Does self publishing hurt your mainstream publishing chances?
March 4, 2012 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Does self publishing hurt your mainstream publishing chances?

I've heard both sides, and I'd love to get a bit more info. I've written a pretty damned good language learning book, and my book proposal is nearly ready to send out.

But every time I talk about my book on the net I get a flood of people asking me for language advice and how soon they can get a copy. I wouldn't mind simply selling the book myself and getting some cash in the meantime while waiting to see if a publisher will pick it up. Would that hurt my chances of actually getting a publisher? (And sources for info would be much appreciated - I've posted this in other forums and gotten "Yes, it hurts your chances" and "No, it improves your chances", so if you've heard one of these, can you remember who you heard it from?)

Side question: There's a pretty large audience for the book (people who want to get fluent in a language but don't know what actually works/don't have enough time). I've gotten the sense that in terms of a bigger audience book like that one, a big publisher is going to have a much better shot at reaching a large market than I'm going to have doing self promotion. Is that a reasonable assumption?

I hear a lot of "Legacy Publishers abuse authors; self publishing is much better!" on the net, but if they can reach many more people, then it seems like they're a better bet. Thoughts?
posted by sdis to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I think there's less of a stigma with self-publishing than there used to be, but it will be hard to get publishers to pick up a book that has already been published. If the sales are poor, then the publisher will assume that there's no money to be made publishing this particular book. If sales are good, that may sway publishers in your favor... but since it's a somewhat niche topic they may assume that lots of the people who would want to read the book have already bought a self-published copy. You'd be cannibalizing your own audience. (Plus, publishers can be nitpicky about wanting the right to publish FIRST. They can't buy that right if you self-publish.)

My sense (as someone who's active in the online community of Japanese learners) is that there are a lot of language learners who are very geeky and plugged in and there's a good word-of-mouth network for excellent products, so I do think that self-publishing might work well for you.

On the other hand, there is a third way. Start a blog and publish short articles about language learning. Then, you won't be cannibalizing your audience -- you'll be building a platform of people who are really excited about your book. Publishers really like that.
posted by Jeanne at 7:30 AM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Ask Daniel Suarez whose first book was self published & then picked up by a major publishing house.

I don't think language learning is that niche. It's not John Grisham audience wide material, but a lot of people want to learn languages.

If you can get on amazon & get decent reviews - you can probably pick up a lot of sales doing the self publish thing.
posted by MesoFilter at 7:51 AM on March 4, 2012

I self publish and I have talked to editors about this very situation. They say it isn't a big deal, if you've only tapped a small portion of the market. They also say that most editors have stripped out their marketing support, leaving authors to market their own books without any more compensation than before.

I encourage you to look at simply self publishing. When I publish something for $20, I keep $19 ($1 goes to Google or PayPal). I sell tons of books. Someone I know negotiated a deal with a major publisher and she's only getting 50c a copy. That means that, if she sells 10,000 copies a year, she's only getting $5k. I've talked to several editors and authors and I seem to be doing better than people who go mainstream, except for maybe the likes of B and A list authors. But I am a niche writer and I'm never going to be on an Oprah special.

If you pick a good niche and you are half decent at marketing, you might as well self publish. Self publish has not stopped me from getting interviewed by major media outlets - in fact, it has helped. Younger reporters and editors seem to be on board with social media and online credibility and they like that you have a platform you can use to market their material. (One national media outlet told me that was why they interviewed me.)

But I agree with Jeanne that you should build up a platform. If you build a good platform (e.g. blog), you have a lot of choices.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:17 AM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you can get on amazon & get decent reviews - you can probably pick up a lot of sales doing the self publish thing.

Or your book might languish at the bottom of the amazon lists with the thousands of other self-published titles.

It depends, really, it does. How good are you at creating epubs? Designing covers? Marketing yourself? Editing your own writing? If you're not good at those things, are you willing to spend money out of pocket on them?

It sounds like your ultimate goal is mainstream publishing. In that case, my inclination is to tell you that it doesn't hurt anything to begin the query process or to begin pitching to publishers (depending on your genre). Spend a month or three at it. If you feel like you're not getting anywhere via the mainstream routes, then try self-publishing. It costs you nothing, and while I know that the long lead times in traditional publishing can be frustrating, those are in place for marketing and editing reasons--to provide time to really really get your book polished, to send it out to review markets, and so on.

