Solo self-publish, seek a book deal, something in the middle? Advice for the 2016 writer

2016Last year I wrote a round-up of the advice I’d give on publishing options. A year on, would I say the same? In some cases yes, in some no…

The sales problem

This time last year a main concern was how indies were feeling the pinch with dwindling sales. Did we think it could get worse?

Oh but it has. There are even more books for sale. Subscription services like Kindle Unlimited are changing the way readers perceive value. Authors who don’t enrol their books seem to get less exposure in the magic Amazon algorithms.

Does that mean it might be better to hold out for a book deal? Well, there are pros and cons, and the points I wrote last year still stand.

So what of traditional publishing?

Were we hoping that traditional publishing might enter a new era of enlightenment, with transparent, fair deals and true author-publisher partnership? Well it hasn’t happened yet. Publishers are feeling the squeeze too much to be generous and forward looking, or to embrace new methods of working. Authors still have to scrabble hard to avoid the contract traps of rights grabs, reversion clauses that never revert and discount sales that don’t qualify for a proper royalty.

A traditional deal might get you kudos or help with marketing, but this is often shortlived. Unless you strike lucky, it may not be as good as you could drum up yourself. I have a traditionally published author friend whose first book series won awards. His second series launched recently, and the only publicity was a tiny mention in the Sunday Times.

With a traditional deal, you’ll get editorial services (of course). But a lot of corners are being cut. Publishers are slimming their departments and farming the work out to freelances. Or maybe they’re not even doing that. Over Christmas I was talking to an editor friend who this year proof-read a batch of books for paperback release. They were already out in hardback, so this was supposed to be a just-in-case read. In book after book, she found appalling errors – inane grammar, impenetrable sentences, stupid inaccuracies and plot improbabilities. These weren’t unpublished manuscripts, remember; they were books that had been through the process.

I do, of course, know several authors who are happy with their publishers. All of them have one thing in common; without exception, they never tried self-publishing.

I’ve only just realised this as I write and it’s quite startling.

Let’s examine the comparison from other angles. I also know several authors who self-published first, then got book deals – and felt they were much better off as indies. Some of them halted the process, gave back the advance, and reassembled their indie publishing team. That’s still not looking good for traditional publishing. Let’s try to give it a better crack: I know several traditionally published authors who ventured into self-publishing … and decided they were happier without the extra burden.

Let’s examine that.

Ultimately: what do you want?

‘I want an old-style publishing deal because I just want to write…’
It’s probably unfashionable to say this, but many authors still hope for the old-style deal. There is undeniable satisfaction in having a book accepted. Also, you don’t have to learn the mysterious processes necessary to produce a book. And as for marketing…..

Hold it there. Whether you get a book deal or not, you will have to be your book’s ambassador. Always. Indeed, if your book is a serious contender for a publisher’s list, one of the things you’ll be judged on is your online reach. If you haven’t built one, you’ll be urged to start. The publishing deal will not let you ‘just write in peace’. You have to be a marketer as well as a writer, no matter which path you choose. The part that you can offload, if you wish, is the book production. Does this illuminate where the traditional publisher’s guaranteed contribution is?

Nail Your Novel how to spot scam publishing offers‘I want top production values, with as much or as little control as I choose…’
It’s never been so easy to hire top production skills. And if you haven’t gathered your own team of professionals, assisted self-publishing is now a good option. In the past, many operators have been rogues, taking advantage of the inexperienced and starry eyed with overpriced and substandard services, sneaky rights grabs and unsuitable marketing efforts. (See here for a post about spotting unscrupulous publishing ‘deal’s and other scams. ) Some of them are still stinkers. But in 2015 I began to notice genuine contenders. These are like plugging your book into a well-run production department, with sales teams who’ll give you a fair crack in the bookshops. Some of them have a quality bar, so they’re halfway between a curated imprint and a self-publishing service. Qualifying for their list means you get that stamp of approval. (I’m building a list of assisted self-publishers I’d recommend, so contact me and I’ll introduce you to some good folks.)

