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The Ups and Downs of Self-Publishing

Updated on January 21, 2016
drmiddlebrook profile image

Dr. Middlebrook is a fiction-writing coach, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

My latest romantic suspense novel. Available at Amazon.com and other online retailers.
My latest romantic suspense novel. Available at Amazon.com and other online retailers. | Source

As the author of two (soon to be three) self-published novels and scores of self-published articles on Hub Pages, I feel I am well qualified to talk about the ups and downs of this method of publishing. Self-publishing, for me, represents the best and the worst of publishing. Bloggers and online self-publishers of articles (using platforms such as Hub Pages and/or Slant News) know that self-publishing is an awesome, yet challenging, phenomenon of our time that turns writers/authors into publishers. And, while self-publishing articles online is a lot different from self-publishing books, since I publish both articles and books, I know that these endeavors have at least some of the same ups and downs.

The “Big Appeal” of Self-Publishing a Book

Let’s face it. In the immortal words of Miss Janet Jackson, “it’s all about control.” The biggest and shiniest appeal of self-publishing is the control it offers. In fact, that is exactly what attracted me to it—the ability to be in control of what I write, as well as in charge of determining how my work gets presented to the world. I love being “independent” and in control—calling any and all shots having to do with the writing and publishing of my novels, non-fiction books, and articles.

My first novel (romance/general fiction).
My first novel (romance/general fiction). | Source

I love everything there is to love about self-publishing. It is a way of publishing that blends together all the stuff that makes me, me. First of all, I’m a career/professional writer, and I’ve always loved books, magazines, and any type of reading material. A playwright in high school, I continued my sojourn into writing during my college years. Eventually, I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism/public relations, a master’s degree in advertising, and a doctorate in business with a specialization in marketing. All my life, personally and professionally, I’ve been a creative thinker and writer with a penchant for art and graphic design, and a serious and passionate love of business. Putting it all together, I’ve found self-publishing to be the perfect creative “home” for me. It brings together everything I love, and when I’m working on a project, it feels like anything but work. But that’s not all I love all about self-publishing. I also enjoy sharing information, as well as my thoughts, ideas, and creativity with others, and I am always hoping that what I create will be compelling, entertaining, educational, or—in some way, interesting for other people to read.

The Ups of Self-Publishing Books & Novels

When it comes to the up side of the self-publishing of books, the industry has grown exponentially over the last decade. In fact, it is the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry, and has grown so much in recent years that it has lost a lot of the “stigma” that once was attached to it like super glue. This, even though, when it comes to “quality,” there are still a lot of poor quality books and online articles that are being self-published.

So. Why has some of the stigma worn off? The biggest reason things are changing for some who self-publish books is due to the fact that several self-published novels have made some very big waves in the publishing industry. You see, whenever any self-published title becomes a blockbuster hit, its success tends to resonate throughout the industry, and the fallout is a rising tide that lifts all self-publishing hopes. Such success then attracts more authors to try their hand at self-publishing, and the industry continues its growth. Since more and more people are now trying out this method of publishing, most of the largest traditional publishing houses (including Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Random House), today, either own or are affiliated with self-publishing companies. Some of the most widely read contemporary self-published titles that have become New York Times best sellers include:

  • The Celestine Prophecy (1993), by James Redfield—spent 165 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list
  • Damaged (2011), by HM Ward—made its author one of today’s best-selling romance writers with over 10 million copies of her books sold.
  • The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (2011), by EL James—today has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, placing author among the most highly paid of self-published authors.
  • The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young—from June 2008 to early 2010, was the number one trade paperback fiction seller on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Self-publishing allows authors to retain the rights to their work.
Self-publishing allows authors to retain the rights to their work.

Also on the up side of self-publishing is the fact that you, as publisher, always retain all the rights to your book. Traditional publishing companies usually purchase the rights to a book, and—therefore, the book is owned by the publisher, not the author.

Owning the rights to your book means you make the final decisions about pricing, distribution, cover art, book interior design, and so on, and so on, and so on. As author and publisher, you keep full ownership rights—including sales/profits from any future movie, gaming, foreign, or e-book publishing, to a book you may have spent months or even years working on. But, the most important thing about retaining ownership—at least to me—is that, even after you’ve published your book through one company, you are still free to take it to other publishers if you want.

