Who Should Self-Publish–and Who Shouldn’t

“Scott, should I publish my book myself or go with a traditional royalty publisher?” People ask me this all the time, hoping I can give them a simple answer. But the only honest answer is, “It depends.” As with the questions “Should I have a child?” and “Should I go into the family business?,” the answer is different for each person.

There are several very good reasons to self-publish:

  • You need your book available soon.
  • You know exactly who your audience is—and you know how to promote and market your book to them.
  • Your book has a very small, very specialized market (i.e., it’s unlikely to sell more than 3000 copies)
  • You love marketing, selling, networking, schmoozing, and/or publicizing yourself—and you’re good at it.
  • You want everything about your book done your way.
  • You want things done right, and you don’t trust anyone else to do it properly.
  • You can’t bear to earn only 5-15% of your book’s retail price in royalties; you need to have a bigger piece of the action.
  • You simply want to do it—for the fun, the experience, and/or the potential profit.

There are also a few terrible reasons to self-publish. Interestingly, and somewhat tragically, these are also the most common reasons why writers actually choose self-publishing:

  • You’re afraid of being rejected.
  • You’re too lazy to pitch your book to publishers or agents.
  • You don’t have faith in yourself or your work.
  • You’ve already been rejected two, or five, or 20, or 50 times, and you’re getting depressed or losing hope.
  • You’re impatient.
  • Some shortsighted editor, agent, or writing teacher told you, “There’s no market for this” or “You’ll never find a publisher”—and you believed them.
  • You didn’t believe a royalty publisher would be interested, because you’re not well known in any way and haven’t published anything before.
  • You thought new writers had to self-publish.
  • You fell for a slick sales pitch from a self-publishing company.

It’s also possible to self-publish initially, then make a deal with a traditional royalty publisher later on. Gail Larsen, who teaches people to be more engaging speakers and presenters, wanted to make her book, Transformational Speaking, available as quickly as possible, so she self-published a small initial edition. Simultaneously, she got an agent, who pitched the book to a variety of presses. Ten Speed Press (now a division of Random House) bought it and published it in early 2009.

In a similar example, Barbara Burke self-published her book, The Napkin, the Melon and the Monkey, in 2006 and sold a few thousand copies. Realizing she had something of significant commercial value, she pitched it to agents, and quickly got one. The agent swiftly sold the book to Hay House, which will republish it in 2010.

There’s some risk in this strategy, however. Suppose you self-publish your novel, sell 650 copies, and then try to take it to agents or royalty publishers. If someone is interested, they may ask, “How many copies were you able to sell?”—and their interest may evaporate when they hear the number 650.

Ultimately, the best way to answer the question at the beginning of this article is to ask yourself a bigger one: What am I trying to achieve—for myself, for my readers, and for the world? Hold up each of your options against this larger goal, and pick the one most likely to get you there.


One Response to “Who Should Self-Publish–and Who Shouldn’t”
  1. I can’t argue much with what Scott says, but I think he’s bought into the stereotypes about non-traditional publishing. Not everybody is an ego maniac who must do everything about the book his way. I did go the traditional route initially and found I was spending way too much time trying to convince others I had a good idea. Instead, I put my energy into producing a book, which I did. I hired editors, designers, a lawyer, etc., and produced a classy hard cover represented by BT and sold all over the country. Ninety percent of the first printing of White Coat Wisdom is gone and I’ve been hired to speak about its content numerous times. The latest hire, today, in fact, includes a large purchase of books for those attending my keynote.

    But make no mistake about it. Going it alone is a major challenge and money doesn’t exactly rain down from heaven. But I have no regrets. I still remember the liberating feeling I had when I was able to just go for it, instead of waiting for some amorphous approval by others. Nevertheless, I may indeed entertain a publishing deal if the right opportunity comes along. In the meantime, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing: selling the book.