Why Self-Published Authors Know Best

I ran across this quote today, from a post that historical romance novelist Courtney Milan wrote this week as an open letter to agents.

The traditional information storehouse has been inverted. Right now, the people who know the most about self-publishing are authors, and trust me, the vast majority of authors are aware of that. For the first time, authors are having questions about their careers, and their agents are not their go-to people. 

While not having an agent, in fact having decided in the fall of 2009 not to look for an agent for my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, I can’t really speak to this group’s effectiveness in this new publishing climate. Neither to I want to go into whether or not I think that the decision on the part of some agents to begin to publish their authors’ work has ethical or conflict of interest ramifications.  Although the latest brouhaha that just erupted when an agency threatened an author with legal action because she said they were setting up as a digital publisher, when they insisted they were just starting an “assisted self-publishing initiative” suggests that this question is not going to go away.

What I want to address is Milan’s assertion that authors are the people who know the most about self-publishing. I not only agree, but I would take this one step further. I think that self-published authors may know the most about publishing, period, in this time of expanded ebook publishing and social media marketing.

Let me count just some of the ways:

1.  Most of self-published authors know about both legacy publishing and self-publishing, which gives them a uniquely broad perspective.

In my experience, most of self-published authors have already had fairly extensive experience with the legacy publishing industry (as traditionally published authors, as authors who have spent years trying to become traditionally published, and as friends of published authors). From this experience we are in a better position to make well-informed decisions about the costs and benefits of both paths to publication, and which path to choose for a given project.

For example, since we understand the lead time it takes to get a book published with a legacy publisher, versus a self-published book, we might choose self-publishing for a non-fiction book that is very time-sensitive, but willingly pursue a legacy publisher for a work of fiction that we feel would do best in print and distributed through brick and mortar stores.

2.  Self-published authors were among the first to embrace ebook publishing as their main method of publishing, and therefore they have longer and greater experience in this realm, which is where the market is expanding the fastest.

For most of us the lack of capital meant learning how to format and upload ebooks ourselves, therefore we understand both the relative ease of this process and the importance of it. Even if we decide to pay someone else to do the formatting, our experience helps be better judges of the value of this service.

For example, we would be much less likely to be snookered into paying a high fee to an agent or anyone else for “taking care of” this for us. We understand that while most readers of ebooks are fairly tolerant of an occasional formatting error, they don’t like a lot of white space, including indents that are too large, blank pages, and unnecessary page breaks. We understand the cover design that works on a printed book sitting on a shelf doesn’t work on a thumbnail on the virtual bookshelves of an eretailer or a website, and we have had the chance to experiment to find the most effective covers for our books in this environment.

3. Self-published authors have up-to-date information about sales data, and they can and do share that information.

The turning point for me in making the decision to self-publishing came when I read Joe Konrath’s initial blog postings listing his ebook sales. I finally had the concrete numbers to determine what kind of sales I would need to pay for my capital outlay, and what kind of income I could make, compared to the advance I could expect going the traditional route.

Agents, publishers, even traditionally published authors, are very unwilling to ever talk about numbers, unless, of course, they are talking about a New York Times bestseller. The whole convoluted publishing industry accounting system, the lag in recording royalties (which go through the agent-I mean, what is up with that??), the fear that weak numbers are going to be the kiss of death for achieving the next contract, all work to keep a veil of secrecy. If you are an author this means you may never really understand how many books you sold, when and where you sold them, which covers worked, which price points worked, and which method of delivery got you the most profit.

Self-published authors working through such methods of delivery as CreateSpace for print or KDP or ePubit for ebooks not only have ready access to this sort of information, which is so crucial for designing effective market strategies, but we have no reason not to share this information. I can write that my sales have been lower this summer than in the winter, and not worry that this will hurt the chances that my next book will be published, or marketed aggressively, or reviewed positively. And I can learn from other authors if they are experiencing a similar pattern, and if so, what they are doing about it. This is one of the reasons we knew that ebook readership was going up, that certain price points worked better than others, that the Nook was beginning to claim a significant share of the market, before most of the traditional pundits did.

4.  By necessity, self-published authors have had to rely on eretailers, but this has made them savvy about how best to attract customers in this expanding retail environment.

For example, authors published through legacy publishers are often slow to understand how important it is to get your book into the right category on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. In my experience most traditionally published authors, and their agents and editors, don’t even know that categories had been chosen for their book, and, as with most aspects of publishing (the title, the cover design, the product description), the authors don’t have ultimate control over the final choices. Getting any changes made after publication (in a cover or category or price that doesn’t work) is also difficult.

5.  Again by necessity, self-published authors have had to develop alterative methods of marketing—which have made them innovators in using social media for this purpose.

I am still amazed when I read comments by traditionally published authors on various sites saying that their books have just “been put up on Kindle,” and asking if anyone has a suggestion how to market those books. Obviously neither their agents or their editors have had much to say on the subject, beyond “set up a website.” Not surprisingly, it is self-published authors that seemed to give the most detailed advice in response to these queries. See Rob Walker’s huge thread on KDP community forum.

