Is Self-Publishing Worth The Investment?
By Terri Blackstock
“You must have invested a fortune in all these titles!” That’s what more and more people say to me when they see that I’ve had over seventy books published. Some of them are shocked to learn that for thirty years, I didn’t invest a penny in getting my books published. My publishers paid me, and I’ve made a nice living.
So many of my letters from aspiring writers ask the question, “How can I get published without going broke?” Others ask, “Can you tell me your secret for marketing your books? I published with a self-publishing service, and they’re not marketing my books at all.” There’s a basic misunderstanding about publishing these days, and I hope to correct some of that here, so that fewer new writers are lured into using self-publishing services because they’ve been given deceptive sales pitches. I hate it when decent, hard-working people are financially wounded and woefully disappointed.
Before I go on, let me say that there is a place for self-publishing, and there are print-on-demand companies who provide honest services. (To find those companies, talk to lots of people who have self-published, and learn from their mistakes and successes. There are also lots of bloggers who blog about the right way to self-publish.) Did you know it’s possible to publish ebooks to Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and other digital retailers for free? Moreover, you can publish your print books through Create Space (part of Amazon) and other print on demand services, again for free. There are hundreds of books and YouTube videos that will teach you how to do it. I’ve reprinted two of my out of print books that way—Seaside and Soul Restoration.
Many of my multi-published friends are self-publishing now because they’re able to keep more of the money (up to 70% of sales), so it’s a viable option now for those who have invested the time to do it right. Their only investment is in what they hire others to do—cover design, editing, interior design and formatting. But that’s a minimal investment, and is easy to earn back in sales. However, the vast majority of self-published people pay thousands of dollars to self-publishing services (what we used to call vanity publishers), and complain bitterly about the lack of marketing and distribution, the impossibility of getting those books into physical stores, and the impossibility of earning back the money they’ve invested.
In the old traditional model of publishing (and the way I do it), writers work for years to learn the craft (take college courses, attend writers conferences, join writers’ groups). They submit it to a publisher or agent, and often get rejected. But with each rejection they learn something. Eventually, if they get published, it’s because they’ve invested years in honing their craft and making their book the best it can be. When that traditional, paying publisher decides to buy the book, they negotiate an advance (up-front money that the publisher pays the author). The book is edited and polished to the point that the publisher feels comfortable having their imprint on it. They hope it will make them a profit so they can keep their jobs and stay in business. They have their art department create a cover. The book will be placed in that publisher’s catalog. The sales force at that publishing house will meet with buyers of stores and major chains, and try to convince them to carry the book. The booksellers only have so much space, so they pick out the ones they think they can sell. The author will get royalties on the copies that are sold (minus the advance money they’ve already been paid). But if the publisher’s risk doesn’t pay off, the publisher will lose a substantial amount of money. (The author doesn’t.) That’s a risk the publisher takes with every title it releases.
With self-publishing, the risk is only for the author. Though some of these self-publishing services will lure writers with the promise of getting the books into Barnes & Noble and other bookstore chains, the truth is that they won’t get one copy into the actual, physical stores. They will get it in the online stores, but it won’t sell many copies, because no one will know it’s there. (Again, you can get it into the online stores for free without those services.) If the author has a prolific speaking career and can sell the books at speaking engagements, this model might work well. But if you’re an unknown writer, and you’re out there on your own, you’re lucky to sell 100 copies.
Yes, there’s instant gratification in self-publishing. You will see your name on a book, guaranteed. It will all happen faster than with traditional publishers. But a writer who skips the steps of learning his craft, particularly in fiction, isn’t doing himself any favors. Self-publishing services may want you to think that they’re discriminating about what they publish, that they picked you because you were so talented. But the truth is, they don’t often turn people away. I challenge you to find someone who was rejected by one of these companies. Their claims that they only publish twenty percent of their submissions (or whatever number they offer) doesn’t disclose the fact that most people walk away when they learn that it will cost them money to publish with them. The ones who follow their emotions and pay the money will likely get published no matter how bad their book is. They want you to think they turned down eighty percent, but it’s just the opposite. That’s the number of writers who walked away before slapping down a check.
I have no problem with self-publishing services who are honest about what they do. I have no problem with writers who understand what they’re getting, and after due diligence, make a business decision to self-publish. They hire professionals to do their cover designs, their interior formatting, their editing, and their books wind up looking as professional as any put out by traditional publishers. But I hate when new, uninformed writers are deceived.
If you seriously want a career as a writer, then learn the craft. Take college classes, join writers’ groups, attend writers’ conferences, read, read, read, write, write, write, and then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. You learn by doing it, and every failure is a step to success. Develop enough patience to learn the business, then get your work vetted by true professionals—whether you go the traditional publishing route or self-publish. It’s easy to find freelance editors who used to work at publishing houses. Just email any published writer and ask for names. While you may choose to invest some money in your book to hire those professionals, most of your investment should be in the time you take to make your books excellent. Then you’ll really have a shot at a career.
Terri Blackstock’s Latest Book is Truth Stained Lies, Book 3 in her award-winning Moonlighters Series, published by Zondervan.
Holly Cramer’s past choices have finally caught up to her, but she never expected them to endanger her baby. Though Holly’s stumbled through most of her adult life as a party girl, she longs to live a more stable life for her daughter. Then police show up to question her on the whereabouts of Creed Kershaw, Lily’s father. She has kept his identity a secret from friends and family—she never even told him about the pregnancy. Now he’s a person of interest in a drug-related murder case.
Terri Blackstock is a New York Times best-seller, with over six million copies sold worldwide. She is the winner of two Carol Awards, a Christian Retailers Choice Award, and a Romantic Times Book Reviews Career Achievement Award, among others. She has had over twenty-five years of success as a novelist. Terri spent the first twelve years of her life traveling in an Air Force family. She lived in nine states and attended the first four years of school in The Netherlands. Because she was a perpetual “new kid,” her imagination became her closest friend. That, she believes, was the biggest factor in her becoming a novelist. She sold her first novel at the age of twenty-five, and has had a successful career ever since.
In 1994, Terri was writing romance novels under two pseudonyms for publishers such as HarperCollins, Harlequin, Dell and Silhouette, when a spiritual awakening prompted her to switch gears. At the time, she was reading more suspense than romance, and felt drawn to write thrillers about ordinary people in grave danger. Her newly awakened faith wove its way into the tapestry of her suspense novels, offering hope instead of despair. Her goal is to entertain with page-turning plots, while challenging her readers to think and grow. She hopes to remind them that they’re not alone, and that their trials have a purpose.