How to Know if You're Ready to Self Publish

published books

Today, new technology has blessed authors with unprecedented advantages. But these blessings pose serious questions, and as always, wrong answers may invite curses.

Foremost among the career-defining questions that aspiring authors must answer is this: should you self-publish?

Industry professionals far wiser than I am have given sound reasons why, except for a small minority of authors, the future of publishing is indie.

I agree with their assessments. However, I'm going to add a caveat which I'm sure Joe and Jeff agree with, but which doesn't seem to be emphasized enough these days.

Not everyone should self-publish.

The barriers to entry are gone. The wide gulf between "can" and "should" remains.

Dr. Ian Malcolm

The early gold rush when you could upload a raw MS Word doc to KDP and sell a thousand copies per month is over--if it ever happened. Besides unburdening themselves of that illusion, the main lesson that hopeful indie authors must learn is that being a self-published author means taking on all the responsibilities of both an artist and a publisher.

I don't mean to scare anyone off. Indie publishing offers better working conditions and royalty splits than professional writers enjoyed at any other time in history. But I can tell you from hard-won experience that reports of the coveted Free Lunch are greatly exaggerated.

Answer these questions before you decide to self-publish.

Do you have formal business training? An MBA, an accounting degree, or even a couple of marketing courses will help you with pricing, organization, and promotion. Accountant turned self-publishing black swan turned Baen golden goose Larry Correia credits his business background with a large portion of his success.

While starting with business expertise will give an indie author a major head start, lacking it isn't the kiss of death. My formal education didn't provide me with much business knowledge. As a result, I'm taking extra time to learn as I go. Having an MFA doesn't disqualify you from indie success, but as Michael Corleone told Gardner Shaw, take a few business administration courses just to be on the safe side!

Do you understand salesmanship, and if so do you have any qualms about using effective sales techniques?
Unlike business theory, which fascinates me even though I initially sucked at it, I hate sales despite having a natural aptitude for it. It's probably because I have really high marketing resistance. I can spot most attempts to sell me something immediately, and I have a deep-seated aversion to using techniques designed to make people buy things they don't really want. (NB: do not buy extended warranties from retailers. Avoid retailers' gift/credit cards.)

On the other hand, I love sharing my interests with people. If I'm passionate about something, it's easy for me to make my excitement contagious. When I held sales jobs, I used this self-knowledge to my advantage by recommending products that I genuinely liked. If you're an author, it should be easy to harness your natural enthusiasm for your book. If not, there's a problem. Why should I buy your book if even you don't believe in it?

Luckily, hard sell "push marketing" doesn't sell books. Earning the trust of communities where your core readership hangs out is the key. Speaking of which:

Do you like engaging with your audience?
Authors are justly notorious for being introverts. Know your social strengths and weaknesses, and capitalize on your strengths.

Does your razor wit electrify large audiences? See if you can get on some podcasts and convention panels. Does the chatter of crowds wrack your skull like a dentist's drill? Then you'd probably do well to avoid signings.

Reader engagement is one area where technology has been a huge boon to authors. People in this business tend to focus on how the gates between authors and publication have been thrown down, but it's just as revolutionary how the walls between authors and readers have fallen.

Last week I serialized a short story on this blog. My readers gave me instant feedback, some of which I used to issue a new edition of the story on the same day it was published. A process that once took a great deal of time and money can now be done basically for free in an afternoon.

The upshot is. even if you're a sociopathic misanthrope, social media offers you a way to engage fans without all of that messy physical interaction.

Have you researched the pros and cons of traditional vs. indie publishing?
As I said before, indie is not a free lunch. Some authors may still be better served by trad publishing, especially those who have no business or sales acumen, hate social interaction of any kind, and belong to certain minority groups/ espouse particular political ideologies.

Before self-publishing, learn all you can about how both indie and traditional publishing work. Learn how trad publishers handle marketing, book design, royalties, and contracts. Learn about mailing lists, Amazon's ranking system, and their various promotional tools. Find out what you can expect to earn via either route. Make sure your decision is as well informed as possible.

Those are a few useful questions to ask yourself before self-publishing. Next I'll lay out some nonnegotiables for indie authors.


  1. There's another thing: You have to be willing to put some of your own money into the process. Most people need the services of an editor, and editors cost money. Good covers matter, and if you're not an artist yourself, cover art costs money. Creating an ebook from your manuscript isn't objectively difficult, but there's some skill and research (and practice!) involved, unless you're willing to pay somebody else to do it. The problem with tradpub is that you're trading a large fraction of your book's revenues for services like this, which aren't always done as well as they might be. If you're well-connected online, finding editors and artists and such is fairly easy, but you have to be willing to lay your own money on the line. Scary...but if you don't believe in yourself, well, who will?

    1. All excellent points. I'll be expanding a bit more on some of them tomorrow.

      Putting up our own money is one of those Responsibilities of a Publisher that indie authors must be willing to accept. As you implied, it's a choice between giving up 85% of the proceeds from a book plus most of the rights forever, as opposed to paying one-time fees up front for editing, art, and sometimes formatting.

      One maxim of Dean's that I like is "Anyone you're giving a percentage to is a partner." Most legacy publishers have proven too untrustworthy for me to consider entering into a partnership with them. Instead I paid one-off flat fees for the jobs I couldn't do myself.

      Let authors who are fretting over self-pub production costs take heart. I paid for editing, art, and formatting, and my self-published debut novel earned back my initial investment in about three months.