Books by Melissa Bowersock

Monday, June 25, 2012

To Self-Publish or Not Self-Publish

In many of the online forums I follow, the debate rages on about whether or not to self-publish. Due to the nature of these forums, there is a constant influx of new writers that are investigating their options, so the question comes up over and over. Many of us “old timers” chime in, but the experiences, suggestions and opinions range over hundreds (even thousands) of posts and sometimes the kernels of information are hard to glean out of the noise. I decided it was time to distill the discussion down to a few concise bullet points.

Before I start, though, I want to say something about the psyche of the writer. We are artists and what we do is very subjective. There is no sure-fire formula for success; if there were, EVERY book written would be a best-seller. The fact is, no one has been able to identify what makes a book capture the public’s attention and take off like wildfire. No one. Not us writers, not publishers, not agents, not even readers. It is, and will always be, a mystery.

That said, writers—because their work is subjective and creative and highly personal—are often plagued by fragile confidence. When we offer our latest story to someone to read, we are offering up a creation from our heart, a child, a piece of our very essence. When a reader tosses it off as ho-hum or even not worth the paper it’s written on, our egos take a direct hit. Just because of the nature of what we do, we are vulnerable. I believe it’s this vulnerability that makes us an easy target for the age-old sales pitch lobbed by the traditional publishing industry. They’re the experts. They know what good writing is. They know what will sell. They can help us.

With all due respect—bullshit. If they’re experts in crafting and promoting good books, wouldn’t they be writing best-sellers themselves? Ok, maybe they don’t have that creative spark, that fire in the gut that makes us writers write. But if they were such great experts, wouldn’t every book they publish be a best-seller? They couldn’t give away Sarah Palin’s last book. No, the fact of the matter is that traditional publishers base their decisions on (1) personal opinion and (2) trying to mechanize and formulate a very nebulous and protean quality. It can’t be done. And if that’s true, how is anyone an expert?

My point is, traditional publishers have been pushing the mythology for centuries that writers need them, need their expertise, need their services, need their guidance. And many writers believe that. But you know what? It’s not true. The self-publishing phenomenon is proving it false. All writers need now is (1) faith in themselves, in their talent, in their art, (2) the confidence to set out in a new direction and (3) the discipline to do the work and craft a good story in a professional manner.


So what are these “professional services” that traditional publishers insist we writers need and can only get from them?

      Editorial support – As I blogged about in an earlier entry, my first five books were published by traditional publishers. Of those five books, only one publisher ever offered a single editing suggestion. The other four books were published verbatim, exactly as I sent in the manuscript, a handful of typos and misspellings and all. Two of these books were published by a well-known NY house. (I have since regained the rights to all of these books, corrected the errors and self-published them.) I have heard, although this is not my experience, that PublishAmerica’s “editing” process consists of going through the manuscript with a spell-checker, sometimes changing the author’s intended words to different words, even changing character’s names if the intended name did not exist in the spell-checker’s dictionary. How helpful is that?

     Marketing support – Most writers believe, mistakenly, that a traditional publisher will promote their books with book signings, advertising and splashy promos. In a word, no. My first two books, published by the NY house, appeared in drug stores and supermarkets but not in book stores. I never saw one speck of advertising except for the reviews that I solicited. The other three books, published by small presses, were showcased on the publishers’ websites, but it was up to me to drive traffic to those websites. I had one editor who, many months and even years after publication, would send me e-mails about radio programs that wanted to interview authors (and it was up to me to contact them), but beyond that—zilch.

     Packaging – Traditional publishers think in genres, and their definition of a genre is pretty narrow. I’ve gotten more than a few rejection letters because my stories didn’t fit into nice neat pigeonholes and, frankly, the publishers would not know how to package them. But when they do accept a story, they know the genre, know the formula to package that sort of thing and they do it—ad infinitum. My first book, a historical romance about a half-breed woman, was titled The Rare Breed. Oh, waaaay too tame. They changed the name to Love’s Savage Destiny and slapped a sweeping, swooning, love-on-the-prairie cover on it and called it done. My second book, a western romance set amid the Superstition Mountains of Arizona, was called Superstition Gold. Oh, can’t have that—Superstition denotes the occult. They changed the title to Love’s Savage Embrace, slapped on a similar swooning cover and called it done. I always swore I’d write a book one day called Love’s Savage Armpit.

Cover art – Publishers used to have a lock on cover art, but no more. There are scads of artists and designers getting into the cover art business; just do a Google search on “book cover art” and you’ll be inundated by the returns. Many of these do very slick, professional layouts and many of them are very affordable.

So it’s no longer true that traditional publishers offer anything that can’t be gotten via other avenues. But is that enough to steer you to self-publishing? Obviously no one process is a good fit for everyone. Here’s a brief list of pros and cons.

