Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Should You Self-Publish?

If you asked me whether I thought you should self-publish a book, my answer wouldn't be a yes or no. That's not my decision. The real question is, does self-publishing suit you?

Here are the three questions you should ask yourself to figure out the answer:

Are you prepared to spend more time on the business of self-publishing than you did writing the book?

If you found writing or editing hard, buckle up, because packaging and marketing your book is way more work. I find this work enjoyable and interesting, but that's me. How do you feel about:

  • Negotiating prices with suppliers such as printers and graphic artists
  • Deciding on the "look" of your cover and inside design
  • Writing copy for the outside back cover of your book
  • Installing a shopping cart on your website (or making arrangements with a site like Amazon)
  • Applying for an International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
  • Setting the price for your book

None of these tasks is hugely difficult, but they do require a basic comfort with the world of business. If that makes you want to poke out your eyes with a sharp stick, or if it makes you say "I'm a writer; I shouldn't have to do that sort of thing," then maybe self-publishing isn't for you. On the other hand, if you think, "yeah, I can do those jobs, no problem," or even better, "these tasks might be a nice break from writing" then advance to the next question.

Do you have enough money to spend on the project?

Decades ago, publishing your own book was a mysterious, challenging job. Before the internet, a typical person usually couldn't figure out how to find editors or cover designers or page-layout artists, themselves. As a result, they had to pay a so-called "vanity"press to find the talent they needed. (And, of course, the public found this arrangement suspicious — hence the name vanity press — because it suggested the author's work would not otherwise be commercially successful.) But, even worse, vanity publishing cost huge sums of money, not just for the talent but also for the simple act of turning on the printing press. Then there was the problem of the dozens of boxes of books, which the author had to store.

These days, the picture is entirely different. You can find the talent easily, with a quick Google search. (If you do that, though, be sure to check references first!) And increased competition has caused prices to drop in all areas. As well, you can print-on-demand or in very small press runs making the cost of printing far more affordable and the book storage problem forgettable.

Be aware that if you self-publish, you will have to put some money upfront yourself. I'd say the bare minimum is:

  • Editing and proofreading (will vary with length): several thousand dollars
  • Cover design: anywhere from $100 to $1,000 depending on your needs and standards
  • Page layout (will vary with length): several thousand dollars
  • Printing (will vary with length, size, paper quality and how many books you print at once): expect at least $5 per book

All in, I'm guessing you're looking at a minimal budget of $5,000 to $7,000. But if you're cash-strapped and a real DIY-person, you could learn InDesign — the leading page layout software — and do the layout yourself, saving several grand.

Do you have an effective way of regularly reaching your audience?

Sure, you may be willing to spend $7,000 for the benefit of being able to hand out your book like a business card. But most of us are going to want reasonable odds of making back the money we've invested, or, even better, making a profit.

Forget about getting your book into stores. That's unlikely to happen unless you have a traditional publisher with a sales rep. Instead, you're going to need to rely on all the marketing skill you can muster, word of mouth and whatever audiences you've developed through social and other media.

If you are a regular speaker (with say, at least four to six speaking gigs a month) selling your books at the back of the room is a great strategy. If not, then you'll need to develop another plan for how you're going to move those books.

Here's what I do: I blog five days a week, send out a weekly newsletter and am very active on Twitter. (I stopped using my Facebook account several years ago, but I felt confident enough in my other numbers to be able to make that decision.)

My strategy is expensive in terms of my time (I work long days) but it's effective. I also do all order fulfillment myself, meaning that if you buy a book from me, I carefully wrap it in a bubble-envelope, address it and carry it to the post office. (You can pay a fulfillment house to do that for you, if you prefer.)

I would never tell you that self-publishing is easy, because it's not. But it is fun and rewarding. And profitable, if you take all the right steps.

PS: Don't even think about using so-called hybrid publishers who suggest they will make self-publishing easier for you — at a price, of course. I've heard too many horror stories from clients who have paid big fees for substandard service.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 30th 2020, 10:39 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
A wise post, Daphne--as always. I would offer another question. What is your genre: sports, biography, self help, mystery, romance, thriller, adventure? My own specialty is unread books. I've found self publishing, without a heart for promotion, provides the perfect support for my specialty. What I lack in sales, however, I make up for in reviews. My last novel, THE ANATOMY OF BLINDNESS, was loved by all its readers. Both of them. There are exceptions, however, my WHEN YOUR CHILD STRUGGLES: THE MYTHS OF 2020 VISION has over 35,000 copies in print. One day, I may even sell one of them.
Saturday October 31st 2020, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Jeff S. (Durham, NC)
Fine piece. You nailed it, said the man who's dipped into the Three Questions and has shut down, meaning I'm ignoring the three questions for now. The writing's going okay. I'm not thinking about that kind of shut down. It's the other kind. The shut down that has nothing to do with writer's block. It's more like ghosting. In my case, it's ignoring the social media side of writing. It's simply easier for me to ignore your three important questions and keep punching at my keyboard.

Still, your three questions have been on my mind. They go to the heart of the matter.

It may be the case, the first and third questions are a kind of toss. They go together, sorta, kinda. You can't have one without the other. Or so the song goes. The third question speaks to an unavoidable truth... Given the state of legacy publishing, as it has existed for a long time, the requirement for self-promotion won't go away. You can't avoid it. Or you can but at your own peril. For indies, self-promotion is a must, just as is the first question a must. Self-promotion is an uncomfortable necessity for most writers.

The second question applies to the first cousins of getting your work out: agents and indies. I'm talking about money. Finishing a book costs money any way you print it. And if you don't have the money, well, maybe that is the subject of another column. :)

Thanks for your three good questions.

Jeff Shear
Monday November 2nd 2020, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments, David & Jeff. For me, I find the necessities of book publishing to be a welcome relief from the very different necessities of writing.

I RELISH being able to do different tasks -- I find the variety energizing, not enervating! But we are all different and not every person is built like me.

David, you make a very good point about printing too many copies. Not sure how long ago you published the When Your Child Struggles title, but today, print-on-demand allows for exceptionally small press runs. I print my books 200 copies at a time and the rate per copy is very affordable. It hasn't always been this way... Another good reason to do small press runs is because, ideally, books should be kept in a climate-controlled environment -- not stacked up in your basement!

Jeff, yes, finishing a book does cost money, any way you print it. But if you have a good system for promotion (I have a blog that is viewed by thousands of pairs of eyeballs every day), you won't need to go to the work of getting an agent. And you collect 100% of the cover price yourself.

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