6.  Self-published authors are going to continue to be the innovators in publishing, no matter what the future holds, and therefore the best source of information.

We have to be innovators, because we don’t rely on anyone else-not agent or editor-to ensure our books are out there and being read. Two years ago, when I researched self-publishing, Amazon’s Kindle and Smashwords, were the two major ways open to me to independently upload my book. Since then Barnes and Noble’s ePubit, Google Editions, Kobo and many other companies have made it possible for independent authors to publish on their sites. In addition, while the iPad’s ibook store has been slow to expand, more and more people are downloading books, often using the Kindle or other aps, not only to the iPad, but more often than not to the iPhone or other similar devices. Traditional publishers are forced to deal with each of these changes slowly, often with protracted negotiations, which slows their authors’ access to these venues.  Self-published authors were able to respond immediately to these changes, as they will be able to do with what ever new twist the ebook or print on demand aspects of the industry takes.

Self-authors are intrinsically less conservative than people who work within the legacy publishing industry, where risks can ruin a career. An agent who takes on too many cutting edge writers and can’t sell their books, an editor whose choices don’t make back the authors advances, the author whose sales don’t pan out, all risk losing their business, their jobs, and their next contract. The motivation, therefore, is to choose authors and books that either fit this year’s trend (no matter that by the time the book comes out the trend may have peaked), or fit squarely into a niche market, and aren’t too long, or too short. Self-published authors have the choice to take risks, because they answer to no one but themselves and their readers.

7.  Finally, I believe that most authors are going to become self-published authors, and therefore will remain the major source of information about self-publishing. Not because they are all going to leave legacy publishing, but because more and more authors are going to see self-publishing as one of their options over their career.

Practically every author I have ever known has an idea for a book or a manuscript squirreled away, or a short story or novella they have written, that they either had failed to sell to a legacy publisher, or simply never tried to write or sell, because they knew that this work wouldn’t be acceptable. These ideas, these works, now can see the light of day. The market may turn out to be small for any particular work, but if you have written something that pleases you, that you as a reader would like to read, and you can self-publish that work and watch as people buy it, review it, and email you about it, the satisfaction is enormous.

I spoke to a college journalism class this spring about the possibilities of self-publishing, and a young man came up to me afterwards, all enthusiastic, and he told me that I had given him hope. His father had tried to discourage him from pursuing a career as a writer, telling him it would be years and years, and maybe never, that his work would ever see print. I had just told him what he had written already, what he chose to write next month, could be out there being read in a few days time.

This is one of the reasons that agents or publishers who try to lock authors into exclusive clauses, or manipulate print on demand to keep hold of copyright, are simply going to drive even more of their authors into self-publishing. Once an author has been exposed to the liberating belief that all of their work can get in print, and all the work that is good, will get to be read, they will not go back to telling themselves that the gatekeepers were saving them from the awful mistake of publishing a bad book, and that the favorite quirky cross genre manuscript they wrote really is better off never being read by anyone.

Does this mean the end of agents or publishers? Of course not. But it does mean that those people in the traditional publishing industry who continue to hold self-published authors in contempt, who continue to try to argue that all authors and all published books should go through their doors to get to the reader, who fail to turn to their authors and their readers for advice, are going to find themselves losing out in the future.

28 Replies to “Why Self-Published Authors Know Best”

  1. What an illuminating piece – and it’s all true. I can see that a mainstream published author, contemplating having to arrange his own editing, formatting, cover design and marketing, might well turn shuddering away. That quite a few of them are starting to go indie (Holly Lisle is the latest) says a lot about the deficiencies of the publishing industry.

    I’m looking forward to the day when those unpublished writers who are dead against the idea of self-publishing realize they are going to have to join the group they have spent so much energy disparaging. When they ask for help and advice, I’ll oblige, but I’ll be laughing.

  2. Really enjoyed, and agreed, with your piece here. Sure, it’s daunting for someone to realize that they can actually publish their work on their own. But it’s getting cheaper, and easier to do. So it will take years, but it will happen. And we’ll all be better because of it. So many great authors out there who never had a “deal”. I look forward to hearing what they’ve have to say finally from their suppression.

  3. As a self-published author, it’s been my experience that the contempt toward SPAs and their books comes from publishers and agents–not from readers. We all need to realize that making the reader happy is most important. It doesn’t matter to them how a book is published. If it’s well written and presented, they’re happy to have it.

  4. Good points – well made. Self publishing has made it possible to pursue a long held dream of publishing a novel. I did it. I got good reviews and more sales than I ever dreamed of. I might not be able to give up my better paid day job, but now I have a profitable and fulfilling hobby. Other writers will doubtless be able to make serious careers out of this new technology. It is a cause for celebration.

  5. I just self-published my book in July and, at first, I thought that it would be the hardest thing for me to do. Nobody would be interested in someone who didn’t have a traditional publisher. It has been almost a month and I have sold many books with the readers leaving 5 star ratings. I work hard on promoting & marketing my ebook so that I can get the word out and I know… without a doubt.. what money I make, will be money I earned from my own blood, sweat & tears.

