Home » Joel Friedlander, Self-Publishing » When to Self-Publish: A Publisher’s Perspective

When to Self-Publish: A Publisher’s Perspective

25 February 2014

From The Book Designer:

To self-publish or not, that is the big question facing many of today’s authors. Today, Steven Booth, a publisher, offers his thoughts on what should be factors in this decision making process.

. . . .

Many authors are confused about when it is best to publish through traditional (including small press) publishers, and when to self-publish their work. I see this question every day on Facebook, and I hear it often in the writers and publishers groups I am associated with.

As an author who has self-published (without an imprint) as well as publishing my work through my small press company (I’ll get to that in a moment), I can understand the confusion about the pros and cons of publishing.

Here’s what I tell every author who will stand still long enough:

  1. If the work isn’t good enough for a publisher, it probably isn’t good enough to be self-published.
  2. If the work is good enough that a publisher wants to publish it, then seriously consider self-publishing before you sign the contract.

. . . .

But publishing is a business, and a good publisher will have a marketing niche that they can be successful in. Going outside of that niche is not cost-effective. But if you self-publish then your marketing niche is exactly what you have in your hands, and you will probably do a better job at marketing your own book than any publisher can—especially if it is a tough genre to label.

The caveat to self-publishing if you are offered a contract is that you have to remember that self-publishing is a business, and should be treated like one.

A self-publisher, when they do it correctly, is a small press with one author… you. For example, are you prepared to get:

  • a fictitious business name
  • a business license from your municipality
  • start and maintain a website
  • engage in and maintain a social media presence
  • have a bank account for your small press that is separate from your personal account
  • work on marketing your book at least once a day for the lifetime of your book

If not, then perhaps you would want to seriously consider traditional publishing?

Link to the rest at The Book Designer and thanks to Ant for the tip.

Joel Friedlander, Self-Publishing

47 Comments to “When to Self-Publish: A Publisher’s Perspective”

  1. Not a bad article, but I’m pretty sure that I don’t need a business license or a separate bank account if my small press consists of just me.

    • It’s my understanding that the need for business licensure and such depends on your municipality, county, and state.

      • Yes. I had to get one to register as a sole proprietor, even though I just sit on my sofa with a laptop.

        And a separate bank account makes tax reporting simpler (or will, once I have time to get an EIN so Amazon and Smashwords can pay me).

        • Which state? Anyone know of a listing of the state-by-state requirements? I DON’T WANT TO BE A CRIMINAL! 😀

          • Which state?

            Canada :).

            Technically, I probably didn’t 100% need to, but I emailed them to double-check and they said I did. It’s only a few dollars a year, anyway.

          • Don’t worry, Dan, we’ll visit you in jail.

            • That is a super good way to get stopped at the border and end up in ‘secondary’ in customs.
              “Reason for your visit?”
              “I’m visiting a convicted felon. Who I met on the internet. I was charmed by the merry grin on his thumbnail image.”
              “Right. Could you pull over to the side, please.”

          • I would think it depends on how you are claiming the income and whether you still have a real job. I do, so mine go in a 1099 miscellaneous contrct work, whichever subcoding includes royalties. I expect EIN and business zoning permits apply to people who are fully self-employed by their writing and probably also claiming part of their home as business expense.

        • I didn’t have to get a business license, but I did register the name of my publishing company with the county clerk (I’m in New Jersey). Cost was about $50 for the clerk to search thru the database and give her notarized okay to the publishing name I chose. I took that notarized slip of paper to the bank & set up a checking account.

          Easy. I have DWS to thank for all of that, because I never would have thought to do it on my own. 🙂

      • Correct. As a self-employed writer (whether with traditional publishing or self-publishing, it makes no difference), I have to have an occupational license AND a zoning permit where I live now.

        Never needed one before in my whole career, but when I moved here 18 months ago, I had to file for them (and will have to renew this this April). So, yes, it depends entirely on where you live. And whether you’re selling to publishers or self-publishing is irrelevant. Either way, you’re self-employed, so it depends on what your local government decrees you must have to work as a self-employed person.

    • You don’t need either, but it can be a good idea to have both, if only to keep personal assets separate from business assets.

    • Even if your muncipality/state/etc. doesn’t require licensing/DBA/separate/bank account/whatever, it may be a good idea to do so anyway to get you in the mindset that writing is a business.

      It’s amazing the change in the psychology of a person when they go through the business set up process. (Otherwise, I’d be sitting on the couch right now watching Ellen. 😀 )

    • You’re right, you don’t a business license and a separate bank account, unless you sell retail and need to collect the sales taxes. As for taxes you use the SS number.

    • This is all good stuff, guys and gals. I guess I should seriously consider setting it up as a business.

  2. “If the work is good enough that a publisher wants to publish it, then seriously consider self-publishing before you sign the contract.”

