What’s the point in self-publishing?

Someone in the book business recently asked me ‘What’s the point in self-publishing a book, when it won’t get any promotion without a major publisher behind it?’ For me, as a much-published author, this is the point… 

I’ve had scores of books published and worked with a dozen different publishers in the course of my writing career but I’m currently in the throes of self-publishing ‘Writing in the House of Dreams.’

Earlier in the year, my agent sent the MS out to publishers, and their feed-back was overwhelmingly positive. ‘An inspirational idea’ said one; ‘a rich feast that sets off all sorts of sparks and recognitions in the reader’ said another; ‘very readable indeed’ said a third, ‘I read it in one sitting.’

So here are the reasons they didn’t take it on (although it went to an acquisitions meeting with one publisher and another said, ‘It was close.’)

‘Too niche’, ‘Too tough for us to sell enough copies’, ‘with such a niche topic we’d struggle to get a good number of copies into shops’, ‘the sales would be too modest’,’a company the size of ours can’t make enough of a go of books on this subject as they would need to.’

One of the big changes I’ve seen since I started in this business is that where previously the decision to take on a book lay with editors, who were generally driven by a passion for reading and discovering interesting writers, now it rests firmly with marketing departments.

I first came to this realisation a few years ago when I proposed an idea for a children’s series to an editor I’d worked with, and she was blown away by it. Bursting with enthusiasm, she asked for six story outlines, then for twelve, to take to the acquisitions meeting, but the series was not taken up because she couldn’t persuade the marketing department. When she told me how disappointed she felt I realised how tough this situation might be for editors as well as authors.

The thing to bear in mind is that marketing people will not usually have read your manuscript, so your book succeeds or fails on how well they think the concept and title will sell. A yes or no doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of your writing, but just how easily it will fit into the market.

I know ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a bit off-the-wall and ‘in many ways a brave book’ as one publisher rather unnervingly remarked, but I also feel that it’s good. I’ve worked for a reading agency and have a lot of writing experience now, and my own judgement has been backed up by the half-dozen authors, psychologists and dream-workers who have read it.

I’ve been working on it alongside my children’s books ever since I was first published; it’s my child-of-the-heart book, the secret pearl I’ve been feeding with all the writing skills and experience I’ve worked so hard to build up.

I know my book won’t appeal to millions of readers but hopefully it will appeal to some. Five years ago, no-one would ever have got to read it if no major publisher had taken it on and the MS would have stayed on my shelf forever, gathering dust. It would have felt devastating.

It’s better to have some readers than no readers at all – that is the point of self-publishing. It’s also better to carry on show-casing your work to publishers who may happen upon it on the web, rather than putting it away for several years before sending it out again.

Now that authors can be publishers too we can write our passion in the reassuring knowledge that our work may still bloom surprisingly at the edge of a difficult market like a  little poppy at the edge of a big field of corn.

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If you’re interested in self-publishing, Nicola Morgan (who was one of my lovely readers) is doing a series of interviews with authors who have gone down that road on her blog – well worth a look 

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51 thoughts on “What’s the point in self-publishing?

  1. griseldaheppel

    This absolutely says it all. How frustrating for you to get so close but no further because Marketing Says No. And for the editors! We’re told that the biggest hurdle is to find an editor who falls in love with your book but it seems not. So glad you Are publishing it yourself, that is exactly what selfpublishing is for. Lots if luck and many thanks for this valuable lesson.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      I think that certainly used to be the biggest hurdle, Griselda, but now even if you secure the contract a book can be withdrawn from sale very quickly indeed if it isn’t selling fast enough. Two of my friends have had series dropped before the second pair of books were due to come out because sales of the first two weren’t as high as forecast in literally the first few months.

      Reply
  2. joefriedman

    Jenny I think it’s a shame the publishers didn’t take up your book, but the idea that you would get their “marketing muscle” is a bit rich, as for a niche book like yours, I suspect you would be expected to drum up the “buzz,” which you’ll be doing anyway. I for one am looking forward to reading it!

