Should You Self-Publish?

This post, from Henry Baum, originally appeared on Self-Publishing Review on 9/9/09.

That title sounds like a pretty rudimentary question from a site going into its tenth month, but that’s not the question that’s been asked most often here.  The question has been: is self-publishing legitimate?  This comes in response to people who say things like “Self-published books are crap,” which is sort of like saying, “All dogs bite,” after being bitten by two.  Plainly put, they’re wrong, overgeneralizing, and aren’t worth too much more ink.

Now that self-publishing is a legitimate way to go, is it something you should consider?  The “About” page for this site says,

The aim of this site is to legitimize self-publishing – not just as a fallback plan, but as an avenue that’s increasingly necessary and useful in a competitive publishing industry.

This may need to be revised because more often than not self-publishing should be a fall back plan.  Given the fact that distribution is better with a traditional press – especially mainstream publishing – it is preferable to self-publishing.  Yes, there are arguments for building a readership outside the walls of the gatekeeper, but you can’t deny that widespread brick and mortar distribution and an expanded outlet for reviews is helpful.  As I’ve written here before: mixing together the will of the self-publisher with the distribution network of a traditional publisher and whatever marketing muscle they put behind a book is preferable to totally going it alone.

I don’t totally buy the profit angle (self-publishers make more money) because it’s so much harder to sell books. Retaining rights is a better argument: your book will never go out print, as is the idea that you have complete creative control.  But: it’s possible to have the latter with a traditional press.  And what’s more important: selling 20,000 books or retaining rights?  These are the questions you should be asking.  Of course, selling 20,000 books isn’t a given with a trad publisher, but it is more likely.

In a long thread on Publishers Weekly, which started with a criticism of an interview I gave to a Sacramento paper, the blogger of the piece, Rose Fox, commented:

Henry: Given the willingness of major genre publishers to publish books by authors who combine and switch among genres–Iain (M.) Banks, Catherynne M. Valente, Michael Chabon, Maureen McHugh, Sharon Shinn, Richard Morgan, Terry Pratchett, Mary Robinette Kowal, Jay Lake, Scott Westerfeld, China Miéville, Jim Butcher, Cherie Priest, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Daniel Abraham/MLN Hanover come to mind, just off the top of my head–I remain baffled by your assertion that traditional publishers would be reluctant to buy a good book from such an author. Every traditional publisher I’m aware of also publishes debut novels…

She’s right, the publishing industry doesn’t totally suck.  Good books are traditionally published all the time.  Some of my best friends are traditionally published books! At the same time, how many submissions are enough before a writer takes it into his or her own hands?  One of the oft-mentioned criticisms of self-publishers is, “If it’s not good enough to be traditionally published, it’s not good enough.”  Wrong.  There are any number of reasons that a book might be rejected and they’re not all based on the merits of the book – it may just have to do with the financial status of the publisher, which right now is not particularly positive for many publishers.

Read the rest of the post on Self-Publishing Review.