    The problems with this are twofold:

    It puts the publishers back in the role of gatekeepers (keeping out anything that ‘doesn’t fit their lineup,’ ‘is slightly or extravagantly odd,’ or doesn’t meet the taste of an individual agent or editor).

    And it wastes literally years of the writer’s time, submitting, waiting, re-submitting, waiting…

    Sorry. But it doesn’t fly.

    The READERS have to be the gatekeepers, not a few special snowflakes who have a history of sometimes picking winners.

    • It is a bit unfair to the publishers as well. It seems to be saying “use them as a testing ground, then dump them if they say it is good enough that they will partner with you”.

  3. Surprise, surprise: A publisher thinks that you shouldn’t self-publish until you have a publisher’s approval to do so. Well, it’s a step, I guess.

  4. This article looks like it is supporting self publishing, but the writer is actually a concern troll.

    “You can self publish if you are willing to form your own company, create a special account etc etc”.

    The classical troll technique- Sure you can self publish, but it’s so much hassle. Why don’t you jump into the arms of a publisher? He’ll protect from all this silly billy business stuff.

    The guy should really not be giving business advice when he is not qualified for it. Almost every country allows you to trade as a sole trader, for which you don’t need to form a company or anything.

    “work on marketing your book at least once a day for the lifetime of your book”

    This advice is so stupid, I don’t even know where to start. I’ll just point to Kris’ blog, and add that people like Kris and Dean, who have hundreds of books out, don’t spend everyday marketing their hundreds of books for the lifetime of their books. If that were true, Kris would not even find time to eat, let alone write anything new.

    Edited to add: And neither do the publishers market any book daily. If I send out one tweet a year, I’m still doing more marketing than Randy Penguin or any other legacy publisher.

    • I’ll agree with almost everything you wrote, except the bits about Kris and Dean. They blog at least once a day. In Booth’s mind that counts as marketing. He might even be right about that.

      • I thought Kris did weekly blogposts — and has other stuff, like free-fiction, loaded up to auto-post on its correct day, of course.

        • She does one weekly business post, one weekly free fiction post, occasional recommended reading lists, and the odd promotional post when something new is happening regarding her books.

          My RSS feed shows up two to three blog posts a week.

          As for Dean, he only posts daily because he challenged himself to report on his work days for a year (and he works 7 days a week). Come August his blog output may well decrease dramatically.

  5. It looks like Stephen Booth founded Genius Books to publish Stephen Booth books. It appears to be the same thing Dave Eggers did with McSweeney’s, and I’m doing with Exciting Press, though Eggers and I appear to be working with more authors. But then it also looks like Genius Books is relatively new, so there’s every possibility Booth might take on more authors.

    It’s really nice to see this called a publisher’s perspective, though, because I think most in corporate publishing would call this “self-publishing.” I know I still get called a “self-published author” quite often, much to my chagrin.

    All that said, I think the tone of the article is utterly wrongheaded.

  6. If the work isn’t good enough for a publisher, it probably isn’t good enough to be self-published.

    Yeah, because EVERY book that’s fit to be read will be accepted by a “real” publisher. /sarcasm

    • You know what? I reread this, and I realized that I missed the tone of comments like the one you excerpted. Now, I’m annoyed. 😀

      • I thought the article was weak. DWS does a much better job of explaining this in his ‘Think Like a Publisher’ series.

        For starters, why do I need a ‘fictious’ business name?” why would I get a real business account with a fictitous business name?
        And this:
        “If you publish through a traditional publisher, then you will give away half your money or more, but you will have the luxury of just being an author.”

        Yeah, I’ve heard about the wonderful luxury of *just* being an author. This guy is just spouting the myth that getting published means a package deal where all the writer has to do is write.
        Also I don’t believe there is a midlist author alive being offered as much as half what you’d make on your self-pub rates (assuming that’s what he means by ‘half your money’). so that’s inaccurate.

        • I’m no lawyer. But the lawyer I retained noted that when forming an LLC, any mention of it somehow has legal requirements for designation. When I registered Exciting Endeavors LLC, I registered four fictitious names. “Fictitious,” apparently has a very different meaning in a legal context than in a literary context.

    • yeah, that one jumped out at me.

      Oh, like my book that was rejected by every single publisher in the USA who does historical fiction (talking about Big 5 imprints and major small presses here, not the tiniest of small presses, which we didn’t bother submitting to.) Yeah, wasn’t good enough for each and every one, and yet has sold 40K copies to date and still earns me at least $700 per month, usually more.


      However, I do like his advice to seriously consider self-pub if a publisher is interested. Because I wouldn’t sell squat to a publisher right now, so if anybody raises a brow toward your book you’d best self-pub it quick.

    • If anything, authors who submit their work to publishers and pull their books to self-publish when they get an offer would waste the publisher’s time and effort. I’m not crying for the publisher here, but I think advice like this could backfire on the publisher.