Someone I know negotiated a deal with a major publisher and she's only getting 50c a copy. That means that, if she sells 10,000 copies a year, she's only getting $5k.

If she's making only 50 cents a copy, then she needs a better agent to negotiate contracts. The standard in mainstream publishing is closer to between 20 and 30% on ebooks. The percentages for print copies are a bit lower, but by and large those are venues you wouldn't be able to reach as a self-published author (ie bookstores).

Mainstream authors also get advances, which can help them to support themselves as they wait for their book to be published.

I hear a lot of "Legacy Publishers abuse authors; self publishing is much better!" on the net, but if they can reach many more people, then it seems like they're a better bet. Thoughts?

There is a lot of misinformation about mainstream publishing perpetuated by the big proponents of self-publishing. One thing I've slowly realized is how these individuals are building a platform by offering (sometimes salacious and false) publishing advice. They're marketing their books to you even as they're marketing their own method of publishing. This isn't true in all cases, but I believe it's sometimes the case.

(Personally, as an agented, contracted author whose book isn't coming out until 2013 . . . I feel so glad to have gone the route I did. I'm staring down at twenty-page edit letter, sure. But my book will be incalculably better by the time it is printed and sold. And this is speaking as someone who has edited professionally, knows her way around photoshop, and can edit an epub. I particularly love having an agent who spent 2 months negotiating contract issues for me, and I feel like those who I have worked with in publishing have largely been here to advocate for me and my book. But of course, your mileage may vary.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:32 AM on March 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you feel like you're not getting anywhere via the mainstream routes, then try self-publishing.

Yes, I agree. If you asked your question to 50 different people in publishing I think you'd get 50 different opinions. But if you start pursuing the mainstream route for a little while, you will get actual real feedback about your specific book's mainstream chances, potential value in terms of advances, eagerness of very experienced editors to help you make it even better, etc.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:37 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

@PhoBWanKenobi, that was on a print book that retails for $30.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:06 AM on March 4, 2012

@PhoBWanKenobi, that was on a print book that retails for $30.

That's still far below the standard, Chausette. Even with an agent's 15% taken out, an author should be getting around $1.78 on a $30 print book, assuming paperback at the lowest standard royalty rate.

(You might argue that this is still too low. That would be fair, but we should at least be using accurate figures in an argument like this.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:17 AM on March 4, 2012

I write in mass market. 8% royalty on paperbacks and 25% on ebooks is standard for my publisher, which is one of the NY "big 6." (Or five, or however many there are left these days.)

For trade and hardcover, the figures are different. Regardless, even at mass market standards, your friend should be getting far more than fifty cents on her hardcover. Something, methinks, is awry...
posted by artemisia at 9:40 AM on March 4, 2012

Oops, and to answer your question!

Something I haven't seen anyone address yet is the question of genre. If you write in a genre that is heavily consumed via ebook (YA and paranormal romance are the current leaders of the pack in that regard), self-publishing becomes much more viable than if you write, say, literary fiction or historical fiction or what have you. (This is really the most important point I have to make, in fact. Most of the self-publishing successes are really in romance and YA. A very few have been from other genres.)

Regardless, I think until books are out of brick and mortar stores entirely, it's smarter to try to start out in mainstream publishing. It still attracts more respect -- it's sort of like having gone to an Ivy for college; yes, your education was probably no better than a motivate student at State U, but damn if the name doesn't open some doors to you and make certain (shallow!) people look on you with instant respect. Furthermore, if you're NY-pubbed, you can build an audience online AND in brick and mortar. (Amanda Hocking, who was making bank as a self-pubber, decided to switch to NY precisely because she wanted to get her books into the hands of people who still prefer paper and browse for books at their local big box store or B&N.)

