self-publishing: profitable or pointless?

If you’re one of those writer (or aspiring writer) types, chances are you read this gal‘s blog or maybe this guy‘s. We live in a day and age when people who dream of writing a book can get a leg up on the competition just by being informed–and those two blogs are a great place to start cramming your head with helpful information.

Um, Marla, what in the world are you even talking about? Ah, yes. I’m getting ahead of myself. To fill you in (and if you’re one of my sweet readers who has no interest in writing or publishing, come back tomorrow for some fun pictures!), a couple publishers (Thomas Nelson and Harlequin) have recently announced new self-publishing divisions. Basically, if you have a story to tell and want to write a book but can’t find a way to get it into an agent’s (or publisher’s) hands, here’s your chance! (if you have a few thousand dollars lying around not earmarked for say, your house payment)

Have a little parentheses fetish, do we? Uh…

Based on everything already written about this, it would seem you’ve entered the conversation late. So why bother writing a post now? Ha! Can you read my mind? I’ve started this post several times in my head and each time concluded, “Why bother? It’s all been said already.” (Catch up on the conversations here and here.) But then I realized something. I don’t have to shed new light. I don’t need to solve any problems or offer conclusive answers. I don’t even have to take sides.

I just need to tell it like I see it. Bear witness to my own personal experience.

When (if ever) is self-publishing a good idea? In 1997, I spent 3 months on the island of Okinawa, Japan as a student teacher. That experience made a huge impact on me, and the writer/storyteller in me needed to get it on paper. Now, no one but my relatives and supportive friends (and the kids I taught in Japan) is going to care to read a book about an obscure college student’s teaching adventures. So, I self-published it with this company. It cost me a whopping $99 back in 2001. The best $99 I’ve ever spent. (their packages start at $599 now)

I love that those three months of my life are documented, bound and printed in this book. I never promoted it, have no idea how many copies it sold, but it was worth every penny and every minute I spent writing it. If you have a story to tell and want to preserve it for generations to come, self-publishing could be for you.

Well, good for you doing it 8 years ago for pocket change. Let’s say I spend $6000 to get my book self-published. How easy will it be to earn that money back and then some? Next to impossible. Well, that’s not true. If your book is fiction, then yes, it will be impossible. Unless you wrote The Shack. And non-fiction? You’ve got to figure out a way to get tons and tons of people to buy your book. It can be done, but marketing also costs money which just adds to your bill.

Do self-published books count as “real” books? In a word, no. When people ask me how many books I’ve written, I say four. That would be the three published by Harvest House and the one published by Howard Books. I don’t even count my self-published book in the total.

Are there exceptions to this “not a real book” thing? Heavens, yes. My amazing friend Tammy self-published two books that have probably sold more copies than all four of mine combined. She’s a brilliant writer and speaker, has met an incredible felt need, and she and her books are destined for greatness.

I have a great story to tell. What are my chances of getting a “real” publisher interested in my book? Um, not that great. And your chances (and mine) are getting slimmer every day, it would seem.But that doesn’t mean…

Hey, hate to cut you off before you even get to the good stuff, but this post is already a little long. Any chance you could continue your brilliant thoughts tomorrow? Uh, sure. But I kind of promised my faithful readers some pictures…

They seem to be a patient group. Back tomorrow with part 2 of “Self-Publishing: Profitable or Pointless?” Maybe you could talk about agents and stuff. Yeah, what he (she?) said. And in the meantime, if you want to read more, check out these interesting posts from my friends Peter and Jody.

13 thoughts on “self-publishing: profitable or pointless?

  1. Pingback: so, you wanna get a book published? | Marla Taviano

  2. Jennifer Hudson Taylor

    I’m of the opinion that traditional publishing is the best route for fiction, due to the tough marketing and distribution self-published authors face on their own. It’s hard to get certain bookstores, especially mega-chains to carry self-published fiction books.

  3. Eva Ulian

    What strikes me most, Ron, about your comment is that you refer to agents as filters and sorting the good from the bad writing for publishers. I believe this is quite true, however what is also true is that “bad” writing can become extremely successful with the right pushing. For example:
    “Your grandfather gave you the key, but failed to give you the account number?”

    If I wrote anything near such a phrase, what would you say? You’d say that such simpleton repetition is insulting your intelligence, would you not? What about this:

    “Jacques Saunière is dead?” he demanded, his eyes filling with horror. “But… How?!”

    It’s so melo-dramatic it makes you want to laugh- but it’s not a joke- in fact it’s quite tragic that this is acclaimed as the crème de crème of English literature. And I am not, by any means, the first to make such annotations on the book. Oh yes, the book: all from the same page of The Da Vinci Code.