Pros of self-publishing:

    Total control – As a self-publisher, you control 95% of the look and feel of the book. You set the title, decide on the size of the book and the cover art, write the blurbs and set the price. Since you have not sold your rights to a middleman, you can change your mind about any of these any time you want. You are no longer at the mercy of someone else’s idea of what your story is. 

     Higher royalties – Since there is no middleman, you don’t have to share the royalties. I publish with Create Space, which tells me how much the printing costs are associated with my book, then I set the retail price based on that. If the cost per book is $6, I’m then free to set the price at a modest $7 or a more hefty $12 or more. Personally, I like to keep my books affordable; I’ve never been into price gouging.

     Affordable – Due to the improvements in digital publishing and in the print-on-demand (POD) process, you can essentially self-publish for free. You read that right; free. With Create Space, all you are obligated to buy is one proof copy and shipping. (You might even be able to avoid that if you’re willing to trust the digital proof you see on the screen. Personally, I would not recommend that.) With POD technology, the books are printed as they are ordered and pay for themselves so there are no up-front costs, no large print runs, no mass shipping and warehousing. Create Space does offer a one-time upgrade (about $25) which allows you to put your book into expanded distribution, and is well worth the money. They also, of course, offer all sorts of editing help, cover art, etc., all on a cafeteria basis. You can buy as little or as much as you like.

Cons of self-publishing:

     Doing all the work – Yes, you do all the work. That means that once you’ve written the book, you then have to decide what size you want the book to be, you have to format your file to fit that page size, format the page numbers, the headers, footers, margins, chapter headers, images, cover design. Very often this detailed computer stuff is at odds with the creative process of writing, but if you’re not up on all the technical aspects, you can certainly hire someone or get your teen-aged kids to help you out.

     Doing all the marketing – Yes, you must do all the marketing. Create Space will upload your completed book both to its own storefront and to; if you choose the expanded distribution, your book will be featured in other online bookstores and outlets. This is all well and good, but if no one knows your book is there, it’s useless. It’s now up to you to drive traffic to Amazon or your own website. How do you do that?

Get your own website. There are a ton of hosting companies online, and hosting has gotten cheaper over the years so now it’s very affordable. Just Google “web hosting service” and you’ll get tons of hits. General consensus is to create your website around you, not your book. Many writers have crafted a website based on their first book, only to do something completely different with the next book and then have to start over. If you craft the site around you, the author, you can accommodate multiple titles and genres.
Use social media. Yes, I mean Facebook and Twitter and all the online forums. Kristen Lamb has written an excellent book called We Are Not Alone (WANA) about how writers can use these sites to your best advantage. It’s worth the read.
Promote your book whenever you can. Talk to your local bookstores about setting up a signing, register for library fairs and book fairs. Create a press kit and send press releases (and/or a physical copy of the book to review) to your local newspapers and TV stations. Peruse online forums like LinkedIn and Goodreads; there are a lot of other writers that offer guest appearances on their blogs or that offer reviews. Again, Google “book reviews” and you’ll get a lot of hits.
Sell by not selling. I know, this sounds counter-productive, but most people don’t like being sold to. I blogged about this a while back. Instead of button-holing people and crying, “Buy my book,” participate in online forums, in the social media by getting involved in conversations. Chat with your potential readers. If there are groups, clubs, organizations that are concerned with issues you raise in your book, volunteer to share your own expertise or research. Share what you know. Put yourself out there and get to know your reading public. People will be more inclined to buy from someone they feel they know and with whom they share a commonality.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Marketing is difficult and it takes a lot of time, but if you want to get your story out there, there’s no other way. Believe me, when you start to really connect with readers out there, when they start sharing their stories with you and buy your book because they’ve enjoyed meeting you—it’s worth every bit of effort you’ve put into it.

Good luck!


  1. Thank you for a very good post. I think part of the problem with the discussion is that experiences vary wildly from author to author, publisher to publisher. While I agree with much that you say here I actually have a slightly different experience and thought I would offer it up as another “data point.”
    I’m the author of “The Riyria Revelations” and this series has been published in two different ways:

    • Self – as six books from April 2009 – August 2011 – Selling 70,000 copies (priced at $4.95 - $6.95)

    • Traditional – as three books from Nov 2011 – present – Selling 105,000 copies so far priced from ($9.99 - $14.99)

    I consider both of these ventures as a success and I’ve enjoyed and appreciate aspects of both.

    Unlike your books I did receive extensive editing and marketing support for my series.
    • Signing at Book Expo America
    • Full Page Ads in fantasy magazines
    • 100’s of ARC’s to book reviewers and bloggers
    • Co-op store placement
    • Online ads on goodreads and facebook
    • An extensive facebook campaign with a “like lock” promotion where excerpts were released as various levels were obtained
    • Book read for free as part of Bookish’s Starbucks online bookclub
    • Many many more

    I’m a firm believer that the onus of marketing responsibility falls on the author. I looked at anything that my publisher was doing as “gravy” and independent of their efforts I was still communicating with bloggers for interviews, guest post, reviews and the like. Marketing departments have many authors they have to devote time to so only you can be 100% dedicated to your work – so those that think a traditional deal absolves them of this commitment – I think doing so would be a big mistake.