Nail Your Novel - should literary agents publishGetting noticed

But producing the book is just the start. The problem is getting noticed and building a readership. This is why it’s such a gamble to make a business out of an art, because no one can predict what will be successful. Thought of like that, it’s not surprising that traditional publishers try to keep so much and spend so little. It’s not evil; it’s survival. Perhaps the new, sustainable way to publish will be assisted self-publishing outfits who are choosy about the books they accept, who will build a reputation for their taste and let the writer take the financial risk. Endorsement may prove to be the magic dust that money can’t buy – even if authors foot the bill. Agent-assisted self-publishing looks attractive for that reason too, even though it makes industry purists blanch. (Just so I can say ‘I told you so’, here’s a post I wrote about agent-assisted self-publishing in 2011 )

Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell, and the handshake pic Liquene,

As ever, I throw the floor open to you. What are your publishing plans for 2016? Have your views changed from last year? Are you a self-publisher who’s had a traditional deal and what are your experiences comparing the two? If it’s not too late for resolutions, dare I ask if there are any you’d like to share?

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  1. #1 by danholloway on January 3, 2016 - 9:46 pm

    I think my volte face is pretty much complete. I have two series I will be self-publishing, but for my new literary novel I’ll be looking for a publisher, preferably a small press.

  2. #3 by raulconde001 on January 3, 2016 - 9:48 pm

    I agree with you on traditional publishing, Roz. It is a total nightmare. This is why I will only use self-publishing for my writing career. A few questions. Will putting my novels on kindle unlimited will be beneficiary for me? Does it help me in the long run starting as a new pro writer? Do you recommend it to me?

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 12:29 am

      Hi Raul! Kindle Unlimited will get you seen by a different group of readers from those that shop elsewhere. That might be worthwhile to you. But the downside is this – if you put a book on KU you can’t put it up for sale on other channels, such as Kobo or Smashwords. You could put another book up, but not that one. But it might be a good way to introduce readers to your work, and then let them find you elsewhere.
      At the moment, Amazon is by far the biggest sales platform for ebooks, so the exclusivity may not matter. But on the other hand, Amazon may not last for ever, or it may change its terms and become a lot less attractive to indie authors. For the long term, it’s best not to put your eggs all in one basket – which is why it’s good to get onto other platforms.

      • #5 by raulconde001 on January 4, 2016 - 1:10 am

        Thanks, Roz! 🙂 Just what I needed. 🙂

  3. #6 by Victoria Noe on January 3, 2016 - 9:59 pm

    My resolutions are simple but not easy: self-publish the final book in my series, re-purpose the series into a single book, expand my public speaking opportunities, complete research on a huge book project and begin writing it in November. I’ve been good but inconsistent in my marketing, so I’m determined to be more self-disciplined about that.

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 12:30 am

      Hi Victoria! Gosh, you’ve got your work cut out. All the best for a productive year!

  4. #8 by Eric Klingenberg on January 3, 2016 - 10:26 pm

    I need to finish my book before I make my mind up, although it might be made up for me. Interesting article thanks for posting.

  5. #10 by Viv on January 3, 2016 - 10:46 pm

    I’ll be sticking with self publishing; that said, my blog post tomorrow is going to be about what I call Wild Imaginings (you get a nod in it too) and that’s all I’m saying…

  6. #12 by theorangutanlibrarian on January 3, 2016 - 11:07 pm

    This is great advice- I’m undecided about publishing plans, but I’ll definitely take all this advice into consideration while I’m deciding. Thanks very much! 🙂

  7. #14 by acflory on January 3, 2016 - 11:23 pm

    That’s the question, isn’t it? “What do you, the writer, want?” For me, the answer has always been ‘someone to do the marketing for me’. I’m terrible at marketing, but the truth is that no one is offering to do that for me, not even the Traditionals, and part of the reason for that is that no one quite knows how to do it. In the past, advertising was the key, and the key to advertising was money. Now, the key is essentially word of mouth with loads of ‘something’ to get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, the ‘something’ requires the personal touch and not all of us are good at that.

    Bottom line: if I have to do the marketing anyway then there’s literally /nothing/ the trads can offer me that I want. 😦

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 12:37 am

      Hi Andrea! An accurate assessment – we’re all in search of the elusive ‘something’, it costs a lot and we don’t know what it is. Which makes me want to retreat into my burrow and write. 🙂

      • #16 by acflory on January 4, 2016 - 2:16 am

        Hah! Beatcha to it. I’m already there. I’ve decided I’m going to write all the stories in my head, publish them and then, if I’m still alive in my 90s I’ll worry about marketing then. 😀

  8. #17 by mrdisvan on January 4, 2016 - 12:28 am

    Personally I had a multi-book deal set up with a fairly well-known publisher and they were so inept at everything from editing to cover design, and so vague about their marketing plans, that I aborted the contract even though it cost me quite a bit to get out of it. Of course, others’ mileage may vary.

