Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Self-Publishing and Your Writing Career

Wow, first off I have to say, best discussion in the comments section ever in response to yesterday's You Tell Me about self-publishing and the future of publishing. Really, really good stuff there, very informative, very interesting, thanks so much to everyone who posted. I could only hope to be as smart as you people. And in the meantime, please keep up the discussion.

The more anxious self-published authors out there want to know if having a self-published skeleton I mean novel in the closet will kill their writing career. No. It will not. So you can all exhale now. Whoa, NOT AT ONCE! Ahhh! HURRICANE!!!

Ahem. Now, is there a "stigma" attached to self-publishing, and will people in the publishing industry look down on self-published books? Well, things get a little more complicated here. Anyone who has read more than three self-published books knows that the average self-published book is not very good. And (truth alert) anyone who has read more than five self-published books know that "not very good" is being kind. I know there are exceptions (insert plug for PODler and iUniverse Book Reviews for finding the gems in the Jupiter-sized cavern), but let's face it. Most self-published books are not very good, and agents know this as well as anyone.

I don't, however, feel that "stigma" is quite the right word. I'm certainly open to the idea that someone could have self-published a stellar work that was overlooked by mainstream publishing, and we all have heard about books like ERAGON that were picked up by a major publisher and went on to be bigger than Ryan Seacrest. I'm definitely open to considering self-published books. So while I wouldn't say "stigma," I do think "skepticism" is more apt. In other words, you have some convincing to do.

Here's what I would like to see from a self-published author when I'm considering their work. I want to see that the author:

1) Wrote a really great book that for whatever reason was overlooked or the author just decided to self-publish to save the hassle of submissions.
2) This author put a tremendous amount of energy into getting the book attention, reviewed, into bookstores, made connections with local publishing people like sales reps, got themselves onto the radio or even TV, received media and Internet attention and all of this effort translated into a solid fanbase and sales in the thousands.
3) The author has a killer idea for a NEXT book that they hope to place with a mainstream publisher, and wouldn't you know it, that manuscript is all finished and polished and is ready to go to build on the author's hard-earned success.

That's what I want. And I have seen this with these very eyes! I've seen self-published books that were reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, self-published books that were mentioned on the Huffington Post blog and received the endorsement of a major comedienne, self-published books that have won awards... I've seen some pretty amazing things. It can happen. It's difficult, these authors work harder than you would believe (and they are talented and wrote a great book as well), but it can definitely happen.

Now, about that pesky #3. I'm going to don my white coat and stethoscope (that's Dr. Bransford to you) and tell you about a pernicious disease called Self Publishus Myopialoma, or SPM. SPM is a disease that afflicts many a self-published author. These authors invest their time and money and energy into self-publishing a book, and they become so invested in that book they don't want to even contemplate writing another book with new characters or in a new world or really think about what their next step should be. Symptoms include refusing to work on a new (or non-sequel) work until the day they see their self-published book picked up by a mainstream publisher, murderous rage toward agents when they suggest that perhaps the author should work on something new, and frequent ranting against publishers for a) only caring about money or b) only putting out crap. SPM commonly mutates into Acute Sequelitus and... well... let's just say these cases are tragic and fatal. I've seen these my share of these cases and it's enough to keep you awake at night, clutching a towel, shouting "Why, God? Why????"

Don't let SPM and Acute Sequelitus happen to you. The chances of a mainstream publisher picking up a sequel to a self-published book are so small you can't even find them using an electron microscope.

Also with regard to #3, I hate to be the bearer of bad news (it hurts you more than it hurts me), but even if your self-published book is magnificent and has sold a bunch of copies, publishers might not want to pick it up. Publisher may feel that the book has already sufficiently run its course, or it might no longer be timely, or they might just not be that into you. They might, however, take note of your success and be interested in your NEXT book, and since they're now in the business of investing in your career, your new agent might be able to convince them to pick up the reprint rights to your self-published book. And voila, you fulfilled your dream of having your self-published book picked up, but it was your NEXT book that was the key to getting the publisher interested.

Now, if you have a self-published book in your past that you aren't proud of and you have a new idea, there's no rule that says you have to mention it in a query. You should tell your prospective agent about it at some point in the client/agent mating dance, but if your self-published book didn't do well and you want your new idea to stand on its own, just pretend you wrote your novel in Vegas.

And there you have it. Remember the big three bullet points of self-publishing, and above all, KEEP WRITING. And no sequels, Mr. Acute Sequelitus.


Lee said...

