Self Publishing Versus Conventional Publishing? 5 Big Advantages of DIY Publishing — and 5 Reasons to Reconsider

Why Are You Atheists So Angry?
Ever since I self-published the ebook of “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless” — and ever since I got the print edition published by a conventional small-press publisher, Pitchstone — other writers have been asking me for advice about self-publishing, conventional publishing, and which they should pursue.

I have become a serious convert to self-publishing, and am a big booster of it. But I also recognize that the success of “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” is something of an outlier in the self-publishing world, and that this avenue isn’t for everyone. So I want to do a bit of a public service announcement for other writers, and lay out what I see as the major advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing versus conventional publishing.

Advantages to self-publishing:

1) You get to keep most of your money. This is not a trivial matter. Especially if you have serious ambitions of being a full-time or even part-time professional writer.

2) You get to be in control. You control publicity. You control design. You get to write your product description. An editor won’t make you change that beautiful turn of phrase just because it’s not Chicago Manual of Style. You decide cover art (and this is NOT trivial: I’ve seen authors weep tears of blood and threaten to quit writing altogether because a boring or butt-ugly cover got forced on them.) If you are a giant control queen like me, this is a big freaking deal.

And you’re not at the mercy of the whims and weathers of your publisher. In conventional publishing, if your favorite editor who loves your work and totally gets your market suddenly gets fired, or moves on to greener pastures? If there’s a buyout or a change in ownership, and the new ant overlords hate your book and decide to bury it? If some dolt in the marketing department decides that your biting analysis of the history of religious apologetics can be sold to the burgeoning tween market if they just slap a vampire on the cover? If your editor goes mad and sets fire to their office because you accidentally re-wrote the Necronomicon and reading your book opened a portal in their brain to the demon underworld? (I hate it when that happens!) You’re pretty much hosed. Depending on your contract, there’s either little you can do, or nothing you can do. When you’re publishing yourself, you can publish your demonic ravings on your own timetable, and nobody can stop you. NOBODY! BWA HA HA HA HA HA HA! The world is DOOMED!

3) It is fast, fast, fast. There is no way I could have gotten “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” out in time for the Reason Rally if it had been published conventionally. A small press will be more nimble than a big house…. but they’ll still be significantly slower getting your book out than you will yourself. If for no other reason, a conventional publisher actually has to physically print a big batch of physical books. (I know, right? Are we living in the Dark Ages or something?) And that takes time that ebook publishing and print-on-demand don’t. If you have an idea that’s timely, if there’s a wave you want to ride, self-publishing means you can get your book out like lightning. Once it’s written, you format it or pay someone to format it; you go to Kindle/ Nook/ Smashwords/ CreateSpace/ Lulu/ whatever; you hit the “Publish” button. Done.

4) Did I mention that you get to keep most of your money?

5) The weird little truth that conventional publishers are beginning to freak out about: There really isn’t a whole lot that conventional publishers can do for you that you can’t do for yourself. There are some things — I’ll get to those in a sec — and depending on your situation, they may not be trivial.

But here’s the thing. A conventional publisher can give you a promotion budget… but they probably won’t. Or they won’t give you much of one. They probably won’t even consider publishing your book if you can’t do the lion’s share of publicity yourself. A conventional publisher can get your book into bookstores and mainstream book distribution channels… but bookstore sales are an ever-decreasing percentage of the book market. Online sales and ebook sales are kicking bookstores’ asses. That sucks giant donkey dicks: I love bookstores, I want my book in bookstores, any bookstores who want to carry “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?” should contact either Pitchstone (the publisher) or Last Gasp (the current distributor). But it’s a reality that writers need to accept.

Honestly? The publishing world kind of screwed itself. The big houses especially. They kept cutting back and cutting back and cutting back on what they give to authors, and expecting authors to do more and more and more of the heavy lifting themselves. And then self-publishing books started to become cost-effective, and blogging/ citizen journalism/ other electronic self-publishing forms started getting credibility, and authors started saying, “So I’m working with you… why, again?” If you’re a writer, that’s a question you should seriously be asking.

And, of course, all this is assuming that you can, in fact, get a contract with a conventional book publisher… which has always been hard, and is getting harder all the time.

So if publishers can’t do that much for you that you can’t do for yourself… why not just do it yourself, and keep most of your money?

