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On Self-Publishing: Who Should Start

I started a brief series back in March on the topic of self-publishing. Those first two posts weren’t really planned, but they did fall neatly into the beginnings of a pattern:

That asks for the obvious journalist’s progression — who, what, when, where, why, and how — and the more I think about it, the more I wish I’d gone in that order from the start. But now I will.

Spectators at the Revolution

There’s a lot of talk about the changing marketplace for books. I know. I contribute my share to it.

There are financial analysts and business professors watching with professional interest. There are antitrust lawyers and consumer interest groups watching to see what dangers it might pose. There are readers wondering how much garbage they’re going to have to pay for (and how much they’ll have to pay).

No matter how much they care or how well informed they stay, these people are all spectators in the revolution. Right now, I’m far more interested in the participants.


There are editors and agents watching with heartfelt terror (or snide disdain). Even these people are already mostly decided. Mostly they have a vested interest in the legacy model and that’s going to color every discussion for them. The same is largely true for established writers, which is sad because they’re the ones with the most to gain.

These people are all stakeholders in the revolution, but mostly they’re still sitting on the sidelines. It astonishes me every day that the legacy publishers don’t start diving in.

(It shouldn’t. There’s a whole book describing why dominant companies inevitably ride their obsolete business models all the way into the ground.)

But that’s at the corporate level. On the individual level, we certainly have agents and editors and authors dipping their toes in the new publishing model.

These are the voices worth listening to–not because self-publishing is inherently right, but because it’s so different from existing models that it can’t be fairly judged from the outside. And many of the clamoring voices are speaking out of that ignorance.

The New Guard

Then there are those like me, who never had a seat at the old table. I’ve met several of them through my years in the Professional Writing program at OU, and know a lot more through Twitter. None of them has yet found the success I’ve found, but they’re all filled with the same excited optimism, and that’s a little miracle in itself.

Back in 2009, I was still proclaiming loudly to new writers that self-publishing was a terrible idea. Back in 2010, I was coming around to the idea, but it still felt like a kind of failure. Like giving up.

Sure, I held my book in my hands. I reached readers who had never heard of me before. I was a published writer…. But in a sense, it was fake.

That’s because I’d spent more than a decade chasing a very focused vision of success. I had always dreamed of making it big, of proving myself, of being chosen and getting published. I’d deeply internalized the (false) connection between accomplishment and…well, an industrial production process.

That’s what legacy publishing really is: an industrial production process. But I didn’t always have the clarity or confidence to recognize it.

I spent my first year as a published author ashamed to mention it. I had to sell tens of thousands of books before I was ready to give myself the credit I would have accepted instantly from any publisher willing to offer me a couple thousand bucks and a 6% royalty.

But today I’m meeting serious, dedicated writers whose dream is to achieve self-publishing success. That’s a huge social shift in a surprisingly short time.

Serious, Dedicated Writers

And that’s the foundation of my answer to this article’s core question. Who should get started in self-publishing? Serious, dedicated writers who can be happy with self-publishing success.

“Self-publishing success” means making money and finding readers. How much depends entirely on your personal ambition, but the promise of self-publishing is an income and an audience.

It’s not pretty covers and a brilliant editor (you’ll have to find those yourself). It’s not a name-brand imprint and prestigious book awards (not yet, anyway). All self-publishing has to offer is an income and an audience.

If you can be satisfied with those, you should get started in self-publishing. Easy as that. Give me a couple weeks, and I’ll tell you what to publish and when to publish it, but if you pass that little test, this revolution is for you.

Join us. It’s fun.

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