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Self-Publishing Myths

I wrote this piece two years ago, but wanted to get it reposted to the new Wordpress site, especially after reading a few of the comments over at Genreville’s post on self-publishing.

I have absolutely nothing against self-publishing.

Let me say that again. I don’t hate self-publishing. I don’t hate self-published authors. I’m not interested in keeping anyone down, bashing authors, or mocking people who have accomplished the difficult and impressive job of completing a novel.

I do have serious problems with scammers trying to talk would-be writers into shelling over hundreds or thousands of dollars, while completely deluding them as to what they’re getting into.

The sad thing is that most of these places recycle the same old lines about how “traditional” publishers refuse to accept new writers*, and then they start listing famous and bestselling authors like Grisham and Paolini who chose to self-publish instead of going with one of those New York monstrosities . . . the implication being that you too will be a NYT bestseller if you self-publish your novel!

I finally got annoyed enough to gather some of these claims together, starting with good old Grisham.

1. John Grisham self-published A TIME TO KILL. Actually, Grisham sold A TIME TO KILL to a small publisher, Wynwood Press, who did a 5000-copy print run. Grisham bought the remaindered copies, which he sold himself. While this is the sort of hard work self-publishing often involves, A TIME TO KILL was certainly not a self-published book.

2. Christopher Paolini self-published ERAGON. Paolini’s family ran a small commercial press. ERAGON was not the first book published by Paolini International. Paolini International was founded in 1997, and you could make a strong argument that they are a commercial publisher, albeit a small one. On the other hand, since they were publishing the work of their son, you could also call this self-publishing. In either case, Paolini’s success** relied heavily on the fact that his family had five years of experience running a publisher, and were willing to devote themselves full-time to promoting his book. Unless your family has the same experience and devotion to your book, I wouldn’t count on achieving this level of success.

3. Mark Twain self-published HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I love this one. Companies will loudly proclaim that publishing is changing, that “traditional publishers” are the dinosaurs of the book world, and that self-publishing and print-on-demand are the wave of the future. These same companies then cite examples well over a century old. HUCKLEBERRY FINN was published in the late 1800s. Given how much the publishing industry has changed, how about we confine our arguments to examples less than a hundred years old. M’kay?

4. James Redfield self-published THE CELESTINE PROPHECY. Actually, this one appears to be true. From everything I’ve researched, Redfield did indeed self-publish. He gave away about 1500 copies, and word-of-mouth helped from there. What, you thought I was only going to post the false myths? Self-publishing canlead to success. Not as often as scammers would have you believe, but anything’s possible.  (For an example of a SF/F author who made it work, check out Simon Haynes.)

5. William Strunk, Jr. self-published THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE for his classes at Cornell University. Also true. However, it’s misleading. First of all, this book had a captive audience from day one. Unless you can force several hundred students to buy your book every semester, don’t count on seeing the same success. Also, there’s a huge difference between self-publishing non-fiction and fiction. With non-fiction, if you have a niche audience and you’re an expert on your topic, then you have a built-in platform through which to market your work. The success of Strunk and other non-fiction works is pretty much irrelevant to those of us who write fiction.

6. Even famous authors like Louis L’Amour self-published their work! L’Amour’s collection SMOKE FROM THIS ALTAR was published in 1939 by Lusk Publishing Company, which was owned by Enoch Lusk. I’ve been unable to find any other books from this publisher, so it may be self-publishing and not a small press publication. Regardless, what this claim usually omits is whatL’Amour self-published. The implication is that he’s another success story who went from humble self-publishing to bestselling author. In fact, SMOKE FROM THIS ALTAR is a collection of L’Amour’s poetry. Poetry, like non-fiction, is a very different beast than fiction. L’Amour’s first novel appeared in 1950, and he never self-published his fiction.

7. What about L. Frank Baum? He self-published, right? L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, which were published between 1900 and 1920. (So I suppose you could say this example is less than 100 years old. But you’re cutting it close!) THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was the first book, and was published by the George M. Hill Company in 1900. Hill also published at least one of Baum’s earlier books. George M. Hill went out of business in 1902, after which Reilly & Britton published Baum’s Oz books. The final two Oz books (by Baum) were published by Reilly & Lee. But this myth isn’t completely false. My research suggests that Baum did indeed self-publish one work . . . a manual on chicken farming.

I could go on at length, but this could easily become a novel-length work if I had the time and energy. I have books of my own to write. And my goal isn’t to analyze every last myth, but rather to take a critical look at some of the most popular claims, in the hope of helping others do the same.

Publishing is hard work. It doesn’t matter which route you choose. Commercial publishing can be slow. Most authors who go this route face years of rejection and struggle. Self-publishing gives you more control. You can publish the very first book you ever write, if you’re so inclined. (I’d advise against it, but that’s just me.) On the other hand, the average self-published book sells very few copies, and requires much more marketing and self-promotion by the author. A commercially published book doesn’t make you an instant celebrity either, of course. Believe me, I wish it did. But the average book from Baen, DAW, or Tor will sell more copies in its first week than most self-published books sell in their lifetime.