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      That’s a really good point, Joe. Everyone works from the assumption that publishers promote all the books they publish but a senior editor told me that the marketing team choose one series per season to put energy and spend into and the rest have to sink or swim on their own.

      Reply
  3. roselle angwin

    Jenny thank you so much for this. It’s good to hear an author stick out for the self publishing option.

    When my first book was commissioned by Element in 1993 I became aware for the first time of the great influence of the marketing dept; the complete MS, commissioned (and accepted), as I say, was nearly binned because the marketing dept was concerned about ONE VERB in the title. It was called ‘Riding the Dragon – myth and the inner journey’, but the adpeople (all men, as it happened) wanted ‘Taming’, as that’s what you’re supposed to do with dragons, isn’t it? And surely the idea that we might let them loose would ‘give the wrong message’? This alteration would have completely changed the message of the whole book; ‘riding’, or working WITH, rather than subduing was EXACTLY my point! With the weight of the editorial dept behind me, I stuck out and won through, but it astonished me that the whole book might have been dropped on the marketing dept’s say-so.

    On the novel-writing courses I run I suggest that self-publishing might nowadays be a better option, and has lost the stigma of vanity publishing. I wonder what your thoughts are on hard copy vs e-book (both?) and where you yourself might go to publish a paperback? (Lulu? Amazon?)

    And – I always enjoy your blog. I look forward to this pearl you’ve been growing.

    Best, and thank you,

    Roselle

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Hi Roselle! How interesting that your first book was with Element back in the 90s – so was my adult bullying book. Your story about the marketing team wanting to change one verb – the verb in the title, so changing the whole sense of the book – perfectly illustrates how marketing don’t read the books at all, but go for titles+covers they can sell. I know a number of established authors who are actually choosing self-publishing simply to retain more control over the process, since we already do most of the promoting ourselves anyway, and I certainly agree with you that the stigma has gone. I haven’t decided which way to go with my paperback edition – I was going to go with createspace but one of the self-publishers on Nicola’s blog, Diana Kimpton (who herself has a blog all about self-publishing) mentions some problems with distribution. I’ll look into it and report back on this blog! x

      Reply
      1. roselle angwin

        Thanks for responding, Jenny – good to hear about your experiences, and also v helpful to have the tips you offer. I haven’t really looked into it yet, but I think I agree that it is the way to go – especially if one has a ready-made audience.

        Might I at some stage reblog this post, linked/credited, of course?

        Rx

        Reply
      1. Katherine Roberts

        My first book (Song Quest) was originally published by Element too. And strangely enough my blog is called “Riding the Unicorn”… not quite as scary as riding a dragon, but still magical!

        Reply
        1. roselle angwin

          Hello again Katherine – and I remembered the title of your blog but had forgotten that you too were an Element author! Three of us, the, with Jenny. And Jenny – just reblogged it. Thanks v much for permission – and to you and all the commentators big thanks for so much useful info.

          Reply
  4. Liz at Human Nature

    There is a constant struggle, I believe, in many creative industries, between the artistically satisfying, and the ‘commercial’. Sadly, commerciality (ok that’s not a word, but you know what I mean) wins in this world of ours. It’s a big thing if you are brave enough to know that just because something isn’t commercial according to the marketing bods doesn’t mean it’s bad or not worth doing.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      I so agree, Liz. A lot of the authors and artists who have enriched my life the most have never achieved mainstream success, so I personally don’t measure value in terms of sales. I don’t knock the mainstream, which is good at raising the profile of books and encouraging people to read, but I love that there’s also a growing ‘independent sector.’

