Writers often have big dreams. They imagine that their work will be published and will take off, go viral, make them rich and famous, or at least famous. But can this miracle happen with self-published works?
Well, sometimes. It is true that formally published works, run through an agent, accepted by a publisher, and printed and marketed by the publisher, generally have a better chance of making it big. This is because the publishers generally have more resources to promote your book.
But realistically, publishing has changed so dramatically that those who believe they can become a best-selling author just by getting accepted at a major publishing house are dreaming.
Let’s consider the reality.
First you must find an agent. Bear in mind that, as a new writer, you’re going to have a hard time coming up with an agent to represent you. This process could take weeks or months, even years.
Next, the agent will submit your book to various publishers. This process also can go from weeks to years. Even if a publisher expresses interest, they may take months to come up with a legitimate offer, finalize a contract and begin the process of preparing to publish. Bear in mind that your book must be completely finished before you get to this point. Though some publishers will accept non-fiction book proposals, most will only look at completed manuscripts, unless you are an expert in your field.
Once the publisher accepts the book and begins creating the final version, another few months may pass. As literary agent Barbara Doyen explains, “The publisher has more work to do, such as: laying out the book text, arranging for the indexing, designing the covers, writing jacket blurbs and catalog copy, scheduling the print run, taking pre-pub book orders, consulting the PR department, shipping the printed books and more, taking additional weeks or months.” Ultimately, from the moment you finish your book to the moment your work appears as a complete product in the bookstores can take years.
Books with niche audiences are a tough sell. Suppose your book has a very small, very specific audience. You are writing a book about salsa dancing, or you are writing about how to start a wildlife refuge. Do you really want to wait years to publish a book about a topic that may actually have a very small target market? Why not self-publish and market it yourself to those very specific organizations that might have interest in your work?
The wait might not be worth it. How about a book that you’ve been working on for years? Maybe you’re just tired of trying to get attention for a manuscript that has been edited over and over for decades. Maybe it’s just time to get done with it. Go ahead and self-publish. It can’t hurt anything. There are stories of writers self-publishing and their books taking off, then being picked up by a major publisher. Did you know that the book, The Martian, was self-published? Yes, the one that just became a major motion picture!
Marketing the book is crucial. What does a traditional publisher do for you as opposed to self-publishing? Theoretically, they do the marketing, which is the most difficult part of selling your book. But many publishers these days still expect the authors to step up and assist with extensive marketing. Still, they do provide a lot of services. According to Writers Digest, “In traditional publishing, the publisher handles the marketing, distribution, and warehousing for your book.” If you choose to self-publish, you will have to do all the marketing yourself. You’ll want to create an author’s platform, including a Web page, Facebook page, and other social media. You’ll want to find local markets to sell your work. You might even want to see if you can set up a low-cost book tour. Sometimes your willingness to market your work can mean the difference between success and failure. John Grisham became so frustrated with his lack of success in getting a publisher for his book A Time to Kill that he self-published, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Children’s books are often a tough sell. They are expensive to create and hard to market. Did you know that Beatrix Potter’s story, The Tales of Peter Rabbit, was originally self-published? It is now part of one of the best-selling children’s series of all time. If you can see yourself doing readings in libraries surrounded by a gang of little ones, find yourself a good illustrator and go for it. You have nothing to lose.
What if you just want to write a book for your family? Many people want to tell the story of their lives. Perhaps you have an unusual background or you became an entrepreneur and got rich. You just want to let your kids and grandkids know about your success. Self-publishing is a great option. While this type of publishing used to be referred to as “vanity press publishing,” nowadays it can be done for a nominal fee and you can use print on demand, ordering exactly the number of copies that you want for your family. This is a great way to tell your story and surprisingly, the younger generation – you know, that group that thinks hard cover books are sooooo “retro” – seems to be most interested in what their ancestors did years before.
When should you consider being published the old-fashioned way, by finding an agent and a publishing house?
Maybe you know you are writing the “next big thing!” Well, if you have an idea for a book that will touch a nerve, start out by trying to find an agent. Then try independent publishers. You can always self-publish later if you don’t connect with the traditional publishers.
Suppose you are famous in your field, say as a professor of digital services or as a detective who worked with a major police station during a particularly brutal crime. You might have a book that would interest publishers. Maybe you are an expert on international relations, or a former astronaut who went to the moon. You will probably be able to get a publisher easily enough – just write the book or write a great marketing plan and give it a shot.
If you’re a poet, forget it (says the blog author, a well-published poet). Enter contests, submit to literary magazines, self-publish your book if you’d like. Same for short story writing. There are very few, very limited markets for books of poetry and short stories.
But you never know – the hottest new books being published now are adult coloring books. Who could ever have predicted that?