There are no easy paths to success. Whatever you might think of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, Redfield did an awful lot of work to sell his book and build word-of-mouth. Paolini went to hundreds of schools, in costume, promoting ERAGON. My books are published by DAW, but I still I spend way too much time designing and distributing promotional materials, not to mention traveling to conventions and libraries and anywhere else I can go. Being a writer is hard! (Anyone who says differently is selling something.)

Bottom line: know what your goals are. Do the research. There are plenty of scammers and snake oil salesmen*** in this field. Don’t fall for the sales pitch, and make an educated choice.

Good luck!

*Off the top of my head, here are a few new SF/F authors who sold books to major publishers in the past few years: Sarah Prineas, Tobias Buckell, Joshua Palmatier, Marie Brennan, Jay Lake, Matthew Cook, Anton Strout, Seanan McGuire, Stephanie Burgis, C. C. Finlay, and myself.

**Don’t get me wrong. I would love it if my books did half as well as ERAGON!

***The snake oil salesman analogy is borrowed from John Savage, who writes an excellent entry on self-publishing myths at http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com:80/2004/08/autobibliophilia.html.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 92 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 11th, 2009 01:29 pm (UTC)
Off the top of my head, here are a few new SF/F authors who sold books to major publishers in the past few years...

Also: me, Lisa Mantchev, Harry Connolly, Aliette de Bodard, Mary Robinette Kowal, Catherine Knutsson...

In other words, lots and lots of new authors in the SF/F field.

Sep. 11th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
Yes, and thank you! I added a few more names this morning when I reposted, but the brain is only working at about 30% right now. (I am NOT getting sick, dammit!)
(no subject) - beth_bernobich - Sep. 11th, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Sep. 11th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 11th, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)
Great post, Jim. I would add that self published work also suffers from a serious lack of editing (not always, but generally so).

From a reviewer's POV, the lack of gatekeepers in self-publishing makes it a minefield with more mines than safe ground. It has actually gotten to the point where I no longer review self-published books, for two reasons: to save my sanity, and to avoid the often unpleasant necessity of savaging a below-par piece of writing. I have learned my lesson: the gatekeepers in trad publishing reject most books for a reason!
Sep. 11th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
Commercial publishers definitely aren't perfect, but they're not the enemy either. I get so tired of the complaints that commercial publishers are out to squash new writers, or that they reject anything new or innovative, and so on. Everyone I've talked to who works with the NY publishing houses is in it because they love the genre. They love the stories. Sure, they want to make money, but they're also fans trying to get good stories out to new readers.

So they look for good books they think will sell, and reject the rest. While I don't always agree 100% with their choices, I've read enough unpublished slush to appreciate the gatekeeper function.
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Sep. 11th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)
What bothers me is self-published authors who talk out of two sides of their mouths. They will put down traditional publishers as bad, evil, greedy, uninterested in new authors, etc. Next, they will say that their self-published book will be so well-received that a traditional publisher will have to pick them up. Um....what?
Sep. 11th, 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
I've noticed this too. It's almost entertaining.

Most self-published authors I've spoken to have been very cool people. I think the bad-mouthing ones are in a minority, but it's a loud minority, one which seems to put an awful lot of time and effort into being loud for the sake of "promotion".
(no subject) - margaret_y - Sep. 11th, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Sep. 11th, 2009 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
And aside from *friendship*... - archangelbeth - Sep. 14th, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Loftily - marycatelli - Sep. 11th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 11th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
There's no right answer on the agent question. I know people who have sold directly to publishers, and I know folks who have gone the agent route first. In either case, I would suggest getting an agent before signing the contract, though. If you go directly to the publisher and get an offer, that's when I'd say "Thank you, my agent will be in touch soon!" and then go call your top three agent pics to tell them you have a deal in hand. (This is the only time an unpublished author is supposed to call an agent, as far as I know.)

If I had to do it all over again, I'd go after agents first. There are a lot more agents to query than there are publishers taking unagented subs, and you can query many agents at once.
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Sep. 11th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
The link to Sarah Prineas's page is broken.

Also, I'm working on an update to my listing of debut SF, so while I'll be including the authors you listed above, other sf authors who are interested in appearing there should let me know, preferably with the data needed for a listing.
Sep. 11th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)
Fixed, thank you.

From Beth Bernobich's comment above, in case you missed it:

Also: me (Beth), Lisa Mantchev, Harry Connolly, Aliette de Bodard, Mary Robinette Kowal, Catherine Knutsson...
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
Why do you hate freedom, Jim Hines??