      Reply
  5. John Shelley

    Funnily enough its a very similar problem for illustrators. Dealing with Art Directors can be very frustrating nowadays because they answer to a marketing team you never meet, people who probably never see your work. Because it’s not about the quality of your illustrations, it’s about the selling power of the ‘product’ – so your work has to be either 1) bland mass-market, 2) fashionably trendy, or 3) you have to be so well known (in the UK) that you can sell titles through familiarity with your work/name. It’s a tough market, and for illustrators self publishing unfortunately offers few solutions, authors rarely have the budget to pay professional rates to artists.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Thank-you for commenting John – it’s great to hear an illustrator’s point of view. Your 1-2-3 analysis feels spot on – the issues are so similar except, as you say, the self-pub option isn’t there and self-publishing authors are often working on a shoe-string. I wonder what the answers might be. Author and illustrator teaming up and doing some crowd-sourcing maybe? There will be ways…

      Reply
  6. Pauline Fisk

    Thank you Jenny. It’s a question I sometimes ask myself, especially given the time and effort that has to go into marketing if one wants to become a publisher/author. My experience has been not unlike yours, and I often despair altogether of the current publishing world. If it wasn’t for the fact that the books keep still happening at the ends of my fingers and in my head, I wouldn’t still be here plugging away. What I’m thanking you for is raising my spirits, by the way.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Hi Pauline – I’m glad I raised your spirits! I despair of the current publishing world sometimes too – but I think how much worse it would be if we didn’t have these new opportunities opening up. I guess it’s easier to feel positive if you’ve been in this business like we have for a long time – most mainstream authors have experienced some of the downsides of the traditional model, with books falling between the cracks when editors move on in the middle of the process, or going out of print almost straight away, or not going out of print so you can’t get the rights back…. the complete lack of promotion for the majority of books… the long waits and delays… all that. I don’t want to over-state it though – there’s nothing like the team-feel you get when you’re working with an enthusiastic publisher, or the comfort of knowing you have all that expertise working to make your book be the best it can be

      Reply
  7. Chris Longmuir

    There is a misperception that if you go with a traditional publisher they will promote you. My publishers wouldn’t even put their hands in their pockets to provide postcards or bookmarks, never mind any kind of plan for promotion. No budget they said.

    Jenny, I’ve used Createspace and the distribution problem is that author’s copies have to be shipped from the US, although British readers get their books from the UK. However, if you buy your own ISBN and be your own publisher, rather than take the free ISBN from Createspace which makes them the publisher, you can have your books produced by Createspace, and also negotiate with a local printer to provide copies for you in this country. The beauty of Createspace is the Amazon distribution, if you go for a printer in this country you might have to ship the books to Amazon – it’s the problem in reverse. I approached a local printer who agreed to match Amazon’s printing price, you have to haggle a wee bit, but it solved the problem beautifully. Now the only problem when I get orders from Gardners or Bertrams is the postage!

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Thank-you for taking the time to clarify this, Chris – it’s so helpful and timely for me.

      Reply
  8. Anne Hughes

    I had a good experience with Lulu, Jenny, and my book, ‘A Consciousness of Ash’ is now available through Amazon. Have gone on to publish a book of poetry with them, too, but didn’t want to make that available except through me! Found the site pretty easy to use, with one or two small irritations. Can I put in an order in advance for one of your dream books, please?

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Hi Anne – thanks for the heads-up – I’ll add lulu to my list. They did a great job of your book. I hope you’ll come along and pick up one of mine when I launch it – which I think will be early March x

      Reply
  9. traviswernet

    As a fairly new writer who has wondered about this very topic and the dynamics involved, I share a hearty “thank You” for the clear and understandable description of the current atmosphere around publishing. I think it’s also fascinating that we find ourselves in this time when it is possible for more voices to be heard and shared. To my mind it seems that there’s some glint of another possible economic framework here, which we may be experiencing as the invitation towards co-creating a much more humble yet sustainable and egalitarian-like setting for a variety of creative works to be received and supported.

    Truly Appreciate the voice of experience Jenny, THX! Travis

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Hi Travis – more humble yet sustainable – yes, hooray to that. I think it’s a really interesting time in publishing. I feel like a small local producer supplying an interesting product the supermarkets don’t want to stock, but I’m proud of the product, and that’s what’s important to me.

      Reply
  10. Middlemay Farm

    I really, really wanted to have my book published by a big house–but everyone said that while they really liked it it was too long for a first time novelist. I finally went the self publishing route and have loved every minute of it. The book is exactly what I dreamed it would be. Yes, it may take a while to catch on as I learn the marketing side of things but there’s nothing better than when a stranger loves the book and it’s all you!