Though much of what you say is sensible, Nathan, there really are self-published authors out there who don't equate success with an agent, a publishing contract, and preferably a Hollywood blockbuster. As far as I'm concerned, it's aiming for literary quality that comes first, and I'm happy with modest but steadily growing download numbers.

A Paperback Writer said...

Bravo! Bravo!

(I don't feel guilty working on a sequel right now because I haven't self-published anything. But I will remember these words of wisdom if I find I can't write anything else later.......)

Nathan Bransford said...


And I wish them all the best! This post is just for the self-published authors who want to find an agent and mainstream publisher. But there are plenty of people who don't measure their success that way and I'm fine with that.

far away guy said...

The only thing I don't like about your posts, Nathan, is that they come to an end.

Katie said...

I have a request/idea here. I'm an aspiring author with one book completed - working on four more - and I'm having a rough time figuring out the pros and cons of NY house traditional publishing - ie: through the "big ones"... vs. e-publishers - ie: Samhain... vs. small publishers - ie: Wild Rose Press. I've tried asking authors from each route, but I'm not really getting any valuable information to help me discover which route might be best for me. All they say is, "I'm happy with them." But that really means nothing, since I don't know what makes them happy!

And from what I can tell, I only get one shot, right? If I sell my book to some small publisher who's copy-editor's skills are less than my own, and discover their less-than-stellar quality too late, then I've got no chance of trying again (with this book, at least). But then, there's GOT to be at least some smaller publishing houses who's quality levels are higher... aren't there?

Anyway... I would really appreciate it if, perhaps, one of these days you can shed some light (and offer some comparisons) between these different types of publishers... information that might help us decide which route fits us best.

Thanks for your time and information on everything you share!


Anonymous said...

Nice breakdown of the situation, Nathan. I think your idea is the key: have other work, and don't lose sight of it.

Way too many self-published authors do.

Also, the title of the post is telling: it's a good idea to always keep an eye toward your overall career and know where you want its arc to ultimately lead. It's not "Self-Publishing and the Book You Just Wrote," and that's very telling; it can fit into a longer term goal, especially when authors know what they're doing.

-Will Entrekin

Heidi the Hick said...

This is way too easy for me to comment on, since I'm not at "Author" status yet and am still a "writer" but I have to say it...


Why not say, heck, I took a breath. That'll do. One's good, I don't need to take another breath.

Or like, chips. One chip, thanks. Very good. No more.

Or horses. Who the heck can live with just one horse? This is insanity!

Writing should be like chain smoking. And I say that despite my strong hatred of cigarettes!!

Sooo...I still think there's room for both kinds of publishing because there are more than one kind of author.

Anonymous said...

I can't even imagine writing a sequel. By the time my book was finished ("finished" came after rereading and rereading and scrapping and rewriting and reading and editing and rereading and proofing and editing and rereading and proofing and editing), one more page with that storyline, those characters, and I would have gone mad. Mad!

Church Lady said...

While I don't judge people who self-publish, it's hard not to be skeptical.
I wonder if the book-expresso machine will include self-published books? That was one of the more fascinating posts I've read in a while.


Jenny said...

I doubt that anyone who hasn't written a novel can imagine how much work it is.

It's understandable that people who have put many months if not years of labor into writing one have a tough time leaving it behind.

It's also understandable that they feel aggrieved when editors and agents respond to the product of their immense labor with a poorly copied form rejection letter.

But no one asked you to write a novel, and amazing as it might be that you got it finished, the fact that you did get it finished doesn't guarantee anything.

The RWA gives out a special pin and has a class of membership to people who have finished a manuscript, which is a nice touch, since for most of us that is all we'll get for having completed this heroic feat.

But one of the most daunting things I learned in my years in RWA, was that to have a career as a novelist you have to be able to write at least one novel a year, and two is better. If writing at that pace isn't your idea of fun, well, you probably don't want to be a professional novelist.

I wrote two novels in two years, got some encouraging personal feedback from editors at major houses but no sale, and decided that writing a novel a year would take a lot of fun out of life for me. It is just too hard.

I realized that for me, writing nonfiction is what's fun and the only kind of writing I'd keep doing whether or not someone would pay me for it.

The other thing I learned with my novel experiment was that you can work hard, study your genre, and still end up with what an editor tells you is a well-written novel full of realistic characters that they won't publish because it doesn't fit the parameters of what is currently selling.

The adage, "Write what you like to read" only works if your genre is still publishing the stuff you like to read, and sadly, mine no longer is. When three of my favorite long-term "must buy" authors lost their contracts, I realized it was time to give up any dream of breaking in.

In theory, if your book is wonderful enough, market tastes shouldn't matter, but for the 99.9% of us who aren't among the greatest writers of our generation it does.

