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5 Reasons You May Want to Reconsider Self-Publishing Your Book

Self-Publishing Gives You Control; But it Comes at a Cost

If you’re an author, fiction or nonfiction, you’re probably also a frustrated writer weighing the pros and cons of whether it’s better to self-publish your book or go the traditional route, meaning trying to find an agent who’ll then submit your work to editors at traditional publishing houses. A lot of writers these days go the self-publishing route for several reasons, many of them valid. But you might want to reconsider self-publishing your book.

From Publisher’s Weekly: “[A]ccording to data from Bowker [the official ISBN agency for the United States], [t]he number of new self-published titles that have both ISBNs and BISAC codes was 2,298,004 in 2021, a decline from the two previous years, but still well above the 1,551,391 titles registered with Bowker in 2018. In 2021, there were 2,300,336 new self-published titles with only ISBNs, a 15% decline from 2020.”

You read that right: two million, three hundred plus self-published titles, and that doesn’t include traditionally published books (meaning books “when a publisher offers the author a contract and, in turn, prints, publishes, and sells your book through booksellers and other retailers. [Read] The publisher . . . buys the right to publish your book and pays you royalties from the sales.” – Writers Digest.

"90% of self-published books sell less than 100 copies"

If you’ve been paying attention at all to the book world, you know that there have been a few self-published authors who’ve gone on to sell hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of books on their own, been noticed by traditional publishers, and then been picked up by those publishers. The industry’s most recent phenom is Collen Hoover, a romance and young adult fiction writer who started out with a self-published novel called Slammed, which she published in January of 2012. After her novel garnered attention and sales, she continued self-publishing, eventually winning awards and selling, to date, over 20 million books.

Man reading in front of computer
When You Self-Publish Your Work, YOU do Everything

Other success stories are E.L. James (50 Shades of Grey), Stephanie Meyer (Twilight), Hugh Howey (Wool and the Silo Trilogy), Amanda Hocking (My Blood Approves), Christopher Paolini (Eragon), and others. But these are the exceptions. According to Writing Forums, “The average self-published book sells 250 copies. The average self-published author makes $1,000 per year from their books. 33% of self-published authors make less than $500 per year. 90% of self-published books sell less than 100 copies.” Not very good stats, and there are a few reasons for that: experience, connections, resources (financial and otherwise, including teams of publishing professionals), marketing, reputation, publication histories, as well as a few other material factors that affect book sales.

That said, and however daunting those stats, here are 5 reasons to consider rethinking going down the route of self-publishing your books:

  1. Creative Control. At traditional publishing houses (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury Publishing, et. al.,), you, the author, work with a team of professionals who take care of most of the process. BUT they also help shape your manuscript so that it sells. That means you may have to make edits to your baby that you’re not really keen on but that, according to the pros, will help your book sales. It also means someone other than you is driving the ship (which may not be a bad thing). You may not have much input (if at all) on the cover art. Same with where your book gets sold, the platforms it’s published on, and so on. Unless you’ve been doing this for some time, the help you receive is probably a benefit to you. If control of these things is important to you, you may be headed down a road that’ll cause you a little bit of agita. But the odds of sales favor traditional publishers, so going that route may be something to think about.

  2. Editing. If you’ve ever read a self-published book, you’ve likely caught a few typos. And that’s just the least of it. I’ve read plenty of self-published books that I gave up on because it was obvious the author either didn’t know what they were doing or were less than professional in ensuring their final product met certain standards. One or two typos are okay. Traditional publishers make those mistakes too. But they are less common than in self-published books. Often, self-published authors don’t have the funds to hire proofreaders, much less DEs (Developmental Editors), or copy editors, or line editors. Their works suffer because of this. Reddit and other social media platforms are full of writers complaining that their books don’t sell yet seem blind to the fact that there may be valid reasons for the lack of praise they were looking for. They blame their lack of marketing knowledge (which is valid). They focus on one-star reviews that drive them crazy, sometimes attacking the reviewer. They blame algorithms. Sure, some of these things affect the visibility of their works. But if your novel is subpar because you took shortcuts when it came to editing your work, it almost guaranteed your novel won’t sell well. Ask yourself this one question: Is my novel ready for publication? If it isn't, don't click "submit."

