Lessons for Self-Publishers

The media loves self-publishing success stories. They make excellent human interest articles, feeding as they do into the American dream of entrepreneurial achievement, the rags-to-riches certainty that you can come from nothing and yet attain everything. A recent example: the $2.5 million sale of Brunonia Barry’s self-pubbed debut novel to William Morrow, which has garnered a lot of press and spawned a flurry of blog posts. (Scratch a self-publishing success story, though, and you usually find a special circumstance of some sort–this article enumerates some of the advantages Barry had that most self-pubbed authors don’t.)

Self-publishing advocates love self-publishing success stories too, because they appear to support the advocates’ view that self-publishing is a viable alternative to “traditional” publishing. There’s a long list of such stories at John Kremer’s Self-Publishing Hall of Fame. However, some of the stories are apocryphal–like the myth that John Grisham self-published his first book (Kremer acknowledges that this is false, but includes Grisham anyway, on the grounds that Grisham was “actively involved in promoting his first novel”)–while others are misleading–starting out with an established epublisher, as Mary Janice Davidson did, is not exactly equivalent to self-publishing–and still others are irrelevant–you can’t really compare a pamphlet printed by Thomas Paine in 1776 to the activities of modern self-publishers such as Richard Paul Evans. (For more debunking, see this blog entry by writer Jim C. Hines.)

And of course, there are the shills trying to make a buck on the writerly pipe dreams that inevitably result from this kind of hype. Buy a marketing package from Fred Gleeck Productions for $97, for instance, and you can learn How To Self-Publish Your Own Book, Get Famous, and Make Well Over $250,000 per Year. Or if you don’t want to spend that much, you can order Self-Publishing Success Secrets 101 from Bob Baker for just $11.95 (“Ideal for Newcomers and First-Time Authors”). The Internet is crammed with stuff like this.

I have nothing against self-publishing. In certain very specific circumstances, it can make a lot of sense, and for writers who have direct access to their audiences, it can be more profitable than commercial publishing. However, the people for whom self-publishing is right, and the people who parlay self-publishing into major success, are vastly outnumbered by everyone else.

You don’t often see coverage of this in the media. Here’s an exception, from the Wall Street Journal: “Writing the Book on Self-Help: A Publisher’s Cautionary Tale.” It’s the story of C. Ben Bosah, who was certain his wife’s nonfiction book about women’s health was a bestseller in the making, and, unwilling to share the profits, decided to publish it himself. Unfortunately, his ignorance of the publishing industry led him to make a number of basic mistakes, from failing to line up a distributor, to neglecting to solicit pre-publication reviews, to disregarding the advice of experts and ordering too many books. Over the course of a year and a half, he has managed to recoup his $40,000 investment–but to do so has required more than 2,500 hours of his time.

Despite the problems and the errors, the book has done pretty well for a self-published title. Less than half the original order of 15,000 books has been sold, but that still means sales of several thousand, figures that might well interest a literary agent or a commercial publisher. Perhaps, ultimately, the book will find a commercial home. But for would-be self-publishers, there are a couple of lessons to take away from Mr. Bosah’s experience. First, the importance of knowing something about publishing before deciding to become a publisher, even if your only client is yourself; and second, the incredible amount of time and energy self-publishers must expend in order to have even a hope of breaking even. These are things the self-publishing boosters and the Internet shills often forget to mention, as they’re encouraging your starry-eyed dreams of publishing entrepreneurship.


  1. You're absolutely right, Michelle. This post was written before ebooks began their meteoric rise, and electronic self-publishing took off. The prospects for self-pub success, as well as the attitudes toward self-publishers, have changed radically as a result.

    For electronic self-publishers, that is. Print self-publishing, which still suffers from problems of pricing and distribution, continues to languish.

  2. I am amazed by how different today's self-publishing world is from the time when this was written.

  3. Victoria… I was doing a Google search for Fred Gleeck and suddenly I saw "Fred Gleeck scam"… So I clicked on it and I read your comments about Fred Gleeck. And then ALC chimed in.