(Seriously -- good post. :-D)
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
(The Grisham canard in particular is one I heard over and over back in the day -- and this in an actual university writing program. =/)
(no subject) - bemused_leftist - Sep. 11th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 11th, 2009 02:33 pm (UTC)
I've heard the "I've gamed the system" mantra so often it makes me cringe. There is no gaming of the system. The editors at Tor or Daw or Ace aren't evil tyrants looking to reject your manuscript. They're looking for that glittering diamond, that "Oh wow, this rocks!" moment. Editors love to find new writers and bring them into the fold, watch their careers (and sales) blossom. That's why they're editors (cuz it sure ain't for the money, folks.)

Back before it became so commonplace, I self-pubbed my first three novels (2001-02), signed my first traditional contract with a small press in 2005 and with a NY house in 2009. Self-pub taught me how distribution does (or doesn't work), how to market myself and helped me build my platform on the convention circuit. The small press contract gave me a brilliant editor who taught me SO much. Those experiences helped me land that NY contract. Today, if I was just starting out, I'd go with a well respected small press who had strong editors who would help me hone my craft. Then I'd set my sights on NY.

But my journey isn't yours. As Jim said, set your goals and find the best way to get there. The journey is as unique as the writer.
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
There's a part of me that thinks every writer should self-publish something, just so we start to get an idea about everything else that goes into the process. I put together a book for my wife on Lulu as an anniversary present, and the amount of time I spent typesetting, doing cover design, formatting the back copy, and everything else ... it left me with tremendous respect for the folks who do it for me (and better than I could) at DAW.
(no subject) - crazywritergirl - Sep. 11th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 11th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
As I understand it John Scalzi also got his start in self-publishing on the web. I can't remember if he started with Old Man's War or if it was Agent to the Stars that was his first but he did it.

I agree with your points, even though I bring up an example of one time where self-publishing worked. Every few years I get a call from XLibris wanting to know how my "manuscript" is coming, never mind the fact that the last time I called them was nearly eight years ago, the manuscript is long since finished, and I tell them each time they call me to jump in a lake.

Aspiring authors really should check out the sites Writers Beware and Predators & Editors to check to see if the place they're submitting for has been checked out.
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
Yep. Scalzi posted one of his books online, and a Tor editor offered him a contract. But Scalzi also had a powerful online presence, with tens of thousands of folks already reading his blog.

I can't imagine Tor would have bought it if Scalzi couldn't write, but the fact that he had a preexisting audience probably helped a lot too.

XLibris actually calls you? Wow.

I think Writer Beware is one of the best services SFWA provides.
(no subject) - cuddlycthulhu - Sep. 11th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Sep. 11th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 11th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
I Committed Self-Publishing And Lived
Two thoughts:

1) Having committed self-publishing, it ain't the easy road to riches. Besides, Paolini's measure of success was "getting picked up by a big publisher." So self-publishing success is like getting called up to the majors from minor league baseball.

2) Mark Twain was exceptionally famous by the time Huckleberry Finn came out. In fact, he was personal friends with one U. S. Grant, and founded a publishing company to print his friend's memoirs. Twain's company ended up going bankrupt, and Twain nearly lost his house in the deal.
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
I think E. Lynn Harris also self-published. But he was writing in a niche that expanded as he went to the traditional route. Ahh, the dreams of so many authors.
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
I like throwing another name into the pan for self-published authors, one that often gets overlooked because he's not SF/F, and he's not really well known... And I think YOU should read him Matthew Reilly. His first book "Contest" was self-published, but then was later picked up by a major publisher.

I, personally, love his writing (especially his Scarecrow books) and am very glad to have read them.
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Sep. 11th, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
That's an approach I haven't heard of before. Was the publisher grant-funded? I'm trying to figure out how he'd be able to do this, given the cost of printing. It doesn't sound like a bad deal at all.

I'm with you on the promotion, though. I find myself doing less of it for Mermaid than I've done in the past. I just don't have the energy or the desire anymore. Thinking about the amount of time and energy it would take if I was the only one pushing the books is just scary.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Sep. 11th, 2009 07:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
I would love to find out the story behind Daniel Suarez and "Daemon." (Although I do not fool myself for an instant that this is anything more than the exception that proves the rule.)
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
Also re: no. 5, professors do this all the time. It's very rare for those books to be picked up by anyone OTHER than their students, so Strunk is exceptional.

(In general, if you want to make it as a writer, the academic route is not the way to go, anyway. You need to write something with more popular appeal, otherwise the only people who read it will be academics in your specialty, and the only people who buy it will be academic libraries, and our budgets aren't even keeping up with inflation.)
Sep. 11th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
Definitely. Academic publishing is a whole other beast. I suspect the need to publish for tenure purposes had helped the academic genre to evolve in a different direction than the more commercial stuff.

Library budgets seem to be getting hit all over the place these days. Not good...
(no subject) - mtlawson - Sep. 11th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sabellak - Sep. 11th, 2009 06:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Sep. 11th, 2009 05:06 pm (UTC)
If nothing else, if one is going to self-publish, one needs to do it eyes wide open, precisely because of the challenge it is.

I wrote an article on five reasons not to self publish a few years back that I think still more or less holds true.
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Jim C. Hines


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