Advantages to conventional publishing:

1) With self-publishing, you have to pay for everything yourself: formatting, cover art, review copies, ISBNs, promo cards, etc. You may be able to get help with some of this, free or cheap: from friends, from fans, from work-trade agreements. But not all of it. If you don’t have the cash/ resources to absorb these costs upfront and take the risk that it may not pan out, it may well be worth it to you to have a conventional publisher absorb those costs instead.

2) With self-publishing, you have to do everything yourself. This is the flip side of “you get to be in control.” You have to do publicity, promotion, dealing with formatters, acquiring ISBNs — everything — all by yourself, or with the help of friends and colleagues. That doesn’t just take money… it takes time. And it takes motivation. If you’re considering self-publishing, ask yourself: “Do I really have the time and energy to deal with all that boring business bullshit?” If your answer is a horrified, nauseated shudder, conventional publishing might be right for you.

3) Having an editor is often a good thing. If you self-publish, your non-existent editor won’t make you change that beautiful turn of phrase just because it’s not Chicago Manual of Style… but they also won’t catch that horrendously stupid mistake you made. If you self-publish, it’s an excellent idea to hire a copy editor — but then you have to add that to your upfront costs. (Or do what I did, and marry one.)

4) Being a self-publisher means being a publisher. And that means understanding the publishing business. I had a big leg up when I self-published “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”: I’d been working in the publishing industry in one capacity or another (for book publishers, book distributors, retail mail-order companies working with book publishers and distributors, magazine publishers, newspaper publishers) for decades. I knew the business — the small, quirky, indie end of the business, anyway — very well indeed, and I had a working familiarity with the bigger side of the business as well. If you’re self-publishing and you don’t have that knowledge, you’re going to have to acquire it, or learn it on the fly.

On the other hand… some publishers don’t seem to understand the publishing world very well, either. The big ones especially. The degree to which big book publishers have utterly failed to adapt to the electronic world astonishes me. Look at simple things like, “Your cover art has to look good on a computer screen in thumbnail size,” for fuck’s sake. How hard is that to get right?

5) There is still a certain cred that conventional publishing confers on a writer. And there is still a certain stigma on self-publishing, a whiff of the “vanity press” notion. This is diminishing significantly, and it’s diminishing more and more all the time, but it’s still there. The fact that a professional in the industry decided your work was publishable and sellable does give you a certain cachet. And if you’ve been picked up by one publisher, it increases your chances of being picked up by another.

On the other hand… if you self-publish and your book does well, that increases your chances with publishers, too. It shows that you have a platform, that you’re motivated and engaged in promoting your work, and that your work will sell. And the cred gap between conventional publishing and self-publishing is closing all the time. Also, you may decide that you don’t really care about that cred stuff, if it means you get to control your business and keep more of your money.

Bottom line:

If you’re a highly self-motivated, reasonably well-organized control freak, with the time and resources to put into the project and a good platform for publicizing your book (a blog, a videoblog, a podcast, connections with other bloggers and videobloggers and podcasters, lots of followers on Facebook and Twitter and whatnot), self-publishing is probably a good choice. And if conventional publishers won’t publish your book, self-publishing is an excellent choice. Definitely the way to go.

But if a conventional publisher will publish your book — and if it’s worth making less money and giving up control to have someone else absorb the upfront costs and hassles and boring business end of publishing, and if you’re not a giant control freak like me — then conventional publishing is probably worth it.

Note: “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless” is currently available in ebook form at Kindle, Nook, and multiple formats on Smashwords, including iBooks, Sony Reader, Kobo, Kindle (.mobi), Stanza, Aldiko, Adobe Digital Editions, any other reader that takes the Epub format, Palm Doc (PDB), PDF, RTF, Online Reading via HTML, and Plain Text for either downloading or viewing. All ebook editions and formats cost just $7.99.

You can get the print edition through Last Gasp — wholesale and retail mail-order — through the Richard Dawkins Foundation bookstore, and at the American Atheists online bookstore. (The AA store website is slightly wonky, but if you go there and select “New Products” in the left sidebar [NOT “Newest Items”], it’s right there at the top of the section.) It can also be ordered directly from the publisher, Pitchstone Publishing. (You can also pre-order the print edition through Amazon — but Amazon and most other retailers won’t have the book until the fall.) The print edition is $14.95.

And the audiobook version is available at Audible, iTunes, and Amazon. And yes, I did the recording for it!