    I want to say to BOTH OF YOU that you are slandering a very good and honest person and a very good teacher…

    And whether or not you believe you are right with your "don't self publish" vanity press, you have NO IDEA what Fred Gleeck is talking about. You could learn, if you would read what he says, but you are so certain that you are right that you probably won't read his books (which are free, by the way…)

    And yes, Fred Gleeck does offer a money back guarantee on his paid courses… but I don't think anybody would ever think of asking him for their money back… But if they did, I am certain he would return it in an instant, if that would ever be the case.

    In any case, you really ought to be ashamed of yourself for slandering Fred Gleeck, or anybody…

    And if you are ashamed, or if you have any regret for what you are doing, or if you have the slightest doubt that now TWO persons have written to defend Fred Gleeck, then maybe you have a slight idea that you might be mistaken. And you are mistaken.

    So you should ERASE your horrible comments about him trying to make a buck because if anybody delivers more than you paid for, it is Fred Gleeck. Your comments are slanderous and NOT TRUE.

    Bob Bly says so, and I say so, too.

    I know Fred Gleeck PERSONALLY and there is not a better teacher on the internet, for what he teaches.

    And any offense against Fred Gleeck is an offense against me too. And I am sure others who learn good ideas from him would probably say the same.

    So I am personally offended by your comments and I ask you to please remove all reference to Fred Gleeck from your statement, so that "Fred Gleeck scam" does not show up on Google anymore.

    And ALC… you are a coward. You hide behind your fake name or initials. I dare you to call Fred Gleeck names to his face, in person.

    And Victoria, I dare you to allow this comment to be posted, so everybody can read what I just wrote… Anything else would also be very cowardly.

    – Ellis Toussier

  4. Just as a point of interest: I read Brunonia Barry’s novel, The Lace Reader, over the holidays (my library had a copy of the self-published version). It’s a pretty good book, well-written and atmospheric, with strong characters and a vivid sense of place. I don’t think it totally hangs together at the end, in part because of a plot twist that I found disappointingly predictable, but overall I found it an enjoyable, absorbing read.

    I have no idea why the author chose to self-publish, but I think there’s a very good chance that if she’d gone the traditional route she could have placed the book with a good commercial publisher. Of course, she probably wouldn’t have scored a $2.5 million advance (which, by the way, is for at least two books, The Lace Reader and a sequel), a figure that, I suspect, reflects at least as much on the novelty value of the self-publisher-makes-good story as on the book’s perceived marketability. It will be interesting to see how it does as a Morrow title.

  5. Hiya, Fred.

    Peeped at your web site and saw the usual “get rich quick” esque mantra.

    I notice that your self-publishing info touts that “anyone” can make a quarter mil per year on one of their self-published books.

    A few questions:

    How much $$$ must one invest in your method in order to make sed profit? You see, if it’s an exorbitant amount then the average person is excluded at the start.

    Also, does your mantra come with a guarantee? I mean, not just a “money back on the system I purchased if it doesn’t work” guarantee, but an “if you invest a butt-load of cash into my system and bankrupt yourself because the system doesn’t really work, I’ll bail you out and return all of your hard-earned cash” guarantee.
    Oh, and what about an “if you follow my system to the letter – I’ll personally guarantee you a quarter mil in profits within a year” guarantee. (We all know that gurus like to “appear” to make promises without really “making” promises.)

    You see, get rich quick schemes are, in essence, all the same. Loads of promises, but snags like “massive $$$ investment to even get started” that preclude many from “doing it right” according to the guru, therefore, sed guru is absolved of any responsibility for the failure.

    This is a blog, BTW, and the free expression of opinions is valued. Most of the participants of this particular blog are intelligent enough to form their own opinions based upon the evidence at hand.

    Anyone who is familiar with publishing knows full well that a self-published author is operating at a severe disadvantage from the start because he/she cannot afford to work with “real” book distributors because they would have to be able to publish copies by the hundreds (if not thousands) AND make their product returnable (i.e. refund bookstores’ money for every book that doesn’t sell – OH, AND, DID WE MENTION THE FACT THAT BOOKSTORES DO NOT “RETURN” THE BOOKS TO THE ORIGINAL PUBLISHER!! THEY SIMPLY RIP THE COVER OFF, RETURN IT FOR THE REFUND & CHUNK THE BOOK IN THE TRASH.)

