Should You Self-Publish? 15 Questions


Should you self-publish?

Today’s guest post is by Orna Ross (@OrnaRoss), director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

Self-publishing is not for every writer. In order to succeed, you need to have or develop specific traits, along with certain ways of approaching the publication of a book. Consider the following questions.

1. Are you positive and proactive?

Many writers wait for permission from an agent or publisher to say they are fit for publication—or for a PR campaign to explain why somebody should buy their book. The flip side of this passivity is chronic complaint syndrome: writers moaning about the vagaries of agents or publishers, about the death of bookstores, the dominance of Amazon, etc.

Not independent authors. You must take responsibility for the risks, as well as the rewards, of publishing your own work.

2. Are you brave?

Risk is the core activity of self-publishing. You must risk time on ideas, promotions, or concepts that may come to naught. You must risk money to pay for editorial and design upfront. You must also risk, in some circles, reputation. Family, friends, and many others may see self-publishing as a second-best option. Independent authors must put themselves out there twice over, once in the writing, again in the publishing.

3. Are you hardworking?

If there’s one quality that all successful independent authors have in common, this is it. You must be full of energy and commitment, not only to your writing but to educating yourself about all aspects of craft, editing, design, and promotion. You must recognize opportunities and make the most of them, without derailing your writing, the engine of it all.

4. Are you entrepreneurial?

Independent authors who do best have an entrepreneurial mindset. You must always be on the lookout for new ways to reach readers, new communities who might be interested in your books, new opportunities to get your message out. You should be a savvy user of social media and know how to engage resources like e-mail lists, newsletters, promotions, competitions, and book giveaways to extend your readership. You must be open to failure and willing to learn from mistakes, while excited by the prospect of new projects and creative collaborations.

5. Are you resilient?

Successful self-publishers, by definition, are those who have kept on keeping on, adapting where necessary, and following their hearts. Mark McGuinness says in his new book, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, in going indie, you must ensure you haven’t exchanged traditional forms of rejection and criticism for others that can be just as painful and costly. “Anyone who says, ‘Don’t take it so personally’ doesn’t understand what it’s like when you are hit by a major rejection or biting criticism,” says Mark. “Successful indies have found ways to acknowledge the pain—and bounce back from the impact.”

6. Do you base decisions on research?

You must follow gut feelings and intuitions, yes, but successful self-published authors generally back such horse sense with researched facts and figures to stay smart, sharp, and up to date—to search out their readers, stay in touch with influencers in their field, and give their books an advantage. Whether it’s keyword research, marketing studies, direct mail tests or just dear old Professor Google, you should enjoy learning, growing, and getting it right.

7. Do you have good financial sense?

Successful self-publishers don’t tend to be the kind of writers who say, “I don’t care about money,” unless they have a benefactor or obliging day job. Controlling costs is important for all businesses, and you must be able to take care of your resources and make sure you spend money where it will produce the biggest effect.

8. Are you collaborative and supportive?

That literary communities can be a tad, shall we say, bitchy, is well known—but the camaraderie between successful self-published authors is outstanding. Indies are likely to work from the co-opetition model, where competitors cooperate for mutual benefit.

Answering yes so far? Good—you’re half way there. With those personality traits in place, it is necessary to work them in a certain way in order to succeed in self-publishing.

9. Have you tried to find an agent or publisher?

Yes, great books can fail to make it through the gatekeeping process, especially books that are literary, or unusual, or in genres that the industry does not perceive as selling well. On the other hand, many books fail to find an agent or publisher because the writing isn’t ready for publication. The process of trying to get through the gates—taking the rejection, learning and applying the lessons, mastering your craft over time—is often a necessary one, if you want to get real about what’s involved in putting together a book worth reading.

10. Have you made a plan for copyediting, formatting, cover design, and ISBNs?

There’s more to making a book than writing it. Have you taken on board all the functions you will need to master if you are to successfully self-publish? They are all very much learn-by-doing activities, but you need to be realistic about the time and energy commitment.

