Do People Look Down on Self-Publishing?Jun 02, 2021
One thing I need to tell you right off: there was no bigger snob about self-publishing back in the day than the person writing this post. If someone told me they published a book, I would raise an eyebrow and ask, "Traditional or..." and then let the sentence trail off. If they answered "Self," I looked at them with sheer disdain and wondered how they had the audacity to call themselves the author of a published book.
All of that changed around 2012.
Self-Publishing Used to Be Called Vanity Publishing
Self-published books used to be those things that were put out by your great aunt who thought she had a great story to tell but no one else did. They were never sold in bookstores and never got reviewed.
Today, there are more self-published than traditionally published books and schools like the University of Central Lancashire offer programs in self-publishing. Self-published books are reviewed in Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus and everywhere else.
That being said, some people are committed to going traditional and about that I'll say the same thing I always do: if you want to put in a year—sometimes two—into finding an agent and then wait another six months or so to see if that agent can sell it, you could get of anywhere from $2000 (my lowest) to...well, the sky's the limit when there's a bidding ware. Just know that it will be another year or two before publication, that very few books represented by agents even sell and that those that do often sell struggle to find audiences, with no help from the publisher.
Obviously, to get a traditional deal, you need an agent and for that agent to be able to sell your book, you need to be able to show you can sell that book (with, say a social media following of over 100k, a newsletter list of over 50K) or something of the sort. One thing that can help sway publishers is if you offer to buy, say, 5000 copies but you have to already be someone they'd be interested in giving a deal to; they're not going to make a deal with anyone who offers to buy their own copies.
The Cons of Traditional
Of course, with traditional publishing, you're giving up your rights. That may not seem like a big deal but if you're sitting where I am—trying to wrestle the rights for Party Girl back from HarperCollins and even though the contract stipulates that they are mine after a decade, Harper won't sign off on that so I can't republish—you'd see it is.
With traditional publishing, you really have no say over the title and cover. Now obviously if you're a well-known writer with a lot of power, you have say but I remember with my fourth book, Falling For Me, the cover they created was so awful. Everyone I showed it to felt bad for me. So I paid another designer to do a great version of what they did. There was no way you could like the bad one and not like the good one but for reasons they never clarified for me, they went with the first one and it really made the book dead on arrival.
You also have no control over what happens. When my publisher was fired a few months before Party Girl came out, the entire division dissolved so there was no marketing team, no sales team—no anything. And I had never published a book before so I didn't know how unfortunate it was to have no one advocating for the book in the media and at stores.
But here's the reality about your publisher advocating for you in the media: they don't. They advocate for Elizabeth Gilbert and Glennon Doyle and those other authors that don't need advocating for—because those authors are their big moneymakers.
Case in point: I always wanted to go on Good Morning America for my six books with HarperCollins. Harper always told me GMA wasn't interested in me. When Make Your Mess Your Memoir was released, I reached out to GMA directly and got on.
Did GMA care that I had published my book and that a company like Harper hadn't? Absolutely not.
Of course, the prestige of traditional publishing is unparalleled! So please ignore all of that if it's what you want.
What Traditional Publishing Expects
There was a widely circulated story recently by a traditionally published author named Kacen Callender about the pressure she feels from her publisher. I'm pasting a quote from it below but I highly recommend going and reading the entire post here.
“There’s an expectation by many that authors give more of themselves: to come up with their own marketing schemes, to search for as many opportunities to publicize themselves and their books as possible. There’s an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) suggestion from publishing companies and professionals that, if the book doesn’t do as well as the author might’ve hoped, then it’s actually the author’s fault.”
I found that to be true X1000.
The Reality: Self-Published Rates Are Better
With a traditional publisher, after the agent's take and the publisher's take, you end up with maybe 10% of the profits. If it's a massive book, that's a lot of money but most books, alas, are not massive.
Advances are paid out in either two or three installments and so usually you get the first third when you sign, and that's what you use to live on, spend on research or whatever else. Then you tend to get the second part when the manuscript is approved and the third when the book is released. Since it can be a year or two between acquisition and release, you can end up waiting for a long time for those second and third installments.
If you earn out the entire advance, you begin to earn royalties but the often cited percentage is that only 15% of books tend to earn out.
With self-published books, however, you get to keep anywhere from 50-70% of your book’s profits. The only expense that's subtracted is the printing and shipping. And you own all the rights!
But let's be real: almost no self-published author makes a lot from book sales. That's why so many have businesses connected to the books they publish; through those, they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they would with a traditionally published book. (See link below for an episode that gets into that.)
Another Reason People Choose to Self-Publish
A traditional publisher's goal with each book is to get that customer to buy more from that publisher. It's why the publisher's and not the author's contact information is in the front and back of the book.
With a self-published book, you have the opportunity to attract that reader to you and not the publisher. Many self-published books have calls to action in the beginning, the end or throughout the book that are designed to get the reader to sign up for their email list. You can put a QR code at the beginning for readers to scan and be led to a page on your site. You can put your email address. You can virtually do anything you want; it's your book.
Biggies Now Go The Self-Published Route
People like James Altucher, Jeff Goins and Pat Flynn could easily sell their books to traditional publishers. But they don't, for all the reasons I've broken down above. And when there are success stories like The Martian (Andy Weir self-published it and it ended up selling three million copies and being made into a movie that made $630 million) and 50 Shades of Gray (100 million copies sold and you know the rest of that story), more big writers are going this route.
While it's hard, if not impossible, to make the New York Times bestseller list as a self-published author, you can make the USA Today and WSJ list, though you usually have to sell a minimum of 6000 copies.
How Much Does the Publisher Matter?
Let's play a book: Name a book you love. Now name the publisher.
And here are some of the divisions of Simon & Schuster: Adams Media, Avid Reader Press, Emily Bestler Books and Free Press. If you saw any of those names on the side or back or front of a book, would you even know if it was a traditional publisher?
So my final answer is no, people do not look down on self-published books. And if a self-publishing book snob like me can come 180 degrees, anyone can.
CLICK ON ANY OF THE LINKS BELOW TO HEAR THIS EPISODE!
QUOTE OF THE POD:
"I always wanted to go on Good Morning America for my six books with HarperCollins. Harper always told me GMA wasn't interested in me. When Make Your Mess Your Memoir was released, I reached out to GMA directly and got on."