Self-Publishing : the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

What do you think when you see a book that has been self-published? Do you see it as freedom from the tyranny of mercenary big business publishers? Or do you assume it will be a shoddy piece of work?

Self-publishing can mean either freedom or a license for mediocrity. The main part of my "day job" is working with small press titles, and I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. This article will look at the reasons for and against self-publishing, and some of the problems to avoid if you want to be taken seriously.

Why Self-Publish?
Self-publishing is the wave of the future. As publishers merge, and grow closer to one huge publishing house, it becomes harder and harder for new authors to get anything published. You may need to self-publish if you have a controversial title, a niche title, a quality title that is not likely to make a lot of money, or are just plain unknown.

Also, publishing from home as never been easier or less expensive. Marketing has also become much easier using the Internet, and so has selling. If you have a message, and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it out, self-publishing may be for you. Besides, you get to keep more of the profits!

Why Not Self-Publish?
Self-publishing requires a lot more work. You have to do the writing, proofing, printing, publishing, marketing, and selling of your title. You are alone responsible for whether it succeeds or fails. If you are not willing to learn all about the business side of writing, then self-publishing is not for you.

Self-published books run into particular problems that make them look amateurish. These fall into two broad categories, the writing itself, and the book as a physical object.

Problems With The Writing

  1. Lack of an editor. You must be especially careful when self-editing. Learn to be ruthless with your prose. Nothing gives self-publishing such a bad name as books that read like a first draft.
  2. Lack of purpose. Don't write something so vague that no one can figure out whether it's fiction or non-fiction. You think this is rare or an exaggeration? Not at all, unfortunately. The first way books are categorized is into fiction or non-fiction. You can't be listed both places! So make it easy for the retailer to know which your book is.
  3. Subject is too cute (talks on life from my poodle; everything I needed to know I learned from my begonia). This can work for writers who are using this to get at deeper truths, but too many self-published books stop at the surface.
  4. Only written to cash in on the latest craze. Currently, channeled books, either from the dead or from aliens are a hot topic. Books on stress relief, eastern religions/alternate spirituality, miracle diets or minerals, exercise, quality of life, leadership in business and fly-fishing continue to roll in every day. If you are going to write on any of these topics, make sure you actually have something important to say that has not already been said by dozens of others.
  5. Presenting yourself as an expert when it soon becomes obvious you have done no research, or presenting your opinions as facts. This will lose you credibility more quickly than almost anything else.
  6. Don't know your audience. "My book is for everybody" simply means you don't have a clue. No book is for everyone. Is it for housewives? For those who feel stressed out? For the cancer patient? For dog lovers? For those seeking a new way of life? Figure out your audience and write for them.
  7. Don't know the age range for a children's book. Age ranges are 0-3, 4-8, 9-12, 12+. These are industry standard ranges, corresponding roughly to baby/infant, beginning readers, intermediate readers, and young adult. Even if you feel that the appeal of your book stretches from 3 to 93, you need to be able to say the age that will be most interested.

Problems With The Book As A Physical Object

  1. Not enough white space. Don't try to save money by crowding lots of words on a page. It not only looks unprofessional, but is also difficult to read.
  2. Poor font selection--too small, too light or too dark for ease of reading. Choose one of the "normal fonts" for your book, to make it easy to read.
  3. Title not obvious on the cover. Make it clear which are your title, your subtitle, and the author name. It can be hard to figure out, particularly if there is no title page.
  4. Price out of line with other books on the topic. You don't want to price it too high, but it needs to be high enough that you can offer at least a 50% discount to retailers (or wholesalers). Look for your kinds of books either in a brick and mortar store, or online, and price accordingly.
  5. Tacky or out of focus pictures either on the cover, or of the author on the back. Using pictures obviously done on a copy machine.
  6. Cover not appropriate for the kind of book it is. Again, check out bookstores to see what covers are on the same kind of books. Better, check the new titles area for ideas of the current trends in cover art.

If You Are A Serious Writer, You Will:

  1. an International Standard Book Number and know how to use it and how to display it on your book. ISBNs are distributed and sold by R. R. Bowker
  2. your cover designed professionally, unless your book needs nothing more than words on the cover (specific how-to books, for instance, or pamphlets) or unless your book is intended for those who will appreciate a cover drawn by your 7 year old grandson. Be cautious about using clip art. It may not be free for use in a for-profit situation.
  3. able to describe your book in a sentence or two--especially if you are listing online. "I wrote this to alert people to the dangers of alien spacecraft parked under Mount Rainier. We must learn what these aliens want and how to protect ourselves!" "I have fished Thompson's Creek for forty years and know the best spots, the best lures, and the best time of the day, month, and year. Fly fishing is an art--let me teach you how!" This will be invaluable for those who are categorizing your title.
  4. informed about self-publishing options. Read some books on the subject. You can find reviews for a few of the newer self-publishing books here.
  5. Be savvy about marketing, realizing you have to send out copies for free to certain people and organizations who will be writing reviews or performing some other service for you.
  6. Know when to push, and when to give it a rest. Be enthusiastic about your own book but still remember it is one of millions out there. Remember also that the retailer or wholesaler may see hundreds of new titles a week, and cannot possible be as enthusiastic about your book as you are--so don't expect him or her to be.
  7. Be able to use the computer effectively in marketing. The fact that you are retired and computer illiterate is not an excuse. You can learn how to use a computer, or hire someone to do it for you--one of your grandchildren might be thrilled to help out this way. But if you intend to do more than sell your book to family and friends or down at the corner store, you need to be, or have someone who is, computer literate.

Does all this sound frightening? Cheer up, it's not as bad as it seems. Take the process one step at a time, and you can publish a book that is as good and useful as any done by the big publishers. But remember that a self-published writer needs to be even more careful to make their books read and look professional, and the success rests entirely on you. Best of luck, whichever way you decide to go!

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