Full circle — or not — with self-publishing

As I get ready to follow Chris’s footsteps with my very first ebook, published by me and not one of my “traditional” publishers, I can look back to the first time I stood on Self-Publishers Row. Lots has changed. Other things haven’t.

Early in, early out

I first dove headlong into self-publishing more than ten years ago. This was early in the industry’s hey-day, before AuthorHouse or PublishAmerica or any of those other names we’ve learned to run screaming from, but after Dan Poynter was already on edition six or seven of his self-publishing “bible.” To make a long story short(er), I poured over a copy of that bible and won a substantial grant to create a small press. One of the two resulting books won a national award, both got attention in PW*, both had national bookstore distribution through IPG, and today, at least five years after one of them went out of print, I still have people regularly begging me to reprint it. Because I had a specific niche, lots of the required skills from my day-job, and a professional product (though I certainly would do some things differently now), I sold roughly the same number of each as I have my first “traditional” novel.

*Random side note: Not one of my four traditionally published novels has ever made PW, though they’ve been reviewed in all the other standard places. I can’t help but wonder if the PW folks later felt like I’d conned them and crossed my name off forever, but maybe that’s “writer blacklist paranoia” talking.

I learned an immense amount from that experience, which was by far and away its greatest value (a lot more than any monetary return. Marketing expenses add up fast, and I intentionally didn’t track how many hours of labor I spent because I sensed early on that the return would be pennies per hour, and it would have been too depressing to know.)

The most important thing I learned was that I didn’t really want to be a publisher. I’d rather write. I also wanted the third-party validation that traditional publishing bestows.

…and soon to be in again

But here I am again, and boy, how self-publishing has changed. I got in, and back out again, before the flood: before attitudes about it were quite so disparaging, before booksellers automatically said “no.” And while the sheer volume of self-published work only keeps growing, lately the disparagement is ebbing again, thanks to the small percentage of stand-out work that’s gone mainstream and to more traditionally published authors who are taking matters into their own hands. Their work is raising the quality average, at least perceptually. (I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of dreck.)

What hasn’t changed for me is the answer to this question: Do I want to be a publisher? The answer’s still no. But I’ve become convinced that for some objectives, it’s the most logical route for an author to take. (And frankly, traditionally published authors without lead titles are now expected to do such a large percentage of the promotion, including sending around galleys and trying to finagle press coverage and events, that there’s less and less difference between the two roles anyhow.)

More good reasons all the time

I’ve taught workshops on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing, and until recently, the best — and most honest — reason I ever heard to self-publish was this: an older woman told me she wanted to self-publish her book because doctors had given her less than six months to live, and she wanted to leave the book for her family. And we all know what would have happened if she’d tried the traditional route.

That was a few years ago. I still think there are bad reasons to self-publish, too, some of which Chris mentioned last week. I actually think my original reasons to self-publish ten years ago weren’t great, though it worked out to be very valuable for me anyhow. Nonetheless, and despite my ambivalence about becoming a publisher again, I think there are more valid reasons than ever… without invoking terminal diseases.

As also mentioned last week, for instance, I have the third book in a trilogy. I want closure on that trilogy, for myself and my readers, and I do have fans asking for it. The publisher (a collection of lovely, literary, art-driven people who must nonetheless function in a system whose only de facto goal is the bottom line) doesn’t even want to see it.  So I’m going to make a few copies available myself. Back in the day, I might have put them in a three-ring binder or emailed a PDF of the manuscript to a handful of people. Now I’m going to point them to an ebook and probably a POD book instead. I don’t expect to make a dime. That’s not why I’m doing it. I’m still actively writing and marketing other manuscripts the traditional way. But I think I know enough about all sides of the business now to make a book-by-book assessment of my goals for a book and my options for achieving them.

Goals, costs, benefits

For many authors, ebooks make that cost/benefit assessment radically different from what it might have been just a few years ago, and it’s going to look yet different even, say, nine months or a year from now — the business, and more importantly the business models, are changing that fast. I spent some time with an outrider in the digital revolution last week, and I’ll post some relevant tidbits from those conversations and related research soon. Everything suggests that while traditional books won’t remotely vanish, for a growing number of books and authors, even the definition of “published” is changing, perhaps significantly, and whether “self” is still attached is losing meaning.

Redefining “published” — and self-published, too

If I make an ebook available of my out-of-print but traditionally published books, for instance, am I self-publishing? Or, since those underwent third-party editing and all the other “gatekeeper” functions, am I just offering another edition? What if I package my trilogy, two-thirds of which was “traditional,” as an “e-boxed set?” What if a nonfiction author published a first edition traditionally, got back the rights, and released the revised edition themselves? There are plenty of scenarios with even more blurry lines.

I do think that outspoken pro-self-publishing authors like J.A. Konrath sometimes minimize the fact that the reason they can sell a decent number of ebooks themselves is that a traditional publisher first played a significant role in delivering an audience and building their brands. And some categories — like adult romance — appear to be much better than others at delivering audiences from scratch based on reader demographics and habits. Based on the data I’ve seen, I think books for young readers might be quite a bit more challenging, at least for a few years.

But I’m headed back into self-publishing with an advantage I did not have the first time — which is knowing that the most important thing I get out of it will be what I learn for the future.

What goals might entice you to do it yourself? Would you try it just for the experience?

— Joni, who is still half-considering that three-ring binder idea

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Filed under Joni Sensel

8 responses to “Full circle — or not — with self-publishing

  1. Natalie Aguirre

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. They are so interesting since you’ve done both. For me, I wouldn’t try self publishing since I’m not a published author with the experience of knowing when I’ve written something good enough to publish. But I might reconsider later.

    • The “knowing when you’ve written something good enough” issue is a big one, N, and I don’t think that having published necessarily means that anyone now knows what’s good enough and what isn’t. A lot of us are not very objective about our own work, and publishing doesn’t change that (except that it gives us a little more faith in our opinions, I guess. But only a little.) There’s probably material here for a post on this topic alone…

  2. Chris Eboch

    I have also been thinking about the blurry line between traditional and self-publishing, with some of the examples you mentioned (reissues of out-of-print books, etc.) Many organizations and conferences treat self-published books differently — they are not allowed in the bookstore, you can’t publicize them in the newsletter, etc. Those policies started for good reasons, but they may alienate published authors who dip into self-publishing for some but not all of their work.

    I think the system should change, but I’m not sure how. Treating every book the same, whether vetted by a traditional publisher or a beginning writer’s first draft, isn’t the answer either. And any panel to approve books has to be subjective.

  3. Anne Nesbet

    Joni, I for one am just glad I’ll have a chance to read the third book in the trilogy–whatever the format!

  4. Parker Peevyhouse

    Joni, sounds like a great reason to self-publish. I can imagine how frustrated the series’ fans would be otherwise.

    Interesting thoughts on the changing nature of self-publishing.

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