Other “ups” or advantages to self-publishing your book or novel include the following:

  • Time to market is usually shorter with self-publishing than with traditionally published books. A self-publishing author can have a book on the market in print and/or digital format in just a few months, whereas with traditional publishers, it can take as long as two years to publish one book.
  • Your book can remain in publication indefinitely, and you don’t have to worry about it being pulled. With traditional books, since publishers own the rights to them, they can decide when your work has “outlived” its sales potential. Not so with self-published books. You, the author/publisher, get to decide when to “pull it off the shelf,” so to speak.
  • When self-published books sell, authors usually get to keep 100% of gross profits (that means what’s left after subtracting costs for printing, distributing, and/or promoting the book).
  • There are no books to warehouse/store. Since most self-published books are done through POD (print on demand), authors don’t have to worry about (or pay for) storing them.

The Downs of Self-Publishing Books & Novels

Sadly, self-publishing is not all peaches and cream. One of the biggest disadvantages of self-publishing is that it can be very costly, and—for most authors, it offers very little pay. Traditional publishing often (but not all the time) pays its authors an advance (a lump sum on expected royalties).

For self-publishing authors, not only is there no advance, you must find a way to pay for the privilege of having your book published.

Don't allow the lure of "add-ons" to become a money trap for you.
Don't allow the lure of "add-ons" to become a money trap for you.

After finding the money you need to get your book published, you need to know there is no guarantee you will ever sell even one copy, or make back even one penny of the money you’ve spent publishing it. In addition, you must be careful not to allow the lure of "add-ons" to become a money trap for you. If you choose the self-publishing path, you will probably find yourself being offered a lot of great services that, most likely, could help you publish a higher quality book. But, before you get too carried away with what these services could mean for your book, make sure your budget is big enough to support your wishes.

On both the “up” and “down” side is the fact that there is no shortage of companies salivating to help you publish your book. The problem is, with so many options, it can be difficult deciding which company to choose. I have worked with two different companies, so far. I published my first novel, Silver—Currents of Change, through i-Universe, an Author Solutions company. For my second novel, Gold—The Heat of Refinement, I chose Hillcrest Media. I made the choice to move to Hillcrest for a variety of reasons (which I am not including in this article), and I have worked successfully with both i-Universe and Hillcrest.

I’ve also had some disappointing experiences with companies, as a self-publisher. Because this is true, one thing I will suggest to you is that if you are considering self-publishing, be sure to ask any potential publisher if the people who will be working on your book will be native English speakers. Do this, especially, if you are purchasing editing services, and if you want to market your books to an American English-speaking audience. I’m cautioning you because I had to leave one company (which I won’t name in this article) after I found out, the hard way, that the editing and proofreading of my book (services I had paid for in the package I purchased) was being done by employees for whom English was a second language.

Self-publishers have to watch out for "wolves in publishers clothing."
Self-publishers have to watch out for "wolves in publishers clothing."

Let me also caution you that that there are a lot of “predatory” or “rip-off” companies operating within the realm of self-publishing that are known for using illegal and/or unethical business practices. Thankfully, there are websites already set up to help you learn as much as you can about the predatory practices of some of them. For example, the website I’ve listed here (https://cweinblatt.wordpress.com/category/predators-and-editors/) contains information that might help you narrow the field of potential choices. If you’re interested in self-publishing, you need to learn as much as you can about some of their practices, and about lawsuits being filed against some of the companies that this website describes as “wolves in publishers clothing.”

Besides having to choose from many companies, some of which are guilty of predatory business practices, self-publishing authors face what, for many, represents other huge obstacles. That’s because, as both author and publisher, you are responsible for doing everything that’s needed to prepare your manuscript for publication. In addition to writing, you are responsible for proofreading, editing, and—in some cases, typesetting and layout/design of your book’s interior, cover design, and distribution. Many of the companies you can choose to work with will offer most or all of these services as part of a “package” you can purchase. Some of the services will come standard, with your package, while others might be “add-ons” that you can purchase separately.

And, while there are options available to you that will allow you to publish your book free (such as Amazon's Create Space, or, Smashwords, if you want to publish online-only), if you feel you need or want additional services (such as formatting/setting type, editing, book layout/design, cover design, etc.), you might prefer to look at companies offering more than simply the ability to upload and publish your book at no cost.

