Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, January 29, 2007

SOUND OFF: Is self-publishing good or bad?

I'm introducing a new feature on the blog, and I'd like you to sound off and talk back regarding a publishing industry issue. I want to know what you think!

Today's topic? Self-publishing.

I know there are some self-published authors out there, and I'm sure there are people who are curious about it. So, I want to know: is self-publishing good or bad for the future of books? In order to kick off discussion, here's how I see it in terms of the good and the bad.

Publishing is a very difficult industry to break into, and self-publishing allows people without connections and who might have fallen through the cracks the opportunity to find an audience. It allows for off-beat topics that perhaps the publishing industry overlooked, and it allows a writer's friends and families the opportunity to read their books in book form. Ultimately, self-publishing is democratic, because it allows everyone the opportunity to publish a book (for a fee, of course).

Some might argue that the vast majority of self-published writers are not talented enough to have their books published by a regular publishing company, and since self-published books often appear indistinguishable from a book from a mainstream publishing company it dilutes the overall quality of books. Many people end up buying bad self-published books, taking away from the sales of more talented writers. The self-publishing industry is rife with scams and ripoffs, and unsuspecting authors are often taken advantage of, preyed upon because of their dream of writing.

So tell me:

What do you think?


Roaming Writer said...

This is a topic I've given some thought as a developing writer. I'm disappointed there aren't more comments. I'm always one to fill a silence.

I see a different negative to self publishing. That is, that the industry will see you as not being able to make it "legitimately" and therefore as an amateur. I've read a couple really poorly written self-pub books. One woman started her own publishing company and her book was awful. (My SinC friends agreed).

Another woman I know did a personal experience diary of a rape that hasn't done well commercially but has been picked up by a university class, so it sells a few books each semester which is satisfying enough for her.

Since I work in the print industry I know I could lay out and print my book myself, but I want the stamp of legitimacy a publisher would lend. I wonder how long it will be before I eventually consider self-pub since I am an "unknown" in agent and publishing circles.

Brandi. said...

I think the value of self-publishing depends on what the author wants. If the person just wants to say, "I have a book out" and is content to sell 100 copies over the book's lifetime, then self-publishing has done its purpose and is probably a good choice.

If the writer wants to start a career in publishing, then the self-published route is tricky. I was a judge for a book award and read a number of self-published books each year. Of the stacks of titles, many were so messy (plot, grammar, major character/structure flaws) that I would never even consider picking up another book from the authors. Then there were the few that were so amazing I wanted to weep for joy (and introduce them to major houses).

I think if you want your book to be distributed and read by the world at large (there is a note of irony here), go through the traditional publishing channels. If you've self-published a great book, it won't really count against you once the agent/publisher opens the pages. That said, if you've published a trainwreck, you could be marked as just another vanity author. Do you have the wisdom to evaluate your book for what it is?

On a personal note, I always feel a little bit sorry for self-published authors. I worry that they've been duped into the idea that "you have to spend money to make money" and that, in reality, their dreams are unattainable. I'm not sure which idea is more depressing.

writtenwyrdd said...

The good: Sometimes you find a good book. The bad: They are almost never copy edited and really needed the services of a good editor besides the continual misuse of it's or lie/lay. Even the good books are like that, in my experience.

Self published books ought to come with a warning lable (I'm talking to you,!)

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for weighing in everyone! I have a follow up question -- how do you find the good self-published books? As a literary agent I'm always on the lookout for new talent, and yet it's so hard to find the good ones without a rating system or some system in place to distinguish the diamonds in the rough from the duds. So where do you find the good ones?

Jillian said...

Hello, I'd love to babble a bit.

In 2002, I self-published a NF book (a collection of short, mostly humorous anecdotal stories). I used Booklocker, and it wasn't because I'd tried the "normal route" and failed. It was because I researched it and decided I wanted to own my own rights. It was really that simple.

