Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Thoughts about self-publishing

Because sometimes people come here through an interest in writing for publication, I wanted to say a couple of things about self-publishing, as it's a popular route to making books available now.

There are some benefits to it. 

If your manuscript is of great interest but only to a small group of people — perhaps family memoirs, or an account relating to a specific fellowship or other interest group — self-publishing could be the way to go. 

A publishing company will take your book only if they can make the numbers stack up for the sales forecast. If you are famous they will take on your book even if you can't write well — they'll find someone to help you put a book together. If you have a large public ministry (eg, if you are a speaker on the conference circuit) they will publish your book, especially if you can promise to buy several hundred copies for your own bookstall. If you are a good writer and the publisher believes your topic or story will catch the public imagination, they will take your book even if you are not famous. But the bottom line is always the sales forecast — if they can't sell it in sufficient quantity, they can't publish it.

So people turn to self-publishing for one of a number of reasons:

  • Maybe a writer needs a book out in a hurry. There are many stages and a sequence to follow in traditional publishing; a book can be fast-tracked but will still take months to come out after it's written. Self-publishing can dramatically reduce the time frame.
  • Perhaps the likely readership group is small. This doesn't mean the book is not good — and indeed taking this route to publication might be a way to grow the readership.
  • If a writer is serious about earning a living solely through writing, and is prepared to undertake their own marketing etc, then of course they will get to keep a much bigger percentage of sales income if they self-publish.

I wanted to alert you, though, to a couple of serious drawbacks to self-publishing, just because some people underestimate the importance of these things, and they really should not be ignored.

The first is that even if you are the new Shakespeare, I guarantee your work will be better for passing through the hands of an editor and copy editor. Even if your spelling and grammar are all they should be (and you might not be the one to realise it if they are not), every writer bar none is prone to repetitions and can do with their prose de-coking here and there. And, depending on where your intended market-place is, there might be cautions you need to observe that someone familiar with publishing will be alert to.

For instance, in editing the work of American novelists I've sometimes come across details about daily reality that don't cross the Atlantic. If you have set your novel in England and casually mention turtles, your English readers will be surprised. UK robins and US robins are not at all the same, and we don't have cardinals or blue-jays in England. Afternoon tea and high tea are not at all the same thing, and an English biscuit bears no resemblance to an American biscuit — and of course, UK writers can make similarly mistaken assumptions in a novel set in America.

If you are writing into the Christian market place, there are differences between England and America in what's morally and theologically acceptable. You may inadvertently stray into forbidden territory.

The meticulous and detailed work of copy-editing also usually zaps errors in even the most oven-ready manuscript. 

So if you self-publish, it's well worth getting an experienced editor and copy-editor to help prepare your book. Probably not a relative, who may share your cultural blind spots and be too inclined to try and please you.

The second area of caution is permissions. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If you are writing non-fiction and include anecdotes about someone else, in which they are recognisably identified, you absolutely must get their permission before you publish. If you are quoting anything from anywhere — including the Bible — you must be certain you are within the word length you are allowed to use (or else get permission, which is not always easy). As it is so very expensive to get permission to quote poetry or songs, it's usually better to find a different way to say what you want, or paraphrase. If you go the traditional publishing route, the publisher will check all this for you (or at least let you know you need to do it), but if you are self-publishing you must do it yourself without fail. If you do not, the consequences can be awful. Some writers/estates have legal people who make it their business to spot and act on infringements of copyright, and the fines can go into the tens of thousands of pounds/dollars. It could clean you out. If you self-publish, you must pay attention to this.

I just thought I'd draw your attention to these small but important things, in case they are relevant to your own writing plans.


Rapunzel said...

Ok, you've already got me dying of curiosity about moral and theological differences between England and America in the Christian writing market.
I shall lie awake all night wondering.........

Pen Wilcock said...

Ah — as a general rule of thumb — the British are stickier about doctrinal rectitude and more relaxed about sex scenes; the Americans are scrupulous about sex and vaguer about theological doctrine (provided no New Age red flags are included to upset readers).

Rapunzel said...

Ah, yes- that makes perfect sense. Must be because we have a zillion assorted denominations and since you can't please everyone it's easier to practice avoidance?

Jenna said...

Since 2015, I have worked as an editor/proposal writer for a NYC-based agent, who works the non-fiction shelf, and the number one thing about self-pub is you pretty much AX your chances to ever be house published.

And in non-fiction at least there are no passion projects. No platform, no decent social media numbers, no deal. She says that publishers are basically loan officers; they want to know they'll get their investment back.

All that to say: In either case, you'll be out there selling your own book. Might as well do it for a place that already has reach.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Rapunzel — waving!

Hi Jenna — thanks — I think what you've said there will be very helpful to people reading along on this topic.

Buzzfloyd said...

As a reader, I tend to be much more suspicious of self-published work, especially in non-fiction, because I expect it to contain errors. On the other hand, some super-niche stuff has always been self-published!

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes! I'm interested in what Jenna says about the passion projects — because every single thing I have written has been a passion project; I will not write what publishers describe as "product". I guess I've just been lucky with my non-fiction being published.