A major disadvantage for self-publishers is that most large bookstores don't carry self-published books.
A major disadvantage for self-publishers is that most large bookstores don't carry self-published books.

Some of the other major “downs” of self-publishing include:

  • Most bookstores will not carry self-published books. That means you’re likely to experience fewer sales than you would with traditional publishing, which includes bookstore distribution.
  • Self-publishing often leads to publishing of poor quality books. As both author and publisher, you are responsible for “quality control,” for your book.
  • Self-published authors are also responsible for marketing/promoting sales of their own books. Some self-publishing companies will offer marketing services as part of their “package” that you can purchase, but you need to know that you will still need to do some marketing on your own.

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish?

To self-publish or not is the question—and only you can provide the answer that might work best for you. The one thing self-publishing guarantees is that your book will be published. But, it offers no other guarantees. Therefore, if you are considering becoming a self-published author, keep in mind that you will be responsible for the final quality of your book. That means, you will need to do all you can to make sure that your book is a good one—especially if you’re putting it out into the marketplace (online or otherwise) for sale to others.

One way to get an idea about the overall quality of your work is to allow other people to read it (after you’ve written, proofed, edited, and revised your manuscript as best you can). If you belong to a book club, you might consider asking some of the members of your club to read and critique your manuscript. If you decide to pay a professional editor, you should make sure that the person you choose has had experience reading and editing books in your genre. Good editors, like good artists and graphic designers, can be hard to find, but there are many different sites on the Internet that can help you find (and price) professionals in these areas.

As self-publishing continues to deliver some very high profile success stories, more and more literary agents are beginning to at least consider taking on self-published authors. (Read the article "Literary Agents Open the Door to Self-Published Writers," Forbes, October, 1, 2010; http://www.forbes.com/sites/booked/2010/10/01/literary-agents-open-the-door-to-self-published-writers/).

Ultimately, self-publishing can be a rewarding, exciting, and challenging adventure. In the final analysis, a lot of what you end up with depends on how many skills, and how much knowledge and creative thinking, you bring to the table as an author/publisher. If you are a published writer prior to self-publishing your book or novel, you should already know a lot about the challenges and pitfalls of publishing—in general. If you are not an experienced or published writer/author, then it is likely that your learning curve will be steep. My best recommendation is that you begin now doing your research, because education is key. Learn as much as you can about writing books, and about publishing and self-publishing. That way, you will be well prepared to make the many and varied decisions you will have to make once you decide to become a self-published author.

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    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 7 months ago from Texas, USA

      MarleneB, same here! There was a time when I thought getting an agent and pursuing traditional publishing was the "be all end all" of everything. Not so much anymore! I've discovered, through self-publishing, that the real joy is in creating something of lasting value that honors my ideas, and therefore me. I'm finally content and I know my work will always be published!

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 7 months ago from Northern California, USA

      For the very same reasons you mentioned, I love the idea of self publishing. I like the control aspect of it. I like being independent with no strict deadlines - just the ones I place upon myself. It is a very rewarding endeavor. Self publishing has given me the freedom to be me. I no longer have a burning desire to be published in a large publishing house.

    • Shirl Urso-Farmer profile image

      Shirley Urso-Farmer 15 months ago from Michigan

      You're welcome, and I'll be watching for your courses, marketing articles and more self-publishing articles :)

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 15 months ago from Texas, USA

      Hi kalinin1158 and Shirl Urso-Farmer. Thanks so much for your visits and your comments.

      Kalinin1158, congrats on getting a traditional publisher for your work. I know how that feels, but I also know how it feels to have to do so much of the work that it seems the publisher should be doing. But those days are long gone. Now days, traditional publishers act a lot like the publishers we have to pay, and a lot of the traditional ones are also in the self-publishing business! I think that, for now, I'm more comfortable in the self-publishing arena. I like the control and the creative freedom, and even though the money is usually not-so-good, there is always a chance that, with the right marketing strategy, you can see amazing results.

      I'll be creating a course and writing articles soon on marketing your self-published book.

