When Should You Self-publish And When Should You Submit To A Publisher?

This question comes up quite a bit amongst new writers.

They have finished manuscript and I wondering what to do with it. They may feel discouraged by the long and arduous process of finding a publisher, and they’re wondering whether to just self-publish.

One thing I should say. Whether or not to self-publish should never be a question of publishing what you could not get published by a traditional publisher. You should always self-publish your best work.

Surprisingly to many people, I very often recommend that when new writers have finished their first manuscript, they should be submitting it to a publisher.

Why, since I am obviously a proponent of self-publishing.

Well, in the first place, submitting to publishers buys you time.

One of the main problems of self-published writers is that they often do things in far too much of a hurry. They self-publish their first books before those books are ready.

I know this may sound quite arrogant, but I don’t mean ready as in that the book has polished prose and is of literary value, I mean that the plot is tight, and that book fits well in the market.

Submitting to publishers gives you a better idea of that market that you are trying to sell to. It is not about whether your book is good or not by whatever standards you want to measure “good”, it is about whether it fits the current desires of readers.

For all they’re maligned in the self-publishing community, publishers have not survived for many years by ignoring the type of books readers want to read. In fact, they employ professionals who in general have a pretty good understanding for what makes a commercial book. When you submit to publisher, you are a encouraged to see what else this publisher sells. You are encouraged to read those books and to socialise with those writers. This can give you a much better idea of the current book market.

Since a lack of understanding of this market is the main thing you’ll have to overcome whether are you self-published or submit to publishers, it is a huge advantage to gain this knowledge.

When you have been submitting for a little while and have gotten some encouraging reactions, this is when I would courage you to make the decision whether to self-publish or continue submitting.

This is when you have to consider how much work you are willing to do. Self-publishing is a very hands on experience. There is a lot of work that needs to be done that you may not necessarily want to do. If your goal is to just see your book out there then that just fine. But I assume that you are interested in giving your book the best chance possible and actually making some money. So, consider for yourself whether you are interested in learning how to market your book and whether you are interested in sourcing editors and cover designers. Whether you are interested in doing this for significant amount of time, all the time, for the lifetime of your writing career.

One of the major disadvantages of publishing traditionally is the loss of control and the extraordinary amount of time everything can take. Add to that the complete randomness of some decisions as they are influenced by internal changes within the publisher’s business. Are you happy to roll along with this, say for example if an editor who was really keen on your book leaves the publisher and the new editor suddenly doesn’t want your book any more? Are you willing to wait or resubmit to another publisher while you thought you had it all in the bag?

The frustration of waiting times and being scuttled at the very last minute is real.

On the other hand, a publisher can help you get into bookshops so if your aim is to find your book on the shelves, you really cannot do this half as well when you self-publish.

In the end, it is about educating yourself first, and then deciding based on your personality. By the way, no one says you can’t do both. But you need to do it with two different books, preferably into different series.

The beauty of today’s world is that you have this choice.


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Should you go with a small press?

This is a question that often gets asked: what are the benefits of going with a small press?

First of all, there are a number of different definitions of the word small press. Some people define a small press as one that is not one of the big five publishing companies in the world. By that definition, a small press can be quite big.

But mostly, when people ask about small presses, they mean operations that are run by just one or maybe two or three people. They put up a website, advertise themselves as being open for submissions, and then are flocked by aspiring writers. Should you follow those writers?

There are a number of reasons why people like the idea of a small presses. It’s personal and there is a good chance that you will have some input in things like cover design, while having assistance in the nitty-gritty of publishing for those tasks that you don’t necessarily want to learn yourself. You don’t want to find an editor, you don’t want to have to worry about cover design, and you don’t want to do the marketing. But you have submitted your book to the big presses and agents already, and they all said no. So what is left? The small press sounds attractive. You can still say “my publisher”, so if traditional publishing is your aim, you appear to have fulfilled it.

But before you go any further, have a look at what your aim is.

Many people just want to be published by someone other than themselves. They like approval from the industry. However with a small press—or maybe a better word would be micro press—how much clout this approval carries will depend on the reputation and activities of the person running it. How well connected are they, how well respected are they, how good are they at getting your book in front of other people?

