Where I talk about why I won’t be self-publishing soon (which is not the same as ever)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing. The ability of Amazon to capture books in their magic butterfly nets and trap the words inside their lovely Kindles means that writers have a realistic alternative to wading through the months of submission and rejection (a process which, almost invariably, ends up with them having nothing published, but having contributed considerably to the coffers of the nice people at Rymans who sell the Big Envelopes). More and more writers are thinking why bother? And there are good reasons for feeling that way. The perception is that mainstream publishing is getting increasingly risk-averse. Publishers are prepared to spend money on books by posh girls with famous sisters and even more famous bottoms, but not so happy to risk an outlay on a new novel by an untried writer.

If your book doesn’t fit easily into a neat marketing box, there’s even more encouragement to go it alone. Across web forums, writer’s conferences and writing courses, new writers are repeatedly told that they must be able to describe their book in a single sentence. To attract the capricious attentions of a mainstream publisher you have to have that instant-appeal marketing hook.

I’ve also been told, by an editor for a major publisher, that she expects writers to be able to explain what genre their book fits into and where it would sit in the market. That is just one person’s view, but a person who should know of what she speaks. So, if you’re writing a sort-of literary rom-com based on Shakespeare but with added maths, for example, you might decide that it’s easier to sell your novel directly to readers than to jump through that particular hoop. It’s a problem a lot of writers face – two others describe their own responses to this particular publishing headache here and here.

The economics of self-publishing, at least in e-book form, are also looking increasingly enticing for writers. Advances from publishers for new writers tend towards the modest. Publishing directly to Kindle through Amazon gives you a much bigger share of the cover price. In principle, it’s perfectly possible to make more income from e-publishing a book independently and selling fewer copies at a lower price, than if you published through a traditional publisher.

Despite having made a stunningly convincing arguement in favour of self-publishing, I still don’t wanna. In traditional “Alison does like a numbered list” style, here’s why:

1. It’s possible to make better money, but possible is not the same as easy.

I’m a totally unknown writer, and I’d be publishing without any marketing support behind me. Now there’s stuff I could do to promote a book at very little cost. I can tweet. I can blog. I can bully close personal friends into buying it. I reckon that between this blog, Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned real-life (you know where your parents and the old people live), I can put information out directly to somewhere in the region of 1000 people. Now, they won’t all buy the book. 1% of those people buying it would be 10 people. 10%, which is probably ambitious, would be 100 sales. That’s charming, but several orders of magnitude below what you need to get a book to the tipping point where word of mouth sends it on its way.

So I’d try other stuff: getting reviews from friendly blogs, encouraging Amazon reviews, making myself a proper glossy website, making myself a lovely shiny Amazon author page, trying to get some local press coverage – realistically I’d have to do a lot of that if I had an agent and mainstream publisher too, but I wouldn’t be doing it entirely on my own. And, at the risk of sounding overly focussed on the money, I’d be doing it while eating marmitey-toast paid for out of my advance.

2. There’s no such thing as a free-to-publish (and good and successful) book

So marketing is one problem. What about the actual novel itself? I could write the book, edit the book, draw myself a lovely little cover in Paint, and stick it up on Amazon. The problem there is that what I’d have published probably wouldn’t be a very good book.

To get a book  to publishable quality involves a bit of cost. I’d definitely want a professional cover design. I’d probably want the book professionally edited. That’s expensive. Even non-commercial critiquing services (like the RNA‘s fabulous New Writer’s Scheme of which I’m a very proud member) aren’t free. To self-publish a properly finished, professional-looking book, even as an e-book only venture, involves some investment, and, unless my numbers come up (which would involve me buying a lottery ticket, which I don’t because I, y’know, have a basic understanding of probability) I’m not really in a position to fork out that money.

3. Good enough isn’t good enough (for me)

Without the costs described above, particularly professional editing, would I be confident that my novel was good enough to put out there? Writers develop – I definitely hope to be a better writer in the future than I am now. The book I’d be e-publishing at the moment is my first completed novel. That inevitably means that I’ll look back on it in the future and see lots of things that could be improved, but I don’t want to look back and wish it had never been published. It might be a novel that I’d be proud of on the day I sent it out into the world, but would I still be proud in two or three years time?

