April 12, 2011

When Shouldn’t You Self Publish?

Painted stop on road

Many articles have been written about traditional vs. self publishing (this blog is no exception, as my articles here and here prove), and agent Rachelle Gardner’s recent post added an intriguing twist to the conversation.  She asked her readers who are sticking with traditional publishing to explain their reasons why.

Good question.  And I don’t mean that sarcastically.  As I’ve stated in my posts on the issue, we all have different goals for our stories and careers.  And while some goals are a good match for self publishing, others require us to go the traditional route.

In her follow-up post yesterday, Rachelle shared some of the reasons cited by her readers to pursue traditional publishing.  Many of them are reasons we’ve discussed here.  Some people don’t want to do all the work themselves.  Others don’t want to spend up-front money.  Still others want to see their books in bookstores.

But the last reason she mentioned gave me pause: “wanting validation for your writing and a feeling of legitimacy.”

Don’t get me wrong.  Wanting validation is a perfectly reasonable answer.  However, I saw some commenters take that reason and twist it to reflect the opposite situation:

Some intend to pursue traditional publishing because they want validation,
but that goal becomes unimportant if they’re continuously told,
“don’t give up your day job.”

Then what?  One commenter (whom I won’t pick on and name here because I’ve seen this attitude from other sources as well) wrote that they would consider self publishing at that point.

Really?  This makes no sense to me.  If I was told that, essentially, my work wasn’t ready for prime time, the last thing I’d do was move on to self publishing.

A great book might not sell to a traditional publisher for many reasons.  Maybe it’s too much of a niche story for them.  Maybe they already have a glut of that genre.  Maybe the timing is just wrong.

A stack of rejections doesn’t mean our work is bad.  However, we should make sure our work is professional and ready for its closeup before going down the self-publishing path.

If I self publish, it will be because I decided it was the right thing to do for a story or my career, not because it was the last resort.  Call me old-fashioned, but self publishing shouldn’t be a loophole to avoid creating “publishable” work.  Feedback of “this is great but I don’t think I can sell it” is very different from comments about pacing, characterization, or craft issues.

Sure, we could self publish anyway, but what would be the point of putting out something less than professional?  The best way to succeed as a self-published author is to collect a lot of positive reviews, and that wouldn’t happen if our work isn’t polished.  Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

If you disagree with me, tell me why.  Have you ever considered self publishing because you got tired of the rejections?  Do you expect self published stories to be as professional as traditionally published books?  Should they be?

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Comments — What do you think?

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I am definitely considering self-publishing. I have sent out manuscripts that went through my own critiques, beta readers, and a friend who is a professional editor before I sent them to agents. They have come back with awesome feedback, lots of ‘I really liked this’ or ‘I showed this to everyone in the office’, but ultimately it’s always ‘just not right for us.’ I have also gotten feedback on my writing, some that I think is helpful and accurate (show don’t tell, pick up the pace), and some that is conflicting (one agent loves the plot, one calls it contrived). I’ve been attempting to get an agent for a year and a half and have had so many near hits, then nothing. The thing that worries me is the ‘I love it, but…’. If my work came back with real problems or form rejections, that’s fine because then I know it needs serious revising, but it’s been pretty positive feedback. So what isn’t clicking? I tend to think it might be that ambiguous ‘not the right fit’ or ‘where do we put this on the shelf?’ problem. Right now I strongly feel that if readers read my work, it would sell because they would enjoy the story. So the question is, do I keep trying to get an agent and pursue that route, or do I get my work out there on my own? It’s scary to strike out independently, but much scarier to think that I’ve written solid books…  — Read More »

PJ Kaiser
PJ Kaiser

I absolutely agree with you… The quality of the product has to be ensured before making the traditional vs self question. I am considering self publishing but it has more to do with control for me. I have an entrepreneurial spirit and I think I am capable of pulling it off. But you can bet that any book with my name on it is as good as I can possibly make it.


Hi! Ive been following Rachelle’s posts and I agree with what you said. Self-publishing can be an wonderful experience, but the final product must be as professional as if an entire publishing house were behind it, otherwise the competition is just too much… And I don’t know if I am ever going this road, but if I do, I’ll give it my best and beyond.

