Chris Eboch has covered the discussion on self-publishing pretty thoroughly, and Joni Sensel has added quite a bit to that, so I’ll close out our series with a few questions I think are most pertinent to a blog about fiction for young readers.
Admittedly, these questions encompass my doubts about self-publishing books for kids and teens. Chris and Joni already made some great arguments for why you might want to self-publish–I’m going to discuss why self-publishing for young readers might not be a great idea.
Teens are using ereaders (and reading ebooks on other devices) more and more these days, and many adults are happy to read YA ebooks. But can self-published middle grade novels sell? Kids don’t tend to use ereaders, at least not at this point in time, and they’re not likely to browse online for books, which means they’re not going to order your POD book from your website. Kids find books the old-fashioned way–in a bookstore, in the library, at their friends’ houses. All places where self-published books aren’t likely to be. Maybe if a kid has already discovered a series and wants to get the next book but can only find it online, his parents will order for him. But I doubt that a very young reader is going to discover a self-published book otherwise.
Can literary YA ebooks sell as well as commercial YA ebooks do?
YA ebooks are doing well right now–a decent percentage of the Kindle top 100 is devoted to Amanda Hocking and Suzanne Collins (plus I Am Number Four and the self-published The Vampire Journals series). But take a look at the top 100 Kindle books for “children” (which is mainly devoted to YA, not MG–another fact in favor of my argument above) and you’ll find commercial fiction dominating the list (Rick Riordan, James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, P. C. Cast, Cassandra Clare, etc.). The only literary novels you’ll find as of this writing are The Giver, The Book Thief, and Animal Farm, none of which was written by a debut self-published writer.
Literary fiction usually finds success after receiving good reviews and awards, or after being ordered by libraries and schools. A self-published ebook isn’t going to be covered by major reviewers, isn’t eligible for many awards, and isn’t likely to be ordered by librarians and schools–at least not at this point in time. Which means a literary writer might not want to try to break into the market this way.
Self-publishing your book means finding your own editor, copy-editor, cover artist, formatting expert, and marketing scheme. And it means you’ll be relying on your own taste to ensure these people are giving you the best service. A writer is not a graphic designer. A writer is not an editor. I don’t see how a writer can be the best judge of all the work that goes into readying a book for the market.
Even self-made millionaire Amanda Hocking admits that her readers often complain about how poorly her self-published ebooks were edited and says it’s hard to find a good editor for an ebook. That might seem like an argument for self-publishing–you can make millions even if your book is poorly edited! But it’s not. Because I don’t think you want your book to seem shoddy to your readers. And because any aspect of your book that seems shoddy to your readers is going to work against you. Hocking writes in a very popular genre. Her book covers are decently nice. And the prices are very, very low. If your ebook is poorly edited, badly formatted, and represented by a terrible cover image, you’ve got a lot working against your success. So until some really amazing freelance services become the go-to for writers looking to self-publish, I think it’s a mistake for writers to assume they can handle all aspects of publishing on their own.
A vision of the future
Most of my hang-ups with self-publishing books for young readers are attached to how the market looks right now. I’ll concede that the future could bring changes. Here’s a vision of a future in which self-publishing YA and MG books might make a lot of sense:
Ereaders are the norm. They’re cheap; they’re used at home and school and work; they’re easy for kids to use and synch up with all of their other electronic devices. Ebooks are cheap and easy to find. Libraries lend them out more often than they lend out paper books; schools use them for in-class reading; they come pre-loaded on disposable devices. It makes more sense to publish your novel as an ebook than as a paper book in this culture. So publishers have given way to freelance editors. These editors provide a top notch service, ensuring your book is ready for the market and either taking a flat fee or a percentage of royalties. Your editor can refer you to a graphic designer who can create a great image for your ebook, a marketing whiz who will help you spread the word about your ebook on the most pertinent websites, and any other proof-readers or formatters or bio-writers you need. If your ebook is good enough, it’s included on lists and websites that make it easier for readers to find quality reads. In a future like this, I can see how self-publishing could become the norm. Until then, I see a lot of exceptions to easy ebook success.