Thursday, February 08, 2007

Should you self-publish your novel?

I am often asked by writer friends what I think of self-published novels. My usual answer is an apologetic "not much." I'm afraid the vast majority of self-published books aren't worth the paper they're printed on--even if it's very cheap paper.

Generally speaking, self-published novels are books that have been (or would have been) rejected by royalty-paying publishers. To put it plainly, the books aren't good enough to offer to the reading public. Yes, it's possible that a given book simply didn't fit any established market niche, so the traditional publishers didn't want to take a chance on it. But let's not kid ourselves; because anyone can self-publish, the odds of finding a jewel in any truckload of self-published novels is infinitesimal. That's because even when a self-published book is well written, it has almost certainly not been edited, and even the best authors need good editors.

I'm well aware that a small percentage of self-published authors pay a couple of hundred bucks to have their novels "edited." But if those freelance editors have no stake in the finished product, what motivation do they have to do anything more than correct typos and amend an awkward sentence here and there? That's not editing, it's proofreading. Editing is looking at the whole novel with an unbiased eye and figuring out what will work and what won't for the average reader. A good editor won't balk at throwing out a scene or insisting that you add a new one. She'll push you to heighten your conflict, nag you to polish your characterization, and generally browbeat you until that little book is as good as it can possibly be.

If you sell a book to a publishing house, you'll get an editor who is fully invested in your novel. She has to be; the publisher is looking to make money on the project. And you'll almost certainly have an editorial team rather than just one person helping you refine your novel. No less than four editors have worked on my upcoming book: senior editor, assistant editor, freelance editor, and copyeditor--which is par for the course in the romance genre. That's a lot of polishing. I like to think I gave them a good story to begin with, but I can't deny that they're making it even better.

Should you self-publish your novel? As a fellow writer, I don't feel qualified to answer that question. You might have good reasons for self-publishing, and you might end up doing very well (although that's not the common experience, it is possible). But as a discerning reader, I'll say that for the reasons outlined above, I am wholly uninterested in self-published books. So if you're trying to decide whether to keep writing and submitting to traditional publishing houses or to go ahead and jump into self-publishing, you might want to consider that legions of readers think the way I do--that self-published books aren't, as a whole, books worth buying.

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Nissa Annakindt said...

Self-publishing is mainly worth considering if you are very good at doing your own editing/proofreading (and others have told you so) and if you have a niche subject and a way to market it. Mostly this would be in the realm of non-fiction. For example a Boer goat breeder self-published a book on meat goat breeding--- a topic for which there are few books available--- and got it reviewed in all the appropriate goat magazines. Since it was a well written book and the author was known for articles on goat raising she had written, she did well.

Had she written a novel about a Boer goat breeder, she might also have made quite a few sales, but probably not as many. I do believe that a children's novel has been published with a goat-farming theme and again I believe the writer was someone who had written a lot of articles in the goat magazines.

Another possible use for self-publishing is for the published author who wants to write a novel with an odd/niche theme, probably under a pseudonym, for reasons of personal and artistic satisfaction.

For the most part, I would think it's best to keep trying to submit to the regular markets. If your work is excellent, it will get published in time.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

I agree with your comments. I've met several self-published writers over the years at various conferences(NOT RWA OR ACFW-AFFILIATED CONFERENCES) and I've tried to give their books a try. I'm usually very disappointed. I feel that they should hone their craft, join a writers group such as ACFW or RWA and get with with a critique partner or group, to make their manuscript the best that it can be.

What gets on my nerves is when people that I know like friends, acquaintances, relatives, etc. find out that I'm an author, they'll say "Don't you have to pay a lot of money to get your book published?" I then have to patiently explain to them that I'm not self-published and that a royalty-paying publishing house pays me an advance of thousands of dollars and after I earn that back, I get royalties. Then I have to tell them that most self-pubbed books don't get the amount of distribution that traditional/commercially published books get. I explain that a greater majority of books dotting the shelves at bookstores, or are featured in book club catalogs(like Crossings and Doubleday Book Club) are not self-pubbed books.