    Also, even if the self-publisher was able to go around the distributor (lots of effort for little effect), bookstores expect a certain discount, they usually won’t stock self-pubbed books, AND the cost of self-publishing usually makes the individual product much more expensive.

    These, BTW, are facts.

    You can sing the praises of self-publishing all you like, sir. I, personally, do not have a problem with anyone self-publishing.

    I do, however, have a problem with someone trying to sell a “system” that promises that “anyone” can be a monstrous success as a writer by using his/her self-publishing & promotional system.

    This is a hollow promise at best, a con at worst because it doesn’t take into account such important factors as writing skill, story-telling skill, competence, etc.

    Anyone who promises “best-sellerdom” to the masses is, well, full of it.

  6. Victoria, Fred Gleeck here. I have no idea how good a writer you are, but I only have one question: do you ever do research on people you make comments about. From this post, evidently not. Your comments are both untrue and HARMFUL to your audience. You appear to be like a movie reviewer who has not seen a film and feels comfortable reviewing it. Have you ever read ANY of my material? Have you ever attended ANY of my events? Your claims are amusing at best and slanderous at worst.

  7. Mr. Bly, thanks for your comment. However, I did not claim that Fred Gleeck was a scam artist. Here’s how I actually referred to self-styled gurus who sell get-rich-quick self-publishing advice on the Internet: “…shills trying to make a buck on the writerly pipe dreams that inevitably result from this kind of hype.”

    I stand by that description. I’m certain that nearly all such advice can be helpful for at least some people. But for the great majority of writers, it’s both useless and damaging, since it encourages them to believe that self-publishing is a solution equally applicable to just about everyone (it’s not), and that all you need for self-publishing success is to follow a “system” or a set of instructions (but self-publishing is not like putting together a cabinet from instructions inside the box). And of course, for this wisdom, you have to pay. The BBB warns against work-at-home schemes that require people to buy kits or manuals; in my view, selling self-publishing or self-promotion “systems” on the Internet isn’t much different.

  8. I have published more than 70 books, all with traditional publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Thomas Nelson. I know Fred Gleeck personally and your claim that he is a scam artist is 100% wrong. Not only is he genuinely interested in helping others self publish profitably, but he has made himself rich doing so. And his books and other programs are all first-rate.

  9. I have published with both 1st Books and Publish America and both are rip off people. They sell my books online and I don’t get paid for them.

  10. Mr. Bosah, I appreciate your response to my post, but this blog is not an appropriate place to promote your wife’s book.

  11. I love you guys. And I can take corrections. Thanks to those who had the graces to let me slide and correct me. I cannot use the fact that I am an engineer to excuse my inability to punctuate correctly.

    On another note, I am anxious to hear what everyone thinks about the book. Anyone who reads and writes (or blogs) about Letters to My Sisters: Plain Truths and Straightforward Advice from a Gynecologist and its approach to disseminating health information will get a signed copy of the book mailed to them. If your review is posted on amazon.com and http://www.bn.com, you will get a second copy for your local library.

  12. Mr. Bosah,

    I think you need a possessive apostrophe (copy editor’s eyes) on your point concerning copy editing. Just an interesting observation.

  13. Marsupialis,

    Some of us do the marketing and promotion stuff so that our books sell through and we can get further contracts with our publishers. It isn’t dirty. It’s reality. Get over yourself.


    Thank you.

  14. Thank you, Ms. Strauss for posting my comments. How many people truly read these postings with a copy editors eyes? I used ikebana trees deliberately hoping someone will catch it and tell me I meant bonsai trees, but no-one brought it to my attention. An interesting observation.

