When I decided to write my first book, Shitfaced—a memoir about mental illness and addiction—a few years ago, I had to decide if I was going to try to pursue traditional publishing or self-publish. At the time, I hesitated to self-publish because traditional publishing is widely considered more prestigious. I also thought that the barriers to entry for traditional publishing—first getting an agent, and then having your agent succeed in selling your book to a publisher—would somehow verify that my book was actually well written and worth selling.
But now that I have self published, I am able to see how it can be a respectable, and financially worthwhile, means of publishing, if a writer treats their project seriously. I have made thousands of dollars from Shitfaced book sales, and even more off speaking about the book. Almost two years after self-publishing my book, it still continues to sell, especially when I actively put effort into promoting it. It’s not a living in itself, but it supplements my freelance writing.
How traditional publishing fails writers
As I began to do my research years ago, I realized there were a lot of aspects of traditional publishing that could make the publishing process drawn out, if not impossible.
“Traditional publishers are very risk averse these days, so there is an incredibly high barrier to entry for unknown authors,” said Patrick Aylward, a publishing specialist at BookBaby, a self publishing company . “A first-time author can spend years acquiring an agent and sending query letters with no result. With self publishing, they can get their book out into the world in just a few months so they can begin building the reader base they'll need to attract a traditional publisher for their second, third, or tenth book.”
In addition, the promotion process can wind up looking very similar, whether you self-publish or go through a traditional publishing house. “I’ve had clients with five or six figure book deals, and if their book doesn’t immediately sell really well, then after a few weeks the PR teams at publishers tend to need to move their focus and energy to the next author and book on their docket because they’re just so busy,” book writing coach Lisa Tener told me.
What’s more, if you go the traditional route, publishers take huge cuts of book sales, and agents take their percentage, often leaving authors with a small percentage of sales, regardless of how much promotional work they are doing on their own.
Rejection reshaped my thinking
When I was working on Shitfaced, I spent about four months submitting to, and being rejected by, agents. Though some gave me thoughtful feedback and reminded me about the arbitrary nature of the industry, I felt discouraged.
When I assessed my situation, I realized that through blogging, freelance journalism, and my overall presence on social media, I’d built up a small but supportive following. I knew many of these readers would buy my book, regardless of whether I self-published it or it was bought by Simon & Schuster.
So, I decided that I would try self-publishing. I am far from being alone in making the decision to self-publish, with the number of self-published titles growing 28 percent to just over a million titles in 2017, according to Publisher’s Weekly.
With platforms including Amazon’s Kindle Direct, Book Baby, IngramSpark and Lulu so readily available and accessible, self-publishing a book—whether print or an e-book—has never been easier. These platforms explain the process, and offer services and support, oftentimes for a fee. Online fundraising tools, from Kickstarter to Patreon, have made it easier than ever for entrepreneurial authors to raise money for their books too.
Figuring out the self-publishing logistics
After writing the book, I launched a Kickstarter campaign for it and raised a little over $6,000. I used that money to hire a book designer (to whom I paid a couple of hundred dollars, which was totally worth it) and an editor (to whom I paid a couple of thousand dollars, which wasn’t worth it, as I could have had other writers and editors I know do it for much less). I found the editor on Google, and the designer through making a status on Facebook.
If people contributed to the campaign, I sent them copies of my book once it came out. During the campaign, I promised a physical book for contributions of $35 or more, and an electronic copy for contributions of $25. I wound up giving all 125 people who contributed at least one physical copy.
Under that structure, I was making around $6 for every copy sold. I also pledged to give 10 percent of all profits to nonprofits that do work around mental health and/or LGBTQ issues. So far, I have given $500 to ACR Health in Syracuse, which is raising money to build an emergency LGBTQ youth shelter. When I reach $10,000 in profit, I will give them another $500.
Learning to be a master of self promotion
One of the main differences between self publishing and traditional publishing is the amount of work the author needs to do—in addition to writing —for the book to succeed. Writers who publish with a publishing house have access to their designers, and PR people, and editors, and marketing specialists who have figured out strategies and approaches that help books sell. “When you self-publish, you either have to hire people with your own money to do those things or fill those roles yourself,” Tener said.
I had to do figure out how to do everything on my own. To raise awareness of my book, I actively sought out speaking opportunities—including speaking to college classes and podcast appearance. Those experiences helped other people hear about my project, which led to me being offered paid speaking gigs. Every time I have spoken, I have made at least a couple of hundred dollars, and up to $1,000.
I have also gotten my book into several Barnes & Noble stores, independent booksellers, and university bookstores by reaching out directly to store managers and explaining my book. I have also found that they respond to demand; if multiple people go into a bookstore looking for your book, they are much more likely to want to display it, or keep multiple copies in stock.
Redefining success on my own terms
I’m not alone in questioning whether to self-publish or not. “What it most comes down to is a writer’s goals,” Tener told me. “If you want to have your book go around, and sell thousands and thousands of copies, then you should probably go with traditional publishing. But if you want to publish right away, maintain all creative control, or want to use your book as a way to bolster your business or speaking career, then self-publishing could work well for you.”
Rick Paulas, a fellow FREE contributor who self-published Eastern Span, a “neo-noir” novel set in Oakland, California, used Patreon to raise funds as he released the book chapter by chapter. He then donated that money to homeless services in the Bay Area. He told me he sees his endeavor as philanthropic and hopes to expand his writing platform through the book "I care more about it being out there, than making money off it," he said. "It's sort of like music, where you put your songs out there and hope it gets people interested in your other work."
So how do you decide which route to take? For some people, selling a couple of hundred copies of your book is satisfying. If so, self-publish. For others, that might feel like a failure. In the end, it all depends on your version of success.
Follow Seamus Kirst on Twitter.