  7. Let’s see — I finally pulled my book from a publisher’s slush pile after about 4 years of waiting for a reply (and frequent checking to make sure it hadn’t been lost, or I hadn’t missed some response). Invested $150 in a book cover, a few nights of babysitting (which I would have probably been obligated to do anyway) in exchange for some editing, and put it up on Kindle and other self-publishing marketplaces. In a little less than two months, with some (but not even close to daily) social media promotion, I’ve had roughly 1,450 sales at $5.99 each, netting me well over $5,000 (which was the standard first-time-author’s advance in my genre back when I first submitted it to a slush pile).

    This guy thinks I should have waited several more years for my book to (probably) be rejected by a dozen or so publishing houses before some small press gave me an offer, and only THEN think about whether to self-publish or not. And then to invest several thousand more dollars than I did to get it off the ground.


  8. My advice on when to self-publish? Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

  9. A few weeks ago, ‘The Book Designer’ blog was recommended in an article posted by The Passive Voice, so I read it to get an idea of how to jump into self-publishing. It nearly scared me off. He lists a ridiculous number of steps and expenses: Setting up a corporation, buying ISBNs in bulk, applying at the copyright office, etc. No one else anywhere agrees that it should cost upwards of $5,000 to self-publish an ebook.

    I’m glad people here are pointing out the flaws in his advice. I’m almost convinced now that blog exists to scare people away from self-publishing.

    • I think if you read Joel Friedlander’s posts rather than those of guest bloggers, you’ll find more indie-friendly information, Remus.

    • go to Dean Wesley Smith’s Blog and read his ‘Think Like a Publisher’ series.

      He talks about what you really need and why. You will feel much more optimistic after reading it.

    • I’ve self-published two books so far, as ebook and trade paperback. The first one cost me about $300. The second one about $500, both for ebook creation. I did everything else myself.

      Now, I know a lot about manipulating images, copy editing and I’m comfortable with computer software and handling the accounts, so I’m not saying it’s the ideal road. But you can see that you don’t have to spend thousands.*

      * Reader should silently add “some people pay for editing, cover design, proofreading, ebook and paperback formatting and marketing and THAT’S ALL RIGHT.”

  10. Consider traditional publishing, huh?

    You have to be invited to play on their kickball team. They choose you, you don’t choose them. You’re just another annoying fat kid with pimples and a baggy gymsuit that kinda grosses them out unless they hear an etheric ka-ching. Then you become wonderful and beautiful with soft flawless skin and they will romance you until you have stars in your eyes and believe all the sweet nothings they whisper in your ears.

    Then you go back to being a fat kid but one under contract.

  11. I noticed something interesting in this. He mentioned creating a fictitious business name. If you go into business and go to the trouble of setting up a DBA and registering the name for tax purposes, I do believe that is what’s known as a real business.

    Otherwise there are a nimber of businesses out there that don’t really exist, like Apple, or GM, or how about Random Penguin.

    • I noticed that, too. Has a flavor of ‘you can do this, but it’s still all pretend’. Seems intended to foster imposter syndrome. Disappointing.

      • Actually, he’s probably just living in a state himself that calls it that.

        In some states it’s a DBA, but in Colorado, it’s actually a trade name, and in other states it’s a fictitious business name. He’s using an accurate and actual term, just one that isn’t used everywhere.

  12. “If the work isn’t good enough for a publisher, it probably isn’t good enough to be self-published” is the statement I’m struggling with the most. Even with the caveat of a publisher saying “I love it, I want it, but I have no idea how to market it, so I won’t take it.”

    Yes, publishing is a business at the end of the day and there will be a limit to the number of titles a publisher can put out every year, hence they have to be selective. But the concept of “what’s good enough” is a subjective one. I’m sure the marketing people will have data to back certain genres and this will sway a publishing house into accepting or rejecting a title, but at the end of the day, that decision will have a subjective flavor to it.

  13. “If the work is good enough that a publisher wants to publish it, then seriously consider self-publishing before you sign the contract.”
    It used to be if a publisher is not interested then you self-publish. Now it changes to self-publish if the publisher is interested. Maybe this is reverse psychology to discourage writers from self-publishing?

  14. Oh noes! I had to drive to Eureka and back but I got a fictitious business name in about ten minutes. On the way home I dropped it off at the local newspaper and they ran the DBA announcement for the time required. The only annoyance is that now I am getting the occasional credit card offer for my DBA but I get a big kick out of seeing the name on the envelopes. Same with the bank statements from the separate business account. $75!! and only growing because, you know, interest 😉

  15. Interesting advice. The need for a business license is down to your municipality. I run several businesses under one license – none of them require customers to come to my apartment.

    I agree that setting up a business is a good way to get yourself thinking about your books as a business endeavor, but it also comes with tax advantages.

    I try to remember when reading these types of post that the author is only able to see things from their world view. The indie in any industry looks at things very differently than the established players.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.