Self Publishing Versus Conventional Publishing? 5 Big Advantages of DIY Publishing — and 5 Reasons to Reconsider

17 thoughts on “Self Publishing Versus Conventional Publishing? 5 Big Advantages of DIY Publishing — and 5 Reasons to Reconsider

  1. 1

    I would definitely recommend *against* going with a publisher, especially if it’s for a nonfiction book, mainly for reason number 2: “You get to be in control”. I wrote a book for a publisher, and it was the worst experience of my life. This sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true: the last three months of my book writing almost destroyed my life.

    After the book was effectively finished, the publisher came up with all kinds of strange requests. For example, “you must change every instance where you address the reader directly from ‘you’ to ‘we’ to sound more compassionate, that’s how all of our books are!” That’s a day spent in anger, going through the whole book, changing every last instance. Of course, then, they figured out that now, the book sounded incredibly patronizing, so they told me to change it back; I couldn’t just revert the changes, because other changes were made in the meantime, so I went through the book again, reverting everything by hand. Another day spent angrily sitting in front of my computer.

    This went on for three months. Every day brought another unreasonable request that would make my book worse. After spending more than a year trying to write the best book I possibly could, I spent three months making my book worse. I was angry when I went to sleep, and I woke up angry, and I was angry all day long.

    Since the book was essentially done, I didn’t want to abandon the project, or let another author finish it, so I powered through. By the end, I was physically ill, and wouldn’t get better. Went to the doctor. He immediately prescribed medication for high blood pressure, and eventually sent me to a shrink to deal with my now-constant stress and anxiety. I’m still going to a therapist, and I’m still taking blood pressure medication, and I have all kinds of follow-up issues from three months of constant anger and absurdly increased blood pressure.

    This is probably an extreme case, but my publisher isn’t a bad publisher. It’s just that your own goals (writing the best book possible) can very easily be at odds with your publisher’s goals (publishing a book that fits his style guide, fills a hole in his book catalogue, matches the quality of the other books he’s publishing, etc). If you care about what you do (and after spending a year or more on something, you probably *do* care), being forced to make your work worse so it’s consistent with some other person’s work is incredibly, incredibly stressful.

    So yeah. Just self-publish.

  2. 2

    This is a discussion I see regularly at Norwescon (ob plug: web site.) In just the last five years, there has been more support for DIY publishing and e-publishing, even among established writers who could get contracts easily. And Cory Doctrow’s endorsement for Creative Commons publishing is gaining wider support: offering your stuff online as shareware with a donation request can result in more money coming in than you would get with a standard big house royalty check.

    The caveat, though, is that online distributors like Amazon have a nasty reputation of underreporting online sales, resulting in them underpaying authors of ebooks. And the small fly-by-night operations… you have to be really, really careful, especially if they demand money up-front.

  3. 5

    “If your editor goes mad and sets fire to their office because you accidentally re-wrote the Necronomicon and reading your book opened a portal in their brain to the demon underworld?”

    Were this possible, I’d do anything to become a writer. And, I can hardly manage clear comments let alone a book length project.

  4. 6

    I would like to add two points.

    One, a book is forever. Unless you’re writing something particularly topical, you’re going to continue to have people interested in buying it for the rest of your life and beyond. Traditional publishers will put something in bookstores for a relatively short period of time unless it’s a massive hit. Publish it yourself electronically and POD, and your book will be available pretty much forever. Not in bookstores, true, but not out of print, ever.

    Two, you can hire freelance editors. I do some freelance editing myself, and there are plenty of places to find others online. I highly recommend that you find an editor and be ready for them to tell you your stuff is terrible. Remember, it’s their job to tell you how to make your stuff the best stuff it can be and not to tell you it’s already awesome.

  5. 7

    I second gregorylynn’s recommendation to hire an editor and be ready to take criticism. An important difference between hiring an editor as a self-publisher and working with an editor in a traditional publishing contract is that in self-publishing, you are a paying client and the editor is working for you. Which definitely does NOT mean ze will shower you with praise; it means you are the ultimate decision-maker about any changes your editor recommends. In traditional publishing, the editor is an employee of a company that’s much bigger than you, the author, and hir responsibility is to protect that company’s assets. That’s where the control-freak issue comes in: what the publishing house intends to sell might not be a good fit with your creative vision. (E.g., luka’s comment at #1.)