    What is also true about agents is that they bar some fantastic authors, authors that can really contribute to the literary heritage of a nation from access to publishers by passing them by, so basically the public is inundated with a lot of pulp that will sell because that has been decreed it will sell at the expense of worthwhile literature that can satisfy the heart of man more than the cheap thrills that are made available.

    So, when you find agents don’t want us- what is an author to do? An author has NO choice without an agent- that is why if the influence of an agent is curtailed- the chances of some “SECOND CLASS” authors to shine become a reality. I have yet to deal with an agent who is OPEN to us SECOND CLASS authors- perhaps some exist, but none have been on my path- and I’ve dealt with more agents than I have seen Sunday dinners. I think Assisted Self-publishing like WestBow is an unprecedented, excellent opportunity for us, often categorized by agents as “second class”, “inferior fodder” of the writing industry. I’m sorry that I’ve found so many authors, agents and writers’ associations on the net are unable to see that, or object aggressively to me trying to find a different route to success- that’s not nice at all, from one author to another.


  4. Pingback: Marla Taviano | Christian author and speaker » Blog Archive » self-pub or agent: tough call or no-brainer?

  5. Ron Ash

    Recently there has been a lot of talk about self publishing. Although I do believe it is wonderful to be able to publish what we want when we want, we must be certain that our reasons for publishing are valid and compatible with this means. Why are we publishing? If the answer is because we want to make truck loads of money or become a famous well read author than I am afraid that self publishing is by no means the way to go.

    You see, self publishing, vanity publishing or partnership publishing are rarely going to give a writer incredible results as far as money and fame go. However, if the writer really has something important to say; it is a wonderful way to help others. Often as we move away from the traditional route we can really lose track of what it takes to become a well read author.

    Many times it is the literary agent who acts as a filter. A good agent will be totally honest with a writer about their work. The best agents will encourage a want to be author to continue working at their craft. Ten thousand hours is roughly the amount of exercise required to reach the optimal condition in any profession. Persistence is the key. The more we work at the things we are passionate about the better we become at being passionate beings that are ready to be all that we are created to be.

    I think the first step in the life of any writer, preacher, teacher or any other professional is to get the Ego right out of their way. Protecting our ego only serves to hinder our growth and halt our progress in the field of choice. Let’s get things straight; we are never the best we can be right out of the gate. Being fantastic at anything takes initiative, persistence and passion. We must understand that we always have more to learn.

    I called literary agents filters. They are just that and the big time publishers know this well. In fact, they count on them to present them with the best of the best. If an agent continually pushes through inferior work he/she will find themselves pushing at closed doors sooner than they would like. You see, they will lose the respect of the publishers who get hundreds of manuscript per week and have little time to read works that just are not up to par.

    I understand the temptation that exists within the mind of a would be author to just tear off the bandage fast and submit their manuscript, but I highly recommend holding off submitting anything until the work is as good as it will get. By the way, literary agents and publisher do not want completed manuscripts; they are looking for a book proposal. If you don’t know what that is I strongly recommend that you Google it as soon as your done reading this essay. Please, do not send a complete manuscript. A good agent will generally receive about one hundred of these per week and have little chance to look at them even if they chose to.

    I am very surprised that with the newest surge of self publishing companies out there that nobody has mentioned that one of a literary agent’s top priorities is to protect a writer from being read before their time. In my position I have had the misfortune of reading some self published works that have made this the most obvious purpose in any agent’s career. There are a lot of potentially great authors out there today. People with wonderful imaginations and enlightened souls, but they just are not ready to be read and it is a cold hard fact that they never will be read again by me. When an agent tells us no it is to protect us from damaging our name or our brand. Brand image is the most important thing in publishing and for that matter in just about anything else. If a writer is serious about having a career as an author I highly recommend working at their craft until they get to the point where they can acquire a good agent.

    Just think about it for a minute. How many times have we gone to a terrible restaurant and rushed back to try another meal? I would say rare to never. Why would we? What we expect is the same slop we got the first time and we are not going to spend our hard earned money on that again. If we went to see a movie by a certain director and it stunk up the theatre we would be very hesitant to ever see another one by the same director. This is why it is crucial for actors and directors to carefully evaluate any script before they agree to participate. The future of their careers depends on it!

    We would not want to eat a cake before the timer sounds telling us it is finished. I am not interested in dealing with anything that is half done and neither is the rest of the world. Many times a new writer’s work is just that. It takes time to create something worth reading. The process takes perseverance, practice and passion.

    Recently, I was driving my son to basketball practice and a conversation arose that touched on this very thing. Lately I have come to have an awful lot on my plate. With two books coming out at about the same time, book reviews needing to get finished and several other projects in the mix; I was tempted to just send the publisher my proof approval for the paperback edition of “The Secret of Divine Intervention.” I’ve gone through the manuscript a handful of times already and figured that it had to be good enough.

