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.