With the advent of self publishing, many small presses do very little that you can’t do it yourself, so why would you sign with them?

These presses are very author-centric, market and sell to the writing community. They often fall down severely on the marketing side of things. Usually these presses are run by people who do it for the love, who have a day jobs and who then juggle a number of authors in their spare time. They don’t have time to read up on the latest marketing techniques, because they’re too busy sorting out cover designers and meeting deadlines. Many are still focused strongly on print, and don’t have the resources to do all the things that you yourself could do for your books, simply because you don’t have nineteen other authors to worry about.

Many of the more successful small presses are focussed on the con circuit. They have tables at genre conventions and the main mode of selling is through these. I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing, just that this is what they do, and this method may not be what you envisaged for your books.

So: research the press and see what it’s doing to sell books.

If the small press has a reasonable history of publication, you are fairly safe in assuming that they will do the right thing by their authors. You can also safely assume that the press will do as it promised.

As a precaution, I would say also plan not to worry about money, because you will see very little of it. Most of the proceeds will go into covering the production cost, and there are so many occasions that I’ve had to chase up small presses for payment they never got around to making (“Oops, we forgot”) that I have given up trying. If you sell reasonably well as self-published author, you need to have a very very good reason to go with a small press. They need to offer you an advantage that you could not get on your own. Maybe the owner has awesome connections that could put you into contact with writers or publishers you have always dreamed of working with. Maybe the press is really good at getting books into local book stores, and you don’t want to go through that hassle yourself.

In any case, take a really good look at the contract. Ideally the contract should only be for a number of years with five being the most common. Ideally, the contract should only cover rights they are going to use. For example if the press deals with just print books, make sure you retain the e-book rights. If the press is very locally-focussed, make sure you retain worldwide rights to every country except yours. Make sure you retain your audio rights, make sure that in case the press does not meet their obligations and deadlines, you have a way to get your books back.

As I said most of these presses are run by only few people. Life happens. They get sick, get busy jobs, have to move, or have to deal with family crises.

So in conclusion, should you go with a small press?

It may be an option if you are totally uninterested in taking any form of control over your marketing or the production of your book. If you just want to see the book out there, and don’t want to optimise your income from it. It may be an option if the press is well respected and you want angle for an award. Or you want to be in the press’ community. Or if they can offer something that you cannot get by yourself.

However, if you want to optimise your income from your book, you want to be able to run promotions, or actually just run promotions full stop, or you want to publish a number of books in the same series and want to do it quickly, you will probably find it immensely frustrating.

A small press can be a good way to get a foot in the door if you are afraid of all the things that go into publishing. Research your press well to make sure that they put out a quality product. Don’t just go with anyone because they call themselves a publisher. Look at their product, look at the number of reviews that they have garnered for those books, look at the covers and how professional they look, buy one or two of the books to check the editing and most importantly, check the reputation of the owners.

However, don’t expect riches and don’t expect your book to appear on the bookshelves of every local bookshop.

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How often should you publish?

In the three year plan, I use the example of publishing four books a year. I did this because it is a comfortable publishing pace for me, and I think it should be very achievable at just a thousand words a day.

But how often do you really need to publish if you want to have a successful career?

There are some people who say that they want to publish every month or even every two weeks, and others who live comfortably off publishing a book a year or in some cases even less.

Both these approaches use very different mechanisms to keep sales going.

If you publish frequently, you will make use of the algorithms of the retailer sites, most notably Amazon, where this has the most effect. If you sell well on Amazon, and especially Amazon in the US, it can be very effective to publish shorter works frequently to keep your books being recommended to readers. Amazon thrives on a high level of churn. This is much less for other retailers, so if you sell well worldwide, it is much less important to publish as frequently.

But the frequent publishing method assumes two things.

In the first place, it assumes that you can produce books that people want to read at this speed, and keep doing it. Some people find it relatively easy, some people end up publishing shorter works, but most of us cannot write a book every month let alone every two weeks. We have lives, we need more time, we write in genres that require extra work like research into various aspects of the story. Writers of historical fiction or technothrillers or hard science-fiction will find it very hard to write that many books in a year.