    While looking at my son I began to realize that an opportunity had arose to discuss what “good enough” really is. Is my book really good enough for my present readers and those who have never sampled my work in the past? Was I willing to rush this wonderful work to the public just for the sake of making it available right away? The answer came to me with a resounding “no!” The most important thing is to make it as good as it can be. Every extra hour I spend proofing and editing will contribute directly to making it better than the last.

    I explained to my son that it is the same with anything else we strive to be great at. We must put our heart, soul and spirit into whatever is our passion if we expect to excel at it. Good enough is never the same thing twice. Every time we do something we get better at it. This applies to anything and everything in our lives. If we choose to put all our energy into it we will improve. Half baked will never render a gourmet meal!

    He knew exactly what I was talking about. Being passionate about basketball has given him a drive to constantly improve. Putting his ego away has allowed him to appreciate those who have achieved higher levels of advancement and has given him the initiative to try harder, practice more and work harder. Passion is bringing his game to a whole new level every time he plays. As his dad it is always nice to hear the other parents yelling shouts of encouragement to him from the stands, yet when I asked him if he could hear them yelling “Go Jordan!” he answered, “No dad. I’m too busy focusing on the game.”

    The important thing for us to understand is that we are only limited by what we think is impossible, the sacrifices we are willing to make and the price we are willing to pay to truly be the best that we are created to be. As we come to agreement with ourselves the Universe has no choice but to comply, but if we step out on Ego ahead of our time we will barely make a splash.

    You see, when we are prepared and ready to be the best we can be we will make a huge splash! We will have become a huge rock thrown into a large pond. The ripples will go out from the center and touch many people, places and things. We will definitely make some waves. However, if we throw ourselves as a pebble into a big pond very few will experience our talents, abilities and skills. The pebble will be swallowed up and its ripples will quickly fade away.

    In faith always,

    Ron Ash

  6. Jody Hedlund

    Hi Marla,

    I’m a little ticked off an tweetdeck for not posting all of the tweets of my followers. It’s been running sluggishly lately! I almost missed your thoughtful post today! I love your thoughts today! And thanks for the shout out!

  7. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    hhmmmmm. Good thoughts here, friend, and I so appreciate that you took the time to share your perspective on this topic. I read Rachelle’s post last week with great interest.

    I feel conflicted about my own situation because my end goal has never really been about becoming a published author (traditional or otherwise). I feel passionately that God has laid a message on my heart, and I think a book may be the best medium to spread that message.

    What if your writing is more about the message than whether or not anyone considers you a “published” author?

    Also, thanks for the link to Peter’s post. That is a truly valuable insight and one I want to bear in mind.

    Looking forward to more!

  8. Peter P


    This is a great post… I love your conversational writing style! It made me laugh.

    You’ve possibly spent too much time sitting down doing NaNo though – you seem to be craving conversation and having it with yourself through your blog 🙂

    Thanks also for the link. A bunch of people have come visiting because of it!

    Can’t wait for part 2.

  9. Cheryl Pickett

    This topic certainly is getting a lot of coverage lately and I think that’s a good.

    First, my big thing about the whole issue is education. Years ago there were many more opportunities with traditional publishers, now the tide is changing and the (whether those in the “industry” like it or not”) other options are becoming a necessity rather than the exception.

    As you noted, there’s a time and place for each path. The key is understanding how each one works, your own plans/what you believe God is leading you to do, and then and only then make a choice. One simply can’t totally go by what worked for someone else. That’s a good place to start, but because every single author is unique and every book is unique, each person must look at their own situation and then decide what makes the most sense.

    Also, with all due respect, I have to disagree with you and say independently published books do count. Both of mine have been published that way and if asked, I say I have two books out there. The response to my current one has been awesome and no one has cared what name is on the spine in the published by spot. They care about the quality between the pages and the big publishers aren’t the only ones who can make that happen.

    These books may or may not count within “the industry” itself, but then again that’s changing too. I’ve read more than one agent blog this year who has said if you can do a decent job on your own they may look at that positively when you approach them compared to someone who says “here’s my book, I don’t expect to do much except write my next one”.

    In addition, many people including myself, view independently published books no differently than a CD put out by a garage band, or the clothing of a designer who sells at art shows or has their own little store. No one has deemed them worthy to record or design, they’re just out there doing it. Will they hit it big, maybe maybe not, but they’re allowed to try and there are different measures of success too. Someday I hope authors who go outside the traditional method can gain the same kind of acceptance for following what they believe they are meant to do too.

  10. Phillip Gibb

    ha ha ha, when I saw your post I immediately thought of – but I see that you had already linked to him.
    My Father in Law is also in this situation – actually looking to be published, where maybe he needs to consider the route of being self-published.
    I suppose at the end of the day the major benefit of going through a proper publishing house is prestige.

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