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Congratulations on your novel! There is a lot to learn with self publishing but I think it’s a buzz learning new skills. I must say I’m enjoying it

      Reply
  11. Don Dennis

    Jenny I’ve been in the same position, a series of three books cancelled due to the “marketing gurus” making a judgement after a similar meeting. Previous books were winners with the publisher and the senior editor wanted more, but a new marketing team led by a tap dancing, song and dance man, decided that the genre (based on true WW2 events) wasn’t “in”. This was also on the cusp of the e-book “revolution”.

    Ironically in the following three years it’s been all downhill for the new vunderkinder, and I heard they were shown the door (but with golden parachutes.) Ain’t no justice.

    Sort of nice to know someone else out there has had a similar experience.

    I’m now doing it myself.

    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      In the UK the historical themes and non fiction that has the best chance with publishers is anything attached to the national curriculum, so if WW2′s in there when you present your book you’ve got a chance. Again, it’s all about sales, not the reading public, so children have very little opportunity to explore the Restoration or Edwardian Britain (or whatever’s not in at the moment – I don’t follow it these days) and a great opportunity to broaden children’s reading experience and learning is lost. But that’s another topic! I hope you’re enjoying diy publishing, Don

      Reply
  12. Julia Hughes

    Hi Jenny, thank you for this post. It’s surprising to learn that publishers are still building production and distribution costs into their decisions. It seems no-one’s thought of saying ‘hey, Jenny’s a great writer, I love her latest work and the readership base is already there – let’s put it out as an e-book first.’

    One thing’s clear, there are a lot of readers out there in cyber space who are no longer waiting for permission to read the stories they want to read.

    Julia

    ps: Thank you Chris, for the head’s up on ISBNs & Create Space.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Yes – I think publishers have been surprisingly slow to embrace e-books in that way, Julia, though I believe some of them are starting to now. It’s felt to me as if traditional publishing has been behind the curve, while authors, squeezed by a narrowing market focus, are at the forefront, and readers too, as you rightly remind us, joyfully seeking out the books they want to read rather than what’s dished up for them on the Waterstones’ 3-for-2.

      Reply
    2. Chris Longmuir

      Hi Julia, I will have a How To blog post up on 29 December on Authors Electric dealing with ISBNs I’m also busily working on a non fiction book featuring the contribution of Indies in respect of crime fiction. It’s due out at the end of March 2014

      Reply
  13. Diana Kimpton

    That’s a fascinating post, Jenny. Glad to hear you’re doing the book yourself. With “There Must Be Horses”, I used Createspace without extended distribution which means it’s always in stock with Amazon and I had a small print run done with Matador so the book could be bought through other shops. That’s working well but I’m not sure yet if it’s the best solution. I need to experiment a bit to see how Lightning Source works as an alternative and to see whether Createspace’s extended distribution would have any effect on availability in the UK. Costings are tight on POD and small print runs so you have to be careful to make sure you set the price right to make a profit without pricing it so high that you make the book uncompetitive.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Thank-you for commenting, Diana – that’s really interesting. I’m thinking of including a whole list of links to helpful blogs such as yours in a future post about self-publishing. I really enjoyed the post you did on Nicola’s blog – it’s wonderful to be able to benefit from other people’s experience through this kind of sharing.

      Reply
  14. Chris Longmuir

    You’ve also got to consider the postal costs. My Night Watcher costs £2.60 for a single copy when I send to Bertrams or Gardners, My other books cost £1.90 each because they just make it into the letter post. Night Watcher is a shade too thick (349 pages) and has to go parcel post. 5 books recently cost me £12.92 to post. Plus Bertrams and Gardners require a discount so that has to be built in as well when you’re working out your price.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      That’s so interesting – thank-you Chris. I wouldn’t have thought about postage. This whole costings thing, which we know is so important for e-books, needs thinking about rather harder when it comes to paperbacks

      Reply
      1. Chris Longmuir

        I can get my printer to send books for me but a box costs £20 by carrier, so it’s only profitable if there are more than 9 or 10 books in the box. The total amount a box holds is 20 copies. My orders are mainly small ones though. The ones from Gardners and Bertrams vary between 1 copy to 5 copies. Local booksellers often take more, but I hand deliver them. A word to the wise – Bertrams and Gardners are open to negotiation about discounts if you tell them you are a small independent publisher. The normal discounts can be 50%-60%, but I negotiated 30%. When I supply to the local Waterstones (hand delivery) they expect 50% discount, I couldn’t supply at this discount if I didn’t hand deliver.

