Should You Self-Publish? These Questions Will Help You Decide

publishing Nov 23, 2021

So, you have a finished manuscript, and now you’re ready to share it with as many readers as possible.

In order to do that, you must choose one of two paths: either self-publish your book yourself, or go the traditional route and try to find a publisher.

Deciding on which route to take means that you've got to figure out a couple of things about yourself first, about your book, and about your ability to effectively market (and enjoy the process) both yourself as an author and your book.

Now, let’s discuss the essential questions to ask yourself if you're trying to decide if self-publishing your book is the best available option for you.

1. How soon do you want to release your book?

Usually, a traditionally published book takes at least one year to be published.

Timelines do vary, as smaller publishing houses can move faster, but it’s a safe bet that once a publisher has accepted your manuscript, it’ll be another year before it’s on sale.

In stark contrast, you could self-publish your book tomorrow.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this, but quick-turnaround self-publishing is possible.

If your primary goal for your book is to release it as soon as possible, self-publishing is your choice.

But speed-to-market shouldn’t necessarily be your only deciding factor. Take these other questions into consideration before you make a firm decision.

2. Can you afford to invest money in your book?

Say what you will about traditional publishing, but one great thing about it is that it is not very cost-prohibitive. You might incur some postage sending your manuscript around or if you choose to pay an editor before pursuing publication, but agents don’t charge you until they get a commission for selling your book, and publishers pay you.

Self-publishing similarly doesn’t have to be hugely cost-prohibitive, but there are a lot of tasks involved in self-publishing, such as generating a cover, editing, copyediting, formatting, self-promotion, that you’re either going to have to spend the time to do yourself or pay someone to do for you.

Depending on how much time you have to spend and your level of expertise, you may end up spending a thousand dollars or two to effectively self-publish. Can you afford that?

3. How many people do you want to reach?

Almost every writer wants the world to read their book. Or, at best, they want their target audience to find their book, read and review their book and become ardently devoted fans for the rest of the author’s life.

For authors without a sizable platform attempting to reach readers, self-publishing can be a black hole.

And because Amazon sells the majority of ebooks among all retailers, those millions of titles are your competition. Yes, you have the opportunity to reach Amazon’s millions of daily customers, but you also have to figure out how to get those customers to find your one-in-a-million book.

Unless you’re knowledgeable about the many publishing outlets available to self-publishers, you will likely rely on Amazon’s ecosystem for your sales. But that carries one looming caveat: little to no bookstore distribution.

The relationships that traditional publishers have with distributors and bookstores may be their greatest benefit to authors.

So, if you want to figure out if self-publishing is the way to go, you need to ask yourself if you're willing to work on building a platform:

  1. By blogging consistently.
  2. By building a social media presence.
  3. By answering questions on Quora.
  4. By engaging other creatives and potential readers on forums and content aggregators.

This will certainly demand a good portion of your time (and energy) and you must decide if the trade-off is worth it, since you won't be spending as much time writing as you might think.

On the other hand, like I said, going down the traditional route will also require that you work on building a platform (unless we're talking about a seven-figure contract with one of the big publishing companies).

That being said, it's crucial that you figure out exactly how willing you are to spend precious time building a platform.

3. Is your book a niche/passion project or does it have broad, national appeal?

In order to attract a traditional publisher, especially one of the major ones, you’re going to need to have a book that fits squarely into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal.

Be honest with yourself. Is your book something that has broad, national appeal or is a niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity?

If it’s hyper-specialized you might want to either try for a similarly specialized publisher or just go ahead and self-publish. And if it’s a passion project without commercial potential you’re probably best-served going straight to self-publishing.

4. How much control do you want over the publishing process?

If you want complete control of your book, you will self-publish. But it’s important to think through exactly what you’re taking on — or giving up — when talking about controlling your book.

Controlling your book means being fully responsible for every aspect of the book. This extends far beyond just writing the book.

You will have to spend time or money to ensure that your cover design, interior design, editing, rights, distribution, pricing, and marketing are all accomplished to a level that can compete with traditionally published books.

