Wednesday 18 January 2012

All writers should self-publish

No, I haven't gone entirely mad. Or even, I venture to say, a tiny bit mad. Nor have I started to believe the self-publishing-is-the-answer-to-everything and the publishing-is-completely-broken rubbish.

I am, as you know, a published (more than 90 books) author who has also ventured into self-publishing, and who is enjoying it. I dare even say succeeding, though John Locke need not watch his back. But my steps into self-publishing do not mean turning up my nose at traditional (hate that word but... ) publishing: yes, I still want to be published by publishers. Pretty please. And, especially, to have my books in proper bookshops.

And I believe all writers should self-publish.

I'll rephrase that: I believe that all writers should self-publish something. (Unless they have worked in a publishing company themselves.) 

Why? Because I think that self-publishing teaches us a great deal, if we choose to listen, and I believe it teaches us a great deal about how difficult publishing is.

Actually, no: publishing is easy. Anyone can publish a book and publishing ebooks is child's play. (Literally; I heard of a teacher whose primary pupils publish their own work to Kindle, actually doing the publishing bit themselves.)

Yes, publishing is easy but selling is hard. And it's the selling of our books that causes published writers so many gripes about their publishers.

That's why I think we'd all benefit (and our future publishers would benefit) if we tried to publish something ourselves. Our increased understanding would both make us able to contribute better to the marketing process with our future publisher and more appreciative of why disappointments do happen. Also, we'd be more realistic and professional-sounding in our pitches. No longer would we believe that our lovely book was certain to sell tens of thousands if it really wasn't. Our ideas, our pitches, our writing, our consideration of our readers - all these would, I venture, be tighter, more professional, more likely to be realised.

I'm quite prepared to admit that what I've learnt through publishing Tweet Right, Mondays are Red and Write a Great Synopsis leads me to be a little less harsh on publishers who have made mistakes, either in their decisions to publish (or not publish) or in their failure to sell as many copies of an author's books as they should.

It's harder than we think to reach those readers. Only when we've tried to sell something in a market where there are hundreds of thousands of competitors can we truly know how hard it is. We become, I think, more connected to the reader who buys our book, buys it from us, not from some middleman.

So, yes, self-publish in order to learn what it's like on the other side.

But does this mean I'm letting publishers off the hook? Oh, no! I'd also like every publisher to try to write a book. I'd like them to know what it feels like to put our precious oeuvre, perhaps the work of two years or more, into someone else's hands and watch it sink and vanish, as most do. I'd like them to deal with negative reviews and poor sales, when we only have that one book to earn our crust with that year. Don't get me wrong: I love what I do and I choose to do it, and the same can be said for almost all of us. I do NOT want you to get the violins out. Nevertheless, it's harder than most publishers think. It's more emotional, more raw, more distracting, more damn gutwrenching

And both writers and publishers should understand a little more of the challenges of the other.


widdershins said...

nifI would also like for everyone who's ever said something along the lines of 'writing a book is easy', to walk in our shoes for a year! Particularly relatives and acquaintances!

widdershins said...

What on earth is that 'nifi' doing there?

Talli Roland said...

Great post, Nicola. I've learned so much by self-publishing my latest. It's NOT easy -- and there are so many details involved that it can slowly drive you crazy! And I'd love to have my books in print, on a bookshelf, with someone taking care of logistics.

Failing that, though, it's fantastic to have another option available to writers.

Liz Harris said...

What an interesting posting - it's an unusual take on the subject. Thank you, Nicola.


Unknown said...

Nicola! Please write another book on how and why writers should self-publish - I'd buy that one too. I'm looking forward to your synopsis book - can't wait!
You give such sound advice that is invaluable to folk like me.
Thank you.

Dan Holloway said...

This is a very good point. Though of course those wishing still to go the, er, traditional route need to bear in mind all those caveats about how good an idea it is to have a book out there that might not sell any copies, and making sure it's absolutely in top notch condition - because publishers *will* look.