    Granted, it’s expensive to hire a decent editor for a full-length book; I’m a self-publisher, and the majority of the money I’ve spent on my novel has been to pay my editor. Any book that’s going up for public consumption, however, should be edited by someone who isn’t worried about hurting the author’s feelings. I suppose it’s possible, in self-publishing, to ignore all your editor’s advice and insist that your book is fabulous and perfect already, but if you’re willing to spend all that money and then reject the advice, then I guess there’s nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. Since I forked over so much for my editor’s services, I was determined to make use of her suggestions, which meant I spent months at revisions. Hiring an editor doesn’t take away from being in control of your work; it means you see how your writing looks to someone who isn’t you. Since your readers aren’t usually your friends, that’s a necessary investment to make in a book.

  6. F

    If you are publishing through a house, it helps to find one which acts more as an enabler than a gatekeeper (depending on your personal outlook, I guess). And best of luck with that, especially in the current climate.

  7. 9

    You know, reading this, I can’t help but think there’s a market for a “self-publishing guru,” or somesuch. That is, someone like you who has not only self-published before (I’m getting it for Christmas! yay!) but also who knows the industry, as you mentioned. Not an editor, really, nor someone who is going to take control of the project like someone at a big publishing house would, but a kind of trail-guide, someone a self-publisher – novice or experienced – can hire to either advise about or outright handle certain issues, like obtaining the ISBN, for example.

    I know, if I were to self-publish, I’d make use of such a service.

  8. 10

    Greta, maybe you can help me with my publishing thoughts. I am writing a novel. It’s a pretty innovative one. I fear that when I get it to a point where I can get it published that it won’t fit the current trends (and it largely does not at the moment. First Person Limited Romance seems to be the market at the moment. Mine is a Third Person Limited “Cop” Drama.)

    Since publishers want to make money, I had the idea of starting publishing on an e-Book market. This is twofold: I can make some money even if it doesn’t make a lot of sales, I make a lot of sales and can show a publishing house that I can push sales.

    Is that a good idea?

  9. 11

    I might have to bookmark this article. It’s a great explanation of why self-publishing works well for some people and why it would be a terrible idea for me. (Well, my fiction at least. Non-fiction might be another matter.)

    Basically? I have a hard time sticking to schedules, I’m rather easily distracted, and tend to be much more functional when I can keep in contact with someone else about what I’m working on. (This is also the main reason that writing will probably never be a career for me…) I also tend to be one of those “artiste” types with a rather inflated opinion of my writing precious, perfect creations. And we’ve seen what happens when an author with those tendencies is able to take a work to print without having someone more level-headed in a position with necessary veto power: Anne Rice happens.

  10. 12

    Greta, you were kind enough to sign a copy of your book for Godless Teen at the recent AAA convention. He enjoyed meeting you and he wants you to know he has stayed really angry! ( And he has gone in for a bit of self-publishing as well.

  11. 13

    Greta, A lot of my blogging friends (and myself) are writers. I found this really interesting and it goes along with what Sam Harris is hinted at (although as a NY best selling author I am sure he’s not quite ready to totally selfpub) but this topic would be really interesting to them- would you mind if I reposted this (giving you full credit as guest blogger)with a link back to you and of course??? Thanks for the great thoughts and advice! Danette

  12. 16

    As a writer and teacher-of-writers (at Grub Street Writers in Boston), I’m a huge fan of indie publishing, for exactly the reasons described by GC and everyone. I indie published my last book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, the last section of which recursively is about how I indie published the book! (The first 7 sections are about getting more productive in your writing and elsewhere.)

    The key question I always encourage people to answer is whether they see their writing as a business or a hobby or some hybrid. Any of those choices necessitates specific investments and sacrifices. People who are looking at their publishing as a business — i.e., who hope to make significant revenue and profit from it — need to invest in great editing and a cover and marketing. Those who aren’t can invest less.

    PS – #10 Kathleen, I think indie is an excellent idea for you. If you demonstrate a market via your own publishing and promotion then you might get a publisher coming to you on more of your own terms. More and more this is turning into the standard business model for commercial publishing.

  13. 17

    I selfpublished my memoir at smashwords too. I soon learned that writing it was the easy part, marketing it is the buggar. I’ve had excellent reviews, but can’t seem to get it out there. I should’ve taken marketing courses in college. I haven’t given up though. It seem as if there are quite a few fledgling writers here. Any chance of Ftb opening up a forum for us? Maybe we can get to know each other through our writings.

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