11. Have you thought about your team?

Just because it’s called self-publishing doesn’t mean you’ll do everything yourself. You will need to draw on the services of some or all of the following: critique groups, beta readers, designers, editors, formatters, and promotional services. Have you at least begun to research how you will approach your workflow, and who you will use to deliver the services you need?

12. Do you understand your niche?

Niche markets addressing special interests are often seen as too unprofitable to be of interest to trade publishing. These overlooked niches is where many indie authors prosper. Even if you’re not that niche, to succeed as an indie you need to go where your readers are, which means understanding your place within the reading ecosystem.

13. Do you know who your reader is?

Some authors become self-publishers because they are recognised experts, or to enhance their standing in their field, or to justify an increase in their fees. Some they are committed to a cause, or have a story that just has to be told.

Regardless of your primary motive for writing, you must have a marketer‘s sensibility. You may not use marketing terms, but you will not survive, never mind thrive, if you are not attuned to the needs of your readership or don’t communicate with them. You will need to to go where most of your readers are most likely to be found online, to their forums and blogs, and make it your business to understand their concerns.

14. Do you have a marketing plan—a plan to reach readers?

Book sales happen only if you make them happen. How are you going to make people aware of your book? How will you make them interested? How will you find your audience?

15. Have you made a plan for your next book?

Are you using a self-published book to attract an agent or trade publisher? Or do you want to keep your own rights and grow your own audience, long term? To make the smartest choices possible, you should have a goal or strategy that extends past your first book.

Choosing a Self-Publishing ServiceIf you’re considering the self-publishing path, then I recommend taking a look at the annual guide from the Alliance of Independent Authors: Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013. The guide compares twenty of the most significant publishing services, in terms of price, royalties, and terms. Click here to preview or sample on Amazon.

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About Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling Irish author, living in London. She writes novels, poems and nonfiction and her Go Creative blog teaches methods of applying the creative process to all aspects of life. Orna has enjoyed independent self-publishing and publication by Attic Press and Penguin.

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  • Esther Aspling

    Whew, That’s quite the list!

    As someone who has done both, which option would you say gave your story the best foothold?

    I’ll be sharing this one! :-)

  • Author Susan Kaye Quinn

    I’m an advocate of Indie First for most authors, but this list gives me some pause. These character traits, attitudes, and processes would benefit any author, not just self-published ones. And lacking those traits shouldn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to publish, via either path. It’s in the trying that we learn to be brave, inventive, and resilient. ;)

    I’m indie/self published (as well as through a small press), and I’m a huge advocate of indie publishing. At first blush, it’s easy to say that the self-pub route takes more bravery, because it bucks convention. But emphasizing bravery, as well as the rest, it seems like we’re saying “only some people have what it takes to self-publish” when in reality, everyone can try. Some will succeed. A few will be wildly successful. This is true, whichever path you take. But I would never say to someone interested in the traditional path, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that, unless you’re a black belt in taking rejection.” Warn them, sure, but I would be hesitant to discourage. Or imply they don’t have the thick skin to make it.

    In the end, I think the degree of success in self-publishing (or traditional publishing, for that matter) depends less on meeting these 15 criteria than things like writing in a popular genre, telling a great story, and luck.

  • Orna Ross

    HI Esther, without a doubt, self-publishing. That’s what I love so much about it. I can bring my books to the people I think would most enjoy and appreciate them, not who the large bookstores and supermarkets are trying to reach (the majority). I am building a far more connected, authentic and larger following than when I was trade published. It has changed my writing a lot too… for the better, I feel. It’s so great to know that once you’ve finished the book, you won’t have to wait a year or more for it to be fitted into a schedule. (I once had to wait three years between delivery and publication).

  • Orna Ross

    HI Susan, you’re right of course, these would benefit all authors (all people in most professions, in fact). While I share your enthusiasm for the indie pathway, I have worked in media and as a writing teacher and literary agent and I do know that there are writers who find writing takes all their mental and emotional energy and would only find themselves disheartened and overwhelmed by the multi-tasking aspects of self-publishing. I would hate to discourage anybody who wanted to try but the article is geared towards those who want to not just do it — because of course that is open to everyone — but to succeed at it. Too many people think of self-publishing as the easy option, when it is very much the opposite. I wanted to emphasise that… hope I didn’t go too far in the opposite direction, because with hard work and commitment, I believe it is the more accessible, creative and rewarding pathway.

