Monday 15 August 2011


A blog reader, Magnus, emailed me, saying:
"After reading your posts on why self/vanity publishing can be a bad idea, I would love to read your thoughts about when s-p can be the right thing to do. Back in 2009 you blogged very briefly about suitable styles of book for s-p (and also what the s-p author should pay for) but it would be interesting to hear a little more detail, particularly if the situation has changed in recent years. And does self-publishing an ebook only (no paper book) make a difference?"
OK, let me say two things before I answer any of that:
  1. I am not against self-publishing.
  2. I am not against self-publishing.
And some more:
  1. I am going to be self-publishing some things myself very soon. Like, tomorrow.
  2. I am not against self-publishing.
I say that to stave off the angry people who usually appear on a blog as soon as any published writer dares suggest that self-publishing is not the answer to all the world's ills. It isn't the answer to the world's ills, ok? Or even to publishing's ills. The answer to publishing's ills is good books, properly edited, properly priced, honestly reviewed, fully appreciated.

Yes, the situation has changed in recent years. And is changing all the time. I've moved my position on it, too, because anyone who doesn't move position when the world changes will fall over. Self-publishing is becoming easier; there have been some notable successes; many successful published writers are turning to it, sometimes because they are fed up to the back teeth of being treated by publishers as if expendable and as if they can live on air, sometimes because they can see a way to earn more by doing it themselves, and sometimes just for the sheer freedom of it.

Anyway, to Magnus's questions.

A. Does self-publishing an ebook only (no paper book) make a difference?
Yes, because there is very little cost to you and so you have less to lose. I would be reluctant to recommend s-publishing in print unless you have a whole range of skills and knowledge that most of us don't. You will come up against problems with reluctant bookshops, distribution, warehousing, delivery, print quality etc. You may consider a POD service to support your ebook for things such as launches and to offer an option to customers, but otherwise the economics do not at this stage stack up nearly as well as for ebook only.

However, I recommend Catherine Ryan Howard's seminal book, Self-Printed, for how to do both.

B. What should the s-p author pay for?
I recommend that you maintain complete control by buying in separate bits of expertise, not signing up to a package. I have heard horrible stories of people thinking they were paying for marketing and exposure and getting SFA.

Here are the things you should pay for but in each case I recommend that you hire each expert yourself:
  1. Editing and proofreading. Never ever ever rely on software, or on an ordinary reader. There is so much more to it. But it's not always necessary to pay a lot of money, although I believe experts should be paid properly for their work. It can sometimes be done collaboratively if you know the right people - get yourself on Twitter and meet the right people!
  2. Cover design. See Catherine's book for advice and warnings. (I am using and fully recommend Andrew Brown of Designforwriters.)
  3. Marketing help - OK, you might be able to manage without this. In fact, if you're active on Twitter/blogging etc, you can almost certainly manage without for an ebook. In fact, forget that this is on the list. (But only if you know what you're doing and have the right connections. And are prepared to spend time doing it.)
Layout and typesetting (for print) and formatting and conversion (for ebooks) are also expert skills but if you're doing an ebook only, it's simplified by the fact that ebooks have to be simple. Follow the instructions in Catherine's book. But be careful: she's very bossy, even bossier than I am! I am frightened of her :) Also, her instructions work well for Kindle, which is the easy bit, but Smashwords (allowing you access to the other e-readers) seems way more complicated.)
NOTE: As a post script to that, let me tell you what I did. I had intended to format and convert the documents to ebooks myself. I established (by means of a sneaky secret trial during which I published part of Tweet Right and didn't tell anyone!) that I could do the Kindle version perfectly. However, at short notice I decided to call in an expert because a) I didn't want to take the risk of it not being perfect when I did the whole book and I knew she/he could do it better, quicker, more reliably b) I wanted my book to be available on all devices, not just Kindle, and I knew that this was harder and more time-consuming c) I want to publish quite a lot of ebooks, very professionally, and no way did I want to format them all and d) I'm a wuss. I will be blogging about this later and I will then tell you who my ace formatter was.