    On another note, if your travels brings you to Central Ohio, with adequate notice, I’d be glad to host a reading of some of your work. Meanwhile, please call your local library and get them to add Letters to My Sisters: Plain Truths and Straightforward Advice from a Gynecologist a compelling must have book to their collection. While we want to sell lots of books, it is important that lots of people get a chance to read this important book. Cheers and have a good evening.

  15. The only reason we’re not more familiar with scams in the music & film industry is that we’re not into that.

    Maybe more familiar than you think. It’s just that in the music industry, the scammers have names like “Sony BMG” and “Universal Music.” Things that we consider scams in the publishing business are par for the course for them.

    Put it this way: when I was blogging for experience.com, I covered an event where the guest of honor was Kevin Lyman (creator of the Vans Warped Tour, so it’s hard to get more authoritative than that) and he was advising people not to sign contracts with major record labels. They arrange their contracts to basically make musicians their indentured servants until they decide to drop them.

  16. Keep in mind that there are probably just as many examples out there representative of the film & music industries where non-pros create their own labels in the hope of breaking into the industry.

    There may even be plenty of scammers who prey on musicians, actors, wannabe film-makers, etc.

    I knew a fellow who ran his own recording studio back in the Muscle Shoals area years ago (For anyone unfamiliar with the music recording industry, Muscle Shoals, Alabama used to be THE recording hot spot many years back. Fame recording studios, which is credited with creating the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” still exists today and does good business.) Well, anyway, this fellow opened his own studio in the area and struggled for quite a while. I found out that when he closed up shop and left town that he’d taken a lot of money from a lot of small time singers & groups who were trying to record with his studio. He left them high and dry.

    I don’t believe for a moment that he was intent on scamming anyone. I believe that he just didn’t know the business well enough to go it on his own.

    I actually worked for a radio station in the area for a while & distinctly remember getting a mondo expensive promo package for an unknown country “artist” who called himself “Mountain Man.” I mean to tell you that his package was slick, too! It came with a CD of his “greatest hits,” a bio, posters, etc. This guy must have paid a small fortune for that marketing package, especially if he sent it out to every country station in the southeastern region (I believe the packaging came from Florida, but I may be mistaken.)

    So, did a great marketing package help this guy’s “career”? Uh, in a word – NO. Why not, you ask? Because he was terrible. Great promo can’t help lack of talent no matter what industry your venue.

    The only reason we’re not more familiar with scams in the music & film industry is that we’re not into that. If we were musicians or film-makers I’m sure we’d have a million and one horror stories to share.

  17. It’s a curious dichotomy: On one side, in the movies, Robert Townsend is hailed for his entrepreneurial spirit in maxing out 50 credit cards to produce “The Hollywood Shuffle”; and in the music business, Ani DiFranco is called a genius for running her own record label. But in publishing, if you self-publish, you’re a schmuck. Sometimes the label is deserved. There’s a whole lot of schmucks out there who should take up something else other than writing. The catalogues of the self-publishing portals are full of material that is, shall we say charitably, not well executed. But there’s also a pool of excellent writers who have no other venue for their work, and the reasons for that are legion: Their books have gone out of print because of the twisted economics of publishing. They’re too “literary” (whatever that means anymore). They’re unlike anything in the market therefore the market won’t bear them.

    With this story though about the signing by Morrow, the problem finally comes down to promotion. Somehow this book rose into view sufficient to interest a (real) publisher. That’s no mean feat whether self-published or otherwise. What we discover is that most publishers have a very few key titles on any season’s list and rest languishes. A sales rep gets 10 seconds? 15 seconds? to pitch a book to a store buyer. And they hear so many that really it’s a wonder anything gets taken. Mostly your book comes out and it’s met with a profound silence. The world is simply not waiting for one more book.

    I’m also struck by John Kremer’s comments here. Promotion and marketing –the author function — is an entirely separate one from writing. Every minute you promote and market means you’re not writing. Maybe a lot of you got into it for the fame (silly you), but I write for the separation. I don’t like interacting with people. I like observing them, and then inventing new actions on the page based on their psychologies. But save me from promotion and marketing. It’s dirty. It’s beneath me as an artist. It’s for the college majors who weren’t smart enough to do anything else.