  9. #19 by tomburkhalter on January 4, 2016 - 3:00 am

    I noticed that editorial processes were deteriorating for about ten years now, to the point where I wondered if that aspect of traditional publishing remained a persuasive argument for going that route. I don’t really feel good about having that confirmed.

    My plans for this year: I published my first novel on Kindle last week, I’m going to finish the second one by this summer, and publish the third this winter. By then I hope to have some more grist for the mill. That’s not as boastful as it sounds. The second novel is almost complete, and the third only needs a minor rewrite (since I wrote it first…long story!)

    Anyway, best of luck and happy New Year!

    • #20 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 9:20 am

      hi Tom! Yes, the decline in editorial standards isn’t recent or sudden, but I’d never had it so startlingly confirmed. Sorry it’s burst your bubble. Anyway, the important thing is to keep raising your own standards. Keep being inspired by the people whose work made its mark on you, and resolve to do that to the best of your ability.

      Best of luck with your books – and happy new year to you!

  10. #21 by Keith Dixon on January 4, 2016 - 7:07 am

    Hi Roz – yes, the lure of Trad Pub, strong it is! (Why not get a Star Wars reference in … ? 🙂 ) But the more I learn about the current state of play with trads, the less tempted I am. I spent a lot of money last year on FB advertising that was pretty fruitless, so this year, at least to begin with, I’m going to give Twitter a focused opportunity. If that doesn’t increase sales I’ll probably be changing my sales pitch to “Do you want fries with that?” Incidentally, I’m going to Tweet this wunderbar post of yours!

    • #22 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 9:23 am

      Hi Keith! If all else fails, write you must (I’m an Empire Strikes Back fan). Thanks for trying out my post on your new Twitter crowd!

  11. #23 by janerossdale on January 4, 2016 - 11:48 am

    I have to admit that, having seen both sides of the fence, I’m torn. While my US ebook sales are holding their own, it is the UK sales that have dried up almost completely and I see no signs of recovery. The crux for me is that I love the physical book and want to see my books in bookshops. I have jumped through hoops to fulfill all of the criteria but the self publishing stigma is still alive. I know that when I was trad published I still constantly had to the rounds of bookshops to make sure I was stocked. but at least the answer was always yes, they would order. On the bright side, the lit agents I met with recently commented that my self-pub books were among the most professional they had ever seen and even one reluctant bookshop owner was forced to admit that they ‘look like proper books.’

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 8:14 pm

      Hi Jane! Stigmas don’t disappear in a hurry. I’ve had the pleasant situation of bookshops – and agents – raising an approving eyebrow at my paperbacks. Indeed, they gazed at them rather lingeringly! But I also have an ace I can pull out – by telling them they’ve already read my books but didn’t know.
      The longer we hang in, the more minds we’ll change.
      One book that gives me hope is Letters of Note, which has hit the bestseller lists and was funded by Unbound. That’s self published with crowdfunding – and hopefully will be a talisman we can brandish to prove that self-producing authors can deliver the goods.

  12. #25 by BERYL on January 4, 2016 - 2:35 pm

    More than a bunch of good advice…Thank you for sharing your insights!

  13. #27 by ccyager on January 4, 2016 - 7:12 pm

    Hi! I self-published my first novel as an e-book. The production part was a total learning experience, but a writer friend had put me in contact with good people to help me and to produce a professional book. It also wasn’t as expensive as I’d expected. What was expensive was the marketing and promotion. I worked with AuthorBuzz and spent over $3K. I don’t think I’d have gotten better outcomes if I’d spent $30K. The problem always is whether the author is known or unknown, and how to make the author known out there in the big reading world. I’m still struggling with that challenge. I’d love to publish the novel as a paperback because so many people have commented to me that they don’t have an e-reader and prefer hard copy books. Another lesson learned. But I’m too deep in debt to do it.

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 8:21 pm

      Hi CC! Thank you for sharing your experiences here – and I’m sorry they didn’t have a good outcome. You’ve learned the hard way there, that promotion isn’t guaranteed to produce results.
      The good news is this: it needn’t cost much to produce a paperback. You certainly won’t have to spend on the kind of scale you have already. Setting it up on CreateSpace is free. You need a back cover, which your front cover designer can probably rustle up at little expense. You also need the interior designed – but if you’re canny you can buy a template that you load the text into. Email me and I’ll tell you more.