If you are printing your book, you will have some extra costs, I'm afraid. I can't even face going into them. Put it this way: I will be publishing as ebooks only.

C. When can s-p be the right thing to do? What questions should you ask yourself?
  1. When the author has a following and a platform. Ideally, you need an established blog, Twitter and Facebook presence by the time your book comes out. Do you know how to go about this? (By "FB presence" I mean more than the usual FB personal page; I mean an author or product page, with followers.)
  2. When the book has been rejected or is likely to be rejected not on the basis of its not being good enough but on the basis of: length (usually, as in too short); mixed genre; too small a market for a publisher to profit from; poetry, short story collections. But be very careful how you interpret rejections - you need objectivity. Can you be realistic about its quality? Will you take the necessary steps towards expert editing?
  3. When the author has a memoir that would be interesting to a selected group of people but not more widely. People far too often think their lives are fascinating to everyone. They are usually less fascinating than you'd think. S-p, though, can work well enough for this, as can any niche non-fiction. Are you realistic about your goals for this book?
  4. If the book is sci-fi or fantasy - because these genres have enormous fanbases who spend a lot of time online and a lot of time reading. Still need an editor, though.
  5. If the type of book lends itself to the e-reading experience. Do your intended readers use Kindle, for example? If not, then you'll reduce your market. Also, books with lots of pictures will be very difficult to produce as ebooks - Kindle is at present in black and white, for example. Pictures and diagrams are tricky to format for ebooks.
  6. When the author has huge energy, understanding of using social media, and readiness to work very very hard at promotion. Increasingly, this is the case for ordinary publishing, too, but in s-p you're on your own.
  7. When the author has a good understanding of publishing, knows what it is that publishers do well and badly, and believes that he can do as well or, preferably, better.
  8. When the previously unpublished author has managed to get over the feeling that being taken on by a publisher has kudos. Personally, I believe it has. I believe that one of the affirming things about being published by a publisher is that they believed in your book enough to put money behind it. But, if you don't feel that strongly, that's fine. Success in s-p will bring its own kudos, but you do have some mental barriers to cross, in your readers' minds, too. This will change only when good s-pubbers focus on quality and stop getting so ansgty, working together with all good, open-minded writers.
  9. When a previously published author decides to do it himself. We already have readers, profile, and objective (as far as possible) evidence that we can write and therefore that our book is likely to be good enough. It just means we have a headstart, often a very substantial one.
  10. Only when your book has been properly edited. And copy-edited. And proofread. By people who know what they are doing.
There are, of course, no guarantees. There never are. More s-p books will sink without trace but at least you know you tried. And you were in control. I'd rather blame myself for failure than blame a publisher. I'd rather try than always wonder whether I could have succeeded.

An important thing for all writers to realise is this: readers buy fewer books than we'd like. (Some surveys say that UK readers buy as few as 6-10 books per year) and there's vast competition. We must try to achieve some degree of objectivity about our prospects and that only comes through knowledge. Again, plug into Twitter and get meeting people with knowledge!

Here are some questions for you. There are many more questions to ask but these are core. And please adapt them to your particular book and circumstances.

If trade publishing is not a choice for you (as per the criteria above), ask yourself:
  1. Have I the time, energy and expertise to run this as a business, on my own?
  2. What are my goals and definitions of success? How realistic are they and how much will I mind if they fail? 
  3. Can I be patient and do this properly? In other words, how much do I care about my book and its readers?
  4. What will buying in expertise cost me? Can I afford it or can I learn the skills myself? Am I prepared to set myself high standards of production, to make the reading experience good for the reader?
If trade publishing is a choice for you but you are considering s-p, ask yourself:
  1. Does the likely extra income from self-publishing outweigh the prospect of seeing my physical book in actual shops and any feeling of kudos from publishing? (Bearing in mind that there is also kudos in successful self-publishing now.)
  2. Can I acquire or buy the skills I'll need to do this well?
  3. Again, have I the time, energy and expertise to run this as a business, on my own?
Magnus, I hope that answers your questions!