      Shirl Urso-Farmer, thanks so much. I'm glad you found this article to be "enlightening," and I do plan to write a lot more on self-publishing. In fact, I'm creating a course on the topic that I'll be launching later this year, and I've written a book to go along with the course. I'll be publishing articles here, based on topics I've presented in the book. Thanks again.

    • Shirl Urso-Farmer profile image

      Shirley Urso-Farmer 15 months ago from Michigan

      Enlightening article, I hope you'll write more about self-publishing :)

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 18 months ago from California

      I too noticed that self-publishing isn't as stigmatized as before, and many authors now choose to go that route. We've chosen a traditional publisher for our book, but I must say, I wasn't impressed. The only upside was that we didn't have to pay to publish the book. But, on the other hand, we didn't see much of the profits either, and we had to do the lion share of the marketing ourselves. I think next time I might have to try self-publishing!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 19 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You are sooo right. Every once in a while the question of reading to become a better writer comes up, and it's sometimes a split vote. I don't understand writers who don't read much. How'd they get interested in writing in the first place?

      Phillipa Gregory is a great story-teller. I'd love to write like Susan Isaacs in about 3 of her dozen books. Not so crazy about the ones who crank out basically the same book every year. But the great thing is, I don't have to write exactly like anybody. I have my own voice. What I really need is to get better at telling a compelling story. Reading them is a good way to learn.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 19 months ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks so much heidithorne and Kathleen Cochran, for your visits and your comments. Heidithorne, thanks for sharing on HP and Twitter. I appreciate that very much! Kathleen, I've never used Lulu, but I understand it does present some challenges. Also, it's great that you continue to read your books and to correct your errors. Excellent that CreateSpace allows that. As for the question about how to write a great book, I feel that anyone needs to learn as much as possible about writing--in general, and that will lead to improving the writing of books. Reading, I think, is one of the main ways to improve as a writer. Read, read, read the works of the experts. Who are your favorite authors? Reading the work of those who have mastered the craft can help anyone become a better writer.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 19 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I've written six books and self-published five of them. I'd love to find a publisher, but it is like finding a needle in a haystack.

      I spend $400 with Lulu to publish a hardback book I would let you see on a bet. What a piece of junk. But I've had great luck with CreateSpace. They've fixed mistakes in my cover for free. Yes, I still find errors from time to time in my text, but I can upload a new file at any time. Formatting page layout, page numbers, etc. is a time-consuming challenge, but I figured I could pay for that or learn by trial and error and develop the skill set myself. I'm getting better with each book.

      Bottom line: It is easier to write a book than market a book. Those books who have made it big are great books. At the end of the day, you just have to write a great book. HOW DO YOU DO THAT????

      Great hub on a subject many of us are interested in pursuing. Thanks.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 19 months ago from Chicago Area

      A must-read for those considering either traditional or self publishing routes. Sharing on HP and Twitter!

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 20 months ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much FlourishAnyway for your visit and for your kind words. I do love sharing to help others, almost as much as I love publishing. Self-publishing, for me, is the opportunity to do something I feel I was born to do. Thanks again.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 20 months ago from USA

      Excellent, balanced hub regarding your experience. Sharing so others can benefit.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 21 months ago from Texas, USA

      Hi RonElFran, always good to hear from you. You are so right. It does appear that self-publishing has gained a bit of respectability, and I can only hope the trend continues, and that, as you said, "that will encourage a rise in the quality of self-published works." From your lips to God's ears. And hey, I too was flabbergasted to learn that my book was being "edited" by non-native English speakers. Of course, I terminated the contract immediately, and I got back every cent of the money I'd paid. The company knew not to start a fight with me over that, so they didn't even try. Sad thing is, I don't think they're lone culprits in this regard. It seems to be like other things that get taken "off shore" for the lowest prices. Very disappointing. Means that company has no respect, whatsoever, for product quality, or for their customers. I will tell you here that this was done by one of the companies that is owned by one of the country's traditional publishing houses. That shows you that you have to ask as many questions as possible before hiring any company to work for you. I had no idea I needed to ask that question, but I found out the hard way.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 21 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      It's interesting that self publishing appears to be gaining in respectability among agents and publishers. Hopefully that will encourage a rise in the quality of self published works. I was especially struck by your caution to be sure that editing is done by native English speakers. The idea that any company would use non-native speakers for such functions boggles the mind.