The following is a guest post by Brooke Warner, an expert in the traditional publishing and self-publishing industries. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Warner in San Francisco at a writers' luncheon sponsored by Hedgebrook. She was a featured speaker on the panel. Ms. Warner has seen over 500 books through the publication process. I'm proud to host her today at The Jennifer (Author) Diaries.
Is Self-Publishing for You? How to Figure Out What’s Right for You in the New Frontier of Book Publishing
I have spent the last thirteen years in traditional publishing, most of them as an acquisitions editor for a major trade press. Since 2007, I’ve also been coaching authors to publication, and the majority of those authors have chosen to self-publish—sometimes because they knew upfront that that’s what they wanted, and sometimes after experiencing rejections from agents and publishers.
What’s clear about today’s publishing climate is that there’s no one right or better way to do things. Whereas ten years ago, self-publishing was a last resort, today it’s the first choice of many savvy and smart authors who want to bypass the publishing industry completely—and oftentimes for good reason.
So how do you decide what to do, and how do you figure out whether traditional or self-publishing is right for you?
The answer to this question is largely dependent on three things:
1. How much you’ve bought into the publishing “dream.”
2. How big of a platform you have.
3. How much you value independence over hand-holding.
4. How many personal resources you have to dedicate to your project.
So let’s look at each of these three things more closely.
1. How much have you bought into the publishing “dream”?
What do I even mean by this? For some people, the dream of getting published on a big house—or on any house—has been with them since they were kids. I’ve met countless authors for whom getting published only means getting published on a traditional house. Some of them are idealistic; others feel that the only measure of their worth as writers can be determined by a gatekeeper—the almighty agent or editor who decides to take on their project; others feel embarrassed by the idea of self-publishing, sensing that spending that kind of time and money on their own project must categorize their book as a “vanity” project and therefore unworthy.
If any of these ideas resonate with you, you’re not alone, but you may need to cut yourself a break, and get a little bit of schooling on how much self-publishing really has changed in the past five years. Now very high-profile people are self-publishing by choice, opting out of traditional publishing altogether for all sorts of reasons, some of which we’ll get into in more depth in point #3 below. Having spent ten of my thirteen years in publishing as an acquiring editor, I can give you the following assurances:
• I rejected many projects I loved, and authors whose stories and writing were phenomenal.
• I turned down authors with amazing books because their platforms weren’t strong enough.
• I rejected books simply because they were too similar to books the publisher I worked for had published within the previous five years.
So, take heart. You won’t always know why you’re being rejected, and it’s worth getting your work assessed by a professional before shopping your book to an agent or publisher, but getting rejected doesn’t mean your work shouldn’t be published, or isn’t publishable.
2. How big of a platform do you have?
This one is important, in part because those authors who are the best candidates for self-publishing are authors who either have a budding platform or a huge platform. So what does this look like? A good platform means that you have a great website. It might have a blog, but it doesn’t have to. If you have a blog, it needs to be well-read, and publishers can check your traffic! You should have a strong social media presence, meaning that not only are you on Facebook, Twitter, and probably YouTube and Pinterest, but you also have a following. Strong numbers on Facebook at this point are anything over 1,000, and for Twitter it’s more than that—maybe 2,500 followers. Remember, I said strong! If you have anything less than these numbers, you might be a person who gets feedback that you don’t have a strong enough platform.
I’ve been making the case for months now that one way to build your platform is to self-publish. Self-publishing your first book is a way to test the waters. It’s a way to gauge interest in your work, and to draw more readers to you and your work. Publishing today is an exercise in marketing. There will always be authors who transcend for one reason or another, who don’t have to promote or just hit a particularly zeitgeist, but this is not the case for the vast majority of us. We have to work our tails off, and you’re no exception. If you know your platform needs work, though, don’t fret. It’s something that’s a slow build. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t have to. But in the meantime, you can ask yourself what to do about the book or books you have sitting complete and ready to publish. Do you wait until you have a good enough platform, or do you move forward, self-publish, build a following, and try again for traditional publishing your next time out the gate? Again, this will be driven by your personality and your energy, time, and money, but I’d advise anyone I was working with not to let their project wither while they build. Give it life! See what happens! If you have modest expectations, you will learn a lot, and you can’t fail.
On the flip side of this equation are writers with huge platforms. If you have a massive mailing list and following, the question you might ask yourself is this: Why should I turn over my guaranteed sales to a publisher who is going to take a major percentage of my profits? With self-publishing you generally earn 70% of net profits, whereas with traditional publishing you generally earn about 15%. Yes, that’s a major difference. Food for thought.
