The inherent difficulties of getting published through the conventional route means that many people choose to self-publish. In addition, for certain creatives, it may be the only way to see their work in print at all. For performance poets, for example, despite the popularity of their work on the burgeoning spoken word scene, openings remain few in mainstream, traditional publishing, with only a handful of big names, such as Patience Agbabi or Benjamin Zephaniah, able to attract the interest of publishers.
If you are intending to be a professional practitioner of poetry, fiction or creative non-fiction, and your work is not solely intended for family or friends or for personal pleasure, then self-publishing should probably not be your first choice.
Self-publishing comes at an obvious price. You have to pay for your work. And without a marketing operation behind you, it requires huge commitment and a great deal of ingenuity to get your work out there. It’s difficult to reach a critical as well as a commercial audience for your work. You enter into the literary community without the cachet and credibility that comes with a publisher. Self-publication should only be considered if it becomes clear that traditional routes either do not exist or that you have exhausted them.
In rare cases, however, self-publishing can lead to astonishing success, despite the odds stacked against the self-published author. Poet Charles Boyle won the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize in 2008 for a self-published novel, 24 for 3. The novel had previously been rejected by an agent and several publishers. It is now republished by Bloomsbury. The fact is that agents and publishers are not always right. But before you choose to self-publish you should not dismiss out of hand their opinion. Think about the reasons why they feel your work may not be suitable for publication. And above all, consider carefully the pros and cons of self-publishing first.
The Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing
- Self-publishing will, in the simplest terms, enable you to see your work in print, regardless of any mainstream marketability considerations. Many avenues have become limited or completely closed to many good quality authors who nonetheless have the potential for connect with an audience.
- You will take all profits or, in the case of certain print on demand and e-book publishers, much more profit from the sales of your book than you would normally come to expect from a traditional publisher.
- You will have complete editorial control over the contents of your book and its design (see also The Cons).
- You will have complete say in how you market your book. If you’re well connected and fully engaged with the literary scene, you can still make your mark. Readings still present perhaps the best opportunities to sell books – whether you’re a self-published author or not.
- With print publishing, you bear the costs of publishing your book.
- Although you are likely to enjoy a total or greater profit from self-published work, remember that most self-published authors sell considerably less than those published via the conventional routes.
- While self-publishing offers authors the chance to see their work in print, what it can never offer is the support that publishing houses can give in getting the work out there. This extends to both marketing and, just as crucially, distribution. Magazines and newspapers as a rule never review or give attention to self-published work whether in print or online. But they play a huge role in influencing people to buy books and, of course, generating a profile.
- Getting work into the bookshops will be difficult and in many cases – unless you have a good relationship with a local independent bookseller – impossible. Amazon and other online outlets won’t stock self-published work. You will have to do all the legwork in promotion, be prepared to actively sell or promote your books on the internet, and work very hard to make your money back on the investment.
- With the exception of the Society of Authors’ Betty Trask and McKitterick prizes or the Commonwealth Prize, self-published books are rarely if ever considered for awards. So do not expect shortlistings and wins, or the attendant media fanfare to help boost your profile.
- You will have complete editorial control over your work. Many writers regard editorial input as a nuisance, but it’s a blessing. Remember, if you’re going down the self-published route there will be no one to force you to make the difficult decisions that lead to good, tight writing. And there will be no professional proofreading, unless you’re prepared to pay someone to do it for you.
Self Publishing in print
Many people fall foul of the vanity publishers when choosing to go down the self-publishing route. Stay away from them. Their prices are staggering, their quality terrible. The fine print in their contracts, often overlooked, almost always has a sting in the tail. If you’re serious about self-publishing your work, then you are better off doing it yourself.
One option is to look in your phone book and visit 2 or 3 local printers and ask them for a quote for a print run. How much this will actually cost you will depend on various factors: how long your book is, the colour that you want, the quality and weight of paper, and the cover. Most printers will be prepared to give you several quotes based on several different options and potential print runs. But, though much more cost effective than going through a vanity publisher, doing it yourself will still be expensive. For a novel, with a print run of, say, 250 copies, you may expect to pay anywhere between £1500 and £2000, and sometimes more again. For poetry, if you’re planning on publishing a typical length contemporary poetry collection (64pp) you are looking at less. To keep costs from becoming prohibitive - by having to approach a professional - you’ll need to do all the typesetting and design yourself, and therefore you’ll need to know how or know someone who can help you.
