In this insanely competitive publishing market, there are clearly a lot of benefits to signing with an agent and being backed by a publisher. Marketing budgets, the guidance of an editor, the expertise of an agent… invaluable resources that can help achieve success beyond what self-published authors typically can on our own. I’m the last person to insist that you don’t need the industry, because the industry is powerful for a reason. It makes successes.
However, there are a lot of stories we don’t hear, the flip side of success. Out of the thousands of authors signed to agents each year, not all of their books get sold. The larger publishers often assign unpaid, unqualified interns to screen manuscripts—I’ve heard this from several sources inside the industry. If those authors whose books are published don’t sell quite enough copies as measured by a formula for maximum profit, their contracts can end. Respectably-selling authors can be dropped by publishers only looking at the bottom line. Agents representing multiple authors can be pulled in many different directions—there’s no guarantee your agent will find the right market for your book, and dedicate the time and energy to making it sell. They might, and you have a better chance with an experienced agent, but it’s not a given.
I occasionally hear about authors, some in my own community, who are receiving attention and acclaim for their books, and I admit to feeling a distinct twinge of envy and self-doubt. But then I remind myself, what about the countless authors who aren’t published yet? The writers who are sitting on dusty manuscripts, sending out query letters by the dozen, waiting anxiously to hear from their agents, or being told that their publishers don’t want to invest in their work any longer? These experiences are just as real as those of the people with books on The New York Times Best Sellers lists.
Weighing all of the above, I eventually decided to self-publish. Would I love to be able to support myself entirely on my books? HECK yes. It would be nice to get a fat advance, I’m not denying it. But it comes down to this: I’ve set out to achieve my goal of being a published author on my own terms, on my timeline and with full control. More responsibility rests on me, that’s true, but I also have complete ownership of my books and royalties—and can’t be dropped by my publisher or my agent, since I’m both.
Whether or not to self-publish is a choice each author has the power to make, whether previously published or new to the game. Following are the five main reasons I chose to do so.
1. It’s incredibly affordable and incredibly easy. Thanks to the rise of the ebook, self-publishing has changed radically in the last decade. Once an expensive prospect requiring a large investment to print books, to say nothing of finding markets for them, now any author can use services like Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing to almost instantaneously get their books out to a worldwide audience. With companies like CreateSpace, you can publish on-demand paperback copies of your books for practically nothing upfront, and a royalty scale based on the printing costs (I paid a $25 fee for wider distribution, and can buy additional copies at the discounted author rate). At Amazon KDP, they offer Author Central pages, provide helpful advice and will promote your books for free.
2. The stigma is changing. Sure, it still exists to a degree. Self-publishing does have less of a filter than the traditional industry, so there are a lot of less-than-stellar books being thrown onto the market by new writers. I can’t argue with that (and I sincerely hope my work doesn’t fall into that category), but in my opinion there’s also a lot of crap books being traditionally published, and I assume consumers will make their own decisions about what they want to read. That argument aside, being a self-published author doesn’t automatically brand you as a pathetic amateur these days—and as the publishing industry focuses more and more on the bottom line, even successful authors are turning to self-publishing as a viable option for their books.
3. Online marketing tools help you build an audience. Once marketing was limited to bulk mail and advertising in print, TV and radio, but no longer. The internet and social media have changed the game entirely. In this new reality, people become rich and famous for making videos of their cats. A savvy self-published author has endless opportunities to grow an audience with MailChimp, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, WordPress… the list goes on. It’s just a matter of dedicating the time to learning the best methods of outreach, or finding a pro to help you get started. Online advertising is also much more affordable and accessible to someone with a limited budget.
4. No one else gets a cut of your cut. Through Amazon KDP, you can choose whether to take a 70% royalty and receive fewer marketing benefits (such as participating in Prime, borrowing, Kindle Unlimited and free promotions), or to take a 35% royalty and receive the benefits. And that’s your takeaway, the whole 35 or 70%. This is pretty insane for new, previously-unpublished writers. Between agents’ commissions and smaller royalties, many traditionally-published authors don’t make as much per copy. Even at 35%, if your $3 ebook sells 3,000 copies, you make $3,000. That’s not a bad return, considering you invested nothing except your time in something you really care about. (You do have to pay taxes on royalties, but it’s considered self-employment income and has a deduction attached.)
5. You’re a published writer—your way. It’s that simple. I want to write books that people can escape into for fun, to give pleasure to my readers. I strive to write well, but fame and fortune have never been my inspiration or aspiration. Of course the fortune would be a nice perk, but even without it, self-publishing my books has given me the chance to be an internationally-published author at the time I wanted to publish. I make some money from my passion, and feel that I’ve accomplished something valuable with my life. Whether or not I’ll ever be one of those triumphant stories isn’t the point. I get to see my books on Amazon, to know I have readers as far away as Japan, Brazil and Australia, and to enjoy my own measure of success. For me, that’s more than enough to justify the choice.