I do think that knowledge is power in this game. So, get all the knowledge you can. Don't just believe what you want to believe. Be critical, too.

Everyone - please do add your comments. There's so much more I could have said and maybe some things you disagree with. I know there are lots of s-pubbers out there and you are most welcome to come and add your experiences.
PS You know I said I was publishing a book tomorrow? Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It is a complete secret and NO ONE must know. It's not called Tweet Right or anything like that. And it is obviously not available for anyone to buy. Anywhere. Not even here.


JO said...

Thanks for not telling us about TweetRight. I can't have bought it then, and didn't spend yesterday evening reading it!

And you s-p stuff so very timely - I've just blogged about that tipping moment of knowing it's what I'm going to do. I've got Catherine Ryan Howard's book (yes, she's bossy, but I'm ignorant, so it's ok. And I shall read others.) But it's still scary, like the first time you learn to dive. Easier to fanny about at the side of the pool!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Excellent article on Twitter this morning, appropriate timing. How not to make a fool of yourself when self publishing!


catdownunder said...

I will not self-publish. I will not self-publish. Why? I have a miniscule presence on Facebook, on Twitter, on my blog and I know nothing about all the other (essential) things.
I really, really want to be published but - someone else has to think it is good enough. I am a coward. I am frightened of making a fool of myself!
But, thankyou for all of that. It is useful to know these things.

Catherine Ryan Howard said...

Thanks so much for the plug, Nicola!

And if you think I'm bossy now, wait until you read the updated edition. (Next year, before anyone gets any ideas.) I have a file marked "SP new edition notes" where I scribble down the atrocities I witness in the self-publishing world, and it's filled with comments like, "WHAT???! WHY??!?! ARE THEY SERIOUS???!!!" Hopefully the rage will have subsided by the time I come to actually write the thing!

Smashwords is definitely a problem when it comes to formatting, but you can see why: Kindle just had to convert to Kindle format, but Smashwords converts to Sony, Nook, Kobi, etc. etc. Sometimes I'm tempted just to sell on Kindle, but you're snubbing readers with other devices then. What I've learned recently though is e-book formatting does get easier the more you do it. (As long as you have a LOT of coffee handy!)

Best of luck with Tweet Right! I know it'll be a hit. :-D

Stroppy Author said...

I self-published a niche non-fiction title many years ago when my usual publisher for that type of book said the title would have too small a readership to be viable for them. It went into reprint at least once (I don't remember - may have been twice) and made a very healthy profit. That was in the days before the web, twitter, etc and I had to pay for advertising in the specialist press, so it was more expensive then than it would be now. But if you know the size of your market and how to access it, you can make money.

You need a realist spreadsheet and to do your costings properly. If the maths scares you, don't even consider it. (Or get someone else to do the maths properly.)

Stroppy Author said...

A realistic spreadsheet - though the idea of a realist spreadsheet is rather beguiling!

Dan Holloway said...

Self-publisher here :)

First, I think I would add romance and thrillers to the list of genres with voracious online readers - 6-10 books per year most certainly don't apply (which means the rest of us have even more shameful figures!)

Cover design - this is possibly more crucial for ebooks than for physical books. And make sure you engage a cover designer who knows specifically about ebooks, because they are a slightly different animal - browse Amazon and see - the thumbnails are very small - also, pigeonholability is if anything even more important than with physical books.

On paying separately - absolutely. That has always been one of my issues with the publishing industry - their business model is vertical and sequential - as a self-publisher yours can be horizontal, with only one degree of separation from each and every part of the process.

I would urge caution, though, from my experience (I'm blogging about this over at Kindle Authors UK tomorrow so I won't say too much here) - be very clear what you want, and stay true to that. I've self-published in a variety of genres with wildly varying degrees of success - a thriller that's sold 5500+ copies in a few months to my short stories and poems, which are what I really want to be known for, and are the focus of everything else I do, which have sold 17 copies. This creates real issues.

