should I self-publish?

For this post, I asked the wonderful Dan Holloway to contribute his views. I met Dan on Authonomy. He is a vocal, experienced writer with a lot of interesting ideas. He has recently co-published his book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, and has written another novel interactively on Facebook (links below).

When Self-publishing is NOT a good idea

I’m a self-publisher. Some of you who know me would be forgiven for thinking I’m a self-publishing evangelist. But that’s only partly true. Self-publishing comes in for a lot of bad press, and the stats are, let’s face it, horrendous ( And most of that is down to one thing: many of the wrong people self-publish the wrong stuff.

So I want to use Patty’s kind invitation to set out some very brief guidelines for what is and what ISN’T a good thing to self-publish. Not rules, guidelines. And I don’t have figures – but I have pledged to use my own book transparently as a source of data ( Please ask any questions & I’ll gladly elaborate.

1. Self-publishing works best for niche markets that you know well. Why? Simple. There’s only one of you to do the marketing. If your market’s too diverse you could end up talking to thin air. If, on the other hand, your book’s called “A History of Orchid Growing in Queensland” and you’re the president of the Queensland Orchid Growers Society: why do you need a publisher? One thing this means is that:

2. Self-publishing tends to suit non-fiction better than fiction, because the niches tend to be tighter-knit. But not always. Which leads to:

3. Self-publishing works best if you’re writing for people like you. Simply because you probably already hang out with your readers. And if you don’t, you almost certainly already KNOW where they hang out. This is NOT the same as saying I think you should write ABOUT people like you. I tried once, and it was disaster. Then I tried writing about a gay 17 year-old Hungarian girl, with considerably more success. Nor am I saying you should write FOR people like you. This isn’t about what you WRITE. It’s about what you stand the best chance of selling without discovering extra hours in the day.

4. Self-publishing suits books that aren’t well-serviced by the mainstream presses. A publisher needs to know they will sell many thousands of copies to recoup their costs. Many genres of book (like literary fiction from newbies) just can’t rack up those figures. But as a self-publisher writing a book a year, you don’t need massive figures to make a modest living.

5. Self-published books are hard to get into bookstores. Not impossible. Hard. So you will probably rely on selling through Amazon or equivalent. Which means your book needs to appeal to a demographic that uses the Internet for its book purchases.

6. Self-published doesn’t mean slapdash. Don’t self-publish your book until it’s as good as you’d like it to be had a mainstream publisher put it out there. Self-publishing isn’t a shortcut to print. It’s an alternative business model for aspiring writers. You wouldn’t set up a bakery and sell cakes where the icing was all over the place and the body was sunken in the middle. So don’t think it’s acceptable to put your book out there with a bunch of typos and a cover made from Clip Art.

7. Don’t self-publish if you don’t like people. Strong self-publishers engage with their readers, they are entertaining presences in the cybersphere, and they work extremely hard at being part of the crowd they’re writing for. If you already hang out with your readers regularly, are well-respected, and enjoy doing it, you’re on the right track. If you like writing because it means you can lock yourself away and don’t have to meet people, forget self-publishing.

In short, before you self-publish, ask yourself why. And unless the answer’s “because it’s the very best chance I can give my book of reaching its audience”, keep on querying. But if it IS, the go for it! And Don’t. Look. Down.

Dan Holloway is a member of the Year Zero Writers collective, organiser of the Free-e-day Festival , and regularly blogs about indie writing. His novel, Songs From the Other Side of the Wall, is available as an ebook in all formats, for free, at


28 comments on “should I self-publish?

  1. Dan,

    Well said. Your final question is usually one of the first I ask prospective clients:

    Why do you want to publish this book, and how will you know if it’s a success?

    The answer determines everything that follows. The problem seems to come when authors get intoxicated with the idea of the book, the object itself, and it takes on an almost talismanic significance until it’s the only thing that will satisfy.

    Unfortunately, this is a disaster as a business model.

    Thanks for your contribution, you state it very clearly.

  2. Thanks, Joel.

    Before I respond, an advance apology. I live in the UK. It’s currently 2am and I am nearly ready to hit the sack. I will answer any and every comment in as timely a manner I can time delay permitting.