All of these advantages hold doubly true if you write in a genre that is regularly shelved in Target, Costco, and Walmart (romance, commercial fiction, YA... and of course the NY Times bestsellers ;). Yes, chances your book will be picked up by Costco is slim, but getting into Target and Walmart isn't *impossible*, and the rewards are substantial (in terms of increased sales, name recognition, and so on). Then you can choose (if you so desire) to move to self-pubbing having already developed something of a readership.

Finally, as PhoBWanKenobi points out, there's an immense pleasure and multiple advantages in working with publishing professionals (agent, editor) as a writer new to the professional scene. But these are intangible advantages. I've tried herein to focus more on concerns related to career building.
posted by artemisia at 9:48 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do one or the other. Either self-publish and try to make a success of that, or query agents or publishers and try to make a success of that. It's both poor form and poor strategy to put your book out there as a self-publication while it's in submission to agents or publishers.

Let me tell you why: while your book exists as a manuscript, agents or publishers will evaluate it based solely on its sales potential. Once it's been published, they'll evaluate it on its sales track record as well. So unless you're confident that you can do a great job of promoting your self-published title and getting thousands of sales, you're risking a lot.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:12 AM on March 4, 2012

Book publishers in 2012 are trying very hard not to be the music industry circa 2000. They should be able to beat, on a total value proposition, anything that you can do for yourself, with the exception of a couple of genres where the extremely-cheap-e-book has really revolutionized the market, and publishers can't yet figure out how to play.

If you're not in one of those niches, self-publishing is a route that makes sense only if you're so far out of the loop of the literary establishment that you don't have any realistic prospect of getting an agent to look at your stuff. Even then you're going to have to pay out of pocket for the editing, design and promotion strategy that a professional press would provide you -- a big risk with uncertain prospect of reward. (Promotion budget is another matter -- not easy to come by even with a publisher these days.)

One thing to note is that impressive as self-publication success stories can be, if there's an even bigger thing technology has done it is to help even the playing field between major presses and (professionally-run) smaller presses (corporate, university, not-for-profit) outside of the limited universe of the block-buster novel or (auto)bio. Well-regarded small presses with short, tightly-focused lists can do a better job getting your book in front of reviewers and buyers than major presses will do with a lot of their mid-list. E-books are obviously huge in their ability to create and respond to demand, but printing companies have had to become a lot more flexible and that gives small presses the ability to provide stores with hard copies in qualtiy and quantity competing with major's mid-list.
posted by MattD at 11:08 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in publishing and have experience with both the major trade houses and smaller independent presses. Self-publishing does not have the same sort of stigma that it used to, and in fact I frequently work on books that have been previously available, either as digital only versions or actual self/vanity-published print books. But it can frequently hint of desperation, an unwillingness to play by "the rules", and sometimes a cannibalization of sales (if the market is not all that big and the author does really well with their self-pubbed edition, who else is left to buy it?).

A publisher (big or small) IS going to have a much better chance of reaching a larger market than you will on your own. Can you get your book into Barnes & Noble? What about libraries? What about independent bookstores across the country? What do you know about layout, pricing, format, cover design? What access do you have to the Bookscan sales of comparable titles? How much cover copy have you written? Do you have access to other authors who might blurb you? How many review copies do you plan to print and mail out for reviews? Do you want the headache of dealing with all of these facets individually, not to mention handling (or paying for) all of your own marketing and publicity?

If not, then a traditional publisher is definitely the way to go. I'm not clear from your question whether you've actually done any shopping of your manuscript to get a sense of what interest there is from the industry (not just from potential readers) which would sway my answer quite a bit. If you haven't shopped it around at all, I'd do that first. If you have and are getting rejection letters or no answer at all, then I'd consider self-publishing it with a few caveats: have it edited by someone you pay to do so (ie, not a friend - a professional editor). Don't design your own cover art - hire someone with cover art experience to do it for you. And keep some material back so that if a publisher ends up being interested after the book is out, you can offer additional material in order to differentiate the "official" edition from the self-published edition.

The short answer really is that self publishing does and does not hurt your chances of being published by a regular publishing house. It depends on the topic, the competition, the timing, and many other factors. It doesn't automatically ruin your chances of publishing the same work later on, but neither does it mean that it will be noticed by a house either - you may still have to pitch it or query it out, in which case, why not start with that step?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 4:05 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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