You will either have to apprentice yourself to the many aspects of self-publishing or pay someone — or someones — to help you.

Still, you retain creative control. The freelancers you may hire work for you. You get to tell them what to do because you’re signing their paychecks.

In contrast, when working with a traditional publisher, you have to give up a lot of power and control. The publisher gets to decide the cover, the title, the design, the format, the price, etc. You have to go through rounds of revisions and will likely have to change things you don’t want to change.

To some authors, that’s terrifying. They wouldn’t be able to abide by changes that went against their creative sensibilities. It’s their book, after all.

But, for other authors, giving up that control is freeing. They don’t have to spend the time, money, or brainpower on the seeming incidentals of getting a book published. They can focus on writing the best damn book they can.

Whether you pursue self-publishing or traditional publishing, you’ll have to give up something: time, money or control. Which of those are most important to you?

5. How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?

The stigma surrounding self-publishing has largely dissipated, but it’s not gone entirely.

And there’s still something gratifying about doing something as hugely difficult as making it through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and being paid for your efforts. The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… still matter to many people.

Do you want the validation that comes with traditional publishing? Or are you cool going straight to readers?

6. How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?

While you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores and libraries as a self-published author, the surest route to bookstores and libraries is through traditional publishers, who have wide distribution.

Do you care about being in bookstores? Are you writing in a genre, like books for children, where libraries are super-important? If so, self-publishing might not be the best option for you.

7. How much do you want to earn?

Unfortunately, we can’t all be John Scalzi, who accepted a 10-year, 13-book deal for $13.4 million from Tor Books after a rather well-known and lucrative move from self-publishing to traditional publishing.

Today, earning a living from book sales is hard if not impossible.

With royalties ranging from 30 to 70 percent, you stand to make more per book by self-publishing.

But, since the greatest negative aspect of self-publishing is distribution, you won’t have as many places to sell your book.

In contrast, traditional publishing offers increasingly lower advances (unless you’re famous or have written a book that leads to a bidding war). Royalties are lower than in self-publishing as well  — that is, if you even earn out your advance.

The frustrating, confusing aspect is that traditional publishing offers better distribution. Simply put, your book is available in more places.

Lastly, I'd like you to consider what David Gaughran told me in an interview way back in 2012,

Right now, I can’t see a good reason to take a publishing deal outside of life-changing money and/or serious marketing support – and most deals won’t involve either of those things [..] The smart approach, in my opinion, is to self-publish.

8. How capable are you at marketing and self-promotion?

There’s no guarantee that a publisher is going to adequately promote your book, but they’ll at least give you a bit of a boost at bare minimum.

If you self-publish, you’re entirely on your own. You don’t necessarily have to be a social media maven or a celebrity in order to give your book the boost necessary to generate crucial word of mouth, but you’re going to have to do something.

9. How patient are you?

Choosing traditional or self-publishing isn’t necessarily an either/or decision. You can absolutely decide to pursue traditional publishing first and fall back on self-publishing if you so desire.

But even in the best-case scenario, traditional publishing can take forever. It can take a year or more to query agents, and then a year or more to find an editor when you’re on submission to publishers, and then even if you get a book deal it can be a year or two after that before your book comes out. It can very easily add up to two or three years or more after you finish your manuscript.

On the other hand, you will be able to quickly self-publish your book, only to have to pay the patience game (which coincidentally, just as passion, comes from the Latin word that means "to suffer") as you try to build an author platform and effectively market your book.

10. What is your primary goal?

This is the tiebreaker question.

What if you’ve read this far and each of your answers has canceled out the previous answer? What if, by this point, you’re more confused than when you began?

Consider your primary goals:

  • If you want to get your book to market as fast as possible, self-publish your book.
  • If you desire to have the greatest possibility of reaching the most readers, seek traditional publishing.
  • If you demand creative control over every aspect of your book, self-publish.
  • If you are a skilled marketer/copywriter/blogger/designer, then you should self-publish.

In the end, no matter which route you take, pursue that path with as much passion and care as you placed into the writing of your book. No one will champion your book unless you’re its first and greatest champion.

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