You learn a huge number of skills by sellf-publishing from use of software to marketing, and you meet a huge number of fascinating people from editors to cover designers. And new skills are always good to have.

This illustrates a bit of a conundrum, though. If you're self-publishing for insight, then you would be best to be very hands on with aspects of the process that maybe you'd be better outsourcing (I suppose it depends if, for example, you want an insight into the editing process, or if you want an insight into what it's like to deal with editors, for example).

One of the things that's increasingly, I'll say interesting though maybe I mean challenging, is for those of us who self-publish because we want to self-publish full stop to differentiate ourselves from the masses of people who are turning to self-publishing either as part of a mixed model, or in order to gain a "regular" publisher, or simply because they want to make some quick cash and play the "indie" card. I'm not complaining. It's my job to differentiate myself and to do so positively (one of the very useful things about self-publishing is that you learn all about the nastier side of your character - the one that wants to downvote bad reviews on Amazon, or ask friends to review your book, or come up with sneaky ways to manipulate the rankings - and that light being shone, whilst not particularly pleasant, gives a self-awareness that you can use to be more positive at a deeper level). But as self-publishing becomes more acceptable and mainstream, readers' expectations change, and the awkward obstinate buggers amongst us hae to reposition so that readers are clear what they're getting from us - that, I think, is the prime contract a writer has with a reader. A few years ago, a reader knew that if they chose an "indie book" they were going to get something with a certain kind of subject matter and feel, but now - no matter what you say in your pitch - they expect a self-published book to be like a "regular" book and most probably expect it to be a certain kind of easy-read genre fiction. So if your book isn't like that, you need to be very careful where and how you connect with would-be readers. But that in itself teaches you a whole new set of skills, and attunes you to being sensitive to your audience - and that has to be a good thing

Vee said...

I learned a huge amount by self-publishing. And as you rightly say, Nicola, the writing is one thing, but the promotion and actual selling is entirely something else.

I would also suggest for those who self-publish non-fiction that has nothing to do with writing, be careful of marketing to the right place. I have actually found a niche for mine that I never would have thought of when I first wrote it.

If I went down the self-publishing route again, I'd know many of the pitfalls and feel it would be a whole lot easier 2nd time round.

JO said...

This is such a thoughtful post, Nicola - like many, I have tripped on most of the self-publishing hazards, but am still upright, though am rubbish at marketing. And I so agree that publishers should try writing sometimes - that's quite a struggle too!

stephen terry said...

I've found my niche - the one I enjoy the most. Writing novellas of about 20+k. Since no discerning publisher would look at anyone who wasn't named Hemingway, I self-publish on Kindle.

As has been made very clear, the problem that unknown writers face, is a lack of readership.

Any genuine tips would be appreciated - I write in the crime genre, BTW.

Ellen Brickley said...

A very interesting post as always Nicola. I'm currently contemplating self-publishing some non-fiction this year and I did wonder if I might learn some things applicable to a more traditional writing career, should one present itself. Glad to know that it is possible!

Christine Murray said...

I agree. I'm self-published and I love the whole process. But it is very involved and difficult, definitely not something to be entered into lightly.

Nicola Morgan said...

Widdershins - those pesky nifls get everywhere :)

Talli - and you are a shining example to us all!

Effie - I don't think I have enough to say/teach about it! I think the best book on that subject is Catherine Ryan Howard's "Self-Printed" and I couldn't do it better.

Dan - I take your point. But I don't think we necessarily have to do every aspect to discover what we don't feel best placed to do. I don't think, for example, editing our own work would teach us enough about editing. It's more (and I think you'd agree) that when you self-publish you see the WHOLE process from a different pov, and different povs are good.

Stephen - I'm just writing a book called "How to Market Your Book Without Bugging the Pants off People" - hope it will help! Also see my post from Monday about that. I think the slow, patient way is best, gradually growing friends and well-wishers.

