You’ve tried the traditional publishers (herein called “trad pubs”), and you’ve gotten nowhere. Agents are cautious these days, and who can blame them? In the old days, the trad pubs had recent college grads willing to work for peanuts to read through the slush pile for that diamond in the rough. Now agents have to do that, and they don’t get paid unless they find a diamond, so they aren’t willing to represent anything that isn’t a sure thing. Plus, their reputations depend on only presenting diamonds to the publishers. If they take a chance on something that publishers don’t pick up or that doesn’t turn out to be a big seller, they might find it harder to get into the publishers’ offices in the future.
So … it’s a tough market, the trad pub biz is in some degree of chaos, trying to figure out how to make money in this tough market, and you’ve got a book you want to get in readers’ hands, one way or another. You’re probably thinking, “I’ll e-publish it. Or self-publish.” But which direction is best for you?
Okay, fair warning, I work for a couple of e-pubs, so I might not be the most objective. But I also do a lot of freelance, and I’ve self-pubbed myself.
I think you should always start at the top and work your way down. Try the trad pubs, then the e-pubs, then self-publish.
Big secret — either way, you have to promote the crap out of yourself. E-pubs don’t promote your book. You do. (Neither do trad pubs anymore for small or new authors, however. The trad pubs spend their marketing dollars on big authors; the little guys have to earn their own keep.)
But e-pubs can get you into places to promote you can’t get into as a self-pub. There is a growing skepticism toward self-pubs, and a lot of the reviewers and book bloggers won’t even look at self-pubbed books. By and large, libraries don’t buy them; bookstores don’t stock them. At e-pubs, marketing staff members let authors know about blog hops, live author chats, blogs that need guest bloggers. They send out copies of your e-book to reviewers, which you don’t pay for — big savings. And they can get reviewers to read their books because they have more credibility. Some e-pubs even set up small print runs for you (at your cost, usually), so you don’t have to do the CreateSpace thing.
And self-pubbing can be expensive. You have to buy a cover; pay someone to format the book in HTML code, and hopefully make the book into E-pub and MIDI versions (for Barnes and Noble and Kindle, respectively); pay someone to set up your CreateSpace printed version; and buy a box of those print books to sell at bazaars, local bookstores, etc. And then there’s the biggie, editing. There are a lot of us starving editors out there, but still, you’ll pay a couple of hundred dollars minimum, and how do you know you’re getting a good one? There are lots of people out there who call themselves editors and have no college education in English. So a lot of self-published writers skip the editing, or have a friend who reads a lot do it — hence the growing skepticism about e-pubbed books. One reason Amanda Hocking went with a trad pub was her frustration at paying good money for bad editing.
That said, I did all of that myself, first time out of the blocks, and though I didn’t do that great a job, it’s certainly doable for anyone who is good with a computer or willing to spend weeks figuring it out. There are a lot of great self-publishers out there who are happy to share their knowledge. You can study blogs, buy (on Amazon!) self-published e-books that explain the whole process, get involved in the Kindle writer boards and Absolute Write writer boards for lots of free advice, or make Twitter friends with established e-publishers who can give you advice.
You might have an artist friend who can do a cover, and a lot of artists who specialize in e-book covers are not that expensive anyway. And there are tons of free photos available on the web — I didn’t pay a dime for the photo on my book, and it’s beautiful. I could frame that sucker and hang it on my wall. People on the CreateSpace writer boards will set up an e-book as a print version for less than a nice dinner out, and formatters aren’t bad either. A lot of services have sprung up to help self-publishers.
And there are the intangibles — complete control of your book, control of your cover art, not working for The Man. If you’re fiercely independent and computer-savvy, and you have the time to research and promote, and some up-front money to buy those services, self-publishing is doable.
You also have to think about what genre you’re writing for. I write YA fiction, and kids are not up to speed yet on getting Kindles and Nooks. They tend to get their books because teachers force them to, so they get them from the school library. If they have money, they buy music and clothes, not e-books. What sells electronically? Well, smut. People are embarrassed to buy erotica at bookstores; e-books are so much more discreet. Romance in general, because those ladies are insatiable. Gay and lesbian fiction, because that market is under-served by the trad pubs. Supernatural stuff — when the trad pubs decide a subject has been done to death, readers who really love that subject, whether vampires or angels, still want more. So they scour the e-books to get their fix. Do your research — make sure people are buying electronically what you’re writing.
In the end, whether you e-pub or self-pub is a matter of time, money, and personality. If you’re stumbling around in a fog of confusion, I recommend you e-publish. If you’re a real go-getter, computer-savvy, with the right genre of book, with time on your hands and some money to invest, self-publishing can work. But either way, do your research!