It’s the question I am asked the most: “Why are you self-publishing?” One of the reasons I am asked the question is that the road to a traditional publishing contract and agent representation is open to me. Of course there are no guarantees, but after being nominated for two of the most respected awards in fantasy and science fiction, the interest is definitely there. And for many writers, turning your back on that path makes no sense.
But I did it, and I’m glad that I did. So the question, again, is—why?
Well, there are a lot of reasons, and I thought I would outline them for you:
Certainly one reason is that I’m an entrepreneur at heart, having owned my own business and worked for start-ups. I love the risk and challenge of building something on my own. All writers share this love of creation, but not all share the love of risk and excitement in moving beyond the creation and into the other pieces like marketing and packaging. I do.
While all contracts are different, on a per book basis, writers will generally make four times or more publishing themselves than going through a publisher. This means that you can price your novel at half what the big New York publishers price their books at and still make more than their authors.
For a lot of authors, the idea of an advance is a big inducement to a publishing deal, but these advances for new writers can be as low as $5,000. You can’t make a living on that much money. So the proper thing to do when thinking of your writing career as a business would be to maximize your royalties, not look at the advance. And there is no better way to maximize your royalties than self-publishing.
There are no guarantees with traditional publishing
When I looked at what traditional publishers bring to the table, the single biggest benefit to my mind was the marketing. But an examination of the experiences of published authors illustrated to me that even the power of New York publishing did little to move publishing success beyond a crapshoot. And in a crapshoot, the higher the return the more the risk is worthwhile. So the high return of self-publishing made sense to me.
I love learning new things and taking on new challenges. Not everyone is like this, but I certainly am. As a result, self-publishing is fun to me. Learning how to use Adobe Indesign to design a trade paperback was very exciting. Examining contesting applications, investigating social media marketing tools, and assessing cover artists—all of these things were enervating. Make no mistake: Self-publishing takes an enormous amount of work and learning, but if you love the process then that is actually part of the appeal.
I have the network
While I noted that there are no guarantees with major publishers, there is no denying that they have the marketing resources and connections that nearly every self-publisher lacks. Just take a look at any review site run by librarians. A common review policy item is “no self-published works.” That’s just one illustration of the marketing advantage of traditional publishers. However, while I don’t have the marketing resources of a major publisher, I have a significant network.
I am a member of several large writing groups. I’ve been nominated for major science fiction and fantasy awards. My Twitter footprint is significant, and I have a powerful network of people who can potentially give me a major signal boost. As many of you know or expect, when a trusted and popular figure recommends your work, it has a major impact on sales. My network can move the needle in this way.
You’re racing a marathon and not a sprint
It’s the nature of major publishers that there is always another book in the pipeline. When your book is released the countdown clock starts. Even if your book is building slowly, it may not be building fast enough to maintain the attention of your publisher, and when you fall off the radar screen, your book will not get back onto it.
With self-publishing, the ebb and flow of your book’s fortune are not a big deal. The only thing that counts is if you continue to sell books and you are building a fan base. Your book could be out for a year, but a self-publisher knows that it is still not too late to take advantage of an opportunity to push sales, whether it is a review in a big newspaper or a promotional showcase.
Things like price pulsing (lowering the book’s price for a time to push sales) can be used for months after a book release. Again, there is no deadline. All you need is to continue to make progress to know that the possibility of a breakthrough is still alive.
Designing the frame
I wrote an essay on Medium about how much of the creative packaging of a book is outside of the writer’s control. This is not necessarily bad, but it’s the kind of thing that I prefer to oversee myself. As I wrote in that essay, I chose everything from the cover artist to the typeface used in the book. Each decision was important and personal to me, and these were all decisions that would be outside of my control if I were being published by a traditional publisher.
I decide on the schedule
A friend of mine recently signed a deal with a major publisher. Her book is coming out in the Fall of 2015, a full year from now. For books in series, the idea of releasing all of the books in a single year is almost inconceivable. Yet this is what the readers want.
So I love that: When my book is ready, I can release it as soon as possible. I can also immediately promote the next book release, which is months away, not years. This is not just great for me and my impatience, it is also good business.
I decide on the pricing
For a very long time I was going to price my debut novel at $6.99. It seemed relatively inexpensive and also on par with traditional publishers. But two things changed my mind: for readers with a limited budget, the difference between $3.99 and $6.99 was significant, and with the holidays coming up, I felt that the $3.99 price point would be low enough to push impulse purchases for parents giving their children a Kindle. If I’m an author at a traditional publishing house, I have zero say in pricing, even if I know that something like a Bookbub or other promotion would help.
I feel empowered
The pressure is obviously higher when you are responsible for everything, but that also provides a very real sense of empowerment and freedom. I can start and stop various marketing initiatives. I can look at my finished book and know that every piece of it has my heart and soul behind it. There is really nothing I can’t do.
I can do what I want to do
The natural conclusion of all of the above is the simple truth that as my own publisher I can do whatever I want to do. This is not just true of the packaging, but in the writing, as well. If I want to write a thriller, I can. If I want to write a romance, I can. There is no one that will tell me that I’m at risk of being dropped by an agent or publisher by writing a novel in an unexpected genre or style.
And this leads me to my debut novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light. We all know that there are some significant trends in middle grade and young adult fiction, whether it is a dystopia or a shape shifter. The further you move outside of these conventions, the more pushback you may receive from your editor or agent.
As my own publisher I didn’t get any push back. I wrote a book that is kind of in between young adult and middle grade. No one told me to rewrite it to fit one age range over the other. I set the novel in 1938. No one told me that historical fiction was out of fashion. The motivations of various characters are complicated. No one told me to dumb it down. And on and on.
So that is the answer to the question why. But I think that in asking that question people miss a more important point: When I first started writing twenty years ago the question of why wasn’t necessary because the possibility of self-publishing success didn’t even exist.
What a wonderful world we live in where there are multiple ways of achieving writing success. For that reason I’m glad to answer the question of why. It celebrates new opportunities by asking about them from someone who chose one.
After fifteen years as a music industry journalist Jake Kerr's first published story, "The Old Equations," was nominated for the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America and was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year's best collections.
A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters.