Novel Boot Camp #13: Questions about Traditional and Self-Publishing

6987811982_6160f4e193_oToday’s post will cover some of the questions submitted to me from Boot Campers. If you would like to submit your own questions, you can do so here. Please also provide critiques for other participants over at Workshop #4.

Questions about self-publishing were among the most common questions submitted to me by participants. I hope to shed some light on both traditional and self-publishing below.

What would you advise new authors regarding traditional vs self publishing?

Both traditional and self-publishing are legitimate options, but before you self-publish, make sure you have the right mindset for the job. Typically writers who want to self-publish fall into three camps:

1. They know their writing isn’t good enough to publish traditionally but they really want to be published.
2. They think their novel is going to make them millions and they want to keep all that money for themselves.
3. They have an entrepreneurial mindset and want to control their brand and view their novel as part of that brand.

The third scenario is the only one with a strong chance of success. Just throwing a book online and waiting for the money to roll in will do about as good as leaving your manuscript on a park bench.

Self-publishing is a business. You are selling yourself as a company and your novel as a product. If you don’t want to put in a few hours a week (minimum) on marketing, if you aren’t savvy online, if marketing isn’t your strong point, self-publishing isn’t going to work for you.

The choice between traditional and self-publishing is a business decision that should be based on personality and how you want to approach your writing career. The ideal candidate for self-publishing is someone who is a go-getter, who perseveres even when it looks like they’re failing, who is willing to try lots of options, who isn’t afraid of the internet, who likes a challenge, who knows how/when to delegate work, and who isn’t afraid of taking a risk.

What are the risks of self-publishing?

The internet is forever. If you put a book up for sale that is not your best work, it could theoretically come back to haunt/embarrass you. A publisher is also unlikely to want to take on a book after it’s already been up for sale. So if you change your mind later, you will most likely need to develop and sell a different novel.

If your novel gets bad reviews tied to your name, that can also hurt your reputation as a writer. If you utilize beta readers, an editor, and a proofreader, this is less likely, but still possible if you struggle (or refuse) to apply corrections or if you market your book to the wrong audience.

If you pay for cover art and editing (which you absolutely should) and don’t do any marketing (or don’t know how to market effectively), you could easily lose a lot of money.

If you treat self-publishing like a business and make educated decisions when it comes to marketing, editing, and cover art, the only real risk is not being able to sell the book later if self-publishing doesn’t work for you.

Do you value traditional publishing over self-publishing, or vice versa?

It depends on the book and the author. In my experience, most self-published writers do not treat their book like a business, don’t know how to build their brand, and don’t have enough writing experience to succeed. There are some writers who do everything fantastically and have great self-publishing careers. So it depends.

Do you think there are certain books (for example, books that are not mainstream) that should be self published over traditionally published? If so, in what instances would you recommend self-publishing?

I think self-publishing can be a good idea for unusual or experimental fiction, the sort of book that would struggle to get picked up by a traditional press. John Dies at the End is a good example (although it was free initially) because the voice and concept is so unusual.

Books that have a limited or specific audience (niche) that you are able to reach can do well online. The key is that you need to be able to reach this audience. If you can’t, you’re not going to get very far.

Note that anything targeted at kids tends to not sell well online because that age group cannot make purchases online and is more likely to get their books from teachers or librarians.

What is the key to having a successful novel through self-publishing? Does having your own audience that isn’t exactly an audience that knows you for writing helpful?

I answered the first question already: treat it like you’re running your own business. With the second question, I think you mean that you have an audience for some reason or another but that audience doesn’t know you as a writer. My guess is that this probably won’t help you very much unless the novel is closely related to the interests of that audience (for example: they are all gamers and your novel centers around gaming).

Because brand is so important, you probably don’t want to blend your audiences. It’s probably better to start building a new audience for your writing.

In your opinion what is the easiest genre, for a first time author, to get traditionally published in?

I really don’t think there’s a satisfying answer to this question. Publishers are usually clamoring for one type of novel over another which would make certain genres (at times) easier to publish, but since this can’t be predicted very easily, I don’t think there’s any way to choose a genre so that it will be easier to publish.

Whichever genre you write the best is the easiest for you to get published in. If you’re writing purely to get published your work will likely suffer. So make sure you are committed to the genre and truly enjoy it.

What [genre] is the most financially lucrative?

A book with wider appeal will make more money because more people will buy it. Sometimes that means a novel is mainstream and sometimes that means it’s genre fiction (scifi, horror, fantasy) with a wide appeal.

The sad reality is that very few writers, even traditionally published authors, are making anywhere near the amount of money aspiring writers believe. The median income for traditionally published authors is about $4,000 per year. The median for self-published authors is about $750 (source). So writing isn’t exactly a get-rich-quick scheme.

Even if you work hard and get your novel traditionally published, it is very unlikely you will ever be able to write full time. Writing is simply not lucrative for most authors. Of course, we only hear about the top 10% who make $100,000 per year or more.

So if you want the best chance at making the most money, write something with a very wide appeal, but keep in mind that you will most likely never be able to quit your day job. I don’t say this to be discouraging but as a reminder that writing is truly a labor of love. If you don’t love it, you will be sorely disappointed with the paycheck.

Is it possible for someone to publish the first novel they have ever written or do you recommend to write a couple of novels in order to get enough writing practice?

It depends on what you mean by their “first novel.” Is this the first novel they’ve ever finished, fully edited, and queried proficiently, or is this the first time they’ve ever written at all? If the latter, it’s very unlikely the quality is high enough to get published. If you mean the former (the writer has written stories and dozens of novel openings but only finished one), it’s definitely possible.

Most writers will be ready to traditionally publish around their third fully written novel, but there are lots of routes to the same destination. It really depends on the author.


I really hope this helps to answer some of your questions. Tomorrow I will be answering questions about writing technique and style. There’s still time, so submit your own question if you wish.


3 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #13: Questions about Traditional and Self-Publishing

  1. chickinwhite says:

    In Germany many things are different, and I am not yet concerned with deciding wether traditional or self publishing. But I´ve already asked myself a few of these questions, too. It is immensely helpful to have your advice! Thank you, Ellen.

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