Had I spent the time marketing like I'd originally planned, I would have done just fine, sales-wise. I already had an online readership via an Ezine that I used to publish; my book was for a specific and fairly large "nitch" (stay at home moms); and it was (is) distributed by Ingram, which makes it largely available.

As it stood, I let it go, didn't really work it. It's still out there, still bringing me a dribble of monthly royalties via

If I had another NF screaming to be written, I would self-publish again.


(Here's the big but)

My undying passion is writing young adult fiction. I've completed 2 manuscripts, the second of which I'm currently shopping. Under no circumstances would I try to self-publish fiction. I just feel like it's the wrong approach for fiction. In my query letters, I DO NOT MENTION my self-published NF. I have learned that agents usually sneer at self-published work, that they do not consider it a "real" publishing credit.

Well, la-de-da. :)

Interestingly, I landed my first agent because someone handed her my NF, she read it, and called me a month or so later to ask if I was interested in representation. It turned out to be a horrible experience (I was green, I was stupid, I was taken advantage of), but through that painful process I learned more about the publishing industry than I probably needed to.

Vanity presses like Publish America do absolutely nothing for the world of literature. Someone handed me a PA book that a friend of hers had written; it was SO bad, SO rife with amateurish mistakes (such as, let's use every possible synonym for "said" that we can find), and I couldn't bear reading it. Actually, I threw it away.

The publishing industry is changing, just like the music industry. But the state of self-publishing has a long way to go before the literary bastions are torn down and replaced by the new, entrepreneurial writer set. In the meantime, I am traveling through the appropriate, time-tested channels (slow, frustrating, discouraging), but I'm going to keep going until my books are on the shelves.

That was probably more than you wanted to read. :) Thanks for the blog, I'll be bookmarking it.

Writerperson said...

Re: the question of how to separate the wheat from the chaff in self-pubbed books, one way is awards. Several respectable book award contests are now open to self-published books, including the FOreword Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the Independent Publishers Book Awards. Both these are open to self-pubbed and small presses, so if a POD books does well it means something. The WRiter's Digest International Self-Published Book Awards also is probably a place to look for good books since it attracts thousands and thousands of entries.
This is totally self-serving since I have awards in all three for my two YA novels. But I'm serious as well. I've given this a lot of thought. Self-serving again, but again true, is the I believe iUniverse is the only subsidy publisher than has the Editor's Choice program, where after an editorial review books that show some glimmer of a promise of commercial success get an Editor's Choice. So looking through iUniverse's list of EC titles might be worth a shot. Also POD-y Mouth's blog is great for finding those golden needles in the haystack. Not self-serving this time since she won't read YA books.

Nathan Bransford said...

^Thanks so much for all this information, this is really helpful.

Anonymous said...

The one thing hardly anyone mentions in this debate is cold hard cash. I have heard the old saw about only those who can't get real deals self-publish, and that might be true for fiction. But in non-fiction, with a good marketing plan and a focused idea of how to reach your natural audience, you can make buckets more money per copy than you could with a traditional royalty arrangement. And that is true even after the initial outlay of cash (provided of course you avoid the scam artists and use a reputable printer or POD service.)

I have three books in print and three more coming out between now and fall '08, five with traditional publishers and one just self-published. It is too early to tell yet whether I made a wise investment in my adventure in self-publishing, but ask me in a year or so and I will be happy to tell you how it all worked out.

But I will say this - for this low cost paperback with an audience concentrated in one geographical area, I would much rather be making the $3-$5 per copy sold that I can get now than the 50 cents to $1 that I would have gotten otherwise. This book will sell about the same number of copies no matter what the imprint is, so I hope to take the money and run this time.

Steve Axelrod said...