Jess said...

Great advice! I can't say I'm coming CLOSE to finishing my book (I've only just started the second draft) and I still can't decide if I want to try to self publish or do it the normal way. Great post!

Unknown said...

I've been thinking about e-publishing my memoir of how I came to be in England, called The Englishman, for a while now. It was a very popular series of posts on my blog and I've worked long and hard to rewrite and edit it. I am very encouraged by your post and thank you for the additional tips!

Helena xx

HelenO said...

Kudos to Magnus for such a good question, and extra kudos to Nicola for such a smart, positive and wide-ranging answer on the business of self-publishing.

However I'm increasingly coming across the idea among unpublished authors that self-publishing is not an end in itself in business terms, but a way of improving one's chances of mainstream publication, as in the following:

1 'My novel's been rejected by all the agents. It needs revision but I don't know how. If I publish it online, I'll get feedback which will tell me what to do next.'

2 'Agents and editors regularly trawl the internet for self-published works that they can snap up. If I put the first draft of my novel online I may get spotted.'

Tied to both of these statements is often the idea that 'this book's not doing anyone any good on my hard drive - I might as well get it out there.'

As a regular reader of this blog - not to mention a freelance editor who used to have a commissioning job - I'm finding it hard to go with their arguments. I end up citing the idea that premature self-publishing can damage a writer's career, that advice handed out by strangers online is hard to quality-control, that publishers and agents struggle to work through their current slushpiles while 'doing the day job'. But the ideas seem remarkably persistent. Online publishing, I'm told, is easy. You can make money - especially if you price your work really low - you'll get good feedback and you may well get spotted. ('This has happened to other authors!' I'm told.)

Nicola - while you're rubbing shoulders with the great and the good in the Yurt, sipping sparkly wine and comparing shoes, could you conduct a quick survey and find out what everyone thinks - from both the 'mainstream' and the 'self-published' side of the fence? I'd really like to know the truth of the matter, as the people telling me this stuff are awfully sure of their ground!

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Lots of brilliant advice, Nicola. I will read again, a little more carefully before I throw my hat into the ring. Good luck with all your books.

sheilamcperry said...

Another self-publisher here - I first dipped my toe in the pool with a sci-fi novel and now have dived in head-first with my mystery series. It has been great to know that quite a number of people are reading what I've written... This is a fantastic post, Nicola, and it's hard to disagree with any of your analysis. Except perhaps the part about how hard it is to do smashwords formatting - I often read this but actually I find it's mainly a matter of not formatting too much.
I don't wish I had done this years ago, because I didn't then have the experience of having written several quite bad novels which are now languishing on the hard disc of a computer that doesn't work any more, and 10 or 11 plays that have been performed by young people. This is just the right time for me and it has coincided with the right technology.

Dan Holloway said...

HelenO - that's true to some extent - Mark Edwards, who writes with Louise Voss and was offered a 6-figure deal after their books were 1 & 2 on the Amazon charts, is a friend, and a couple of other frineds - Mark Williams (of Saffina Desforges) and Jake Barton have been head-hunted by the mainstream. When you get to the stage where your friends are doing things it's easy to think the roots are stretching wide, but this is still only the tip of the iceberg. And whilst I do see more people self-publishing for this reason, I'm an "old-fashioned" self-publisher who self-publishes because they think it's the right thing for their book and I can't ever imagine going with a publisher

Kath McGurl said...

I haven't bought a Kindle yet so obviously you can't have published TweetRight yet.

Interesting post and thanks for all the advice which I'll definitely return to should I ever decide to tread the s-p path.

Anonymous said...

I think the same as Catdownunder - I've considered whether I might consider doing self-publishing when I finish any books but...I just don't trust that my work, unless given the nod by a publisher, would be worth putting out there!

Dorte H said...