        Reply
        1. Jenny Alexander Post author

          Thank-you for this extra info Chris – I hadn’t even thought about the curse of discounting!

          Reply
          1. Diana Kimpton

            You’re right, Chris. Postage is a signifcant cost. I’m using a distributor for my book and they charge postage to the company ordering so it doesn’t come out of my profit. But I do have to pay a percentage to the distributor.

  15. Catherine Czerkawska

    What a good, thoughtful piece. And thanks for that interesting information too, Chris. From sad experience, I can say that the ‘major’ publishers are probably least likely to pay for any kind of big promotion. They’ll expect you to do most of it yourself. Actually,it will probably be the smaller and medium sized publishers who will be happy to collaborate with the writer to produce a much more satisfying and effective form of promotion. You have to ask yourself, when did you last see one of those mega advertising campaigns with posters, chat shows etc for any but the celebrity or the already successful? And you’re right – the poor acquisitions editor is so often stymied by ‘marketing’. ‘I couldn’t carry marketing with me!’ so often marks the end of the road for a book that an editor has genuinely loved. And yet in so many cases ‘marketing’ has a narrow perspective on what will and won’t sell. Hence the ridiculous squeezing out of an ever bigger mid-list. It is certainly what eventually drove me to become a writer/publisher. At the moment, I’d probably call myself a ‘hybrid’ with a mixture of self and traditional publishing. Somebody (not in publishing, obviously!) once said to me how odd he found it that marketing was allowed to dictate product in our industry. He said that in most other lines of business, marketing had significant and valuable input but product decisions would never be taken only on the basis of that input nor would their input ever outrank the product development recommendations. That, he said, would be completely disastrous in terms of new and/or niche products. It made me think, I can tell you!

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Oh God, celebrity authors – don’t get me started, Catherine! That’s another infection that’s taken hold in children’s publishing and is squeezing the life out of it – I know a number of successful children’s authors who are writing books under a celebrity’s name, doing all the work and earning a fraction of what the celebrity does from basically having no creative input at all. I think being a ‘hybrid author’ is the perfect way to make a career in this market without having to give up on one’s own creative interests and ideals

      Reply
  16. Jay B.

    This should not be a discouragment for you. Obviously, you love writing and if that´s what makes you happy you shouldn´t stop doing that. Most people only dream about something like this. I´m crossing my fingers for you.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Thank-you so much, Jay. You’re quite right, writing is my passion, and I think as long as you are working on projects that excite and delight you, you never feel discouraged for very long.

      Reply
  17. Jan Toms (also Janet Mary Tomson)

    Your experience rang so many bells. In spite of having been published many times, any new idea I come up with is unlikely to be taken up by a mainstream publisher if they can’t guarantee a big return – for themselves. At the moment I have several schemes underway and will probably follow the same route – once I have worked out how to do it!

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      Hi Jan – self-publishing fiction through kdp is surprisingly easy. I had more difficulty doing my non-fiction adult book a few months ago because of the extra formatting – boxes, bullet-points etc – so I got a company called draft2digital to do that bit for me. Luckily there are lots of sites by self-pubbed authors who are blazing this trail so you’ll find plenty of help out there when you decide to take the plunge.