I've self-printed (published sounds delusional) two books, for two different reasons. I had no illusions about sales, and no desire to go bookstore to bookstore flogging my work. The first one was a thriller that I thought might interest Hollywood producers, and a tidy trade paperback is a much more appealing read than a big loose-leaf manuscript. I never got any action from that, however, and wound up taking it to screenplay myself. No takers on that score either. Still, our local bookstore has sold around 500 copies and people seem to enjoy it. So I guess it was worthwhile. The other book was just too long to even try and publish as a first novel -- 900 pages in manuscript. I knew that NO ONE, to even my mother, would brave such a daunting pile of prose. A six-hundred page trade paperback may still be a challenge, but a startling number of people have taken me up on it. Again, I had no interest in(or illusions about) this being some kind of career move.

As to your second question, sorting the wheat from the chaff in POD books ... I would suggest doing what I do in bookstores: open the novel and start reading. First sentences are revealing; first pages even more so. First chapters tell you most of what you need to know about the person as a writer. Of course, to discover if they can hold a plot together and resolve it properly you have to read through to the end. But those first words should give you a good idea of whether you want to or not.
I can't imagine putting down a book that started "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen."

meika said...

I've just self-published via POD because it's the future. Publishing Houses are the result of certain technologies and the capital cost of equipment and in marketing and branding via old media. As these supporting technologies are all changing (faster than a reading market can cope with really) then the economic infrastructure will also change.
Now Vanity Presses differ from POD in that they sell an author a aura of that old-style and nearly defunct Big Publishing House glitz which they pay for through the nose. But vanity press will disappear too when the big houses vanish into a brand name ether.

You can get a book onto amazon via for next to nothing, marketing it is another matter.

They say most writers shouldn't give up the day job anyway so I reckon writers should just give it away anyway.

My PDF is here

Sherryl said...

I've been running seminars in self-publishing in Australia for about 10 years, and my definition of success is selling every copy, whether you print 100 or 5000. Selling here is a huge headache for geographical reasons (all that desert in the middle). We are a long way behind technologically, in that POD has only really arrived in the last couple of years. I think there will be a growth in self-publishing now POD is available and cheaper.
Having said that, I think self-publishing fiction is a bad idea 99% of the time. There will always be one or two who succeed, but as others have mentioned, the vast majority of fiction books are badly written and/or badly edited. Whereas with non-fiction, you are selling information and if people want to have that information, they will buy the book.
(One of our best selling self-published series here is about old bush crafts.)
I totally agree that self-publishing provides books that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day, books that might have a keen audience of 500 or 1000 but are not commercially viable. My students have published family histories, alternate left-wing histories, short story and poetry collections, local oral histories, compilations of stories written by children, language workbooks for Lithuanian! All books enjoyed and read by their interested audiences, even if that audience might only be 20 family members.

Nathan Bransford said...

meika, I'm not quite sure that I would declare the death of mainstream publishing just yet. As long as there are bookstores, traditional publishers are going to have a crucial advantage over self-publishers and distributors. Sure, the internet will open up self-published books to new audiences, but until/unless the way we buy and read books fundamentally changes the old media is going to be in charge -- and even when these things change I'm sure the major corporations will find a way to make themselves relevant, because they're still going to control the best content.

bebe said...

Traditional publishing will not die out in our lifetime, mark my words. It may be integrating with POD technology more slowly than it should be...but not as slowly as self-publishing is replacing traditional publishing (which is not at all).

Self-publishing is a great avenue for things like family histories. It's really great that people can get that information into a convenient and sustainable format for an affordable price. And one would hope that with the wealth of publishing information on the internet these days, less and less people will be duped by scam publishers. And they'll be able to research the real differences between the two avenues.

I myself think that traditional publishing and self-publishing can and will coexist peacefully, increasingly so in fact.

Alex Fayle said...

I would say for business or self-development non-fiction self-publishing often makes more sense as you get a larger per-book return. When you go with a publisher, often you need to spend some of your own money marketing.

When you self-publish you control everything and the book is often something to sell at the back of the room at talks.

But you need to be a VERY GOOD marketer. But look at Michael Losier and his Law of Attraction books - he's completely self-published but within the top 20 on Amazon.

