Rachelle Gardner

Rachelle Gardner is an agent with WordServe Literary Group. Her thirteen years in publishing have included positions in editorial as well as sales, marketing, and subsidiary rights. She has been a collaborative writer of eight books and edited more than sixty. Prior to entering the book world, she spent five years at the Fox television network in Los Angeles. Rachelle lives in Colorado with her firefighter husband, two young daughters and a fun-loving yellow lab. Come by her blog, Rants and Ramblings where she dispenses advice as a literary agent.

Self-Publishing: A Viable Option for Novelists?

Lately the publishing industry has been exploding with news, debates, and controversies about new technologies and new publishing models. With the rise of e-books and the increasing difficulty of getting a traditional book contract, self-publishing is becoming more attractive to many authors. But it’s confusing to try to figure out if it’s truly a viable path for your fiction. Let’s talk about it.

Is It Legitimate?

I believe self-publishing serves an important and valid purpose and is the right way to go for some people. The quality is definitely improving these days, and many more avenues are available to self-publish your books. I have nothing against self-publishing as an idea, and I applaud those who choose it as the right way for their books. But the decision needs to be made with eyes wide open.

The Two Most Important Points

I want to stress a couple of things about self-publishing and all of its various permutations (independent publishing, vanity publishing, subsidy publishing, e-book, POD, whatever). This advice has not changed despite the advent of e-books, the entry of major publishers like Thomas Nelson into self-publishing, or any other industry changes.

Point 1: Authors must understand that self-publishing is usually an alternative to traditional, royalty-paying, commercial publishing, not a stepping stone to it. It's possible for it to work out that way, but truthfully, most self-pubbed works don't gain an editor or agent’s attention and go on to sell through the regular channels.

Authors have alternatives for getting their books published . . . they’re not stuck with only one route. But self- and individual publishing is basically a different business from the major New York–based publishing world. One doesn't lead to the other. They're just options.

For this reason, I caution writers to be wary of publishers' hints that publishing with their self-pub division might lead to a royalty contract down the road. Sure, it might. But that's not the main purpose of self-publishing. For most self-pubbed authors, a royalty contract is not the result. So make your decision about self-publishing without regard to the "carrot" dangled in front of you, the royalty contract.

Point 2: The most important consideration when entering into a self-publishing arrangement (whether through WestBow or Harlequin or any other company) is to avoid deluding yourself about your ability to sell your book and recoup your costs. Significant distribution is not normally part of a self-pub deal. Who is going to buy your book? Make sure you have an audience, unless you are self-publishing only to share your book with family and friends.

Is Self-Publishing Good for Fiction Authors?

In a word, no.

Let me put it another way: Umm . . . no.

Self-published nonfiction books on specific topics that have a built-in audience or subculture are much easier to sell than fiction. You can have a blog and Web site that attracts people who want the information you’re sharing. You may have speaking engagements through which you’ll sell books.

But fiction is different. It’s not about the information being shared; it’s about the story. And readers are far less willing to take a risk on a story that nobody except the author has endorsed.

A traditionally published novel has been “approved” by dozens of people. Numerous professionals have said, “This book is good enough for us to spend our money to publish and promote it.” Readers trust that process, and while they know they’re not going to like every published book, at least they have the assurance that somebody likes it, since the book made it to the shelves of Barnes & Noble.

With a self-published book, a reader has no such assurance. Only the author thinks it’s good. For most readers, this is not enough of an endorsement, so they’re unwilling to spend good money on a self-published novel.

A few authors will find success selling their self-pubbed fiction online. They are savvy promoters; they spend a lot of time in online networking. And they usually write in specific genres that tend to create subcultures or cultlike following: fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural. But the reality is that kind of self-pub success with fiction is rare.

What about the Stigma?

We all know that self-published books have been tainted by a certain stigma in the past. With ePublishing, we might question whether the stigma will eventually fade. Truthfully, I don't think the perception of self-pubbed books will change until most self- and individually produced products are perceived as having the same level of quality as traditionally published books. I don't know if it will ever happen.

Cutting to the Chase

1. Self-publishing is an alternative to traditional publishing, not a stepping stone to it.
2. Self-publishing works better for nonfiction than it does for fiction.
3. Self-published works will probably continue to be seen as “inferior” in the marketplace, at least for some time to come.

Chip MacGregor has a thorough discussion of self-publishing in his November 29 post on his blog at: A Lesson In Self-Publishing.

Read my post about Thomas Nelson and Harlequin’s entry into self-publishing: Self-Publishing: A Rant and a Q4U.

You can see all my posts on self-publishing: Self-Publishing.