Tips for self-publishing from a self-publishing skeptic

I am not a fan of self-publishing. I have written about why I am not a fan before. But yesterday, a good friend of mine asked me for some advice on self-publishing and you can’t let a pal down. I am biased, of course, so if there’s anyone out there who has corrections or additions to what I said, please feel free to drop in a comment. Here is what I told my friend:

I am not a fan of self-publishing. That said, by definition, self-publishing is a do-it-yourself racket–thus the word SELF. There really aren’t “self-publishers” out there. There are, instead, “vanity” publishers and those are even worse in my opinion. There is a maxim in this business that says “money always flows from the publisher [or agent] to the writer, never the other way around.” But vanity publishers will charge you for publishing your book, which breaks that maxim and is a no-no.

For someone who really wants to self-publish, here are the steps I’d recommend (based on people who have done it successfully).

  1. Hire a professional freelance editor to edit the book. Poorly edited books are one of the biggest problems self-published books have. Editing is more than just checking spelling and grammar. It is knowing what to cut, what to expand, what to clarify, etc. Having the book professionally edited will go a long way to making it more readable and stand out.
  2. Create an e-book version of the edited manuscript. These days, this is pretty easy to do and most people with some basic computer experience can create e-books.
  3. Get an Amazon account and submit the e-book to Amazon so that it will be available there. Consider other e-book venues, like Apple’s iBooks.
  4. An e-book won’t sell itself. You need to promote your e-book. In the early stages, this promotion can be almost a full-time job. It means getting the word out about your book without annoying people. This can be subtle. If you don’t have the time to spend doing this promotion, hire a publicist to do it. This kind of promotion can be the difference between selling 5-10 copies/month and 1000 copies/month.

And I would avoid trying to produce a paper version of the book. These days, paper self-published books are non-starters and don’t come close to selling as well as e-books.

If you thinking, gee, that’s an awful lot to invest in a plan that may get the book to sell, well now you know what traditional publishing provides. If your book is good enough to be published traditionally, they do much of this for you; you don’t have to do it all yourself, you don’t have to pay for it, and on top of that, they give you an advance on the royalties.

The truth is, regardless of whether a book is self-published or published traditionally, there are three things that will determine how well (if at all) it will sell:

  1. Quality: is it a good book? Does it stand out above the others in its niche? The author has no opinion here (what author doesn’t think there book will be an instant best-seller), which is why hiring a professional editor is important.
  2. Does it fill a demand? Vampire novels sell because there is a market of people who want to read them. Self-help books sell because there are lots of people who believe that there is some secret to success. If the book is filling a demand, it has a much better chance of selling.
  3. Do people know about it? Can people find the book? Is it marketed well?

The four steps I outlined above are the bare minimum for self-publishing. It is a lot of work if you want the book to sell. If you don’t care about sales, but just want the book out there, it is a lot less work.

Anyone want to add or correct anything?


  1. Hi Jamie, are you talking about all books, or specifically novels? In non-fiction, there are many cases where self-publishing makes sense, such as when the book is for a specific audience that’s easy to market to. Fiction is, of course, quite different.

    1. Good point, Larry. My friend just said “a book” (it’s actually a friend of his, and he came to me, presumably, because I am the one writer-friend he know). I assumed fiction in my advice. I don’t know how it would differ for non-fiction.

  2. Don’t forget a good cover – pay someone if you need to and the print books may be okay if you go on a print as needed basis. Some people still prefer print and you may want some yourself for giveaways on Goodreads and your personal blog. It helps generate interest and you can get some reviews that way.

    1. Libby, the cover, yes! of course! Agreed that it should probably be a professional job which means that unless you yourself are a professional cover artist with some marketing experience, you are better off leaving it to the experts.

  3. Nice post, Jamie. I like the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing.

    For me, the bottom line is simple — you can pay people to handle your project, but you can’t pay people to care. A publisher takes your book because they like it, and you self-publish as a labor of love. Someone has to care deeply to make it work.

  4. You forgot Rule #0: DON’T.

    However, if you disregard rule zero, move on through steps 1 through 4 (with addendum), you might also want to take a look at this piece on Grasping for the Wind:

    I’m in the process of electronifying my non-fiction (specialty niche market) book and have created some additional marketing tools/concepts that might be of interest and some help.

