Is self-publishing “real” publishing? (aka I want a real book, not an ebook)

I was at a conference this weekend talking to a lot of smart people; many of whom wanted to write a book. They’d inevitably ask, “are you self-publishing?” and then scowl, because they “want a real, physical book, not just an ebook.”

I explained that print on demand has been around for a decade and makes physical paperbacks and hard backs of identical quality to mainstream publishing houses (as long as you get a great book designer).

They resisted for awhile, somehow thinking that self-publishing doesn’t allow people to make “real” books, but once I assured them it does, they’d say “but I want my books in bookstores. I want them on Ingram.”

I’d say, yeah, I can put all my book on ingram and make them available to all bookstores in the world. The difference is, trad publishing houses will print books, sell them to bookstores, then buy them back and pulp them if they don’t sell (something you probably can’t afford to do yourself).

But just because they do that and make your book available for bookstores to order in a safe, risk free way, doesn’t mean bookstores will stock your book.

They won’t – bookstores have limited shelf space and use it for proven books that are selling, have famous authors or a big marketing budget (and again, whatever doesn’t get sold gets refunded and trashed… in a stupid, world killing publishing system that needs to change).

If you traditionally publish with the big publishing houses, at the very least you should get a well designed, well edited book. In theory. But that doesn’t happen all that often anymore; the majority of books they sign, they’ll do a half-ass job at book design and virtually zero marketing. The odds of this happening increases if you go with a smaller press or publishing house – I cringe at the book covers some “publishers” are putting out. Just because someone wants to publish you, doesn’t mean they are adding the right kind of value to your project.

And then, because the price point is so much higher on Amazon ($9.99 or so) your book will quickly become invisible online. Which leaves bookstores: but bookstores won’t order and stock your book unless you’re selling a lot of copies and hitting bestseller lists. Which you probably aren’t: unless you do a ton of clever promotion and marketing – which you aren’t going to do, because you don’t know how, and even if you hire a publicist, they’ll focus on TV and radio and old school methods that don’t actually impact book sales.

Which is why the vast majority of traditionally published books never earn out their advance: which means, publishers pay you once for your book, lose money, and never sign you again… but probably keep your rights anyway so you can’t do anything else with the book.

There are circumstances when you want to go traditional, but they are rare, and usually about platform building (gaining the credibility of being supported by a “real” publisher). Ironically, most “real” publisher won’t take a risk on a new author unless they have a huge platform – and by huge, I mean a million followers (that’s the real number I heard recently from a literary agent.)

You can still submit your book, and if an agent cares enough about the idea or story, they may edit it for free, and sell it to a publisher, and the publisher may support it and market it. It does happen. It’s totally not impossible. You can try that if you want to.

But understand, best case scenario, you’ll earn some money but the project will tie you up for 2 years (after which, the money will be gone and you’ll have to start something new). And the likelihood is, even if you publish traditionally, nobody will have ever heard of your book.

Are ebooks “inferior” to print books? No. Some people prefer reading on a device. Some people like paper. It’s a personal preference. You want your book to be in both formats. But for every print book you sell, you’ll sell 5 or 10 ebooks (more people prefer ebooks).

And if you sell a bunch of ebooks – something you can do more easily if you self publish and control pricing – it’s very easy to get a publishing deal quickly.

Personally, I’ll publish ebooks until a publisher comes knocking. Then I’ll sell them a series or two, but keep most of my rights to myself and continue to self publish future books. The best opportunities are in “hybrid” publishing, which means, doing the things that make you the most money and build your author platform (those two things are not identical, and often even at odds: as in, you may give one book away for free to reach new readers, and make money on other books you charge more on).

If you hope to publish “real” books with “real publishers” it’s probably because you don’t have any platform, hate social media, and want someone else to do all the work for you. That almost never happens anymore, it’s a little like winning the lottery. Not impossible, but you’re making it SO MUCH HARDER on yourself.

If you really want a traditional publishing deal, you need to be building your own platform, reaching your own readers and building relationships, and publishing some books so you can PROVE that your books have value and are well received. That puts you in a position of power. If you can’t do that, and are hoping your writing is strong enough to convince someone else to bet their own money on you… good luck, but you’re playing against the odds with willful ignorance. It’s a lot more of a stubborn wish and determined belief than a smart, practical business plan. In 99% of cases, authors who play those odds are going to fail big, waste time, and consider self-publishing a few years down the line anyway.

If you think you’re the 1%, go for it – I’m not telling you your aren’t. Again, you may totally be successful. But you’re also picking the absolute hardest path to success and ignoring all the danger/warning signs and piles of skeletons. Fuck it, do it anyway if you want.

A friend of mine recently told me I was wasting my time trying to help authors who were determined not to be helped. She said I should just focus on people who appreciate my advice and are ready to be successful, bestselling authors. My argument was, those people don’t need my help: they have the right mindset, they’ll figure things out on their own.