  3. Marketing. This is a big one. Every single day I see self-published authors asking how other writers market their books. These authors have written their novels (or nonfiction books), used self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), Barnes & Noble Press, Rakuten Kobo, Apple Books, IngramSpark and others, hired artists or produced their own cover art (which also aren’t up to snuff), put their works up for sale on Amazon and other bookstores, blast social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (X) and Instagram, asking writing-oriented groups to purchase their work, and gotten less-than-expected results, some selling zero books, others just a few, and mostly only to their friends and family. Marketing requires a lot of tactics that go into a strategy, but marketing is also a very specifically focused (think targeted) art form. Wikipedia: “Marketing is the process of exploring, creating, and delivering value to meet the needs of a target market in terms of goods and services; potentially including selection of a target audience; selection of certain attributes or themes to emphasize in advertising; operation of advertising campaigns . . . [etc.].” A great deal of luck is involved as well, including word of mouth, participating on platforms like Goodreads and other book-oriented websites where books sometimes take off, perhaps hiring a public relations expert, and so on (I know, I have an MBA in Market Strategy and worked at top North American advertising agencies for 15 years). It’s a tough gig, marketing your book, especially if you’re doing everything else—the writing, the editing, the artwork, the publishing, and countless other time-consuming tasks you need to do to just get that masterpiece in your reader’s hands. When your book is published through traditional publishers, they handle a good deal of the marketing, which is also more effective than what you, an outsider, will likely achieve. (As a note, publishers aren’t throwing at much money marketing books as they used to, and authors are working more on marketing their own works than they were historically expected to do, but having a traditional publisher is definitely a plus in this area).

  4. Your Rights. When you self-publish a book, you keep the rights to publish your book however you see fit, on whatever platforms you want—be it online or in hardback, paperback, etc. When traditional publishers acquire your book, it means they have the rights to publish it, which can include first or “primary” publishing rights, subsidiary rights (other formats, including if they make a movie out of your book), and foreign rights (selling your book in other countries and in other languages). It’s still possible to self-publish and sell rights to your book afterwards, but again, most self-published authors don’t get much attention because they don’t sell enough books to warrant it, nor is it as easy for reviewers, etc. to find the books.

  5. Stigma. This is a big one, at least in the publishing industry, and perhaps with hardcore readers and literature lovers who are aware of the differences between traditionally published novels and books versus self-published ones. Not always, of course, but when I see that a book is self-published, for right or wrong, I naturally think it’s because the author was unable to obtain a literary agent, and thus unable to get their book to a traditional publisher via a publisher’s acquisitions editor. As I mentioned, it’s rare that I’ll read an entire self-published book. As an editor and writer myself, I catch too many issues, which makes the enjoyment of the book sort of disappear for me. Besides typos and misspellings, there’s frequently a lack of understanding of the craft of writing. Writing is not putting down a bunch of words in a first draft and then publishing it. That’s not a book. It’s a start, and an honorable one. But a book, or at least a novel, requires a story, a plot, well-developed characters, great dialogue that moves the plot forward, hopefully aphorisms, well-defined settings, an appropriate structure, beautiful language and a musicality to the prose, and much more. It requires feedback from trusted readers (call them beta readers or whatever you want to call them). It requires countless drafts, though some writers “get it right” after just a few drafts (although those writers are a rarity), and it requires a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Writing a good book is tough, tough work. Publishing is no different.

An embarrassed woman
If You Ever Want to Publish Traditionally, Self-Publishing Might Come Back to Haunt You

And there are other hurdles in front of you once the writing ends. Being a self-published author means that literary agents and acquisitions agents at publishing houses are less likely to want to work with your book, or with you, the author. It’s a harder sell to their teams and publisher, because for them, they’re all about sales (and, obviously, a great book). Again, there are the Colleen Hoovers and Christopher Paolinis, but the chances of you being one of them are slim and they know it. The stigma of being a self-published author, especially one that hasn’t put in the 10,000 hours to learn the craft, can be daunting, and it can be fatal (at least if you want to transition to getting your books traditionally published). But there’s a silver lining to all this. If your goal is to write, publish, and then continue writing without worrying about reviews, sales, interest from traditional publishing houses, and so on, self-publishing may be for you. It’s your call. The only advice I’ll give is to know what you don’t know. Once you know that, you’ll be able to do your due diligence to give yourself the best chance of success. Good luck.

If you’ve self-published your book and would like to share your experience, please make sure to comment to let our readers know how things went. Thanks!

Cully Perlman is author of The Losses, as well as a Developmental Editor. Contact him at to discuss your novel.

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Oct 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great information. Thank you!

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