      • #29 by ccyager on January 8, 2016 - 1:49 pm

        Thanks, Roz! Yeah, I’ve tried to do everything possible in terms of promotion — I have a couple blogs, Facebook page, Twitter, etc. — and I plan to continue working on it. Wish I could take you up on paperback publication but my debt is too much right now — I’m selling possessions to pay bills — to do it. I’m already a member of CreateSpace (did that a long time ago), and I’m sure my cover designer would do a back cover. I’d return to the production people I worked with before to format the book for print — they were not expensive and were professional, knowledgeable, and a joy to work with. I’d like to perhaps contact you at a later date for more info after I’ve made it through this difficult time. Thanks! Cinda

  14. #30 by DRMarvello on January 4, 2016 - 7:31 pm

    My wife and I are planning to dedicate more time to our publishing efforts in 2016. We need to do a better job of marketing, so we are putting together an action plan in that regard. Other than that, our goals haven’t changed much. We will continue to self publish, as a traditional publishing deal holds no allure for either of us. My wife was traditionally published in the past. Thanks to her experiences and my own research, I’ve never considered submitting a manuscript.

    • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 4, 2016 - 8:23 pm

      Greetings Marvellos … and I wish you all the best with your new publishing adventures this year. (I somehow guessed you’d be one of the commenters who would never be tempted to seek a trad deal.)

  15. #32 by RSGullett on January 4, 2016 - 8:33 pm

    The publisher I am using for my first novel uses a “Joint-Venture” contract. The company comes recommended to me, but this is my first foray into fictional publishing so I’m very nervous.

    • #33 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 6, 2016 - 12:05 am

      Fingers crossed for you, RS. I trust you’re good friends with the person who recommended the publisher. All the best

  16. #35 by Jane Steen on January 6, 2016 - 4:23 pm

    Hi Roz! It was wonderful to meet you at last in London–as I told you, you were one of my early inspirations for self-publishing and I see you’re still talking sense.

    My plans for 2016 are to keep on the same track I’ve been on, with even more focus on my fiction. I don’t have any plans to abandon self-publishing; both the indie and trad routes require long-term effort, and I’d rather put that effort into a business model that allows me to retain ownership and control of my assets.

    My prediction is that 2016 is going to be very hard on writers trying to make a living by self-publishing fiction alone, and many will return to their day jobs or diversify into teaching (I’m expecting to see a proliferation of courses on writing!), ghostwriting, freelance writing, or whatever suits them best. And that’s not a bad thing–writing fiction is great training for many other writing jobs, and there’s definitely a growing need for good content globally.

    So are my plans at odds with my prediction? No, but only because I don’t rely on my writing income. It’s a little sad that so very few indies will be able to make a living from fiction alone, but I think that’s always been the case. Only a small percentage of writers across the board will earn a decent income, while the rest struggle and dream and would do it anyway, because it’s the best thing we’ve ever done.

    • #36 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 6, 2016 - 5:31 pm

      Hi Jane! It was brilliant to meet you too, after much twittering. I’m honoured that you consider me an inspiration – especially as the time we met in London was after I’d watched you give an authoritative speech at AuthorDay. Hooray for sensible people 🙂

      Your predictions for the world of writing are on the mark too, but it’s not a new pattern. The arts have always tended to be well supplied with teachers. I’ve become one of them myself. And it’s always been the case that fiction writers need to supplement their income. Perhaps the truth is this: many people who started writing seriously in the last few years have been misled by the gold rush. Now everything’s settling again.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by – and good luck with your next release.

  17. #37 by Alexander M Zoltai on January 9, 2016 - 8:25 am

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog is Roz Morris at her best…

    She spent many years dealing with traditional publishing as a very successful ghostwriter…

    Now she’s deep into self-publishing her own books…

    Read on for wisdom 🙂

  18. #38 by juliecround on January 10, 2016 - 11:08 am

    What a fascinating blog with really good comments. I have self published five novels with help from beta readers and a helpful printer. My marketing is mainly local and word-of -mouth but has led to invitations to be a speaker. My cover designs were from istock and dreamstime. I found international readers through Goodreads, but I am not on facebook. Amazon have a few copies of the books but I lose so much money sending them to wholesalers I may concentrate on ebooks from now on.

    • #39 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 10, 2016 - 8:01 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Julie – and it’s interesting to hear your publishing and marketing tactics. I know some authors who don’t bother at all with print books.

  19. #40 by Kristen Steele on January 29, 2016 - 9:17 pm

    I’m glad that this post doesn’t take sides. Ultimately, it’s up to what the author truly wants. One method of publishing isn’t necessarily better than the other, as they both have their pros and cons.

    • #41 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 29, 2016 - 9:31 pm

      Thanks, Kristen! I was hoping to strike that balance. It’s a tricky environment for writers at the moment, but at least we have plenty of options.

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