    And thank you to Patty. She’s someone I both like as a person and respect as a writer.

    I think the second of your questions is almost more impotrant than the first. People need to pin it to their wall BEFORE they start. What would make their venture a success? Not ideas, not feelings; concrete. Otherwise they’ll always change the goalposts. Of course you should constantly reevaluate, but with a cold, hard business head and not in a misty-eyed manner.

    I stated 500 book copies and 5000 downloads in year one as my target. I’m rethinking rapidly teh more I see of the way the e-market is developing, and the way readers are taking control of it. I think it may be more important to get read digitally than it is to get sold in paper for the next two or three years, because I think the market is just about at a point where an indie author can get noticed still, but there are growing reader-based sites. So I think the timing is perfect for a market-share grab through free ebooks, and that promotion of the paperback should take a back seat to this, and come as – as it were – a second wave after market share has been established. So I would mix my pro self-publishing message with “get the ebook out first”

  3. Pingback: Why you should self-publish, and general thoughts on reviews. « The e-Fiction Book Club

  4. Some excellent and valid points about self-publishing.
    One of the worst self publish sins is highlighted by point six. With the advent of companies like Lulu, a rough, derivative and poorly written ms can be ‘published’ and up on the web within minutes. This is the tidal wave of dross that gives self publishing its bad name.
    To have any chance of success, a book must well edited, preferably professionally and as perfect as possible and most importantly of all, be a damned good book!
    And that is the easy part, onging marketing is key.

  5. Thank you Shayne.

    @Raven – yes, there’s too common a misconception that self-published means DIY. It doesn’t at all. It just means that you were the one in charge of printing, design, editing, marketing and so on. Everything you would normally expect a publisher to do is just as important as it would be to a mainstream book – and if you want your book to get reviews in the mainstream media (the holy grail of the self-publisher), then you could argue it has to LOOK even better so the reviewer takes it seriously.

    I’m off to look at Merrilee’s and Maria’s posts and will comment there, so it may be worth playing pass the self-publishing parcel around a few blogs 🙂

    • Make sure you look at the links in Merrilee’s article (not the ones that refer back here, but the other ones). Some are priceless.

      • I must say what really shocked me was not the examples of dire self-publishing (which I’m all too familiar with), but the way MCM counts his readers, which seems to be based on unique visits as recorded by google analytics (maybe I’m missing something). Which means anyone who visits his site is a “reader”. That can’t be right.

  6. Pingback: Linked: When NOT to self-publish – Novelr - Making People Read

  7. My favorite parts of this post are #s 6 and 7. More people need to realize that self publishing is not a short cut. If you do it right, you will be doing the job that a dozen people would be performing in a traditional publishing house. Editing, proofreading, proofreading, proofreading, proofreading, interior design and formatting, cover design, cover copy, copyright, and all necessary cataloging and registration. That’s just the incomplete list of pre-pub duties.

    It is not for the weak of heart. I find it a bit disconcerting when I hear people talk about uploading their word file and slapping a generic cover on their book. Ta da! They’re done.

    That’s fine if they are just eager to see their name in print or if their only concern is to publish their memoirs for their family, but when people make this kind of a lame attempt and put their books out there for public consumption, it is no wonder that it would leave unsuspecting readers feeling gun shy about buying books from self published authors.

    • Having co-published non-fiction, I totally agree with you here.

      It seems, though, that a lot of people are simply content with putting their book on Smashwords, but then wonder where the sales are. You don’t have sales without a platform, so if you want sales, you shouldn’t go into self-publishing before you have a platform (=fan base).

      • Dan here (sorry, logged in as Year Zero – not wanting to log out owing to clunky computer).

        Marchbooks – you don’t have to do all those things yourself – but you DO have to make sure they’re done. And if you don’t do it yourself, that means a whole lot of coordination AND favour-begging (or paying).

        Patty, yes, you need a fanbase. Which is why I would advocate getting yourself,a nd your work, out there a long time before you ever try to start selling it.