  18. I suppose that, to some extent, self-publishing has been “demonized” in the writing community.

    If your dream is to BE the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, then, by all means, avoid self-publishing. You will never attain this level of success through self-publishing (unless- your MS is FANTASTIC, you have ensured that it is edited thoroughly, you pay to make it LOOK as professionally done as possible, AND [BIG AND] you have a huge fortune to spend on marketing it for yourself [hopefully by utilizing a professional marketing and PR firm].

    If, however, your only true desire is to have your work bound in book form to give to family and friends, and if having that bound copy in your hands is all that it will take to give you that feeling of accomplishment, then, by all means, self-publish.

    If you are merely writing for the joy of it, then there is no real harm in paying to have your own work bound.

    Let’s face it, writing a complete novel (regardless of the quality) is quite an accomplishment in and of itself. If it’s really good, then Hooray! If you’re just happy to have finished a complete, novel-length story and all you want is to share it with family and friends, self-publish.

    If you are wanting to make a CAREER out of writing, DO NOT self-publish.

  19. Mr. Bosah, thanks for visiting and commenting. I hope the WSJ article and the attention in the blogosphere will prove to be a publicity windfall for you and your wife.

    Mr. Kremer, I do have problems with your “Hall of Fame,” as I indicated. Your book is something of a bible for self-publishers, and your “Hall of Fame” is frequently used by self-publishing boosters to support misleading statements about the benefits of self-publishing. But I didn’t mean to “slam you as a huckster,” and I apologize if my post produced that impression.

  20. Writing is enough work for me; I can’t even imagine self-publishing. It’s not as if people will suddenly discover your ‘great american novel’ just because it is published.

    I review books for some area publications, and – sad to say – every self-pubbed one that has been sent my way stands out like a sore thumb.

  21. I’m suddenly struck by another drawback to self-publishing. Because of the inherent difficulties in reaching any kind of audience, the self-published author is forced to shill for his book in inappropriate places on the hopes that he can make a sale to off-set the number of people he just annoyed.

  22. My list of self-publishers in the hall of fame I maintain is meant to inspire people. But, please note, the list doesn’t give the whole story for any of the listings. The background stories are told in my book John Kremer’s Self-Publishing Hall of Fame. There you can find many details that show how and why some people were successful as self-publishers.

    I would guess that about 1/6 of the people on my self-publishing hall of fame list are novelists. That’s a lot of self-published successes.

    On my BookMarket.com website and in my consulting, I don’t oversell self-publishing. I truly believe that working with a publisher is often the better option. The average self-publisher probably sells 200 books. The same is true for most print-on-demand books.

    To encourage submission to book publishers, I also feature eight different lists of editors at major publishers, including more than 400 editors who have bought a first novel in the past three years.

    I devote one page on my site to a self-publishing hall of fame, and then get slammed as a huckster. But the same people ignore the list of independent publishers that I feature as the best. They ignore the 8 pages of editors at large publishers that I feature. They ignore the Independent Publishers Bestselling Books list.

    I really hate being associated with hucksters selling self-publishing services. I’m a book marketer, helping authors working with any level of publisher. I don’t favor one option over another.

  23. I have read lots of blogs about Mr. Trachtenberg’s article in The Wall Street Journal on 11/13/2007. I am very grateful to him for writing a story on my experience, and if it provides an instrumental lesson that assists someone in navigating the minefield of publishing, then it may have done some good. It will take an annal to tell the full story of how the book came to be.

    Be that as it may, it appears that a lot of discussion about the book has focused on the effort and the fact that Ben Bosah Books have not made a bundle (of cash). Let me be quite clear, the motivation for the book was more altruistic in nature, and the joys of publishing it has been ‘priceless.’ Many an individual have spent lots of time and a lot more mullah nursing their ikebana trees, or engaged in some other hobby, probably a lot more expensive than this foray into publishing. If you count the intangibles in the comments I get from people who feel better educated about themselves and their health (and these people include PhD graduates), testimonials from others about the fact that the book actually inspired to rethink old habits and develop better ones, parents who have used the book as a conversation starter with their daughters, et cetera, you will no doubt agree that I have done better than break even.