Which is why the advice I give to any aspiring author nowadays is what I was given myself years ago: The only reason to become a writer is because you can't help writing, because you love the act of writing, and because you'd be happy writing even if you never earned a single cent doing it!

jason evans said...

Writing is one of those things which will never be as good as it can be with only one brain on the job. That's the inherent difficulty with self publishing, I think.

In traditional publishing, having to work with agents, editors, business concerns, etc. is tough love. Just like adding more weight on a barbell, it makes you stronger.

Anonymous said...

I would be very interested to see many published and shelved works NOT pre-editing/revision, but pre-editOR.

That would be fascinating, don't you think?

Marva said...

There seems to a be an assumption that self-published works aren't edited by a professional. Many self-publishers hire editors for their books. Sure, not all, but I think you might be surprised at how many actually do put out the money for a professional edit.

Some naive self-publishers are with a vanity press that pretends they edit, but don't. It isn't because the writer didn't think they needed and editor, it's that they're scammed by the likes of Publish America.

By the way, one self-publisher of my acquaintance just signed a movie option contract with a legitimate producer.

Anonymous said...

See? There IS good stuff not snagged by agents.

Few and far between, but they're the ones who remind us that it IS done, which is often good enough. Ya gotta have believers.

As an SP, every bit of work I've done on and for my book has been absolutely invaluable.

After going through the agent querying process for quite some time, which taught me about ... wel...that process, and how important it is to do that FIRST,
I also learned about
cover design.
the value of blurbs.
the value of reviews.
the importance of first having a viable product.
real, hard work - which includes the writing of the book, the editing of the book, the design of the book, and then everything that went into the marketing of it.
and, most of all, after patience, perseverance.

If I could go back in time, and have a publisher pick up my book after a month...

Okay. I probably would, to be honest.

But I think I like who I am now, and what I've learned - which makes me pretty glad no one picked it up and did a lot of that FOR me.

Erik said...

Well, I hit two and a half of the requirements. The half is that I don't have the next work finished because I am too busy trying to stay alive by writing other people's stories for money.

I can't see why I really need an agent in the first place, but more importantly I can't understand this industry. I've developed a large following on my own, which is why I'd love to finish the next work. Would I like to spare the expense of self publishing? Of course! But no publisher is going to care about my work. I don't follow conventions and rules all that well. I don't play their bizarre games.

I've done my best to obtain reviews to reach a national audience, and so far the results are pretty dismal. No one will read it unless I pay them to. Instead, I have to sell my book one copy at a time. I have great results when I do that, but a national audience seems to be something that you have to pay for. That's crap.

I'd like to write another one, but that's a luxury that seems quite unreasonable. I have to earn a living, and I can't afford the steep price that is attached to the vanity of getting national attention. If I do get it done, it'll be for my fans, whom I love.

Doing this for an agent? What's an agent done for me? What has anyone in this tired, dysfunctional industry done for me?

The industry is a rich person's game, and I'm not rich enough to do nothing but write a novel on spec in an effort to please them, let alone pay a few hundred a pop for reviews. I have worked long and hard to make a few hundred people happy. They read my blog often, and send me pleasant notes. The industry won't even read my book, let alone tell me how much they enjoyed it. Eff 'em hard.

Nathan Bransford said...


No offense, but I find it kind of amusing you call the publishing industry a rich person's game because I don't know very many rich writers.

Erik said...


Then where do people get the time to write novels? I'm working more than 8 hours a day as a writer, and after raising two kids there isn't much time left over to make progress.

Where do people get the scratch to pay the reviewers, agents, and all the other people with their hands out? I sure don't have it.

You say that people need to prove they can both write and promote. Promotion isn't free, and writing takes time. How do you do all that and actually have a life?

Yes, getting published is a rich person's world. It's been made clear to me that I will never be able afford it. I have priorities that have to come far, far ahead from that kind of vanity.

My kids are #1 in every respect, and the stories my clients have to tell are #2 because that pays the mortgage. After that, there are people that genuinely need help out there who are far more worthy of hard work than any desire to be published.

I realize this puts my fans at a distant fourth, which is sad. What I can say about them is that a few hours a week will give them something new online. I wish I could give them more, but the way everyone has their hand out in the publishing world I don't see the point in going that way.

It is a rich person's game to chase after a life as a novelist. The process is something akin to playing the lottery, and ya have to play to win. I don't have the scratch to play, so I will not win.

Having said all that, I will probably finish my next book before December. The hours that could be spent packaging it according to each publisher's requirements so that it can go off and not be read would be time not being spent as billable hours. As a waste I cannot afford, I will be unlikely to do this. I will consider how to get it to my fans as an e-book, POD, or other related ways.