Kevin Tross

I think this is a tremendously helpful post and I’m glad someone made it. With the recent successes of a few self-pub authors I think a lot of people look at self-publishing as an out for people. If you think for a moment that an agent is worthless or that all editors are just “wrong”, you aren’t paying attention. Granted, they are not gods, nor do they ALWAYS guess which books will sell. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a finger on what works. I’ve seen a large increase of people saying “Well, they didn’t like Amanda’s books, look how well she has done.” I think a lot of people are forgetting that though Amanda did work very hard… she also got incredibly lucky. The tides turned in her direction and her stories were screaming off the virtual shelves. I bought the Trylle series and quite enjoyed it, but from what I’ve read she never said agents rejected her because they were bad… they rejected her because they didn’t think they could sell in her market. A market that is inundated with a certain story type is going to be passed over, even if it is the best book ever written. (which for the record, I am working on.) The agent won’t be able to sell it and if you want it self-published by all means. IF however, an agent says “Not a bad concept, but you need to tighten this/change this/alter this/rename this guy/fix this” that doesn’t mean…  — Read More »


I think self-publishing makes sense if you are sure you have a quality book – and you should make sure by soliciting the opinions of others who are knowledgeable – but you find the circumstances of looking for a publisher hard to take. I’m thinking here of the slowness and inefficiency of the query system, bad luck/timing, lack of connections, or if you write from a place like Canada (where the publishing world is based on literary fiction) and you write genre fiction.

It also makes sense if you have a big platform and can probably sell as many books on your own as a publisher could (e.g. you are a musician, public speaker, or you own a very popular website/blog).

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Great post Jami….again. I think people want a quick and easy fix to their problems, and for some they think self publishing is their answer. Not.

If the story and writing aren’t up to par it won’t matter who publishes it. I know I’m not at a publishable writing stage right now, but I’ve done some things recently to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Most of it was done to make a future when hopefully I am publishable. That may be two years or ten. But if I’m not publishable in ten years, self publishing still won’t make it any better.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

As far as validation, for me it comes down to whether people will read my stuff or not. If a publisher can help that, then a publisher would be a good thing to pursue.

Still, there’s also the validation that comes with having a little publisher imprint on the spine of your book. I don’t think that affects readers much, but it does seem to legitimize you in the eyes of other authors and related folk.

Suzanne Johnson

Great post as always, Jami! Not sure how the self-pubbing rage is going to look when the dust settles, only that a lot of authors are frustrated and impatient right now because the “Big Boys” aren’t buying as they try to figure out how to respond to industry changes. Eventually, the NY publishers will be buying again and then we’ll see what happens.

Does the average reader recognize a self-pubbed book? Nope, don’t think so–yet. But I think they’re going to start looking at publisher as more and more poorly written, poorly edited books glut the marketplace alongside the NY published and the well-written self-pubbed. I’m a voracious reader but I’ve been burned so unless I know the author now, I will not buy even a 99-cent ebook if I don’t recognize the publishing house. I also look at covers and if it’s an obvious homemade job, I also won’t buy it.


You’re right that the more poorly written books are out there, the more fussy readers will become about who published them. I never used to look at the publisher, but after getting a few duds, I do now. That reader behaviour unfortunately affects all self pubbed authors good or bad and that’s a shame.

If you’re interested in my full opinion on this it’s here


I don’t get the us vs. them mentality, either.

I’ve entered indie publishing because, well, my current project is something that I’m fairly certain wouldn’t do well with the commercial publishing methods of marketing and such. If/when I come up with something that will suit commercial publication, you bet I’ll go for a commercial publisher.

I’m also a bit leery of the indie pub movement. Not to point fingers, but I read some successful people projecting their sales numbers out years, assuming that the sales numbers will always keep growing. Sure, that’s been their experience so far, but I’m leery of taking a year or two sample and projecting it out five or ten years as if that’s the most likely option.

Paul Anthony Shortt

I agree completely with you, Jami. It can be easy to become disheartened and think that a publisher or agent is wrong for rejecting a submission, but the fact is that these people know their business. They’ll also be a lot kinder than the masses of the internet when they see something not ready for publication.

PW Creighton

Jami, I think that’s the best way to look at it. If you go through all the standard processes, edits, revisions, re-writes and treat E-pub like a standard publishing medium you can still produce a great product. I think while some will regard it as a ‘last resort’ there’s no harm. In-fact if you’re open to changes it could be comparable to letting the world be your critique group. So long as you approach it with open eyes and open mind. Good post.

Tahlia Newland

You’re right in that there’s a big difference between a book rejected because it’s just not good enough to publish and one that is good, but publishers don’t think they can sell.

Trouble is, publishers and agents generally don’t give writers feedback, so the authors don’t know. That’s why I think that no one should publish a book without having it properly edited first. Self published books should be every bit as professional as one published by the big guns in the business and it’s up to the author to make sure it is. If it isn’t it’s doing them and the whole self publishing industry a diservice. I suggest that self publishing authors emply a professional editor before they publish. More on this here

I will self publish if a publisher doesn’t pick it up, but I’ll make sure that no one can fault it because of poor editing. I’ve also had 12 people read it, 4 of them writers and one with a degree in creative writing and the rest in the target audience who all agreed that it was good. Self-publishing as a last resort doesn’t necessarily mean the book is no good. I read one recently published for that reason – Mercy by Joshua Grover – and it was really excellent.

