Is Self-Publishing a Good Idea?
When you want to get the book you painstakingly concocted with your blood, sweat, and tears. Countless hours went into making your book perfect.
So what’s next?
You have to publish it.
These days, you basically have two options: traditional publishing or self-publishing.
The latter option has been gaining popularity for more than a decade and has launched countless careers. But that doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows.
Which all begs the question: is self-publishing a good idea?
And we’re going to answer that question in this article. To do that, we’re going to look at:
- What self-publishing is exactly
- The benefits of self-publishing
- The drawbacks of self-publishing
- Resources to help your self-publishing journey
A quick disclaimer: Just so we’re on the same page, understand that I’ve chosen to self-publish my books. I’ve written this article with objectivity and firsthand insight into the struggles faced by self-publishing. I promise not to romanticize self-publishing for you but give you the truth… the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What is Self-Publishing?
First up, we should establish what the heck self-publishing is and how authors might embrace it in their career.
For decades, traditional publishing (i.e., books published through publishing companies) was the only way to get your story on bookstore shelves and in the hands of readers. That meant writing your story and then either having the right connections or just getting lucky enough to have it read and picked up by an editor.
Then things started to change. In the 90s and early 2000s, print on demand publishing rose in popularity. Some authors would pay to have their books printed and resell boxes of them, sometimes out of the trunk of their car. However, paying to have your book published is a predatory practice that exploits authors, and you can read all about it here.
Self-publishing really came into its own with Amazon’s Kindle. As e-books gained popularity, self-published or independent (“indie”) authors embraced this new medium to establish a still-growing niche in publishing.
But we need to be clear, self-publishing is more than just writing books. In fact, here’s a line I always share with new authors thinking about self-publishing:
A self-published author is an entrepreneur.
When you go indie, you become responsible for…
- Finding and working with beta readers
- Hiring an editor
- Hiring a cover designer
- Marketing, including social media, email marketing, traditional media, garnering reviews, etc.
- Data analysis
That sounds like a heck of a lot. And, in reality, it is. You’re running a business, and only a part of that business—a big part, to be fair—is writing.
I’m not trying to scare you out of self-publishing. Like I said, I’m an indie author and I wouldn’t change a thing. But some people reading this might already be realizing that this path isn’t for them.
Others might get excited about that laundry list of responsibilities. Or maybe you’ll grow to love—or tolerate—them in order to do what you really love: the writing!
With all that said, let’s dive into the benefits of being an indie author.
Benefits of Self-Publishing
You might already be thinking about some of the benefits of self-publishing. Maybe you love being part of a community and establishing one on social media all about your stories is exciting. Or perhaps you are a data nerd and can’t wait to dive into advertising and sales analytics.
But I want to focus on the three biggest benefits of being an independent author that you might not immediately think of.
Expanded Creative Control
One of the things most self-published authors will point to when asked why they self-publish is the increased creative control going indie gives them.
In traditional publishing, your cover, layout, and even major parts of your plot are at the whim of your publisher. Sure, you can voice your opinion and choose a hill to die on, but they’re the ones investing thousands of dollars in you, and you hand over most of those rights in your contract.
But when you self-publish, you control everything… because you have to do everything.
You get to make your own cover or hire someone to bring your dream to life. You get to decide what your marketing material looks like or work with someone to perfect it.
Even big name authors are choosing to go indie for this reason.
Expanded creative control means you can iterate your book, too. If you find six months after publication that a paragraph reads funky, you can change it. Or you can realize your original cover just isn’t doing your book any favors, so you can commission a new one.
When it comes to our books, many authors feel a lot happier with more control over their work.
Increased Profit Potential
I want to be clear about a few things before we talk about money. Indie authors, on average, make less money than their traditionally published counterparts.
That said, the amount that self-published authors earn is rising every year, while the opposite is true for traditional publishing. And some self-published authors make healthy six-figure salaries every year.
A large part of that is due to the increased profit potential indie authors enjoy. Unlike traditional publishers, who offer a very small percentage of sales as royalties, most distribution platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords offer 60-80% of book sales, depending on the format.
The flip side, of course, is that publishing houses have a lot more money to spend on marketing, thus they can sell a lot more books.
That’s why I say “profit potential.” If you become a master of your indie author responsibilities and sell a decent chunk of books, you will make more money than a traditionally published author who sold the same number of even twice as many books as you.
You just need to do the work.
To learn more about making money as an author, click here.
Speed to Market
Finally, the third big benefit of self-publishing is your speed to market capabilities.