I think this is terrible sad, since it seems that a reasonable chance is all I'd ever ask for. I know I will never get it. The time I've spent chasing the industry has been a terrible waste, and I regret it. The time spent with my fans here in Saint Paul is a blessing, however, so perhaps you have to take the good with the bad.

But when I see some of the dreck on bookstore shelves while I don't even get a chance, I know that these are people who either have friends in the industry or can pay people to pretend they are their friends. I have neither. I just know how to write and how to sell my work myself, whether it's a pitch to a client or selling my novel in a coffee shop. That's all the chance I get, and it's not all bad.

It's a rich person's game, you bet. Working writers stay away from writing novels if they can. They have to take only as much of that vanity as they can afford.

Anonymous said...

There are many reviewers who don't require payment. They're not the "big time" reviewers, but they're out there. is one.

You can write local magazines (like the smaller, alternative newspapers) and ask if they'll be interested in reviewing the work of a local author. All they're likely to ask for is a free review copy.

As for marketing, there are many things you can do to promote your work. Many, for example, use MySpace.

(Real marketing - the kind publishing houses do for their writers - is, naturally, more expensive than most people can afford to do on their own, but your hands aren't completely tied.)

ERiCA said...

Fabulous post! We were just talking about this at my writing chapter meeting on Saturday. Wish I'd read it beforehand so I could've referred people here!

Nathan Bransford said...


They just find the time. It's not easy, it takes balancing family, work (yes, most writers have day jobs) and writing, and publicity and it takes a very understanding family, but people do it.

And if you have no desire to get published because it's a "rich person's world" (whatever that means), more power to you! If your family is your first priority then you definitely have your head on straight. But then, why rant against the industry because your priorities are different?

You seem to think you lack some key to being published by a mainstream publisher. Well, I'm here to tell you -- if your work is better than what's on bookstore shelves, someone in the industry will want to read it. If it's not better, or if you find yourself above industry submission processes, well... that's not our fault, is it?

Erik said...

> or if you find yourself above industry submission processes, well

I think I hit a nerve.

That wasn't my point, and I would like to think that I'm a good enough writer to have gotten my point across. Apparently, I am not, so I will be succinct:

I do not have the time to do this.

I am angry about the time I wasted trying.

If you want to say that I should be more angry at myself than the industry, I can accept that. It's just that I know the industry is leaving money on the table because I've read very good books that went unpublished. These generally had a decent local following, so I know it's not just my opinion I'm talking about.

I don't mind being rejected. It would be good if someone said, "You don't have the chops for this". What I have instead is a group of fans that rather constantly ask why I don't write more novels, or why "Downriver" isn't available at Borders. I have honestly become tired of telling people why. I wish I could make a living at it, but wishes don't pay the mortgage.

It is surreal. It is disjointed. But it is the way things are. I probably would have been better not writing "Downriver" and going through this, but it is a story my daughter needed to hear, if no-one else did. Then I thought it would look good in print. Then I thought ... well, it's like any addict's story. My advice to writers remains, "Just say no!". Like that'll work.

Anonymous said...

Jenny said...
I doubt that anyone who hasn't written a novel can imagine how much work it is.

I absolutely agree with Jenny on her post, and suggest you read it.
As a author who has gone both routes,I can say that swallowing the attitude that much of the publishing industry dishes out can leave the most talented and dogged authors burnt out.
This always reminds me of when I worked in finance and investment. Brokers and financial agents always told people that it was suicide and foolhardy to "go it alone" and invest without an agent/advisor taking his cut, of course. Well most of these agents had the attention span of a gnat and were as fickle as untrustworthy as streetwalkers on crack ( as I suspect many involved in the publishing industy are), and many of the clients that went it alone because they couldn't take all the BS, did just fine. Perhaps they didn't hit the jackpot in terms of return, but they retained some form of sanity after the process.
Just an observation. I hated formatting my nonfiction book myself, but it was part of the two year long sweat. When I sell a book now, I know its worth.

Anonymous said...

I neglected to say there are two other similarities to the financial advisor industry, the high turnover of staff and the same playing of God and being pseudo-picky about clients. There are absolute professionals in both industries who have held top positions deservedly for decades, but most would stab anyone in the back for business, no matter what the book or colour of money.

Nathan Bransford said...

My goodness, anon, if the publishing industry is as full of cynics as you think it is you should fit right in.

JSottile said...