I figure that if I don’t get the validation from a publisher, like Joshua, I’ll get it from those who buy the book and like it.


I just thought of something else, that probably subconsciously pushed me towards self-publishing. I submit short stories to ‘zines. I’m still trying to figure out publications where my work will fit. But I’m not bad at finding individuals who want to read what I write, though I’ve discovered that a lot of people I wouldn’t expect to like my work actually do, as well.

If you have no idea who would want to read your book, publishing is not for you. Figure it out, then you’ll have some idea of the route you need to take to reach those readers.

If you want someone to walk you through the specific route you absolutely must take to self publish, self publishing isn’t for you. Self publishing isn’t “One size fits all”.

If you are paralyzed by the thought of learning enough about cover design, layout work, copyediting, and the various other publisher tasks, self publishing is not for you. If you don’t know what you’re supervising, you won’t recognize when someone tries to screw you over. And someone will.

If you have no idea of all the many methods of self publishing and have no idea where to start learning, self publishing is not for you—yet. It might be in the future.

…I really need to start my own blog.


Hi Jami,

My theory on all this? If you’ve got a book that people want to read, you’ll succeed either way. After all, there are plenty of ‘traditionally published’ <- hate that phrase, books, that tank in the marketplace for no other reason than people didn't want to read them.

So, I'd prefer to think of it as a writer should concentrate on the methods of attaining personal success in their careers – not just on the means. As you say, just because those means are widely available doesn't mean we're ALL ready to use them. 🙂


Shoshanna Evers

What a great post and comments! I’m currently published with three pubs (Ellora’s Cave, The Wild Rose Press, and in December Berkley/Jove), but I’m still considering self-publishing something.

Why? Because while I’d miss my amazing editors and cover designers and promo that my publisher do for me, I’d love the opportunity to see how my books might sell if they’re listed for 99 cents. I worry that I lose readers who see a high price for a novella on Amazon, and they’re not willing to give my books a try.

But I think that if I tried to self-pub before having some publishing credits, I’d always wonder if my writing was good enough to be published. So for me, having that external validation was (and yeah, still is) important and has built up my self-confidence.

But for all this talk, I still haven’t gotten up the courage to go indie. 🙂 It’s a big, scary step – and to me it is the more difficult option compared to having a publisher take care of everything for you.

Danielle D. Smith
Danielle D. Smith


I’ve been in the same boat. My most popular book with Solstice Publishing went up for sale at 99 cents recently as a marketing experiment and sales shot through the roof. It does seem that trad. publishers want to add quite a markup…my first ebook sold for $6.10, which many readers found to be very expensive.

The 99 cent market is definitely something to consider. I have a BDSM novella that I’m currently working on and am considering taking a “stab” at the self-pubbed 99 cent market with that one. Will just have to see where that goes?… 😉

Todd Moody

100% agree with you Jami! I am still undecided on which route to take. I just feel like the biggest thing a old school publisher can bring is the marketing aspect. I think I can handle all the other stuff just fine, but I’m not rich and the idea is to have them pay you not the other way around, and a big marketing push can get very expensive if you are fronting the money yourself, especially for an unknown.

Great post as always!

Danielle D. Smith
Danielle D. Smith

This is something that I have seen many, many fellow authors struggle with. I personally am traditionally published paranormal fantasy with two mid-market houses, Solstice Publishing and Liquid Silver Books. I was lucky enough to land my first contract within 4 months of beginning to submit…but I agree that this is not typical. believe me, those 4 months were spent opening rejection after rejection. Several were personalized, and many offered the “We loved it, BUT…” Apparently, my work was too “niche” for many larger publishers. I recall one personal letter from an editor at Pocket Books, who said, “I loved this book, and there is a publisher out there who will be very lucky to contract it. But I am not going to be permitted to publish it. It is simply too “niche” for what we are offering right now.” So, yeah, I’ve been there, too. For some reason, self publishing was never an option for me. Even when I began to become depressed over the slew of early rejections, it was always “trad. publishing or no publishing.” I think what turned me away was the stigma attached to self-pubbed books…the stereotype that most self pubbed books are poorly-written garbage. And to some extent I can see what people are saying when it comes to that…with only a small investment at CreateSpace or LuLu or Publish America, everyone and their mom could be a “published author”, whether or not the book is of any kind of quality. In being trad.…  — Read More »

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