    Health literacy costs the economy between 50-75 billion dollars every year, and that is purely money. If once in a while a book like Letters to My Sisters: Plain Truths and Straightforward Advice from a Gynecologist’ praised for its simplicity and unique approach for addressing medical issues helps a few people to better understand their medical conditions, then we would have made a significant contribution to the country.

    It will be interesting to maybe make a slight detour and discuss some of the issues beyond writing and publishing. Let us use this unique organ of blogs and blogging to spread the message of health literacy. And while you are at it, call your library to add this high quality but inexpensive hardcover book (cheaper than most insurance copayments or for that matter, those martini cocktails) to their collection.

    In my book, publishing the book has been an unqualified success. Dr. Osuagwu now has better name recognition, patients who like her honest approach are making appointments to see her, and occasionally she gets asked to speak for a fee. Yes, I spent more than 2500 hours but I enjoyed every bit of it. Now, make it 2501 hours. And I am still having fun.

    Reach me at benbosah@benbosahbooks.com and let us talk about reaching the next milestone together. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for Oprah or Ellen or Tyra to have an author of a self published book as a guest?

  24. PODdymouth,

    I’m not sure I understand what your stance is here, Victoria.

    The point I’m making is that focusing on fantastic self-publishing success stories without also focusing on self-publishing’s difficulties and downsides encourages a misleadingly optimistic view of the chances for success. The media loves a Cinderella story like Barry’s, and scams can also make the news–but a story like Bosah’s, which is actually far more typical of a self-publisher’s experience, rarely gets press.

    It’s the same with “famous self-publishers” lists that include misleading, irrelevant, or incorrect information–as most of them do. They encourage unrealistic expectations. It’s those expectations and misconceptions that are tapped by the Internet shills.

    Of course most self-publishing authors fail. Most authors fail regardless of the way they publish.

    This seems like an overly broad use of the word “fail” (it’s also the kind of argument trotted out by self-publishing boosters who want to convince writers that Commercial Publishing is Bad). Be that as it may, the odds of success are far greater for a commercially-published author than for a self-published one, if only because the commercially-published author has the system on his or her side.

    (And let me just say I’m gobsmacked that you’re currently recommending Tate Publishing on your blog. Although I’m having fun imagining their faces when they see themselves described as a self-publishing company.)

  25. But if you self-publish a thriller, how are you going to get the word out about it?

    You teach a community college class on writing and sell it to your students. (It wasn’t mandatory to purchase it, but yes, my teacher did this.)

  26. I’m not sure I understand what your stance is here, Victoria. Of course most self-publishing authors fail. Most authors fail regardless of the way they publish. Most start-up businesses fail. Most marriages fail. It’s those “exceptions to the rule” that keep all of us waking up in the morning and plugging away in quiet desperation. There’s nothing wrong with hope. And if self-publishing provides that ray of sunshine just slightly earlier, there’s nothing wrong with that, either.


  27. The first thing that struck me about that long list of self-published authors (and the newspaper articles as well) is that the books are primarily non-fiction, not novels. It’s a lot easier to sell a self-pubbed non-fiction book, particularly if you’re already giving workshops as part of your business; it’s much more difficult to sell a novel. I mean, if you’re giving a workshop on how to build web sites, you can sell the book at the workshop and people will buy it.

    But if you self-publish a thriller, how are you going to get the word out about it? Post it online and hope people stumble across it? The non-fiction books often succeed because the writers are already entrepreneurs and know how to market; many novelists don’t have those skill sets at all. Consequently, the kind of marketing we see for a novel ends up being a spam to a writer’s message board.

  28. There are literally thousands of “would be” writers out there who believe that being published means living the lifestyle of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. They don’t take into account the fact that King & Rowling are the acceptions not the rule. There are plenty of successful writers who are far from wealthy. And, for every successful novelist there are 1,001 who have been published by legitimate agencies once and never again.

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