        And putting it up on smashwords – well, smashwords is a great site, but it’s now been crashed for almost 24 hours, and that’s a BIG problem. I had an announcement going out via an efiction site today, pointing to smashwords. The last time they sent an announcement out I got a 50 download spike. So that’s 50 people today potentially who’ll have gone to read the book and found the site down. I bet not 5 of them return. Moral: choose your ebook site very carefully

      • Sorry, I had to manually unlock the response as I have to do the first time someone replies on this blog. For that to happen, I actually need to be awake and at the computer (fancy that).

        Anyway, what you said about things being done behind the scenes is so true. This is why I wrote the earlier post about selling your book via bookshops or distributors.

        Many people blunder into self-publishing without even knowing what a distributor is, and having no clue about the book trade. Even that is fine if you’re in intimate contact with your buyers, but few people have such a large fan base.

  8. Smarshwords also poses a problem because it offers no security. It works on the honor system, but essentially, anyone can purchase a copy and redistribute it as many times as they like. Very risky, in my mind.

    The internet is a wonderful thing, but people with intellectual property need to beware. Once your work gets out there, you cannot get it back. As the saying goes, you can’t ask them to buy the milk if you are giving the cow away for free (or something to that effect, lol)

  9. Self publishing is a more attractive option then ever, if you do it right. POD is now accessible and affordable for those who do not want to or cannot invest in a sizeable print run. Distribution channels are more accessible than ever, thanks to the internet.

    The work can be daunting. There is an extensive array of skills to master (I do believe that it is best for a self published author to take an active role in each step, then they will be fully appraised of what is involved before they make the decision to farm out different tasks on subsequent publications), but the return is much better than traditional publishing’s token royalties.

    The marketing is definitely the most challenging piece of the puzzle. But, again, thanks to new technologies, we no longer need to be limited to a four month window of ‘perform or make way for the next guy’. Once published, an author’s title never need go out of print. Therefore, I believe that having your platform in place, albiet nice, is not essential. That can come later. Hopefully, in the meantime you will be publishing additional titles that will solidify your position even more.


    • what you mention here about the lack of backlisting is very important. I write SF and fantasy, and in this genre, we’re lucky in the respect that titles DO stay available for quite a long time, but I feel for mainstream authors, whose books face the chop after as little as six weeks on the shelves.

      Of course, self-publishing is an excellent way of ensuring your book stays in print.

  10. Marchbooks makes a good point in that self-publishers really do better when they understand what goes into the book creation process and the many steps and details that have to be coordinated.

    And Patty is dead on about people “blundering” into self-publishing. It always astonishes me that people don’t actually understand they are starting a business when they make this leap.

    Putting the two together, I would have to say most of the successful non fiction self-publishers I’ve worked with over the years were the ones who fully understood they were creating a product that had to compete in the marketplace, and took care that their book was every bit as well made as one from a major house. It’s not cheap, it’s not as fast as sending your Word file to Lulu, but in the end it’s much better business.

  11. Great to see the discussion still going. Could I add a point on bookshops and distribution based on my experience.

    I write contemporary fiction that appeals to alt/indie/emo types. With this in mind (and with the knowledge I wan’t going to get into Borders), I made it part of my “platform” that I would hook up with the very best independent bookshops, as part of the book’s whole counter-culture feel.

    Without wishing hardship on anyone, I couldn’t have timed it better with the recession – independent bookstores are struggling – even the ones I think will survive because they are sticking to their niche. Everyone I’ve approached has not only been willing to stock my book but delighted to do so, because I will make my partnership with them part of my “platform”. Today I was finalising details for my launch party at The Albion Beatnik (an amazing Oxford-based shop specialising in the Beat Poets and books about jazz). The guy who runs the store is printing flyers for me, and giving me his shop for the night – 29 October – WHY can’t you fly over from Australia for it?! so I can have a performance reading and music by an upcoming singer/songwriter friend who has an album out next week (Jessie Grace). And he kept telling me HE was grateful to me for holding the event there and letting him stock the book. This is the kind of “win-win” partnership that is easier now than ever. So even if you don’t decide to go the online only route, you CAN get into bookstores in reasonable numbers.