  • Skye Warren

    If you’re not positive, proactive, brave, hardworking, entrepreneurial, and resilient, then you have no business being an author. Period. Having a traditional publisher doesn’t absolve you of those responsibilities. Being an author published through any means is an incredibly difficult way to make a living. There’s no one-click button for success, not even a Big 5 contract.

    Someone who prefers to ignore trends, has bad financial sense, and is a poor team player is not going to have any luck in the traditional publishing scene anyways! They won’t write the right book at the right time, they’ll sign a bad contract and they’ll annoy the crap out of every agent/editor they come across.

    Let’s continue… “Have you tried to find an agent or publisher?” Look, it’s true that plenty of self published stuff just isn’t ready. And yet, how exactly will trying to find an agent or publisher help you identify this? Are you suggesting that we should query agents/editors and then once we get an offer, turn it out? That seems like a colossal waste of everyone’s time. Furthermore, if someone IS too unusual or cross-genre, they won’t get that offer, leaving them in the same position as when they started: not knowing whether their writing is up to snuff. Though I don’t believe it was intended that way, the inclusion of this bullet point supports the idea that self published work is be definition sub-par, that we all tried (and failed!) to get traditional deals.

    Number 10 is where it starts to actually get relevant to the question posed in the title, “Should You Self Publish?” Even then, you don’t need this plan for cover art and ISBNs when you’re thinking about making the leap. You need to be willing to get a plan. The difference may seem subtle but it’s very important. If you don’t know about ISBNs but you want to self publish, don’t worry, man. It’s easy. But you have to willing to learn.

    The good part of this article comes in at numbers 12 and 13. As a publisher, albiet a small one, a self publisher does need a better understanding of who their niche and audience is. That’s who their cover art and blurb will be targeting. It’s useful information for any author, but especially important for a self published one, because they don’t have the experience and expertise of a publisher to weigh in.

    Number 14 again, we all need marketing plans. And we all need next books. We all need backlists. Putting standard fair author advice under the guise of “indie authors!” and “self publishing!” does not make the advice new or buzz worthy.

    tl;dr; Self publishers DO need a better understanding of market and positioning than the average traditionally published author. Otherwise this advice applies to all authors. Indie authors are not special snowflakes.

  • Jane Friedman

    I’m sure Orna will respond here, but thought I’d throw in a side note that I’m more or less on the same page as you. However, some authors who traditionally publish have a very different set of values, beliefs, and expectations than indie authors, which then results in a nasty surprise when they realize (too late) that entrepreneurship, marketing, and promotion go hand-in-hand with any type of publishing.

    Or, put another way, the most disappointed and bitter authors I meet are not the unpublished ones, but the traditionally published ones.

  • Tonya Kappes

    I can say that I’ve done every single one of these fifteen questions. I love self publishing and a lot of writers have no idea how much work it does take to make a successful career! Awesome article! Sharing!!

  • Darrelyn Saloom

    Jumping in here, too. Great post, btw. To the point and so true. Would like to add that if you don’t have the 15 traits needed, this is where Orna’s great advice of finding a team can save you. Find people who have the qualities you lack to pitch in. And Jane, you are so right. I have a publisher but do all the work. Not bitter because I enjoy it, but I can see where someone who doesn’t could become dismayed.

  • H. Leighton Dickson

    Hey Orna, Thanks for sharing and I have a question for you. I’m a new ‘hybrid’ – an indie author who has just signed with an agent. She knew that I had works on Amazon but now I have two publishers interested in them. The agent thinks there will be a problem telling them they’ve been ‘out there’ already . I never thought it would be but I am naive. Do you have any experience with a situation like this? H. Leighton Dickson

  • Jay Wren

    Thank you for the great outline for planning to publish. I love it!

  • Matthew Trinetti

    Nice list Orna. I tend to agree with Susan’s comment as well — these are just as applicable for published authors as self-published. I know (and know of) traditionally published authors who expected to sit back and relax after being published, because they had “arrived.” The smart and successful authors, however, displayed the traits above and took matters in their own hands. They didn’t rely on their publisher for their book’s success.