They say, "Really?" And it's like, they just don't 'get it.' Anybody can slap words on paper and then pay a printer some $$$ get an ISBN number and say they have a book out, which is a huge difference from having a book out by a royalty paying publishing house.

Also, as a previous person commented, I do believe self-pubbed people can sometimes make a lot of sales if they have a unique niche or market and they have a massive platform with a huge number of speaking engagements. After the speaking engagement, people may buy their books.

That's how I feel in a nutshell. The whole self-pubbed vs. traditional pubbed subject is one that I feel strongly about.

Brenda Coulter said...

Nissa, you make a lot of good points; the goat-breeding book is an excellent example of the kind of thing self-publishing is good for. I can also see people putting together books of recipes to sell at fundraisers, or people writing family histories for their extended families. But novels? No.

Cecelia, I neglected to say that I have looked at a number of self-published novels--three of them online and several while browsing book tables. They were all just awful. In one of them, I did see some sparks of "goodness," but the writer clearly needed more experience.

I have heard of, but have yet to see, self-published novels that really are good, and which have been subsequently picked up by royalty-paying publishers. I have also heard of people winning millions of dollars in lotteries. Yeah, it does happen. But it's not going to happen to you or me.

TracyMontoya said...

I have the same sort of reservations about self-pubbed novels that you do, Brenda. But interestingly, one of the best thrillers I ever read was self-pubbed. The bookseller who recommended it told me the author had garnered a lot of interest from NYC editors, but they always balked because the spy material felt too politically sensitive (!!!). Maybe that was just a story the author told to get people to buy the thing, but the story itself was fast-paced and tightly plotted, and his grammar was spot-on.

I have a friend who didn't quite self-pub, but the POD/e-pub she chose was so small and poor at marketing, she might as well have. But she was in her 70s, and she said she just wanted a book out there before she got too old to enjoy it. So, I was happy for her because going that route made her happy. My attitude toward self-pubbing fiction is if it feels right to you, go for it. But as a reader, because such books don't have that tacit guarantee of a fairly solid and well-edited story that a book from a reputable publisher does, it pretty much takes an act of God or a very enthusiastic and articulate bookseller to get me to buy one!

Brenda Coulter said...

My attitude toward self-pubbing fiction is if it feels right to you, go for it. But as a reader, because such books don't have that tacit guarantee of a fairly solid and well-edited story that a book from a reputable publisher does, it pretty much takes an act of God or a very enthusiastic and articulate bookseller to get me to buy one!


If you stop back by, Tracy, how about giving us the title of the thriller that thrilled you? Every good book deserves a plug.

Susan Kaye said...

I agree with some of what you've written about self-publishing. Though I am watching a friend who wrote a very niche-market series, published it herself and had it bought by a major house. Fairy tales do come true and in the latest installment of hers, it is launching into the stratosphere. (Which can be hard to watch from the sidelines without feeling left behind.)

Anyway, I am glad that you have an editor who pushes you to create great books. I have a stack of books that are published by major Christian houses and they are badly written--cliches aplenty, jerky plotting, plot elements that appear and disappear at will, heavy-handed adgendas. I think the fault it the editing. The rush to get to market before the genre cooled eclipsed the desire for a good piece of work. Some of the writing shows promise, but it's swallowed up in the clumsy mechanics.

I am grateful these books were allowed to get to market in such condition, I've learned quite a lot from them, and it is helping me write a better book. (I know, that sounds like lousy, but I figure something good might as well come out of all this.)

TracyMontoya said...

Oh, duh--sorry to leave you hanging! It was The Sirens of Ming Hai by John Williamson.

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, Tracy.

Susan, I, too, believe we can learn quite a lot from bad books. Here's an old NRJW post on the subject.