Sunday, February 10, 2008

The bald truth about self-publishing

The pallet of boxes arrives. The stack in my garage is four feet tall, four feet square and weighs hundreds of pounds. The boxes contain books. Two thousand of them. I’ve self published this book for fifteen years, have gone though numerous editions, and have sold over a million dollars worth of them. But, I hesitate to recommend self-publishing to any writer. In fact, this is the one book I self-publish. All fifteen other books I've had published are through the normal publishing route.

Let me explain. When you write a book, typically a novel or memoir, you put your heart and soul in it. Afterwards you find out how hard it is to get a publisher to buy it. You get frustrated. Very frustrated. You search on the Internet and send out some queries. You run across agents who will read your book. Yeah! They recommend that you hire an editor (that they recommend) to polish your work. For a fee, they will find you a publisher. In the end, they lead you to an epublisher or self-publisher or publish-on-demand publisher.

Or maybe without one of the “agents” you find the willing “self” publisher yourself.

Here’s what usually happens.

Scenario 1: You pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to get your book published. Your pallet of hundreds of books arrives and is stacked up in your garage. Now you are on your own. You make some inquiries to the local bookstores only to find that they won’t carry self-published books – or if they do (maybe a mom-and-pop store) it is by consignment, which means you don’t get any money until they sell it. You soon find out that it’s going to be a lot of work to get your book in more than a handful of stores, and they may each sell one or two a year. What are you going to do with the other 998 copies of your novel? You are stuck.

Scenario 2: You set up with a publisher on demand. That’s better – no huge pallet of books in the garage. People can order your book online and you’d get a few bucks for each one ordered. Of course, with the thousands of self-published titles out there, don’t expect too many orders on line. On the other hand, you can simply order as many as you need, so you don’t have to print a thousand at a time. Trouble is, each book you order from the epublsiher is going to cost you $10-20 (or some substantial amount). If you try to consign them to a bookstore they will want something like a 40 to 50% discount. That means for your $20 they’d have to sell your book for $30. Unlikely.

I’m telling you these common scenarios to help you to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you’re parted from your hard earned cash.

Here’s the bald truth.

First of all, if any agent wants to charge you for anything, or send you to someone who charges you for editing then that should be a red flag. Agents make money if and only if you make money. And, there are a LOT of so-called agents out there who are looking to make a buck off of you. Go to the Editors & Preditors site ( for information about how to find a good agent or editor and for additional warnings. (Click on warnings.)

Second of all, the only way you can make any money self (or on demand) publishing your book is if you have a platform to sell it. Novels are very hard to sell this way (but not unheard of.) Specialty non-fiction books stand a better chance.

What is a platform? If you are an on-fire promoter, you speak at meetings and conventions, you are a celebrity or well-known expert, you have time to travel and stage book signings at hundreds of bookstores, you can get on radio and television talk shows – then you can promote your self-published book and sell enough to get the attention of a real agent or publisher. Then, I’d recommend getting a good deal from them and letting the professionals handle the printing and distribution of your book (while you continue promoting your book.)

On the other hand, if you're writing a family memoir or some other book that you know will only be of interest to a few people, and you're not interested in making any money from the book, then find a printer who will print a hundred copies of your book, realizing that the chance it will ever be sold in a bookstore is slim to none.

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