3. How much do you value independence over hand-holding?
This one is a biggy. If you don’t want others controlling your content, cover design, and general aesthetic, then you’re a prime candidate for self-publishing. But it’s not always this simple. Self-publishing should, after all, be a collaborative experience. Hopefully, you will not be self-publishing in a bubble, and if you are, you need to stop and seek out support—support from editors, designers, and maybe even a consultant who can help you make some valuable decisions about which self-publishing platform to publish on. There are so many options in the world of self-publishing today, and many hawks out there ready and waiting to exploit authors who don’t know what they’re doing. So be careful, and build a trusted team.
All this said, when you partner with a publisher, they generally have your best interests at heart. They want their authors to be happy and they will often bend over backward to make sure that authors are happy with their process—but not always. If you’re lucky enough to be placed with a house and an editor who get your vision, consider this a blessing. But if you have any reservations about this, you may want to consider your options.
4. How many personal resources do you have to dedicate to your project?
Self-publishing isn’t cheap. When you consider getting edited, finding a designer to do a cover for you, getting the interior of your book laid out, and then the miscellaneous things that are involved—barcode, ISBN, registering with the Library of Congress, setting up your title with your self-publisher, etc.—it can start to build up. And yet, ask yourself what it’s worth. We often think about our personal websites as a calling card, and I’d argue that a book is even more important—in that it needs to be attractive, error-free, and aesthetically feel like a book you would pick up off the shelves at any bookstore. In other words, if you self-publish, don’t do it the cheap way. It’s not worth it. If you have any aspirations of using your book to build your platform, your audience, or your business (even if this business is you publishing more books), invest in yourself!
There are a million resources online that help authors. Take some time to learn what there is to know. Like businesses on Facebook. Like Warner Coaching at www.facebook.com/warnercoaching. People like me are offering countless tips and advice about how to publish, self-promote, market, build your audience, write a great book—you name it. So yes, all of this takes time, energy, and diligence—in addition to the money—but in the end it’s worth it. If you create a well-written and beautiful book, that’s something you have to be proud of forever—and to sell on your website and when you do speaking engagements. Don’t ever doubt that the minute you become an author you become an entrepreneur—if you didn’t consider yourself to be one already.
If any or all of these options feel overwhelming to you, there is traditional publishing. Traditional publishing is a process, and it’s very straightforward. If you are a novelist, you must finish your entire manuscript before you start to shop for an agent. You must also create a smashing query letter to get their attention. If you are a nonfiction writer, you must create a nonfiction book proposal, and then you can shop your work either to agents, or directly to a publisher. Navigating the publishing world requires patience, determination, and tenacity, but if you do the research and invest time and money (again!) to make sure you’re going about it the right way, then you have every reason to hope for a successful outcome.
As a person who’s been in traditional publishing for many years, my feelings are almost ambivalent at this point. I have seen authors who’ve gotten published on big houses (who’ve gotten six-figure advances) experience huge failures and disappointment, and authors who’ve self-published (who’ve paid out $3,000-$7,000 to do so) experience major successes, earning back their initial investment and then some.
All of this is to say that no one can give you a perfect road map to getting published. My favorite analogy for publishing is that it’s like applying and getting into college. For those of you living in the publishing “dream,” you’re hoping to get accepted by a Harvard or a Yale. For those of you aiming for a more mid-tier press, it’s like going to a liberal arts or state school. And for those of you self-publishing, it’s a lot like community college. Your experience is what you make of it. And you may be an author who feels too embarrassed to admit that you went to a community college, and yet you know you got a better education there than some of your peers who went to an Ivy League with professors who were so concerned with tenure that their teaching was pretty lackluster.
So it is with publishing. You have to experience it before you know whether you made the right choice, and people can steer you in the right direction—based on your personality, goals, and ideals—but at the end of the day you determine your destiny.
And with that, I bid you farewell and good luck!!
Brooke Warner is founder and president of Warner Coaching Inc. (www.warnercoaching.com), where she specializes in helping writers get published. In her thirteen years in the publishing industry, Brooke shepherded over 500 books through the publication process. Her expertise is in traditional and new publishing, and she is an equal advocate for publishing with a traditional house and self-publishing. Brooke's website recently won an award from the Association of Independent Authors for Best Website for Independent Authors. She is currently finishing her first book, What's Your Book? A Step-by-Step Guide to Get You from Inspiration to Published Author. She lives in Berkeley, California.