Others - thanks so much for your comments, too. Am rushing now. Got to get ready to go to Oxford tomorrow and meet Dan in person!

Frank said...

I agree with others on the value of this post, Nicola. Thank you!

I have just taken the decision to self-publish and am working on it, so this post and the comments come at the right time for me. So much to consider, so many pitfalls to be avoided! Still, much better to realise that now rather than later.

Vee mentioned:

"If I went down the self-publishing route again, I'd know many of the pitfalls and feel it would be a whole lot easier 2nd time round."

Have you considered writing an ebook about your self-publishing experiences, Vee? I'd certainly buy it and be grateful.

Patsy said...

I have been thinking of epublishing something just to see what happens.

GalaktioNova said...

I can't agree more! This is exactly what I've been thinking myself.

I've just self-pubbed a couple of pieces and helped a couple of writer friends to format and submit theirs. I can't start to tell you how much it taught me about the publishing side of the business - and I thought I knew quite a bit about it before I started.

Now more than ever I realize that putting a book out is team work. Writing - supplying the words on the page - is only the beginning :-) I'm pretty sure this experience has made me a better writer.

Thank you so much!

sheilamcperry said...

I've found one big plus with self-publishing is that it makes me think more about potential readers, and to try and see my novels through other people's eyes, getting a sense of detachment (which also comes in useful when you get a bad review - or even a review at all - which at first made me panic quite a lot!). It isn't so much that I am writing for an anonymous 'market' but for individual readers who deserve my best efforts.
Also, having an outlet for my writing makes me write more.

Diane Fordham said...

Excellent post, thank you! Love what you said; 'I'd also like every publisher to try to write a book.' :-)

Whirlochre said...

Now that the technology has become available it seems silly not to make use of it.

Trad is probably the way to go in the long term but in the short term I'm sure most writers have projects that won't stretch to a novel and are unsuitable for magazine submissions or contests — or small font tattoos.

Formatting and marketing are the extra dimensions beyond wordsmithing here so it's bound to be a bumpy ride right at the beginning.

Bren Gosling said...

I completed my debut novel 3 months ago and it has been long listed for the 2012 Harry Bowling Prize. But trawling for an agent seems more arduous and stressful than writing the book ! Any idea how long I wait to hear back from agents I have mailed out to?

Bren Gosling

MikeH said...

Great post! And a good take on self-publishing. I learned a lot by by self publishing a book, enough to know I would rather have a "traditional" publisher do it, instead.

Lynn Price said...

*meekly raising hand* I'm a publisher and have pubbed two books. And yes, you're absolutely correct that doing so has given me a great deal of empathy for what my authors experience.

But what really cracks me up is that I blogged about self-publishing today...I had no idea of your post, which is wonderful as always. Again, great minds slosh in the same gutter, no?

Nicola Morgan said...

Bren - (sorry for delay in replying) - the general view is that if you haven't hear anything after 6 weeks, it is legitimate to send a gentle "I was wondering if you received my submission and whether you might be interested" email or letter. (Whichever method you used to contact them in the first place. If you still hear nothing after another two weeks, you should accept that they are not interested. (Yes, they should reply, I know. But sometimes they are genuinely swamped.)

On the other hand, if they've said on their website (eg) that they might take 8 weeks (or whatever), then follow that. Does that help? Good luck!

MikeH - yup, I know the feeling!

Lynn - we do rather often channel each other! Great minds, etc.

Marta Daniels (@Marta_Daniels) said...

Lol! Definitely think all publishers should write a book, and every single person on earth should wait tables for at least one day in their life. Lol! God bless!

Unknown said...

I agree with you on both counts, Nicola. I'm going to self-pub mainly because I'm just excited about the creative control and direct contact with the reader that this model offers.

I accept that by the time I've been through the process, I might feel differently and want the collaborative efforts of a traditional publisher. Who knows? Every writer's experience is different. But it's there, it's (relatively) easy and there are going to be a lot of writers doing it this year. We will all learn from our mistakes and from each other's.