      Reply
  18. Inge Meldgaard

    One of the most interesting and informative blogs I’ve read in a long time – and confirms what I have gradually suspected over the past four years that I’ve been self-publishing (3 novels, 1 illustrated children’s book). I’m from Australia and face very high postage costs, so have opted for Lulu to take care of international distribution and obtaining proof copies because they have print partners in many countries, which means a paperback can be produced and delivered within a week, using local postage rates. It would be impossible to do this via Createspace. Also, there is a taxation issue with Createspace in that they’re tied into the American taxation system, which means that unless you have an American Tax Number, they will deduct 30% tax from your payments (this applies to their Kindle product too). Lulu manage to avoid this problem somehow (at least for now!). Also, for many countries, Amazon pay by cheque, and this means having to pay the bank currency conversion fee – so, there isn’t much left after all these charges accrue. With Kindle at least, there is also a minimum accrued payment before a cheque is issued e.g. $100.

    Lulu’s support is also quite good and if a book is damaged by the printer or in transit, it will quickly be replaced. However, the quality of the book will depend upon how good the print partner is – I’m having huge problems here in Melbourne, whereas an American friend is delighted with the quality of the books she purchases through Lulu (and she’s a professional author, with many years experience in the publishing industry). For a reasonable fee (about $75), Lulu send the book details to Ingram, and from there, Amazon and other internet bookshops take it up e.g. my children’s book is even available in China :) (although haven’t sold a single copy yet – so need to read more of your blog!).

    However, here in Australia, there’s another issue to consider, and that is libraries (and perhaps schools – not quite sure) in most States only purchase through library suppliers, who in turn prefer to purchase through an Australian distributor – it’s easier and faster that way. I therefore have an Australian printer who specialises in print-on-demand and fulfill orders quickly and efficiently – and the quality of their books is wonderful – but for a price. Fortunately, the price is still okay for libraries not to be concerned and most of my sales of the novels are to libraries since I’m not well enough to take up marketing on a grand scale. Nevertheless, I intend to investigate Lighting Source because they now have an Australian office and from the experience of someone I helped to produce their first book, the print quality was very, very good, and much better than Createspace (which was awful), and even slightly better than Lulu. They’re a bit bureaucratic as they originally set up to deal with publishers only rather than authors, but apparently the effort may be worthwhile, particularly since they also distribute to Ingram’s (they’re an Ingram company, I believe) and can take orders directly from bookshops and library suppliers via their website.

    I think it’s vital to purchase your own ISBN via Bowkers because you can then publish the book with whomsoever you wish, for as long as you wish. Fortunately, this isn’t necessary with eBooks as Lulu, Smashwords and Google Books provide free ISBNs, and Kindle don’t require one. This brings a point to mind, which is that a self-published book is virtually ‘forever’, whereas unless it sells well within a short period of time (as others have pointed out), a traditional publisher will no longer produce it. Google Books are now distributed to a vast number of countries, but also charge the American tax rate, as do Smashwords. Smashwords distribute eBooks to Apple, Kobo, Sony & Barnes & Noble, which covers the main markets, and now have a library supply system – all for free if you can format the books appropriately – doesn’t handle illustrations though, whereas Lulu’s converter does, apparently, though I haven’t tested it – they also distribute to Apple and Barnes & Noble. There is now a huge market for both illustrated and non-illustrated eBooks due to the prevalence of eBook readers and iPads, though I am yet to fathom how to produce a fully illustrated children’s eBook in any format other than pdf since special fonts are not reproduced in the eBook conversion process. Still, pdf works well on any eBook reader, and looks great on an iPad, so at the moment, I’m not concerned about this issue.

    Look forward to reading more of your blogs, Jenny, and thanks so much for this wonderful posting – has really helped me to feel better about my efforts.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      You win the prize for my longest comment ever, Inge! Thank-you for taking the time to share your experience. This is really helpful for me, full of useful information, as the next decision I’ll be making – and blogging about in the next few weeks – is which publishing route to go down.

      Reply
  19. ebooksunder10

    Very well-written post! I was so fascinated about the truth behind self-publishing. Thanks Jenny for sharing your experience. I hope it will become my greatest lesson as I continue to venture self-publishing. :)

    Reply
    1. Jenny Alexander Post author

      There’s a lot of great learning out there, Inge – I’ll be blogging about the best stuff I find online over the next few months

      Reply

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