I spent two years as a literary agency assistant, working on the agency’s assisted self-publishing program. This means that clients (aka: authors) who wanted to self-publish some of their work could do so directly through the agency.
But let’s say you’re an author who doesn’t have an agent (or doesn’t have one yet!). Perhaps you’ve considered self-publishing on your own at some point, but you’re not sure it’s the right option for you. After all, you’ve worked hard on your manuscript. You’ve written it, rewritten it, revised a ton, had your beta readers and critique partners take a look, and possibly even had it professionally edited. And now you have no idea what to do with it.
There are several reasons to consider self-publishing, just as there are reasons to traditionally publish.
So, here’s the ultimate question: Should you pursue an agent, and then a traditional publishing contract? Or, would you rather call the shots and take a chance with self-publishing?
Self-publishing is like running a business. It is not a backup plan or meant to be a fallback. Authors who self-publish for the purpose of selling books (rather than for friends or family) must put in the work to make those books sell. If you’re not sure this path is right for you, the answers to these frequently asked questions might help you decide!
1. What are the benefits of self-publishing?
The most beneficial element of self-publishing, rather than pursuing a contract with a traditional publishing house, is autonomy. When you publish on your own, you essentially make all major decisions for yourself. Depending on which online retailer(s) you use, you choose your royalty rate (and don’t share a cut with an agent or publisher). All editorial decisions are your own, and so is the art (your cover image, for example).
2. What are the potential drawbacks of publishing without an agent or traditional contract?
The main drawback? When you go through a traditional publisher, you have an entire in-house team working with you. They design your cover art, edit your manuscript, market and publicize, handle subsidiary rights, and so forth. Without a traditional publishing contract, you don’t have that type of support or network. That’s not to say you can’t be successful on your own, but it’s certainly a helpful factor.
Another drawback to consider is distribution. While it can be possible to get your book on shelves in brick-and-mortar bookstores or libraries, more often than not, your books will only be available online.
3. What are the chances an agent will find my book and sign me on as a client?
Don’t expect to be swept up by an agent after self-publishing. While it can happen, agents can no longer market you as a debut author once you have sales numbers attached to your name. However, if you don’t plan to pursue an agent or publishing contract, this is a less important concern.
4. Can I do both?
This is referred to as being a hybrid author. Generally, authors who are represented by agents will pursue traditional publishing contracts earlier in their career and then begin self-publishing on their own later (or through their agency). This is becoming a popular choice among writers, especially when their rights on previous works are reverted back to them, though it comes in many forms beyond what I’ve outlined above. It is certainly an avenue to explore!
5. Are there genres or age categories that may not sell as well if they’re self-published?
It’s true that some genres and age categories might not sell as well if they’re self-published. For example, children’s novels, like middle grade (which generally targets readers ages 8–12), tend to perform better if they’re traditionally published. While there are exceptions to this, it’s important to remember that your readers are not your buyers in this case. Much of the time, your readers’ parents or guardians will be purchasing or otherwise acquiring the books for them. It’s more challenging to market middle grade as a self-published author because you need to go through these “gatekeepers” first.
On the other hand, genres like romance and even the YA category can do very well as self-published works!
6. What are small presses?
Small presses are independent publishing houses with a full publishing team. This includes editors, designers, and typesetters. However, their operations are on a smaller scale than larger, big-name publishers. Most times, you do not need an agent to submit your novel.
Think of small presses as the middle ground between traditional houses and self-publishing. You get to work with a professional publishing team, but you have some more autonomy than you would with a larger house. For example, you might have more say in the artistic direction of your cover design.
Tip: Beware of publishers that charge you for their services. A legitimate publishing house and/or small press will not charge you to edit, market, or otherwise publish your manuscript. While a few legitimate hybrid publishers do charge for some services, most of these businesses operate like vanity publishers.
7. I’ve decided that I want to self-publish. Where do I start?
Self-publishing is a great way dip your toes in the water and test the audience, but you need to take the right approach, regardless. Remember, once you have sales numbers attached to your name, those are here to stay.
Follow these steps as a general guideline when publishing your manuscript:
Make sure your manuscript is professionally edited.
This includes developmental editing (for big-picture issues) and copyediting/proofreading (for sentence-level issues). If readers start into your first few pages and see several typos, you will quickly lose their trust and interest.
Tip: Follow the Chicago Manual of Style for book publishing guidelines.
Use professional-level cover art.
Cover art should be well-executed and polished in appearance, as this is the first thing readers will see in their search. However, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars hiring a designer if you don’t have the funds. Many websites offer high quality pre-made covers for a flat fee, as well as extra design services.
Put effort into your cover copy.
This is a succinct and precise summary of your book. After the cover art, this is the next item readers will see when they view your book online. Make sure you summarize it in the most effective way possible, without giving away important surprises or details, and maintain an enticing tone.
Tip: Read the cover copy for other books similar to yours to see how they’re structured, and what makes them effective.
Format your book.
I recommend hiring someone if you’re not familiar with eBook conversion or print formatting. This way, you’ll have both digital files (Mobi files for Amazon and ePub files for everywhere else) and a print-ready PDF.
Tip: Kindle Direct Publishing recently merged with Amazon Createspace, so you can easily upload both an eBook and Print on Demand (POD) version.
Choose effective keywords and categories.
These keywords and categories will help readers find your book, so choose keywords that people are likely to type into search fields themselves. In addition to that, don’t pick a “general” category — get as specific as possible! For example: Young Adult –> General is less effective than Young Adult –> Science Fiction & Fantasy.
Tip: For keywords, don’t use words that are already present in your title or cover copy, as those automatically serve as extra keywords.
Register your copyright.
Visit the copyright office online to submit a copyright application for your book. Depending on the publishing platform you use, you may also want to purchase an ISBN for each version of your book (digital, print, etc.). Amazon assigns ASINs to their books, but if you want your book to be identifiable by an ISBN, you’ll need to purchase this via Bowker.
Leverage social media.
Don’t simply publish your book and wait for the “magic” to happen. Create an author Facebook page. Post on Twitter. Upload your cover image to Pinterest. Do everything you can to reach out to the community and spread the word across multiple channels (see below for more resources). After all, your marketing efforts are what matter most. It’s important to promote, be resourceful, and reach out to independent book bloggers as much as you can.
Here are some other great resources to consider when self-publishing (a “$” symbol indicates there’s an associated fee or cost):
Popular Self-Publishing Platforms
- NetGalley —make digital copies of your book available to online book bloggers/reviewers ($)
Editorial, Formatting, and Design
- Reedsy — join this online marketplace of professional book editors, marketers, cover designers, and more ($)
Remember, self-publishing is like running a business. You’ll need to market, keep up with your brand, and ensure your end product is professional. If this sounds like the right path for you, that’s fantastic! Stay focused, and good luck!