Modern Thinking vs. an Antiquated Notion

I’ve always thought of self-publication as a fallback option. My own plan has always been to pursue the traditional route of sending queries to agents and publication houses, and to only resort to self-publication as a last resort. As time goes by, however, I’m slowly coming to realize that my plan may be faulty. The problem with my reasoning comes down to answer two questions:

  • Agents and publishers provide something of value to the author. Are the services they provide worth the price of admission?
  • Have e-books and the internet changed the answer to the first question?

Rather than answer these yes/no questions directly, I’d like to break them down into their components and discuss them in more detail.

How Readers Choose Books

As I discussed in my earlier post about my favorite book(s), when I was younger one of the primary ways I chose what book to pick up at the library or the bookstore was the “cool cover art.” Even as I grew older, the act of finding a book was to walk up and down the shelves, picking up books and reading their jackets, and then deciding if that brief blurb was enough to warrant a purchase.

The act of finding a book today is a bit different. It still involves reading the brief synopsis on the book’s back cover, although most of the time the back cover is purely virtual, and I’m reading it on my computer. Finding a book in the first place usually involves a visit to Amazon to click on a book I’ve recently read and enjoyed to see if their web-site can recommend similar books by other authors that other readers have also purchased and suggested.

That’s not the only way I choose new books, of course. Sometimes I base my selection upon a recommendation from a friend or coworker. Sometimes I chase down a book specifically because of the author. But by and large, I’m a function of Amazon’s recommendation tool. The company’s computer-generated algorithms do an excellent job of reducing my tastes and interests to a simple mathematical formula and spitting out book material that I’m sure to enjoy. And almost without exception, their algorithms get it right.

So, can a traditional publishing house create a marketing stir that would get my interest? Sure. In fact, I read blogs from some of the big houses on a regular basis looking for new fiction. More important to me, though, would be reviews posted by fellow readers on Amazon that recommend a particular title and associate it with other books that I’ve liked. I’m sure publishing houses can help with that aspect of marketing as well, it’s just not as clear to me how they do so.

Viability of Self-Publication

It used to be that self-publication was simply non-viable, due to the cost of printing and distributing books. That’s changed a lot in recent years with the advent of services like,, and others. Authors can now print small batches of books, or even have them printed to order for customers, at a very reasonable price.

More importantly, at least to my mind, is that books no longer need to be physically printed at all. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in printed form. Everything I read for pleasure is on my Kindle (whether purchased from Amazon’s online store or converted by me to digital format). The cost of digital distribution is a tiny fraction of physical printing, which means the cost barrier to successful self-publication is now almost non-existent. And as a bonus to the author, digital distribution typically offers much higher royalty percentages than traditional publication (70% in the case of the Kindle Store. Traditional rates have been 8%-12%). If an author is in it for the money, self-publication may provide a much more lucrative opportunity.


Speaking of making money, I think every author needs to seriously ponder the question, “Why am I seeking publication?” For some, the answer is that they wish to be career writers. For me, I enjoy the act of writing creatively, and I’d like to have readers enjoy my stories. Being rich and famous is definitely not part of the equation for me, but being a credible, respected author is important. Do my goals lend themselves to either traditional publishing or self-publishing? I’m not sure.

My Own Experiment

I’ve dabbled in self-publication once already. I have a short story that’s been for sale on Amazon and Smashwords for almost eighteen months. I also made the story freely available via a variety of channels. During that time it’s sold around 200 copies (it’s also been downloaded for free more than 10,000 times). 200 sales is a tiny number to be sure, but that is based upon almost no marketing whatsoever from me. And it’s only a short story, not a full-length novel, which limits its appeal. What have I learned from the experience? I’ve learned that, with very little effort you can probably sell a few copies of your writing via digital marketplaces. However, in order to become a high-volume commodity, in addition to needing a high-quality product and a LOT of luck, a very serious marketing effort is required. If you’re self-publishing, that effort falls to only one person: “you.”

Back to the Original Question

So, my tl;dr answer – I don’t know yet about self-publication. I can see how it could work. I can see how it may be a much more viable answer than it was in the past, and that the trend towards self-publication will likely continue to grow. Is it for me? I’ll let you know…someday.

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