Part of this is about my personality. I’m a perfectionist. I have high standards – that’s part of the reason that I’m good in my regular money-earning job as a trainer. I have high expectations of students, and generally find that if you set a bar just above what people think they are capable of, they will exceed their own expectations to achieve it. It also means I set high standards for my own work, and I do still see acceptance by a traditional publisher as a validation that I’ve achieved a particular standard. It’s would be a massive shiny gold star on the star chart inside my head. Perhaps the fact that that’s important to me is a weakness. Perhaps it’s just a view that’s getting out of date, but in my gut, it’s still how I feel.

So that’s why I won’t be self-publishing my first novel, and am, instead, about to embark on the long tortuous journey to repeated rejection. I applaud, wholeheartedly, all those people who are braver than I, and are going it alone, and I’d love to get your comments on the self-publishing quandary. I’d also love to hear from anyone who’s decided against, and from anyone else who thinks anything at all really about things. Comment away! And why not subscribe or follow the blog while you’re here? Good-o.

Author: Alison May

Writer. Creative writing teacher. Freelance trainer in the voluntary sector. Anything to avoid getting a real job... Aiming to have one of the most eclectic blogs around, because being interested in just one thing suggests a serious breakdown in curiousity.

9 thoughts on “Where I talk about why I won’t be self-publishing soon (which is not the same as ever)”

  1. Hi Alison,
    It seems we’re all blogging about self-publishing/e-publishing at the moment! A hot topic, clearly. Thanks for the link to mine. The reasons I’m almost definitely going it alone are in my blog but it’s also because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and a control freak. The idea of being in control of my own writing career appeals greatly. I see it as an entrepreneurial decision – and a very exciting one, although I realise it will involve a lot of hard work. I wish you every success with yours and hopefully we’ll meet in person at one of the RNA events.
    Emily x


    1. Hi Emily,

      I’m hoping to get to the RNA Conf this summer, so hopefully we will run into each other in person there or at another event in the not too distant.
      I can see the appeal of the control thing – I’m not without a bit of inner control freak myself. I think what I lack is partly the courage to say, “Yes – this book is definitely good enough” at this stage. I can say, “Yes – it’s as good as I can make it at this point in time,” but, having only completed one novel, I just don’t quite feel I have the experience to say it’s definitely good enough to be my calling card out there into the market without some sort of outside validation. Maybe in the future that will change.
      I wish you every success in the world though – I’ll be following the blog with interest and crossed-fingers x


  2. Hi Al
    I totally agree with everything you say. I only self published because the Head of the Schools’ Library Service for WCC read it and said every school in the country would take it. I’m getting rave reviews from dozens of child readers but still feel like a fraud. I haven’t broken even but when I do, I’ll be happy (but still teaching at WCT) 🙂 x


    1. Well firstly, you’re definitely not a fraud! You’ve written a book – you’re a writer. End of debate. I think your situation is one where self-pubbing is a sensible option actually. You’ve got an identified market and a way in to at least a section of that market, and also an impetus to try to get the book to them quickly while the library service etc are still interested. I’m interested in the marketing side – what are you doing in terms of marketing?


  3. Hi Alison
    I am one of those writers who has decided to self publish. I published in paperback through YouWriteOn and then on Kindle myself. I understand fully what you say about making sure your book is a s good as it can be before you publish. I belong to a writer’s group who went through it chapter by chapter and I had it proofread by friends who know what they are at. Even so I still find the odd error when I look through. Having said that, I am always finding errors in books that have been published through mainstream publishers so it’s no guarantee. As far as marketing is concerned, what’s needed is a review site dedicated to indie writers which helps readers to sort the good from the bad. I have decided to post some Indie book reviews on my blog. But mine, I appreciate, will only be a lone voice in the dark.
    Riva Shaw


  4. Aaaaaarggg I really wanna read your book! I think your one sentence ‘shakespeare with added maths’ thingy was enough for me – why won’t the confounded publishers hear the genius at work here!?!

    Personally I think if I’d put in all the hard work to write a book that publisers were too frightened to publish then I would self-publish. I’d want the book out there so that when my second novel was super successful everyone would rush and buy the first. There is also the chance the the first is just super successful on its own.

    Can’t you at least do a ‘friends and family’ release of the book…!?!?

    Enjoy your blog by the way – tis a chirpy chirp in the blogosphere


    1. Glad you’re still enjoying the blog John.

      I’ve not entirely ruled out self-pubbing novel number 1 – I just think not at the moment. However, you never know, it might get picked up by a mainstream publisher (although don’t hold your breath on that one!) If not, I’ll prob consider self-publishing after I’ve finished writing number 2. I think at that point I’ll be much better placed to judge whether it’s at a quality level that I’m happy with.


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