  5. Hey Jamie,
    I’m not sure I understood your distinction. Are you saying…you can put out your own books but you should do it “yourself” instead of hiring a company to do it for you? If that was your point then I would agree. It makes no sense to pay a big fat fee to someone then get a royalty %.

    But if we define self-publishing as putting out your own work without without a vetting process of a third party…then writing is no differet than any other profession where one is paid.

    If I work at a bakery then money flows to me through a salary. But if I start my own bakery of course I have to invest my own money…but the difference is…if I sell a lot of cookies I get all the profit whereas if I worked for the bakery my salary remains the same.

    He who bares the risk reaps the reward. Going into business for yourself is nothing new, and in fact what what makes the country so strong. I’m not sure why a “book” should be looked upon as any other product.

    1. And so we hit on a key distinction: those who want to run their own business, and those who are happy being an employee, working for a salary. My personal objection to the former is that I don’t want to run a business. I want to write and let other people worry about the details. If that means I give up a greater percentage of the “profits”, well, I’m good with that because it means I can spend more of my time writing and less “running a business.”

      That said, I have no objection to the “running a business” approach and I think your analogy is particularly apt. As with any business, you need to know what you are getting into. It is a lot of work, and I suspect many people who go the self-publishing route do so because they see it as a “get rich quick” scheme. This impression comes from a limited sample size, mind you, and I may simply be listening to the wrong set of people. But you are correct, to run your own business, you need to invest your own money. For self-publishing, this means investing in a professional editor, a cover artist, some mechanism for publicizing your book, etc. But as I said, my impression is that many people look at self-publishing as a route to quick riches. Why invest in an editor, artist, or publicist when you can just put your book out there and let the money start flowing in? (I realize this isn’t how it works, but this is how it is perceived.) And then people wonder why their self-published books aren’t selling any copies.

      According to the Small Business Association, 50% of small business fail within the first year. Look at the reasons why and those same reasons apply to writing:

      1. Lack of experience. You ask why a book should be any different from any other business. I’d argue it’s because everyone wants to believe they are a great writer. Everyone thinks they have a best-selling novel in them. And yet, most people are not particularly good writers. Even some people who get published are not particularly good. Writing is not a skill like baking that can be easily passed down or taught. It requires some amount of innate talent. It requires constant nurturing of that talent. Writing is an intimate form of communication: the mind of the writer is speaking directly to the mind of the reader and that takes skill to develop. Lack of experience in this department is probably why many people think their self-published novel will make them rich and few actually do.

      2. Insufficient capital. Most writers I know (traditionally published or self-published) are not particularly wealthy people going in. Many hold down full-time day jobs to pay the bills, and some are just scraping by. Where is the investment in the business supposed to come from when you are just scratching by? Under these circumstances, investing in professional editing, for example, is a luxury you simply can’t afford. It’s enough for you to cram in time during your lunch hour to write your novel.

      9. Competition. By self-publishing, you are not going through a traditional gate-keeper so it seems like you are not competing with all the other manuscripts in the slush piles of New York. But this is just an illusion. For one thing, you are competing against the vastly greater number of self-published books that are flooding the market. And given #1, only the most talented writers will stand out in this pool, making your chances at selling a significant number of books probably just as low as getting a deal with a traditional publisher. Then, too, you are also competing with traditionally published books, which tend to be better marketed and more widely reviewed than self-published books. So you are fighting a battle from a defensive position before you even get started.

      So I will agree that self-publishing is like running a small business and like any small business you need to know the risks going in. Understanding all of the reasons why small businesses fail is part of this, but I will emphasize again that I think writing is different in that to make it a success requires a specialized talent as opposed to a generalized knack for business savvy. You have to be able to write well enough to stand out above the vast sea of competition. You have to be recognized as such All of this takes a huge amount of effort and if you have the time and desire and the investment capital, have at it!

      I’d prefer just to write and submit and let the publishers worry about the rest of it. But then again, I don’t make a living from writing, and it is likely that I never will.


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