Jo´s comment made me laugh.
But as you haven´t told us, I can´t congratulate you on your s-p venture, of course ;)

A good and balanced post, and as I have already s-p´ed, I know a bit about the tasks before, while and after. I have absolutely no regrets, though, because having tried to sell traditional crime fiction to Danish publishers who want thrillers for ten years, I was determined not to waste another ten years trying to find a British or American publisher. I might have died of old age while waiting!

I don´t imagine I will be a huge, commercial success, but it has cost me absolutely nothing so each sale is a small triumph to cherish :)

Debi said...

Excellent and balanced post, as usual. I've linked to it on WordCloud.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, all. Sorry not to comment earlier - was busy all day.

Jo - :)

Vanessa - interesting and timely!

Catherine - thanks for swinging by. Re Smashwords, what about making an ePub version and selling via lulu eg? This is what my ebook formatted is doing. Then it goes through via iBookstore to all the other devices.

Stroppy - the realist one sounded good.

Dan - good points.

Cat, Jess, Helena, others - thanks for your coments.

HelenO - you are right to be sceptical about their arguments! Especially the idea that agents trawl looking for fab unpubbed novels. I could ask people at EBF what they think but they'd get really annoyed with me! The people telling you this stuff are understandably so keen to believe it. Small stories get spun into something bigger. Stick with your instincts.

Sheila - thanks. Agree about keeping formatting simple but I was talking about complicated non-fic with hyperlinks, different headings etc. To make that look professional, I mean really professional, is hard.

Catherine Ryan Howard said...

Nicola do you know that publishing an epub e-book through Lulu had never even occurred to me!! (I'm ashamed to say...) I might try it. The e-editions of the books I've coming out next month are slightly more complicated than MT and SP were, so that might be a good solution. If it works, I'll be crediting you! (And of course if it doesn't, I'll be blaming you...!)


Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - actually, I will pass all credit and blame to my formatter, Becky (not to be confused with my assistant, Becky...) who always does this. And Lulu help with conversion - in a way that sounds more foolproof than meatgrinder!

Terry Odell said...

I've s-p'd my backlist titles, and because they'd already been professionally edited, I felt comfortable simply giving them another careful read. I had only cover art to deal with (when rights revert, the covers don't).

But for my one non-backlist title, I did pay for a free lance editor and a cover artists.

But, because my mother doesn't do the e-reader thing, I decided to take that non-backlist book and use Amazon's Create Space for the print version. I'm still waiting on the proofs, but it was a relatively painless process. I did have the perk of having my daughter Photoshop the requisite cover based on the e-book cover. It's more complex for print because you need a back cover and spine, but she didn't have too much trouble.

The only cost is that Amazon wants you to buy a proof copy before you approve the print book for sale.

(spam word: tochi -- is that the plural of tochus?)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Maureen Lynas said...

Thanks for that Nicola. I'm about to epublish next week, and your comments confirm my thoughts on the subject. Think professional, be professional, produce a professional product and that's the best starting point you can have.

LauraKing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LauraKing said...

Great article, very interesting.
I self published earlier this year a humorous book with lots of illustrations in so I couldn't just rely on e-books as you say. I have built up some loyalty through social media but could do much better on this so I will certainly check out your recommended reading material.
Having said that, I've put a lot of effort into getting my book listed with the major wholesalers in the UK and in targeting retailers. My book (The Little Book of Tube Etiquette) has now just been stocked with WH Smith, Waterstones and the two leading wholesalers in the UK so it was energy and time well spent but I echo your comments that you must be able to put the time into it! As for illustrations and cover design, a cost efficient route would be to contact art students at reputable universities or colleages who are keen to showcase their work and get some profile.
I myself used a self publishing company with a package of services and have no complaints but it is worth doing your research and make sure that you use someone who is able to give you a personal service and guide you through the process from start to finish if you go down this option. For me, a smaller self publishing company was preferable than a big faceless one as I got the advice and time put in at every step but I suppose it depends how you like to work! Anyway, this is just my experience. Hope it helps!

Magnus Smith said...

Thank you for answering my question. Now I'm back from holiday I've read it carefully. It's helpful, so thanks very much!