To self publish or to not

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about self publishing recently. I’ve been considering two projects that might be described as self publishing. And I’ve been looking at how self publishing fits into my professional life as a literature development worker. And I’ve just been following a thread incited by a Facebook status update from Mary Robinette Kowal on the brutal existence of self published authors at conventions. Basically, I think its time I put some of this into words.

To date, self publishing has been a bad idea. People without the necessary skills and experience full prey to vanity publishers. Writers with some talent but who are still learning can expose their work too soon. Excellent writing can find itself swamped among the dross that is self published every year and no one bothers to go looking for it. The general wisdom on self publishing for anyone who aspires to become a professional author has been…don’t.

But over the last few years advances in printing technology, ebooks and the internet have started to change the viability of self publishing. A small number of very talented writers – Kelly Link and John Scalzi spring to mind – have self published at strategic moments in their career and benefited massively from doing so. The podcast and audio fiction revolution has allowed writers like J C Hutchins and Mur Lafferty to build a considerably larger following than many conventionally  published authors will ever achieve, and podcasting poster boy Scott Sigler has transitioned into a conventional publishing deal. And while no major authors are yet self publishing, many are making their work available online in ebook format.

At the same time, traditional publishing has been sliding into crisis. Book sales are down. Advances have gone from small to worse, and marketing spend is so low on all but the top authors on a publishers list that the benefits of getting a book deal are increasingly hard to spot. The pro short fiction markets are on the verge of extinction, and the profusion of semi-pro markets offer so many outlets for stories that few can muster more than a handful of readers. Similarly, the valiant indie and small press have filled the gap that the major publishers left behind when they abandoned the mid-list, but while some are of very high quality many more are back room operations with limited or no distribution and often no discernible business plan.

Authors face one simple and ongoing challenge in all of this. How to get what they write in front of people who want to read it. Building a readership is the only real test of a writers work. If people engage with what you are writing in enough numbers you will find success, whether you have a book deal or self publish. If people don’t engage with what you write it doesn’t matter how big your advance or how well you self promote, you will ultimately fail. The question then is what role self publishing plays in building a readership?

The answer will be different for each author. No doubt many writers will continue to find their readership purely within the framework of the publishing industry, in whatever form it emerges from its current difficulties. But it seems almost certain that for many authors  self publishing will play an increasingly large part in the equation. It may well become accepted practice for emerging writers to self publish their debut collection or novel and find a readership before major publishers invest in them. At the other end of the scale, big name authors may well find the financial rewards of self publishing merit the associated risks. In between the two will be a range of authors publishing directly to niche audiences of maybe only a few thousand readers, enough to support the writers work but not enough to reward the involvement of a publisher.

If the general wisdom about self publishing has been ‘don’t’, its likely that wisdom may change to ‘do – but with great caution’. There has always been a role for self publishing, but as that role grows, the provisos that accompany self publishing will grow all the more important. Authors will need to be aware that self publishing means more than just having a book printed. It means being an editor, a distributor and a marketer of your own work. It means investing in yourself in exactly the way a good publisher invests in their authors, whilst taking the risks a good publisher also takes. It means understanding the arc of your own career as a writer in the same depth that good editors and agents do. And most of all it means having an honest and accurate understanding of the quality of your own writing, maybe the hardest thing of all.

For most self publishig will continue to be a mistake, but for writers with enough talent and determination it is already becoming an important part of building a readership, one that for many writers it will be a mistake to simply dismiss.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

13 thoughts on “To self publish or to not

  1. Whether you self-publish or not, you’re up against marketing budgets, focus groups and a market and industry that is scared of investing in originality and diversity. Best to keep writing instead of spending disproportional time marketing. Writers are writers, and marketeers are marketeers.


  2. I self-pubbed my first novel and don’t regret it – what’s crucial is to be clear what your aims are, and be realistic in your expectations. For me, it wasn’t about huge sales – I wanted to get reviewed, and start to build a readership. I achieved this in a minor way and am still proud of the book itself. Mostly it helped me to gain confidence, to acknowledge myself as an author and have an accessible sample of my work. I subsequently found a traditional publisher for my second novel and feel that the prior experience was a good practice run.


  3. Great post. Each new sober-minded post about self-publishing helps people to understand its advantages and limitations. And there are real advantages, even if it’s a hard road. But the self-publishing revolution is coming, just as the blog revolution has passed and we’re in the middle of the ebook revolution.


  4. If you’ve built up an audience (eg via a blog or on- or off-line networking) and have a marketing plan, then self-publishing is a viable option. Like anything, get at least three quotes, compare what is actually included in the price (vanity publishers will promise the earth; geniune publishers will talk about typsetting and doing your own marketing) and make sure you have a marketing plan in place.

    Traditional review outlets may not review self-published books, but blog writers will – contact a few in your niche and see if who responds – and blog writers are more likely to have a targeted audience. All publishers expect writers to get involved in marketing anyway – after all they can’t promote an author signing if the author’s not there -so whether you’re self-publishing or being published you need to think about marketing.


  5. Good article…I used to think of self publishing as a dirty word…but more and more I am realizing that it can be a good thing if, as you say, one proceeds with caution and has a good marketing plan.


  6. I have completed what I believe is an important book on “The Traveling Salesman Problem”. The difficulty is that I wish to keep the copyright of the book. It can happen that a book becomes a sahort-term fad and then it disappears from view. The book of 500 + pages is all original work. If it is published by a commercial publisher, it may go out of print. They would then have the copyright and I would have nothing. I am now 81 and frankly don’t know what to do. Any advice would be appreciated.



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