someone
mentioned here, can do very well in self-publishing because of all the
opportunities to use your platform at conferences and such to sell the book,
especially if you're already an expert in your field. I've heard the same
about real estate and finance kinds of books--again, those are authors with
built-in audiences, so the books will probably sell themselves.

But the thing to remember as you consider self-publishing is whether you
truly want to take on the roles of the entire staff of experts--or if you
don't want to do it yourself, if you want to enlist the help of independent
experts (there are a lot of freelance editors out there who would be glad to
help, but as Rick said, good help doesn't come cheap--I myself charge $50 an
hour for a developmental edit of a full manuscript) or if you have family
members with these skills. It's definitely possible, but it's a whole lot
easier to have a team of experts who are paying *you* to work on your book.

Keep in mind that the Eragons of the world are literally one in a million.
There are a million books out there, wanting the limited attention span of
the audience you're trying to reach. It's definitely wise to consider
whether you can and want to take on all the roles necessary to really
capture that attention. If you do, go for it. If you don't, keep going for a
regular publisher, working on getting your polished book into the right
hands at the right time--and they'll have that team of experts ready to go
at the right time.

Sorry if this appears pessimistic. I may have been the editor at last year's
WIFYR that someone said told them that "all" self-published books are bad.
If it was me, I believe I was misquoted. As I said above, *many*--not all,
but MANY--self-publishe d books tend to be of a low quality simply because
the author doing the publisher is a *writer*--not any of the other roles
that you have to fill to publish a book. There's nothing wrong with that.
But it's always best to consider these things and consider how they'll
affect the end product of your book.

Stacy Whitman

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