But another option that is becoming increasingly popular is to approach a Print on Demand (POD) service. POD is a relatively recent development that has become economically viable with the advent of digital printing that allows print runs of as little as a few copies of a work – once prohibitive under traditional printing methods. Copies are printed according to demand. The leader in the field is Lulu, which also publishes e-books. You upload your material, edit it, select design templates and you only pay money when you order a copy of the book (the cost will vary according to your specific package) and you can set the profit on each book. Lulu takes a cut of the profit on each book sold – around 20%. You don’t have to buy huge expensive print runs. But POD still remains more expensive per unit than a print run. And bookshops will not deal with Lulu, since they don’t accept returns. While lulu.com offers advice and help for writers seeking to promote themselves and an online marketplace for others to buy your book(s), the writer will have to do all the work. And controversy remains about POD self-publishing companies like Lulu. They maintain that they are engaging with the digital age and meeting the needs of authors who want to see their work in print without the costs associated with traditional methods. But, without any editorial input, many still regard them as yet another incarnation of the vanity press – including the book buying public. The few authors who have managed to sell 300-500 copies or so of their novel through POD services are considered ‘bestselling’ – but this figure would be considered disappointing in the world of conventional publishing. More cost effective POD services may be, but the stigma lingers.
You can, of course, choose to go down the e-book route. E-books are books available for online purchase and viewing. Some authors set up their own business – selling their books online themselves. You’ll need a lot of technical skills to do this or be in a position to pay someone to do it for you. And financial outlay will also be required for a good website to hose and sell your work - and funds able to regularly maintain it.
Lulu – which offers hosting for e-books for free but takes a cut of the profits - also dominates this market, which is characterised by instability. Look on the net for a list of e-publishers. Click on the link and…Nothing. They’ve long since disappeared. E-books and their publishers still have some way to go. E-book readers have yet to catch on in the market place. In the meantime, flexibility remains an issue. Few people want to sit and read books in front of one PC, but Digital Rights Management technology which prevents users from printing e-books or sharing e-book downloads with their other devices, means that they must do just that. And, of course, the reading public – as well as authors of stature - are still attached to the printed book and are likely to be for some time yet. With technology constantly moving forward in this area, however, it is likely that in the future a number of conventionally published books – particularly modern classics and academic texts – will be increasingly available to, and enjoyed by, an e-book audience. Will this, in turn, make life easier for the self-published e-book author? No. In the final analysis, self-published e-books suffer the same difficulty as self-published books in print, whether traditionally printed or printed through a POD service: a lack of artistic credibility.
For those seeking to go down the self-publishing route, the Society of Authors offers good advice in its practical booklet the Quick Guide to Self-Publishing and Print On Demand. Self-Publishing for Dummies by Jason R Rich is a very useful guide to self-publishing and how to avoid the pitfalls.
Self-promotion for Self-Published Authors
Without the advantages of marketing personnel and a publisher’s website to promote them, get their work out to bookshops and lobby on their behalf for readings and appearances, the Self-Published author faces an uphill struggle. There is generally little point in sending press releases to the major commercial booksellers. Conventional publishing houses put a great deal of time and effort into getting their books stocked with them, particularly poetry, and so flooded is this highly competitive market that even the commercial publishers can sometimes experience significant difficulties getting titles on the shelves. There is also little point in sending copies of your self-published work to literary magazines and newspapers for review. They will almost certainly ignore them. Remember it is difficult enough to get reviewed if you come through the conventional publishing route. And self-published authors do not arrive with the endorsement of a respectable publishing house that has taken a financial risk on them. But there are other ways in which to help to sell your book and promote yourself as a writer.
Engaging with the local literary scene is crucial – perhaps most important of all. Self-published authors who have strong links with other writers and their literary community – either by attending workshops or by being a familiar face on the live literature [scene – stand a much better chance of selling their books because they have already connected with a potential audience. If you make no effort to engage, then you are unlikely to find any audience at all. Remember, whether self-published or not, you have to go out there and create an audience for your work. So if you’re not already out on the scene – start now, before you publish, and meet your fellow writers. You’ll be helping to promote yourself and your work, and make great, creative friendships at the same time.
Inevitably, good networking can lead to opportunities for readings. If you’re new to the literary scene, good performances at open mike nights can lead to longer slots which can subsequently lead to a full reading set. And getting to know organisers on the live literature scene can certainly open doors. Readings are important to all writers. They play a very decisive factor in sales. Good readings can shift a lot of books. Audiences are often convinced by winning performances. For the self-published writer, without their work in the bookshops, and without attention from literary magazines, readings are essential – they are the chief outlet for you to promote and sell your books. To learn more about the live literature and how to get readings scene click here.
For self-published authors, the internet has made promotion considerably easier and more finessed. Websites can be hugely useful, of course, in developing a profile and selling your books. But websites can also be very expensive unless you have the technological know how to design and maintain the site yourself. Thanks to the development of Web 2.0, however, websites are not the only way to promote yourself on the internet. Canny writers need to take full advantage the opportunities that blogging and social networking sites offer. Blogs can allow you to build up a profile within the lively blogging community. It can allow you to maintain a journal, post excerpts of your work and even sell your work or provide links to e-books. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace enable you to connect with writers and like-minded individuals, to set up a page online dedicated to your book, and provide details on how to order your work, as well. Social networking sites are fun but can be very practical ways of spreading the word on you, your work and any upcoming events. All writers, whether self-published or not, need to take full advantage of what the digital future has to offer.