To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish?

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

That is the question for more and more writers.

by Jennie Wood
Love Like A Dog

Related Links

The Norns Quest
Steve Almond

On October 29, 2012, two of the big six publishing houses, Random House and Penguin, announced that they would merge. The merger would create the largest book publisher in the world and publishing insiders expect more consolidation of the remaining big four to follow.

The merger, which combines Random House best sellers like Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey with Penguin's massive backlist of classic works, would give the newly named Penguin Random House more leverage to take on increasing challenges such as eBooks and online retailers like Google, iBooks, and Amazon. However, the merger meant one less major publisher where writers, both new and seasoned, could publish their work. The merger was another reason for writers to consider self-publishing despite the challenges and stigma that comes with it.

Trying the Traditional Route First

When it came time to publish her novel, Love Like a Dog, author Anne Calcagno and her agent tried the traditional route first. Calcagno's previous relationships with publishers had been successful. "I loved my experiences with TriQuarterly / Northwestern University Press in the publication of Pray for Yourself. The first year of publication was euphoric. That said, then and now, when a publishing house comes out with a book, there's a bizarrely small window of opportunity to make a splash or die. My experience as an editor of Travelers' Tales Italy was sanguine and continuous, because the subject was Italy and Italy doesn't die," Calcagno said.

However, pursuing the traditional publishing route for Love Like a Dog was a roller coaster. Calcagno's agent had a near-deal with Random House until they fired fifty percent of their staff, including the editor working with Love Like a Dog. Afterwards, Calcagno's agent suggested self-publishing. "He had exhausted the big houses that pay a decent advance and felt that a smaller press would take all my rights with little compensation and even less publicity. He wanted me to take a bold step with the book," Calcagno explained.

For his fantasy novel, The Norns' Quest, author Kyle Jones made an effort to have the book published traditionally. "Who wouldn't? You've poured your heart and soul into the greatest novel ever written (which every author thinks of their first book). The only thing involved in sending query letters is an author's time, and if they had enough time to write a novel, they should have enough time to research literary agents," Jones said. Of the 35-40 query letters that Jones sent out, he got three requests for novel excerpts. "As I suspected, however, all three ultimately rejected it because The Norns' Quest was twice the length they thought a young adult novel should be," Jones said.

The Pros of Self-Publishing

Jones decided to self-publish the novel electronically. The decision gave him an artistic freedom he never would have found with a publishing house. "The best part of self-publishing is this: you write the story you want to write. My kids can handle a six hundred page post-apocalyptic fantasy story. It didn't matter if the market wanted me to try to cut it into two books, which was requested by a potential agent. That's not the story I wanted to tell. By self-publishing, I was able to publish the vision I wanted to put out there. That's a great freedom to have," Jones said.

Calcagno made more money from self-publishing Love Like a Dog than from any of her previous traditional publishing contracts. By self-publishing, she also got to enter the book in several competitions that are only open to independent and self-published books. Love Like a Dog took first place in the First Novel category from the New Generation Indie Awards. It also received an Honorable Mention in the General Fiction category of the San Francisco Book Festival as well as the Bronze medal in the Great Lakes Regional Fiction category from the 15th Annual Independent Book Publisher Awards.

The Cons of Self-Publishing

While self-publishing opens some doors not available to established publishers, it does create several obstacles for an author. There is a lot of competition out there, especially from the major publishing houses that have money and a pre-established marketing machine. If an author hasn't been previously published in a traditional way, he or she also faces a stigma that comes with self-publishing. Even with her previous history as a traditionally published author, Calcagno had to deal with "people who snipe: 'oh, you're seeelf-published!' Implicating chopped liver or dog poo."

Jones warned that the self-published author needs to be realistic about how much work is involved. "The work doesn't end when you upload it to Amazon or make it available on Lulu. You need to think of every creative thing you can to be out there reminding the world that you have a book for sale," he said. Calcagno added, "You become (or hire and pay) the designer, the copy-editor, the editor, the publicist, the marketing department, the sales team."

Self-Publishing Success

There have been self-published works that became best sellers, but the success came after the hard work Calcagno and Jones described. One self-publishing success story was Lisa Genova's novel, Still Alice, about a woman's struggle with Alzheimer's. Genova created a website, blogged about the disease, and worked with the Alzheimer's Association. Sales and buzz got the attention of Simon & Schuster. The publisher bought the book for over half a million in June 2008. The novel was a success because Genova reached out in many ways to a specific audience.

Author Steve Almond has succeeded both in traditional and self-publishing. He has also taught workshops and written about the process of self-publishing. When asked if he would advise writers for or against self-publishing, he said, "Do a self-inventory. Ask yourself what sort of publishing experience you want to have. If you're determined to publish a book with a big New York publisher, then take your patience pills and go that route. The truth is, at this point—provided you have the necessary talent and patience—you get to choose the sort of publishing experience you want to have. And only the writer can know what that is."

Finding the Right Path

Whether the choice is traditional or self-publishing, there are many ways for writers to achieve their goal. There's getting a MFA, which provides writers with a degree so they can teach as well as continuous feedback on their writing and connections within the industry. Writers' Conferences such as Breadloaf and Sewanee also provide feedback and a chance for writers to meet editors and agents. Writing centers like Boston's Grub Street provide workshops, manuscript consultations and a community of support for authors at every level. Two years ago, Grub Street started its one of a kind Novel Incubator, a year-long program for writers with a novel already in progress. The goal of the course is to prepare the novel and the writer for publication. Small independent presses like Engine Books and Other Press are another option for writers.

Despite mergers of publishing houses and all the changes in the way we buy and read books, there are more ways than ever for writers to publish their work. "I suspect the very idea of 'self-publishing' is going to become more splintered, more nuanced, as corporations attempt to adjust to this new model of publishing," Almond said.

The trick is to know the best route to take and that comes down to the material. No matter what path the writer decides to take, the most important thing is the work. As Almond said, "What I do try to remind myself, in dire moments, is this: what matters is the time you put in at the keyboard, the attention you paid to the people you're writing about, the love you were able to summon and transmit. The rest is just business."

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