You may be thinking, “There’s got to be a catch,” and there is. While the advantages of self-publishing are many, there are disadvantages, too:
- Advance. There are only three kinds of authors: those with a big advance, those who wish they had a big advance, and those that are lying. A six- or seven-figure advance is a thing of beauty: it enables you to focus on writing, and it’s proof that the publisher is serious about your book. And if your advance is large enough, you can deal with the fact that your publisher can’t directly sell 500 electronic copies of your book.
- Editing. Self-publishing is a lonely path. In particular, you won’t have a relationship with an editor who, in the best case, is a mentor, advisor and psychiatrist. Don’t kid yourself: a good editor will make your book better. You can get all kinds of feedback from friends and relatives, but this isn’t as good as what you can get from an editor.
- Team. In addition to an editor, a traditional publisher throws many people at you. You may not have 100 percent of their attention for a long period of time, but you do get help. These folks include an editorial assistant, copyeditor, art director, publicist and sales force. You’ll need to do what they would have done—or hire independent contractors instead, but the functions don’t go away because you are self-publishing.
- PR clout. I’ll address how to gain PR clout on your own, but it’s unlikely that you’ll have as much as a traditional publisher. This is important if you want large publications, blogs, radio shows and television shows to review your book. If you make your book a success, then you can get these organizations later in the introduction process, but it’s nice to have them pushing your book from the start.
- Prestige. After the creation of desktop publishing tools in the mid 1980s, there was a flood of self-published books. In those days, “self-published” parsed to “could not find a real publisher,” and this was usually true. The lack of prestige and suspect nature of self-publishing are far less than those days, but they are still not zero.
- Distribution. The number of bookstores, while declining, isn’t zero, and as long as people are flying via airports, there will be bookstores selling books printed on paper. How do you think books in bookstores got there? The answer isn’t Twitter, Facebook or Google+. Publishers have sales forces, and these folks make sales calls. You won’t have a sales force working for you, so the probability of seeing your book in SFO is low.
- Foreign rights. Part of the team that you won’t have as a self-publisher is people who sell foreign rights to publishers around the world. Traditional publishers have established relations around the world, so they can help you get your book translated for other markets within a year of first publication. It’s much more difficult for an author to do this by herself.
Plan A for many authors is to write a pitch, get an agent, sign a publishing deal, receive an advance and write a bestseller. Plan B, when Plan A doesn’t happen, is to gut it out and self-publish. You may achieve success with Plan B and write happily ever after, but there is also Plan C.
In this scenario, you implement Plan B and use your sales results to prove to a traditional publisher that people like your book. Then you sell the rights to this book to the publisher (fully cognizant of the frustration you’ll encounter but salved by an advance). In software terminology, you can think of your self-publishing start as a paid beta test.
Maria Murnane is an example of Plan C. She was a PR person in Silicon Valley who moved to Argentina. Part of her income was from playing professional soccer (I’m not making this up). She considered offering a service to help restaurants properly translate their signs and menus. While not practicing or playing soccer, she wrote a novel called Perfect on Paper that fictionalized her trials and tribulations as a single professional in Silicon Valley.
She found an agent who “loved” the book after a four-week search and then spent six months revising the book. Then her agent submitted it to seven big traditional publishers all of whom rejected her. Eventually even her agent fired her—via this email:
“I do feel that we're going in circles about this at a point. We are coming upon a year, which should be the term of our agreement. There are still some publishers (Red Dress among them) that you are free to approach with the book as it is, and because we haven't exhausted the possibilities, you may yet find your match with another agent. I think at this point it would be best to terminate the agreement and allow you to explore your options. I just don't think there's more I can do for you with this novel.”
Undaunted, Maria spent another five months revising the book. Then she took it to a writer’s conference where more people turned it down. Finally Maria’s father convinced her to self-publish the book. Being the PR person she is, she undertook her own marketing program and earned more than 100 five-star reviews on Amazon and sold more than 1,000 copies.
Around that time Amazon launched Amazon Publishing, and it chose Maria’s book as the second title to publish. The book has sold in the “high five figures” and has enabled Maria to live in New York as a writer. She has published two additional books: It’s a Waverly Life and Honey on Your Mind.
Let’s get real: the goal is not to prove that self-publishing works. The goal is to succeed as an author. Maria’s example provides three valuable lessons: first, rejection doesn’t mean your book isn’t good. Second, don’t give up because of rejection but self-publish instead. Third, you may have more than one book in you, so use each book to build your customer base and get closer to success.
Incidentally, this is the genius of the AmazonEncore imprint of Amazon Publishing, the “traditional publishing” arm of Amazon. It acquires books that are already successful from their self-published authors and adds Amazon’s clout to take them to the next level.
In the past, people who could not get published by a “real” or traditional publisher resorted to self-publishing. Therefore, there was a stigma attached to books that were not from well-known publishers. However, as progress tends to do, one generation’s stigma is another generation’s opportunity.
The startup culture in Silicon Valley is a pertinent analog. In other places, people who start companies were perhaps unable to find “real” jobs at large, established companies. But in Silicon Valley the opposite perspective is true: we ask (usually to ourselves), “Does this person have no creativity or initiative? How can he stay in the large bureaucracy for so long?”
If you feel stigmatized because you can’t find a traditional publisher, you need to get over this feeling. Perhaps these publishers have done you a favor by forcing you to think different and think outside the hardbound covers. The story of John Audubon can help silence detractors of self-publishing and allay your doubts.
Audubon created his epic work, The Birds of America, in the late 1820s. At the time, there were already New York publishing houses such as the Harper brothers, G. P. Putnam, Charles Scribner, and John Wiley. However, Audubon sold his book using a subscription model, five plates at a time: one large bird, one medium bird and three small birds). Each subscription consisted of 435 plates, and approximately 120 complete sets exist today.
This means that Audubon self-published The Birds of America, so you and your book are in good company. This is a stigma you can live with. Until the mid-19th century, most authors published their books at their own expense—Walt Whitman, for example, self-published Leaves of Grass.
And, you’ll love this: the New York publishers based much of their business on pirating the works of Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë and Thomas Babington Macaulay. George Palmer Putnam instituted the royalty system as we know it today in 1846, so that’s approximately when pitches, agents and rejections began. Before then publishing was mostly self-publishing and not the system that’s in place today.
Guy Kawasaki is the author of 11 books, including What the Plus!, Enchantment, Reality Check, The Art of the Start, Rules for Revolutionaries, How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, Selling the Dream and The Macintosh Way. He is also the cofounder of Alltop.com and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA, as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.This is part of a multiweek series from Guy, featuring exclusive excerpts from his new book, APE: Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur, which he will self-publish this fall, barring a massive advance from a traditional publisher.