Even writers of fantasy or people who write about real life things that they have to crosscheck to make sure that they got everything right. That stuff can take a lot of time.

And some people’s brains just don’t work that way.

So assuming you can put out quality books that people want to read, if you can write that quickly, a high speed of publishing is better than a slow speed.

Algorithms. You will hear people talk about 90 day cliffs and 30 day cliffs on Amazon, but the problem with getting fixated on things like that is that Amazon can change how it shows your books to prospective readers by changing one line in the code. They may not get around to doing that for two years, or they can do it next week. You cannot build a business on that kind of uncertainty.

However, it is always better to have more books, and to publish more frequently. It seems that three or four books a year is a comfortable pace for many people.

But what if you have a day job, or you simply can’t write that quickly for whatever reason.

Well there is always George R.R. Martin, and in a small way, we have our own self published writing equivalent in Mark Cooper, who makes a living and published his last book in December, but the book before that 3 years ago. All that time, he kept his income up through diversification and advertising.

If you write big and chunky books that people like to read, that get good levels of word of mouth, and you publish them in a series that people love, they will very often be happy to wait. Just make sure that while they wait, you have them on your mailing list so that you can let them know when the book is out.

If you don’t write a new book every two or three months, you will also have to be much smarter with advertising. You cannot rely on the retailer algorithms to recommend your books to everyone once the initial burst of sales from the release is gone. You have to advertise your book, you have to get inventive. Make bundles with other writers, run cross promotions, use the wide range of advertising options, including Facebook and AMS ads and try everything and continue to do it if it works. Make sure that your books are out on all platforms in all different formats including print and definitely audio, because the audiobook market is a completely different animal with a different audience.

So: how often should you publish?

The answer is: as often as you can while maintaining quality and avoiding burnout. This is going to be different for each writer, but if you try to push yourself too hard and put out books before they’re ready, you will lose readers. If you push yourself too hard and get burnt out, you harm yourself. If you don’t publish books and don’t advertise, you will lose your readers, so there is a balance in between publishing frequently and getting smart with advertising. Unless you sell so much that you can employ someone to advertise for you, you will probably have to choose between either of those activities. You can either spend a lot of time writing, and not that much advertising, or you can devote more energy to marketing and less time writing.

Somewhere in that equation, there is a balance that everyone needs to find for themselves.

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Authors and small press

Recently, the wonderful Tehani Wessely, the face of Fablecroft Press, asked a series of authors, including me, to write about small press.

There were a lot of great stories in this blog series. People whose beginnings were in small press, whose success was due to small press, and for whom small press offered a lifeline when their writing career was in the dumps.

Australia has many wonderful and amazing small presses that do great work.

Yet my personal experience also spans some not-so-great experiences. I have no intention of mentioning names, but would rather like to caution authors against that all-pervading despair you fall into when you’ve been told that you have a publishing contract (and you’ve been publicly wooting about it) and now you find out that, perhaps, you don’t.

The publisher is late producing the work.
The publisher makes excessive excuses as to why your work hasn’t been published yet.
The publisher produces shoddy work and neglects to fix it.
The publisher neglects to pay you.
The publisher does not respond to communication.

All these should probably be taken as indicators that the press is in trouble. I know it sounds distrustful and horrible. Small presses are run by one or two people. There are perfectly legitimate reasons why the main publisher can be taken out of action. Illness, change of job, you name it.

But, and here is the big but–it’s your work they’re sitting on. This publisher is not your best friend; they’re a business relation. If any of the above happens, chances are that any of the problems causing it are permanent. It could be for the simple reason that the small press’ owner has discovered that running a small press is hard and has moved onto the next shiny toy, but has neglected to tell the authors involved. Emails pile up in the inbox until it becomes all too much, while the press owner sends out general messages that ‘things are getting back to normal’.

That may well be the case, and sometimes it’s true. Then again, pigs have been known to fly. Unless you are getting serious indications to the contrary, as affected author, you should by now be scavenging your contract for the ‘out’ clause. That means that the contract has to have one in the first place: a set time by which the publisher should publish the work before the rights revert to you. For ebooks, there should be clauses that cover failure of payment or other breaches of contract.

Check your contracts now.

Or go read this awful tale