Jillian said...

Let's not forget the Chicken Soup guy, who self-pubbed his now hugely successful, hugely lucrative book series. :)

Peter Taylor - Author and Illustrator said...

Firstly, Nathan, very many thanks for your very speedy reply to an email I sent recently.

I have had major non-fiction books for older children and adults published traditionally in Australia by Allen and Unwin, and by Harper Collins / Unwin Hyman in the UK and New Zealand. However, I now write fiction and non-fiction for younger children too, and occasionally illustrate.

As a former teacher, I enjoy talking to children, parents and educators, and wish to do school visits. I felt a fraud offering such a service without something suitable for 'show and tell'. After it took 18 months for 2 publishing houses to send rejections for a picturebook text, an illustrator fresh from art college did the illos for self-promotion, and I paid for the files to be set up with 'Trafford', a full-colour POD publisher. I can now purchase and sell copies.

This version of 'Kangaroo's Visitor gets a Surprise' is too expensive to sell through shops here, but it serves its purpose well.

I'd still like to find a traditional publisher for it, but it has been good for me in ways other than financial success. Fortunately, the RA's of SCBWI Australia have said nice things about it, as have committee members of the Children's Book Council of Australia, established authors and others, and my reputation has been enhanced. It was read on air after I gave copies to a radio station, and through networking I was a featured author for a chat session for a US based Virtual Children's Book Fair. Hopefully, therefore, the book has helped in platform creation.

'Kangaroo's Visitor' features on my website, and single copies are available from there through a link to Trafford (in Canada). This saves import duty, postage and expensive inventory. It's also on Amazon.

Many people visit my site because, to support the book, I've included a page on 'How to draw a koala' - one of the characters in the story. That page alone received 610 hits last month (it's number 1 Google).

If so many people want to draw koalas, should I create a book on 'How to draw Australian wildlife' and have it available as an ebook or from a 'vanity press', and instantly enjoy extra income? (No. I should finish the other books I've started!)

But that's the nice thing about self-publishing - it's so quick compared to traditional publishers, who, even if they accept a ms, may not release the finished book for 2 or 3 years.

I would much prefer to have books traditionally published to reach a wider public, but if an author is regularly speaking to large audiences and conducting workshops, I'm sure self-publishing can be profitable.

Anonymous said...

In praise of self-publishing ... I am about to be a self-published author of a children's adventure novel (yes, I know all the cons in choosing that genre and the POD route) BUT, if it's the only way to get a manuscript off the ground, why not? I am prepared to work my butt off promoting my book, and the sequel (nearly finished) and wait for it ... I live in darkest South Africa where selling 10 000 copies is considered a best seller and there are only 2 agents in the country! I sent my obligatory first three chapters and very nice letter (following all the instructions in the Writer's and Artist's yearbook)to 35 UK agents. I got 35 rejections, and only 2 agents bothered to tell me what I needed to know - can I write? The answer is yes, they liked characters, style and action and suggested I cut my book in half and persevere. I followed their advice, and here I am, on the verge of self-publishing, and about to be in print. The rest is up to me.

Anonymous said...

I am a self-published author who, I might add, spent the big bucks to have my novel, first of all, critiqued, and later copy edited. After receiving rejection upon rejection from agents and publishers, I felt that I had no choice but to pursue my dream of becoming a published author on my own.

The upside to self-publishing is that yes, I've finally gotten to see my book in print. And fortunately for me, everyone that has read it has loved it.

The downside however, is not that many people have read it. I did not realize that after self-publishing I would have to become a marketing expert, which I do not enjoy being. However, I am getting better at it.

Do I regret it? Not in the least. If I had not pursued self-publishing, I believe my novel would be still on a jump drive on my computer desk.

I hope that one day soon I will become a profitable published writer. If not, at least I can say that I gave it my best shot.

In case anybody is interested, the novel is entitled "All My Friends Have Dark Brown Eyes" By D.J. Berrien, available on

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