I want to help the hopeless authors who are heading towards the rocks and don’t know any better. So I’ve spent five years of my time educating, for free, and building resources to get over the biggest hurdles (like book design) so indie authors have a fighting chance.

I told my friend, “If I want to help those that need it most, I need to try harder to position myself as an expert so they understand that my advice is better and more useful than most of the stuff out there.” But she’s probably right. Why am I trying hardest to save the ones most reluctant? I’ve been wasting far too much time and energy.

So I’m pivoting. From now on, I’m going to produce meaningful, high level creative work that is insanely useful and makes me happy and not worry about “proving” myself to those who aren’t ready to hear it.



  • Arphaxad Posted

    This zombie meme of “real” authors and self-published authors needs to have its head cut off, heart torn out, and its body burned to dust. Welcome to the 21st century people, digital books are real books. Stephen King, James Patterson, and Lee Child (the poster children of “real” publishing) all publish digital books. The only difference is they pay a corporation 70% of their profits to have their seal of approval (logo) on their books, where a modern author keeps that money and does the work themselves.

    Indie authors need to stop referring to themselves as “self-published authors” and just call themselves what they are… authors.

    Good article, Derek. Keep up the good work.

  • BooknookBiz Posted

    Hey, Big guy: in my experience, now with >3,000 books and about 2200 publishers, the big issue isn’t that authors don’t think that digital publishing or POD is “real” publishing. The big challenge is that, quite simply, they have no desire whatsoever to do the heavy lifting of marketing. Now, I’m not tarring everyone with the same brush–but because I track links, clicks, etc., I know exactly how many of our clients do things like sign up for this, or sign up for that, etc., to market their books.

    For example: I’ve sent hundreds of authors to AuthorMarketingClub (AMC) for one thing and one thing only–their Amazon Top Reviewer list, which they’ve scraped and culled. For obtaining legit reviews, it’s the best way forward (for those authors without those million followers you mentioned). You know how many have actually done it? ONE. ONE, of those hundreds, has taken the time to sign up, go through the list, email reviewers, offer free review copies, etc. ONE AUTHOR.

    (I had an author that was upset that out of the 10 reviewers he mailed, he ‘only” got 3 responses. I told him that he should be freaking thrilled with that response rate.)

    I think that many of today’s authors are still carrying that trade-pubbed “dream.” The one that you describe, where the Publisher from the Sky swoops down, gives them an advance, edits the book (yeah, verily), provides great cover art, and then–in the eyes of that author, almost more importantly than all the rest–DOES THE EVIL MARKETING. But as you’ve rightly pointed out, that no longer happens. Even my trade-pubbed clients (with BPH’s and their imprints, like Soho, for example, owned by Random House), have to do their own marketing, work their own platforms, book their own book tours, speaking engagements, etc.

    Personally, I think it’s that “filthy lucre” thing. That authors and other artists think that while they deserve to be paid, they don’t want to be commercial. They write for “love,” or for “art,” or you-name-it, but not for filthy lucre. There seems to be a bad taste attached to the idea that art is COMMERCIAL, that it’s done for money–as if working for money is “bad.” Thus, they consider marketing to be the same as (gasp) SALES. They don’t want to be salespersons for their own products.

    I genuinely think that’s the biggest problem. I hear “I’m too shy,” or “I’m no good with social media,” all the time. Hell, for that matter, I suck at social media, so I don’t blame them. But a book is nothing more than a product. Yes, it may be your love, your passion, your blood sweat and tears–but a publisher ISN’T an artist. A publisher is a BUSINESSPERSON. And a book is a product.

    Once author-publishers get over the whole “writing as art” thing and put on their PUBLISHER’S hats, they need to leave all their baggage behind, and sell it just like they were selling bracelets or vacuum cleaners. To do less is to do a disservice to their OWN book. That’s the bottom line.

    Thus the remaining lust for trade-pubbing. It’s the pipe-dream of those who’ve never been published, because they don’t know that it no longer exists. They need to meet and greet at conferences, etc., with those who ARE trade-pubbed, to find out what the realities are, to take the bright-and-shiny off that idea, that dream; because even if the big publisher in the sky drops down and finds you, all those things that publishers used to do, simply don’t happen any longer. Once that happens, the “is self-publishing real?” question will cease to exist.

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      I totally agree; most authors don’t want to do the work, which is why they’re eager to give up their rights to traditional publishers… on the other hand, I also know some authors who call themselves “graphic designers” and make horrible book covers and ugly websites. Going alone/DIY isn’t always the best solution either. Publishing a book is a difficult journey and battle, that very possibly will result in failure (even if you do everything right, maybe you wrote a book nobody wants). We help where we can. Some authors will figure it all out. I hope to be one.

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