Is Self-Publishing the Best Option for First-Time Authors?


When entering the publishing industry, many new authors are overwhelmed by the prospect of finding an agent, sending query letters, and the multitude of tasks it takes to be published. Many tout self-publishing as a fast and easy way for first-time authors to see their work published. Self-publishing has less stigma attached to it than it once did, so it definitely is a viable option and a smart decision for some authors to go this route.

I once heard that “writing is an art and publishing is a business.” Many first-time authors are unaware of the business side of publishing and what it takes to publish a book.

But in order to self-publish in the most professional manner possible, it doesn’t always mean that it will be easier than landing a book deal with a major publishing house. Both paths take lots of hard work, perseverance, and the ability to do one’s homework.

Unfortunately, there is no blanket statement that can be made for first-time authors and their journey to publishing. But the good news is that some general rules apply, depending on the author’s goals and needs.

What is your ultimate goal?

It’s important to keep the big picture in mind and consider your long-term goals. Obviously, a short-term goal is getting published, but it’s important to be smart about your career as a writer. Do you want to be traditionally published? Are you using self-publishing as a springboard to land a traditional book deal?

If self-publishing is a means to an end, then it can quickly become a recipe for burnout. Self-publishing shouldn’t necessarily be a backup plan for authors who are pursuing traditional publishing. Ultimately, authors might find themselves unsatisfied with self-publishing if they really had their hearts set on traditional publishing.

Beyond the writing

Besides the hard work of writing a book, an author must consider whether he or she wants, or can take on, the extra work of marketing a book. Marketing is one of the most important elements to successful self-publishing. Self-publishing can be a full-time job in itself, with editing, book design, formatting, marketing, promotion, and more. A common misunderstanding for first-time authors is relying completely on a publisher to do the marketing for them.

While a traditional book deal offers support in the way of editors and designers, the publisher will not do all of the marketing for the author. It is always the responsibility of the author to use his or her network to set up interviews, organize speaking engagements, and promote the book on various social media platforms. The difference between self-publishing and a traditional book deal is a publisher will provide built-in support and guidance that self-publishers do not have access to.

Is your work commercially viable?

The question of “How should I publish my work?” is often answered by what the author is trying to publish. A work is commercially viable when it fits into a specific genre of commercial fiction, such as mystery, romance, fantasy, or young adult. Non-fiction books usually need to have an established author platform which includes visibility as an author, credibility, and a target audience in place.

This is not to say that other concepts outside of this ideal could not work, but the above genres are proven to be commercially viable. It is a lot easier to convince a publisher of the possible success of these types of work.

Works that may be better suited to self-publishing include poetry, short stories, or essay collections. Works that have mixed genres, memoirs lacking a unique angle, novels that are longer than 100,000 words, and nonfiction books that do not have a target readership are harder to traditionally publish.

If your work fits one of the above descriptions, there is no reason to be discouraged. It might just mean that your work is better suited to self-publishing. The subject matter of your work is an important determining factor in deciding which direction to go. For more detailed information, check out Jane Friedman’s post on commercial viability.

How much control do you want?

When it comes to self-publishing, you are largely in charge. If you need to edit or revise an e-book, it’s fairly easy to do, even after it’s been published. Want to change the cover design after it’s been published? You can change the cover and the title multiple times as a self-published author.

After an author signs a contract with a publishing house, he or she may have little control over things like the title, cover design, pricing, and the time the book is published. The advantage is that there are seasoned veterans to support first-time authors in these difficult decisions. Publishers know what sells. But for others, the creative control is too important to them to give up. This is another essential factor to consider when looking at self-publishing.

The control factor also extends to profit. Advances for new or lesser-known authors are often low and after the advance, an author can give up to 80–85% of royalties from the book sales. If maximizing profit is important to you and you are confident in your marketing abilities, self-publishing could be the right choice.

A popular choice for publishing ebooks, Amazon is famous for paying 70% of the list price to authors, if they keep the price between $2.99 and $9.99. This is a huge difference from traditional publishing, but you should also keep in mind that advances are only given in traditional settings.

Can you afford the upfront costs?

With self-publishing, the author must be willing and able to pay the upfront costs for editing, designing, layout, and more in order to deliver a professional product. An author must already have the money in order to pay these fees, or raise the capital through crowdfunding. According to your budget, you can make the process of self-publishing as costly or inexpensive as you want. It’s advisable to invest in your book in order to make it the highest quality it can be.

But time is money and self-publishing will definitely cost more in that sense. Do you have the time and energy it takes to devote to your book? Are you committed to finding a team of people to help you polish your manuscript? Can you afford to make it your job to network and promote your book?

For some authors, it’s not the financial cost but the cost of time and extra effort. As noted earlier, traditionally published authors are still in charge of their marketing campaigns, but they have a lot more support.

As an author, the backing of a publisher might be important to you. You may prefer to have a team of in-house editors, publicists, and designers instead of having doing it all yourself or hire out these services. For some, the support of a publisher outweighs the benefits of having control over the publishing process. Some authors just want their work to be published.

Are you willing to wait?

Whether you ultimately decide to self-publish or pursue traditional means, patience is key. Both routes take time and hard work in order to see the book come to fruition. For traditional publishing, there is the research in finding an agent and a publisher and submitting query letters.

Once you land a deal, traditional publishing can take up to two or more years for the final book to come out. If you aren’t willing to wait and wanted your book published last week, then that might not be the way to go.

But just because self-publishing can be fast, doesn’t mean it should be. If an author takes the time to have their book properly edited and formatted, this can also take time. Plus, adding in the tasks of finding a designer for the book cover and other miscellaneous tasks, can make a longer timeline than some first time authors may expect.

But there’s truth to the old adage, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.” It is worth taking the extra time to put out a quality product. While self-publishing is still going to take less time, patience is still the name of the game.

So what’s the answer?

There is no “right” answer for first-time authors. There are numerous factors for each writer that need to be taken into consideration. Before an author starts embarking on the adventure of publishing, he or she should examine his motivations for publishing. What is the goal behind publishing the book?

After the goal is established, there are factors to be carefully considered which include lifestyle, time, money, creative control, and the ability to market. Each publishing route has its advantages and disadvantages, but there is a right fit for every new author. Whether you decide to pursue a traditional book deal or you self-publish, it’s ultimately about getting your voice heard and your book published.

Jenna Millen is an intern at Winning Edits exploring the intersection of publishing, editing, book marketing, and audience building online.

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