Wow! All of this was rather interesting. Okay, so I published three poetry books for children. Yes, the third is the best. Yes, I have sold over a thousand books. So why go the self-publishing route? What kind of market is there for free verse for children. My poetry has been compared to Shel Silverstein by many readers. My illustrator is excellent. I thought that I could send my third book around to traditional publishing houses and someone might see the book as a priceless gem. After reading what's here, I find that prospect more discouraging than before.

Gregory said...

Hi Nathan. Great post. Interesting discussion. I guess I'd invite Erik and other cynics to contemplate the words of Werner Erhard: "If you keep saying it the way it really is, eventually your word is law in the universe." And one more: "Life is a ripoff when you expect to get what you want. Life works when you choose what you got. Actually what you got is what your chose. To move on, choose it."

The currently popular Eckart Tolle often talks about allowing life, others, the universe, to be as it is, and how much better life works when we do so. (I find it does... even choosing traffic jams works... it's very weird.) And in his classic (and mis-nomered) book, "Winning Through Intimidation," Robert Ringer years ago said it another way in his "Theory of Reality" which basically states: Strive to understand the reality of a situation as clearly as you possibly can, and then make that reality work for you and not against you. Ringer marvels at how many people simply refuse to accept reality and keep "kicking against the pricks" (to mix quotes, the latter being from the Apostle Paul).

I suppose it's trite, but I truly believe that cream rises to the top. Yes, doubtless the occasional emulsified globule might get stuck down in the milk. But 99+ percent is going to rise. I quite agree with what Kark Iglesias wrote in "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters" (and just about everything that applies to screenwriters applies to book writers, fiction and non). Wrote Iglesias: "First, the bottom line is: a great script always finds an agent. Always. Guaranteed. No exceptions. It's all about money. Agents know a great script will sell in an instant, maybe even generate a bidding war, and if they can make money from your script they'll represent you, period."

Now, I don't know about you, Nathan, but were I in your shoes, and if I saw something I thought I could sell (which of course means it appeals to you, you're excited about it, and all the rest), I'd jump on it. I assume you do the same, with few if any exceptions.

To the unpublished wannabes out there (like moi), why not choose the industry to be the way it is? It's a multi-billion dollar business. Maybe some of these people actually know what they're doing. (smile) And, horror of horrors, if you're getting rejections, maybe your work isn't quite as good as you think it is. I often think of former world chess champion Bobby Fischer's adage: Study the board until you really understand it and find the very best move you can. Then, SIT ON YOUR HANDS, and find a BETTER one!

You've written what you think is your very best work? It isn't. It never is. If you're getting rejections, then CHOOSE THEM. They're your friend. They're an open door. Step away from your work (sit on your hands), then come back and look at it, and MAKE IT BETTER. Have you read Donald Maass, "Writing the Breakout Novel?" If not, I recommend it.

Each of us has to set our own priorities in life. The fantasy that publishing is "a rich man's game" is just a story in the head, another one of thousands of stories about the publishing industry. None of our stories are "the truth" except, of course, to us. We live into our stories and amass evidence. After all, it's so nice to be "right," wouldn't you agree? Thus, the story we keep repeating to ourselves becomes, for us, as Erhard said, "a law in the universe." (That's MY story, anyway. Ha!)

In his classic book, "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!" psychologist Sheldon Kopp relates the story of the Yaqui Burro, the tribal wise man. A young man approaches the old shaman and asks, "What should I do with my life? Which path should I pursue?"

The old man smiles and says, "You should pursue whatever path you wish. It makes no difference."

The lad is puzzled. "But it DOES make a difference! One path will take me to a very different place than another. I could do this, or that... please tell me what I should do!"

Again the wise man smiles with knowing eyes and says, "It makes no difference. All paths are the same. They all lead nowhere. So find the path that has heart for you, and have the courage to follow it."

Lauren said...

I love your blogs. Not only do I learn, but I feel better.

It's a long story. Well, it's not a long story it's a short and boring one. But I hope you keep informing us all, or I'd have no clue at all.

Christine Lakatos said...

I am doing research on self-publishing and whether publishers would have an interest. Great blog, but it made me think I shouldn't have self-published! I do have a direct question. Will a publisher consider a self-published book that has sold 321 books in 5 months, has had great reviews (both professionally and from buyers), a terrific platform and more!

S. Megan Payne said...

I don't know if you're still responding to comments on this thread, but I have a question? What if your self-pub cred is a book you wish you'd never been talked into self-pubbing and hope never sees the light of day again and it costs too much to change it because you were caught by a POD publisher?

Can I just say, I self-published a Christmas story when I was a teenager? Or skip it altogether? Preferably the latter and use a penname.

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