    To me I sum up the secret to success as follows:
    • Write a good book (my definition of “good” being something that people will like so much that they recommend to everyone they know and will instantly buy everything you put out).

    • Get it “known” to enough people to prime the pump. This can be done through bloggers, sites like goodreads and various social networking activities as you have described.

    • Once the momentum is turning without your help, then shift your concentration to producing more books and let the word-of-mouth do your marketing for you.

    I just wanted to say that I have no regrets about going traditional AND I also love self-publishing. I think each has fantastic pluses and some minor negative. The good news is we are writing at a time when there are options available. In the past there really was only big-six because distribution channels really required a massive infrastructure including expensive print runs and warehousing fees.
    Now that the technology has lowered these barriers to entry it’s possible for any book to “have it’s shot” The question will come down to just how good the book is…and that unfortunately, as you mentioned in the beginning of the article is subjective and almost impossible to predict.

  2. Michael, thanks much for contributing your experience to the discussion. Sounds like you had a more supportive publisher than many, but I think you're absolutely correct in looking at their efforts as gravy and taking on the main responsibility yourself. I'm just afraid too many newbies actually believe they can turn their MS over to a publisher and the rest happens automatically.
    I'm curious; were you happy with the way the publisher designed and packaged your books? Did you have much input into the development?
    And re: your last "secrets of success," Kristen Lamb has written an excellent book on this very thing. it's called We Are Not Alone, and it's all about getting the word out via social media. I've seen a good jump in my stats since I started using her method.

  3. Yes I am happy with how the publisher packaged the books. They combined them into a trilogy from six-books and at first I was resistive, but now I think it was absolutely the smarter way to go.

    As to cover design, I'm not a fan of "bloaks in cloaks" or showing characters at all on covers as I want the reader to do their own character conceptualization, but if doing so sell more copies then that's all I care about and I've seen some quite a bit of feedback that states people are picking them up due to the cover.

    No, I didn't have much input on cover design, but probably could have had more if I pushed the issue. Since I had already released the books "my way" I really didn't want to butt in with Orbit (unless they did something unprofessional looking - which they didn't) so I just abdicated a lot of my input.

    Yes I've read Kristen Lamb's We are not Alone and it is one of the books that I recommend to many.

  4. Sounds like it was a good combination for you, so that's what counts. I had zero input on the covers of books published by the NY house, but had huge input with the small presses. With two of them, we bantered back and forth, suggesting, tweaking, revising until we were both happy with the result. One place took my cover idea verbatim with only a slight change in color. As with everything else about this, so much is subjective, so much is personal opinion or trying to match up to previous success. It's a real crap shoot. Glad you got lucky!

  5. Hi Melissa and thanks for this post. We're both members of the Book Writer grp on LI. (I just joined that grp today!)

    I'm am currently writing my 4th book and have chosen to self-publish it because I;, like you, wasn't pleased with the cover my publisher had chosen for my last book and I feel they slotted the book incorrectly as a biz book (it is a book written for non-profit volunteers.)

    The book I'm working on now is on chocolate travel and will have loads of colour photos. A traditional publisher said it would be too $$ to produce and didn't want to take a chance on me as I don't have a big enough "author's platform." I've worked very hard to build the platform I now have and feel it should support the sales for my new book.

    I have 2 back-to-back guest posts on my writer's blog about self-publishing written by 2 authors who have completely different experiences in their self-pub efforts. I hope you will drop by and share your own thoughts. Feel free to link back to this post as it is excellent.

  6. Doreen, your new book sounds, well, yummy! I can see why you want color. I'm currently working on a color book of my dad's artwork (see my latest post) and I was worried about the cost, as well, but was pleasantly surprised when I uploaded it to Create Space and saw the pricing. The book will be small (8.5"w by 6"h) and only 80 pages, but still the cost is reasonable. I'm waiting for the proof copy now. Earlier I published a full-color children's book that my mother wrote and my father illustrated; unfortunately the price on that was higher than I expected, probably because I published it in 8.5"w by 11"h. Oh well. It's all about putting out the best books we can, so obviously sometimes there are compromises and/or sacrifices to make to accomplish that. Good luck! I'll stop by your place next.

  7. Hi Melissa, I've queried several small publishers and I'm still waiting to hear from them. I suppose I should set a deadline and ramp up my self publishing research. I appreciate your post.

  8. Grace, glad it was helpful. Some small presses are very eager to find new authors, so good luck with that. If it doesn't pan out, tho, you always have another avenue. Options are good!

  9. I am so glad that I have taken the time to look through all of your posts; they are super-informative!
    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Melissa, and this information!