  6. This is an excellent article, thank you for posting. It’s a great time to be a self-published author, but like anything worth having in life, the rewards don’t always come easily. Our books are worth the effort. You’ve done so well with Maids of Misfortune, I wish you continued success.

  7. Excellent information! From an as yet unpublished author, I have been reading the debates over the issue and have been leaning toward self-publishing. Best of Luck!

  8. This is a really terrific post, with, I think, very cogent points. By nature of the endeavor, those of us who have decided to remain independent have had to learn a lot fast, and not all solely related to publishing. I finally realized that the publishing business model in place made no sense while studying for an MBA and analyzing different industries. I’m far enough ahead of the curve that I’m now working with authors who have had books published by corporations to bring their work to the digital market, because I tend to be more agile than bigger corporations.

  9. Great article, thanks for laying out the points like you have.

    I’m a happily self-published author, with two books that didn’t sell to traditional publishing because they’re sweet historical Western romances. I’ve sold 50,000 of those two books combined in nine and a half months, with number three selling great right out of the gate.

    I think the idea of self-publishing sounds daunting to some traditional published authors. One told me last week that she didn’t want to revisit her old books and update them. She wanted to focus on her new work. So she allowed her publisher to make them ebooks, and will now only receive a pittance on them. I cringed when I heard that, but it’s her choice. And that’s what’s so wonderful about self-publishing. AUTHORS HAVE CHOICES. Every author’s path is going to be different. That’s why it’s SO important to study the market (by reading articles like yours) and networking with other self-published authors.

    I paid to have my books formatted and edited and for the covers, and I’ve barely done any marketing. So it doesn’t have to be a lot of hard work. Again, it’s a choice.

  10. What a wonderful, encouraging but honest post! I came here via the Passive Guy, who is always linking to the most interesting blogs.

    It was sometime last spring that I decided, mostly on the strength of David Gaughran and Joe Konrath’s testimony, to go indie. On the 4th of July I published my political thriller RUNNING, which has gone on to be a Kindle bestseller. Awesome!

    One of the most important benefits to me, along with all of the points you make above, is that the very freedom inherent in self-publishing… author control of cover, formatting, length, genre — or lack of genre — publication speed, direct reader feedback… is an impetus to creating MORE and BETTER work. We are free to let the muse dance. And that’s good for readers as well as writers.

    My favorite sentence from your post: “Once an author has been exposed to the liberating belief that all of their work can get in print, and all the work that is good, will get to be read, they will not go back to telling themselves that the gatekeepers were saving them from the awful mistake of publishing a bad book, and that the favorite quirky cross genre manuscript they wrote really is better off never being read by anyone.”

    Thanks for putting this in words.

    Viva la revolucion!

  11. Not sure I agree with everything you say, but this post has got me to thinking about agents and such, and I realized what’s wrong with the approach of so many to the new world of publishing:

    Most agents are asking the wrong question. They’re asking “How can I fit what I do into this new world?” – which is wrong because it makes them drag along all the baggage. It makes them feel they have to come in as “experts” because that the role they were trying to fill before. (I say trying, because many were not succeeding.)

    The question they should be asking is: “What do authors now need (regardless of whether it’s something I have ever done before)?” To get any benefit out of that question, they’re going to have to swallow their pride and let the authors take the lead. And then when they have identified a real need, they can get themselves trained to create a NEW service.

    Here’s the thing: indie authors may or may not be experts in anything. But they’re for sure the only ones who know what they need and want.

  12. After going through the traditional publishing route for my non-fiction work, I was extremely disappointed with the bureaucratic and disorganized nature of the publisher I was working with. I felt like I was losing my voice in all the shuffle. For my fiction, I have firmly committed to go all indie. I recently posted my own declaration of self-reliance on my blog (linked above) if anyone is interested. I’d love to read more about these kinds of decisions from other authors, especially those who have experienced the traditional route. Thanks for sharing!


    I have been a published author since 1994, and a self-published author since 2004. Your article lays it out exactly as it is. I make a LOT more money self-publishing than I ever did with my publisher. I loved being published, and probably will go that route again, but the bottom line is control, real money in my pocket, and the love that Amazon gives me. Libraries and bookstores (my favorite hangouts) won’t take my books. They already have enough, and they want Paris Hilton’s dog’s book (yes, it wrote a book and got published), Lindsay Lohan’s memoirs, or someone who has been on Oprah. And let’s not even start talking about returns. I work my a** off to reach my readers, but I know who they are. I help them personally. We have a special relationship I could not ever have if I could not speak to them in free lessons (from my websites, blog, and podcasts), help them on my private forums, friend them on Facebook. When I was published I lived in a vacuum. My first book was the #4 seller in my publisher’s catalog but there was no interaction like I have now. I had no idea what was possible, or even who my readers were. How could I know what was important to THEM? I wish every trad. published author the very best. As for me, I know how to get out there and sell books. The pay is great, my readers are the best people on the planet, and I will give everything I can to them so they will stay with me for more.

  14. Well said! The most extraordinary thing for me is getting paid at the end of every month like other people who work, and knowing I can build and expand on this income!

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