    • It’s great to see that this thread is still going. In the other post, I also said that small bookshops are the ones to try out, but the average self-publisher needs to have both the knowledge of the book trade and a couple of friends in the right places.

      SFF is another nice market where it is possible to do quite well without being dependent on large bookselling chains and distributors. You could sell at conventions. Alan Baxter is already doing that.

      As for myself, I feel I have neither the material nor the audience to do this. I’d like to continue building my platform until I have some validation in the form of traditional publications. I don’t like that desperate smell that hangs around a lot of self-published material.

  12. Dan,

    I am just curious as to what you offer as a discount for the indie bookstores. Do you sell directly to them or have them place their orders through Ingram?

    Also, what do you find is the best approach – postcards, brochures, letters or something else?

    • Hi March,

      I don’t know if you’re based in the UK or Australia (I guess the ratios are the same), so forgive me talking in pounds! My book retails at £8, and the bookshops pay £6 sale or return. I make 60p per copy. That’s a high price for them to pay, but they get the books sale or return so that’s their upside.

      At the risk of sounding geeky, I’ve approached shops successfully through twitter. But it always really starts and finishes with a personal visit (easier in the UK than a country the size of Australia, I guess). I worked as a retail buyer and showroom manager in the luxury independent sector (in flooring), and when I was buying, the three things that mattered were – the salesperson (how much they believed in their product; whethe I thought I could deal with them in a crisis etc.); the feel of the product (talking of all things Australian – merino wool loop pile carpet, if you haven’t come across it, is something you have to lie down on naked some time before you die); and once you were dealing with a company, their customer service. I guess I figured it would be the same with books. I know also that I look for in a bookshop the thing I used to try to build on in the showrooms – a feeling of nkowing your niche and catering to it without compromise.

      I THINK I’ve made a book that’s good for a self-published effort, so it’s essential, for me as a self-publisher, to take the book to shops so they can be pleasantly surprised when they see it. Same with reviewers. I’ve sent 10 copies now – almost all were accepted with an almost audible sigh of “do I have to” and I could imagine what they were expecting. But every one of them has e-mailed me when they got the book (with an equally audible surprise) to say they got it, it looks great, and they love the opening chapters. So I’d say the personal touch is essential.

      Of course, if you don’t make the visit because there are aspects of your boko you’re embarrassed for the stroe manager to be looking at in your presence (or typos you know are they and hope they miss), then you’re not ready to start selling.

    • Did you see the post on seeling your self-published book in bookshops?

      Bookshops demand 40% off RRP. Sometimes you’ll get away with 35%, but they’re not interested in much less.

      Distributors will ask 60-70% off RRP.

      • Yeah, those are the figures I was expecting, but not the ones I’ve experienced. I think the economy has a lot to do with it. IF you have a “platform” and IF you will work hard to drive people to their shop and hold an event there to let people know they exist, THEN shops will be happy to carry your book at less margin. It’s a win-win partnership. It’s also a great example of independents in different sectors getting together and helping each other.

  13. And the other thing I learned as a retailer – if the salesman is passionate about the product selling it to you, and gets you to handle it, and explains why it feels so damn good, then you’ll pass that passion on to the customer. Now I’m in the other position of selling to the salesman, that’s something I try not to forget. And that doesn’t mean spouting figures and pre-arranged patetr. It means giving them the product and letting them love it like you do. Whcih again brings me back to – if the product ISN’T that damn good, it won’t work.

  14. Dan,

    I agree. I think that the time has come to seriously reevaluate the numbers associated with traditional publishing. Even for authors who sign on with a big house, it is no longer a world where the author sits back, collects a hefty advance and waits for the royalties to come in. Strong marketing and meager advances are the order of the day. For self publishers, the job is even more labor intensive.

    It needs to be globally recognized that, without the author’s creative efforts, no one works: editors, cover and interior designers, papermills and printers would all suffer. If we recognize this, how can we justify giving the author the smallest piece of the pie from their own creative work?


  15. Pingback: If You’re Not Willing To Edit, You’re Not Ready To Publish? « Marchbooks's Blog

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