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On Self-Publishing: What to Start With

I’ve been talking lately about the publishing revolution. Last time, I drew it up in pretty dramatic terms and finished with a heartfelt call to action.

If you can be satisfied with the promise of an income and an audience, you should be self-publishing.

But there’s a big difference between deciding to self-publish and actually doing it. Self-publishing is a lot of work. It’s not necessarily more work than all the research and querying of the legacy model, but it’s definitely work.

And the most obvious thing you lose with self-publishing is the curation. The gatekeeping. That’s the whole foundation of the legacy model. As soon as you decide to go this route, you take on the new responsibility of choosing what you will publish.

Anything That’s Ready

Last time, I made you wait until the very end to answer the question I’d raised in the title, but this this week I’ll put it right up front. What should you self-publish? Anything that’s ready.

Admittedly, that’s a nuanced answer. And it works in several different contexts. The most important (and most angst-ridden is the story itself. Is the story ready for the public eye? Is it finished?

That’s not the same as asking, “Is it perfect?” Nothing’s ever perfect, and the best artists never stop improving. If you wait until a story is perfect, you’ll spend the rest of your like tinkering.

As a writer, I find this issue to be one of the biggest rewards of being published. Once a book is published, it’s done. It’s finished. You can go on tweaking it, but if you’re doing anything more than minor editorial changes, you’re really doing an injustice to everyone who already bought the book.

More than that, you’re doing an injustice to yourself by robbing yourself of the immense relief of being finished.

But that relief can also conceal a missed opportunity. After all, if you realize years after publishing your book how to make that two-dimensional, contrived love interest into a robust, compelling character who will be remembered through the ages…well, too bad. This book will always be the one you published first.

So the answer to the question–is it ready?–lies at the cross-section of perfectionism and regret. There’s certainly no way to reduce that to a quantitative assessment. It’s entirely inside your head.

Does the story as written accomplish everything you want it to accomplish? If yes, it’s ready (warts and all). If no, it’s not ready. Easy as that.

And that reveals the grand flaw in the gatekeeping model. The real test of a book’s readiness rests entirely in the heart of the writer. Now, acquisitions editors have never pretended to fill that role (their job is to guess which books readers will pay money for), but too many authors have imagined editors into that role.

A Ready Market

The question of a book’s readiness is certainly the most dramatic, but another significant consideration is the readiness of the book’s target market. Huge at is it, the self-publishing revolution is really in its early days.

In a lot of ways, the “self-publishing revolution” I’ve been talking about is synonymous with “the rise of the e-Book” or “digital publishing” (or “Kindle publishing” as I often call it). Exactly why is a whole conversation in itself, but this explosion of new opportunities for writers is driven almost entirely by the inherent characteristics of digital distribution.

And since that’s the foundation, it’s often pretty simple to see which markets are ready to support self-published books. All you have to do is evaluate how compatible that market is with digital distribution.

That’s why fiction does better than non-fiction. Fiction tends to consist almost entirely of free-flowing text, whereas non-fiction often depends on the extra formatting of page layouts for things like charts and tables.

And so within the non-fiction category there’s a big exception for narrative materials–memoirs and true crime, anthologies and essays. Anything that is primarily narrative text can do well; anything that needs visual or physical formatting is a bigger challenge.

And, yes, that includes children’s fiction. They don’t (yet) lend themselves to self-publishing. There’s certainly a market for them (and graphic-heavy nonfiction), but all the extra work necessary to make them attractive on e-readers means the legacy publishers still have the upper hand.

Another problem market is juvenile or young-adult fiction, because the price of e-readers still puts them out of reach of most of the target audience. Kids don’t have e-readers (yet), and parents aren’t necessarily willing to share theirs (yet).

I keep saying “yet” because everything is changing. The prices of e-readers are dropping, the selection is expanding, and the formatting tools are getting easier to use. The question isn’t, “Is there a market for this book?” It’s just “Is the market ready yet?”

And while I’ve been talking about old markets making the switch, there are also new markets emerging (or dead markets reviving). There’s a ready market for short-form serial fiction like the old pulp novels. Short stories and novellas are perfect for Kindle publishing, and there’s a Renaissance of collaborative fiction going on.

You can publish anything that’s ready, and that means new opportunities with every new day.

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