The Decision To Self-Publish


Dear Mr. Joyce,

Surely, you’re not serious. Perhaps you’ve sent the wrong manuscript by mistake? Or perhaps it’s a practical joke that we are unable to fathom? We let it sit in our slush pile for the requisite year before opening it, and it’s fortunate we did. Our senior editor worked all night to try to try to understand the first five pages, and it was only by the merest good fortune we interrupted his self-defenestration in the morning. Now our remaining editors keep it in a double-locked box to avoid the temptation to read it. If you do not choose to burn it out of consideration for the rest of humanity, we beg you to save what reputation you have, and not submit this travesty to another publisher who is not as kindly disposed to you as we.

(Imagined response of James Joyce’s publisher on rejecting the manuscript of Ulysses.)

Whatever the reason, Joyce chose to publish Ulysses himself, and it went on to become the controversial classic it is today.

Not all self-publishing stories end in triumph, but neither do most traditional publication tales. Either way, the road is beset with technical, artistic, and legal pitfalls, and above all, by competition with thousands of other hopeful writers like ourselves.

Not so long ago, the decision to self-publish was reputed to place us forever outside the traditional agent-publisher structure. It was ‘vanity publishing’ and branded us as incompetents who couldn’t find a real publisher, as well as dupes, easily relieved of our money in return for an illusion of fame and fortune as a ‘published author’.

Now, perhaps twenty years later, the barrier to traditional publication has grown higher, while the cost of self-publishing has dropped dramatically. It’s even possible to put a book up for sale for zero up-front cost. Moreover, the decision between traditional and self-publishing is no longer irrevocable. It’s still rare for a self-published book to be picked up by a conventional publisher, but it does happen.

Even so, with revisions and edits complete, the most important choice in reaching our eager public is whether to submit our work to the bewildering world of agents, editors and publishers, or to take the job in our own hands and exploit the newest technologies to get our work out there. The decision is nowhere near as simple as it once was.

Traditional Publishing

This is the way that fiction books have been handled for nearly two centuries. A manuscript from an unknown author will generally molder in the legendary ‘slush pile’ for weeks to more than a year. Editors, beginning with the most junior, examine it and either reject it or move it to the next level of editor. The manuscripts that bubble to the top go to a commissioning meeting, where the assembled editors and company officers decide whether it’s worth gambling company funds on editorial work, publication, distribution, and promotion. The company budget is consulted, and in the best of worlds, a contract is sent off to the lucky author—who may then wait up to two years for his/her brainchild to appear on store shelves.

After signing, the larger publishers usually send a check to the author, representing an advance against royalties. The book must sell well enough to cover the advance before any more money is paid to the author. The ugly truth is that most books by first-time authors do not ‘earn out their advances’.

Agented Traditional Publishing

Most authors, new and established, prefer this approach to publication, in which the disagreeable task of matching their work with a publisher is taken over by a specialist. The job of an agent is to find promising nuggets and present them to the publishers that s/he thinks are most likely to buy. For the author, this avoids confronting the New York megacorporate publishing world naked and ignorant. It also skirts around the slush pile.

But first, we still must sell our work, but this time to an agent. Generally, an agent doesn’t want the entire MS at first. They prefer to see a ‘query’, which is usually a one-page letter or email outlining the concept of the novel. There may be a few words about the life or experience of the author, but these should be kept short. Nor should a query be coy about the plot, but should lay out everything, including the resolution. Packing the essential juices of a novel into 200 or 300 words is an art form in its own right, so expect to spend some considerable time on it.

If impressed, an agent may ask for a ‘partial’, usually the first 50 pages or the first few chapters, and finally a ‘full’ (the whole MS), if s/he’s interested. This can be a good sign.

At the end of this process, we might be offered an agenting agreement. Generally, the agent receives 15% of all money that a publisher would normally pay to the author. Most writers think most agents are well worth the cost. But no one gets paid until the novel is sold to a publisher. The advance check is sent to the agent, who deducts his 15% and passes the rest to the author.


Authors are often impatient and discouraged by the publisher/agent processes, which are long and frustrating for an unknown writer. Traditional publishing is like hospitals of sixty years ago, where our loved ones disappeared through a door, and either reappeared in good health days later, or were shipped out the back door to a funeral home. The sheer opacity of traditional publishing frustrates many of us. How much better to take charge of the publication process ourselves!

But this is not the straightforward decision that it appears to be. Unlike traditional publishing, the self-publishing route is going to cost some money, and it is going to take time away from our first love, writing. The road to self-publication is littered with booby traps and scam artists, but also with honest people who really want to help us, albeit for a price.

On the other hand, with modern self-publication technology, we can balance cost and effort, choosing to do almost all the publishing tasks ourselves, or else contracting them, cafeteria-style, to the numerous entrepreneurs that have popped up to serve the changing face of publishing.

I’ve compiled a few questions we should ask ourselves before deciding whether to self-publish or follow the traditional route—or both.

Am I patient enough to wait for the agent/publisher process to run its course?

Once, the standard answer to this was, ‘fire and forget’. Send the completed MS out, then forget it and buckle down to the next project. Perhaps put a tickler in the calendar to follow up in a month (for an agent or small publisher), or three months (for a large publisher).

If we decided we didn’t have the patience to wait, we could make the one-time, possibly irrevocable decision to publish it ourselves. For example, if we have a manuscript edited and formatted properly, we can have a 200-page book up for sale on in under an hour, at no charge, and a paper copy of the book in our hands within a week for about twelve dollars, including shipping.

By 2011, the market has changed in two ways: First, there are more small publishers, and they are more responsive. Some entrepreneurs in the e-publishing business will make at least a preliminary decision on a manuscript in a month, sometimes in a week. Almost anyone not suffering from a terminal disease can spare six months to try out a handful of these dynamic new publishers before going the self-pub route.

Secondly, some enlightened publishers regard self-publication as a way to identify authors who will aggressively promote their own work. Similarly, success of a self-pubbed novel can be seen as a market test for the much larger distribution available to a publisher.

How much time and effort are we prepared to put into self-publishing?

Once our manuscript is in the hands of an agent or a publisher, we’re free to move about on your own business. If we decide to self-publish, there’s lots of work ahead, and numerous decisions to be made, usually with limited information.

Here comes the first trap: There are so-called ‘full-service’ self-publishing companies out there who will carry out the entire process for a hefty fee, but this doesn’t relieve us of effort or the need to maintain continual vigilance. A good friend who published with a well-known full-service firm was continually dunned by telephone to buy more and more services for his book, from cover design to distribution to publicity. Some full-service companies even claim ownership of the files that you paid for, and it will cost an additional hefty fee to get back the rights to your own book.

The fact that some companies skirt the fringe of legality and freely dance across ethical lines is no reason to abandon plans to self-publish. The cardinal rule of self-publication is this:

The more we learn about the publishing industry and the process of self-publication, the more satisfied we will be with the result, and the less it will cost.

That said, I want to recommend the manual The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier (5th Edition). No one should embark on a self-publishing adventure without reading this book and having it close at hand. Of particular importance is the Self-Publishing Timetable (page 480 in the 5th Ed.) that details the proper order and timing for carrying out the various steps in the self-pubbing process, for example, when to file for a Library of Congress Number (if we want one) and when to send out review copies (if we intend to).

There is more navel-gazing to be done before making the final decision to self-publish, and I’ll continue to deal with them next month.

William Gaius
March 2011

“Kill Electrons, Not Trees” © 2011 William Gaius. All rights reserved.

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