“Why don’t you self-publish?”

It’s a question I get frequently when I bemoan the fact that I haven’t had a book published in five years, despite writing several that I (and my agent) think are good and worth publishing. [Full disclosure: I did put two e-books of unpublished manuscripts up on Amazon and basically forgot about them for years! One was a sequel to The Musician’s Daughter that readers kept asking me for, and that I’d written as the option book after TMD, but my editor wanted something different; the other was a book I knew would never be published, one of those about an obscure music-historical figure who fascinated me. I threw them up there partly because I wanted to see how easy it was, but I never promoted them.]

And there’s the beginning of my “why not.” My own actions with those two books are a test case for why I—and many other authors—don’t want to self-publish. Because, contrary to what most people believe, it isn’t simply a case of turning your manuscript into an e-book and selling it on Amazon. Important, determinative steps are missed when you do it the way I did it, and probably the way most people who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend do it.

Yes, you heard me right. Thousands. Bringing even just an e-book out properly is expensive, unless you have a vast readership that waits with fingers poised over the keyboard to purchase your next chef d’oeuvre. Here’s what it takes:

  • About $2,000 to $5,000 for a good developmental editor to help you see all the flaws and quirks in your story that you’re too close to notice.
  • About $1,500 for a copyeditor, who whips your grammar, spelling, punctuation etc. into shape (and who sometimes you disagree with because your character just speaks that way)
  • Another $800 for a proofreader.
  • $500 or more for a cover and book interior designer—yes, it matters even for an e-book.
  • At least $50 a week before and after you publish for social-media and Google Adwords ads, and that’s the barest minimum. Doing broader advertising—the sky’s the limit. So in a year, another $600- $1,200 say.
  • Hours, and hours, and hours of self-promotion on social media, blog tours (if you can find good blogs willing to let you write essays about a self-published book), essays written for any relevant outlet you can convince you’re legitimate—and all the hours it takes to chase down those opportunities.

Some places make the total cost around $4,000, but that doesn’t include promotion, and they low-ball the cost of a developmental editor.

If you want to hold that precious printed volume in your hands, then add printing costs, which even for a paperback are large per volume (because you’re not printing ten thousand at a time), so you end up having to sell your paperback well above the price of the usual, $16.99 trade paperback in order not to lose money every time. Plus, you have to store your books and hand-sell them to local bookstores (if you’re lucky). Forget about getting shelf space at Barnes & Noble, or in Target or Costco. They only deal with the big guys and the major independents.

Another biggie: reviews. Not reader reviews, but the trade reviews librarians and booksellers read as they’re trying to figure out what they’ll stock in the coming season. Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal. You can pay to get a Kirkus review, I’m told, but not as far as I know any of the others. As to national papers? Uh uh.

I simply value my time as a writer too much to spend what little I have left after my full-time day job putting time and money I don’t have into something that has every opportunity of vanishing into obscurity, and not doing my overall profile as an author any good whatsoever.

Now, there are people who have been very successful doing all of that themselves. The attraction is that you get to keep way more of the profits from each book you sell (more than the 25% of an e-book that’s the industry standard, 15% of a hardcover, 8% of a paperback), you get to control your publishing schedule, and you have direct contact with your readers. I’m simply not one of them. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have the minimum $10,000 floating around to properly self-publish something I’m really proud of.

It may be that I never get another novel published. But that won’t stop me writing them for as long as I’m able. I’m one of the fortunate ones who has published with major publishers. I have six beautiful books I can hold in my hands, grateful for the efforts on the part of my agent and editors to bring them to the world. Am I greedy to want to have more? Perhaps. But that’s just how it is for me, right or wrong.

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  1. Libby Sternberg

    I don’t think self-publishing is for everyone. And I think certain genres lend themselves to more success than others. But I do think you are overestimating some of the cost of self-publishing. For example, if you have a terrific critique partner, you don’t need to pay for a developmental edit if you swap manuscripts. I have one who is an editor as well as an author. She’s wonderful. I’m not sure why you need to pay for a proofreader, either, if you get a good copy editor who will perform both functions. Your manuscript is likely to be very clean, I’m guessing. 🙂 Covers can be costly, but I advise folks who are self-publishing not to overpay here or to use the free templates Amazon provides because you’re unlikely to get your book in bookstores, and you’re thus only dealing with a thumbnail of the cover online. Don’t pay for design elements that hardly show up, in other words.

    As to the money and time for promotion, sadly, you might end up doing that anyway with traditional publishers, nowadays. I know I had to spend scads of time doing self-promotion and blog tours when I was published by one particular traditional publisher (respected, and not a small press).

    So, no, you shouldn’t self-publish if you don’t see yourself getting jazzed by the process — I do because of the control it gives you.. But I don’t think it’s quite as expensive as your tally makes it seem. Oh, and you can get reviewed by Publishers Weekly if you are self-published. They launched a program for that. I received a wonderful PW review for two mysteries I self-published.

    • Susanne

      All good points, Libby! But you’re fortunate to have a critique partner who can double as editor. I think it’s rare. Plus, understand that I didn’t say no one should self-publish, or that writers haven’t been successful doing it, only that I won’t. And frankly, even if it only cost $2,000 to self-publish with an editor I couldn’t afford it.

      I also think self-publishing depends on one’s expectations, and what the goal is. If someone just wants to get a book out there, then self-publishing can be very rewarding. It’s just not for me, not now, and possibly not ever.

      Something I see writers doing in my community is self- or small-press publishing (sort of a cooperative thing) print books. They get a book they can hold in their hands and that the local bookstores are willing to sell on a commission basis. The writers are content with this arrangement, and don’t mind selling at most a few hundred copies.

      I’ve had a taste of big-six publishing and the experience was wonderful: I worked with terrific editors, have beautiful covers, made foreign sales. Oh, and getting an advance is very nice too. Yes, traditionally published authors have to do a lot of self-promotion in the form of social media and blog tours etc., and some do pay for advertising and promotion out of their own pocket (if this next book gets published, I’ll be doing that). But it feels less daunting when you have a recognized publisher behind you. To me anyway!

  2. Libby Sternberg

    Oh, I understand. I think you have to have realistic goals when self-publishing. Mine have shifted over the years from wanting to sell gazillions to wanting to get good reviews and perhaps attention that would then help me eventually secure that decent advance and great contract elsewhere. Although I wasn’t published by any in the Big Five (although I guess Harlequin is now – it’s part of Harper), I did manage to snag some great things from my publishing experiences, including a film deal. And attention on a Simon & Schuster blog (my Jane Eyre retelling was one of only 14 books they featured on Charlotte’ Bronte’s 200th anniversary last year — and it was published by a very small press, then self published after rights reverted to me). And an Edgar nomination with my first YA mystery (again, a small press book). The point is that good things can happen with small presses, big indie presses, even with self-publishing. If you are realistic about your goals. I don’t put the big publishers on a pedestal anymore. I think one needs to be just as realistic about them these days and what they can and won’t do for you.

  3. Linda Fetterly Root

    Some of us who self-publish have noted a drastic decline in sales. I also see a trend to pricing eBooks almost as high as print editions of the same title. I did editing in a prior life and thought I would not need to hire one myself,but that’s a mistake, worse than looking in a mirror and thinking I am still 50. I have seven books in print and ll of the together are not making in a year what my debut novel made in a month. And the reason, I suspect, is my budget. I’d do better downsizing and having garage sales. But I write because I have stories inside that need to get out before I croak.


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