Let’s imagine something: you’re a first-time author who just got accepted by a publishing house. Congrats! In about two years, your book will be in the hands of readers.
That’s because traditional publishing moves slowly through the necessary stages of perfecting and marketing a book. Then they have to slate that new release into their pre-existing schedule of new releases.
I’m not exaggerating when I say two years. In some cases, it takes even longer.
When you self-publish, that timeline is however long you make it. My second book went from first draft and out to readers in a matter of months. Some indie authors have refined their process to just weeks.
That ultimately means more writing, more readers, and more sales.
Drawbacks of Self-Publishing
Like I said at the beginning of this article, self-publishing isn’t all smiles and cupcakes. It’s work—hard work.
Beyond understanding and completing all those things from our list of indie duties, I want to introduce you to three of the big drawbacks to self-publishing.
Risk of Lower Quality
There has always been a stigma associated with self-publishing, and there likely always will be. Someone will think a self-published author just “isn’t good enough” to get a “real” publisher. Some people will always think self-published work is a lower quality than traditional authorship.
And they’re right. In some cases, at least.
Because all the responsibilities of self-publishing are on you, the author, your books will only be as good as you make them.
I don’t just mean how well you write or how thoroughly you brought your characters to life.
- Did you hire an editor? If so, did you get a developmental, line, or copy edit?
- Have you received enough feedback from your peers and potential audience?
- Did you listen to that feedback or just brush most of it off?
- How much time have you spent learning about the craft of writing?
- How much time have you spent learning everything else you need to know?
Some writers will take their first draft, think it’s good enough, slap a monochrome cover on it with their title and name, hit publish, and wonder why the few people who stumbled onto their book left one-star reviews.
No one is holding you accountable except yourself.
Here’s another tough statistic that indie authors need to cope with: about 1.7 million books are self-published each year.
That’s a huge number, one that accounts for paperback, e-books, hardcovers, textbooks, twenty-page sales funnel books, and anything else that has a cover and text. Though your book isn’t competing with 1,699,999 other books for each sale, you’ll still be up against a lot of titles and established authors.
This makes getting noticed difficult. That’s why the list of self-published author responsibilities is so long; you need to do everything you can to climb above the rest and get noticed.
As your career progresses, this gets a lot easier. You’ll grow your loyal fanbase, communicate with them regularly through your email list, and figure out what marketing works best for you.
But that doesn’t happen overnight. The journey to successful indie authorship—and by successful, I mean one that provides sustainable income—is a long one. If you choose to go down this path, be prepared for that.
Risk of Overwhelming Workload
Finally, I want to talk about burnout.
Burnout, as defined by the International Classification of Diseases, results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy”
I think everyone has experienced burnout at least once in their professional career. It stinks.
Because indie authorship has so many responsibilities associated with it, it’s not uncommon for self-published authors to go through burnout. Heck, I’ve found myself overwhelmed by the workload of an indie author multiple times.
Self-published authors usually choose this path because they love writing. That’s why burnout is so bad—it feels like it takes away the passion behind your writing.
Dealing with or avoiding burnout altogether is a topic for its own article. And I don’t want anyone feeling like burning out means they’ve failed as an author. Rather, it’s how you establish your processes and recover from being overwhelmed that prove you’re a good writer.
Resources to Help You Self-Publish
To round out this article, I want to leave you with a bunch of resources to help your self-publishing journey.
Alliance for Independent Authors (ALLi) - This group is on the forefront of advocating for indie authors and provides an abundance of resources for self-publishers of all levels. Click here to visit ALLi’s website
Writing Resources - We’ve compiled a whole list of vetted, proven resources for writers. These range from writing courses to books to information about marketing and cover design. Check it out here
Formatting - When your book is ready to be published, you’ll need to format it for paperback and e-book formats. Calibre is my go-to software for converting files into e-books (and it’s completely free). Vellum is a macOS exclusive, but many indie authors use it to format their books. I always recommend the free Smashword’s Style Guide to any indie author, as it coaches you through formatting in Microsoft Word. Finally, KDP has a bunch of templates to help you format your book.
Learning - We have hundreds of articles just like this one over at DabbleU. These free articles discuss everything from the craft of writing to habit building to making a career out of your books. Multiple articles are added every week, so check out DabbleU by clicking here.
Honestly, the list could go on and on. If I could end with one more resource, it would be our 100+ page e-book, Let’s Write a Book. This free resource gives you everything you need to go from idea to first draft—a critical step in writing your book!
Click here to get Let’s Write a Book sent to your inbox. And happy writing!
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