Should You Self-Publish?

A lot of writers decide to self-publish these days. I hopped on that train this week and released my novel, Adventures of an Artificial Bitch. Some friends tell me I’m making a mistake. Others don’t care. I fall somewhere in the middle. In my wildest dreams, I’ll wind up like Andy Weir. Loads of cash. A movie with Matt Damon. Plentiful Internet memes based on my story. The whole works. But let’s be realistic. This thing might sell a few hundred copies and help support my coffee habit. That’s fine with me. Your publishing decision should reflect your goals. I no longer aspire to be a full-time writer. I like being an academic. I enjoy blogging on the side, as a way of working through all my personal demons and interacting with other writers on social media. It doesn’t have to become more than that.

My entire plan was to write a novel and see what happened if I took the self-publishing route. Sure, you can read Publishers Weekly all day long and wonder if self-publishing’s for you. The only way to know for sure? Try it. But if you’re going to try it, don’t half-ass your book. And don’t half-ass your social media. You won’t get true results unless you put forth a real effort.

I’ve decided to jump in with both feet on Amazon. They’ll publish your book in Kindle and paperback now. You upload your manuscript in a conventional file format, and use their online tools to design your cover. You can upload whatever covert art and author photos you want. Their tools give you reasonable control over the design, layout, and font. What used to take six months now happens in one caffeine-addled night. If you’re a writer with a little bit of design and editing experience, this route is worth a shot.

Honestly, I have no idea what will happen with my book. I’m excited to find out. Self-publishing has freed me in a lot of ways. I don’t feel obligated to do a book tour, or bound by a publisher to earn back some kind of cash advance or justify my existence with all kinds of silly publicity stunts. Whatever I do to promote my book, it’s because I want to have fun.

Most of all, knowing that I’d self-publish made me own my words like never before. I knew there wouldn’t be an agent, editor, or proofreader to save me from bad decisions. All that forced me to think more carefully than ever, until the end when I started to feel nauseated from the 5th round of revision. The greatest relief is that I have a job doing something I love. Full-time employment also gave me freedom to say what I actually felt, and write for my real target audience rather than pander to a broad readership. I’m not swiping popular novelists. What they enjoy writing just happens to mesh with a larger readership. That’s great. Writing a novel like 50 Shades of Grey isn’t pandering. But trying to imitate a novel like that merely to make sales would.

So now it’s time to answer your question: Should you self-publish? I’ll make a flow chart eventually, but here’s a thought process to follow:

  1. Ask yourself, why are you writing? Maybe you want to put your voice out there and see what happens. Or perhaps you want to sell books. There’s a small chance you want to become a full-time writer, earn an MFA, and become a writing teacher. If you want to enter academia via the creative writing track, then don’t self-publish. Nothing you publish yourself, or with a vanity press, will be taken seriously by your colleagues. It won’t count for tenure at all. What I’m doing here is completely on my spare time, and in place of other hobbies like gaming or bowling.
  2. Are you already famous? I don’t mean like an actor or model. Trust me, actors who write memoirs have no trouble signing agents and getting book deals. A lot of them have ghost writers. If you’re an emerging Internet celebrity, you can spend months looking for an agent, or you can just jump straight to self-publishing. Let’s say you have 50K followers on Twitter and a blog that gets thousands of hits a week. Your book will probably sell, especially if it’s well-written. I promised myself that I wouldn’t publish my novel until I had at least 10K followers on Twitter. Honestly, I probably should’ve built my social media network even more. But I’m impatient.
  3. How much publishing experience do you have? Let’s say you’ve published with conventional presses and journals, and didn’t have the greatest experience. Let’s also say you’ve worked as a magazine and/or newspaper editor, and you’ve also run a literary journal. Congratulations, you know what you’re doing! Self-publishing will be a manageable experience. But if you’re a first-time writer with serious career goals, you should probably avoid self-publishing. Once you’re work is published, it can’t be unpublished. Agents and editors don’t want your manuscript if it’s been floating around on the web. Let’s say you self-publish a novel on Amazon and leave it up for three months, and it doesn’t sell. Well, that’s too bad. You can’t take it down and then send it to J.K. Rowling’s agent now. Why? You might be a great liar, but there’s always a chance they’ll find out you’ve published it somewhere else. If that happens, your whole book deal is in jeopardy.
  4. Do you care if your novel fails? If you don’t care, then full speed ahead. I’m a fast writer. Let’s say my new novel sells squat. I can always write another book. I can use the same protagonist and voice. Or maybe I can do a substantial rewrite on Artificial Bitch, add 50 pages, and give it a new title. In that case, it’s practically a new book. That would be worth sending to an established agent, if I wanted. So if you have a lot invested in your project, then you should probably avoid self-publishing unless you’re extremely confident. Which leads me to:
  5. How confident are you about your book, or your marketing skills? If you think you’ve written a book that will appeal to readers, and you know you can market it, then great. Be careful, though. Lots of writers over-estimate themselves. I’ve met dozens of posers who think they’re the next Shakespeare. I’ve also met writers who think highly of the book trailer they just released on YouTube. Before I chose to self-publish, I entered my manuscript in the Pirates Alley Faulkner Contest, well-known and respected among the literati. It became a finalist. That told me that with more revision, I’d have something that wasn’t a stinking pile of dog shit. Even after the contest, I did a complete rewrite and cut about 40 pages.
  6. Let’s be honest: If you’re self-publishing, you won’t be getting reviews in Publishers Weekly. Most likely, your local newspaper won’t care either. It doesn’t matter how fancy your press release is. When you self-publish, you’re relying entirely on your personality and the quality of your writing. If people think you’re kind of an ass, or take pity on you, then you won’t sell. If people like you a lot, but your novel sucks, then you’ll sell as many copies as you have friends.

You know where I stand if you read my blog. I’m reasonably confident in my writing. I’m not famous but I have a decent social media profile, and people seem to like me. I’ve got experience that includes newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and three other books published the conventional way. Most importantly, I love writing and blogging, but I don’t care all that much if this book fails. That’s a strange thing to say, given all the time I spent on it. But that’s the thing. I love writing, and I don’t especially enjoy all the promotion and touring. I have a career and other things I’d rather do when my book is done. That makes self-publishing an ideal choice.



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