    I’ll also say, if you don’t have these traits, there’s still hope. You can partner with someone who DOES have those traits, and who cares about and believes in your work, and is willing to work on your behalf. And in exchange, they get a stake in your book sales. Kinda like a start-up company, where the product is the book.

    This is what happened with Tales Of Iceland, a book I just published, written by my friend. He’s a great writer, but admittedly, those traits above aren’t his strong suit. I’m an OK writer, but excel in the list above and have a better business sense. This symbiotic relationship seems to be working great so far. Curious if anyone else has partnered with someone in this manner?

  • Paula Cappa

    I have to say that when I first s-p my novel, I could not have answered yes to every single one of these. I’ve been writing for years but only into s-p over the past 6 months. Writers develop these qualities as we go along. I think, Orna, if I had read your list 6 months ago I would have felt overwhelmed and discouraged. I still am finding out who my readers are and still developing and redeveloping my marketing/promos plans and my fiction blog. This is not a static business and learning it takes a lot of time and exploration. Perseverance!

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  • Ann Stanley

    Thanks for saying this, Paula. The list is a little intimidating, but it’s good to know that one can develop these traits.

  • Orna Ross

    Yes — as with so many literary matters, there is no one size fits all answer to such questions. We have members of the Alliance who have sold their self-pubbed books to trade publishers, no problem. They’ve taken down their own version when the time comes for the new edition. You need to have that conversation with the interested parties. How successful are the books already, for example? What value would the publisher be bringing? What ALLi does encourage is that any trade deal you enter takes on board the work you’ve already done in reaching readers and platform building, and that this is not just given lip-service recognition but reflected in your terms. Too many trade publishers approach established indies with the same contract they would give a tyro author, who has no record. A good place to start negotiation for an indie is offering print rights only, holding onto your e-rights,and go from there. As for agents, it can be challenging sometimes to get them to do what we want in such scenarios, which is why many prefer to have these conversations directly with the publisher. Hope that helps!

  • Orna Ross

    Thanks Matthew, totally agree about the value of collaboration. Author co-operatives can be fantastic for this.

  • Orna Ross

    I’m afraid I know many successful authors — some of them household names — who have no financial sense, no sense of trends, no interest in knowing ANYthing about the publishing business and whose idea of team play is everybody running around looking after them. They succeed because they write amazing books that have found their way through the system. If the trade has any purpose going forward, it is surely in protecting such writers and doing for them what they can’t do for themselves. Not all writers can be entrepreneurial, they just don’t have it in them, and won’t ever be able to develop that mindset or skill base. Those who can will see less and less point in going with the trade, as time goes on, IMHO. After all, Skye — and Jane — if you have all that in place, as a writer, what value is the publisher bringing as distribution models adapt and change?

  • Orna Ross

    Thanks for the appreciation, Jay! Appreciate it. :)

  • Orna Ross

    Yes thank you Paula, I wouldn’t want to discourage. It does say in the first sentence “need to have OR develop” those skills/characteristics. They totally can be developed, where there is willingness to do so. The publishing being an indie is very much a learning-by-doing and the lessons keep unfolding as you go. (much like the writing side). I hoped it would be helpful to lay out what seems necessary, as learned from watching so many successful indies ply their wares.

  • Orna Ross

    Thanks Tonya and congratulations on your “Best of The Year” Award. Great to see your success.

  • Matt from Saverocity

    Excellent stuff- let me ask you, if I decide to go the self published route, I would imagine that to be an eBook due to practicalities of costs etc. Could that book ever be picked up by a big house and published for general sale by them, or once in print would it stay that way?

    Or would it be better, if the eBook was a success enough to warrant publishing, to use that as credibility for book #2 from a publishing house and leave the original to run its course?

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  • Pam Howes

    Thank you, Orna. What a great post and one I’m going to share with groups of authors. I love being Indie. Wouldn’t want it any other way now. Got myself a great team of editor – John Hudspith and cover designer Jane Dixon-Smith, and really couldn’t be happier with their results. It’s hard work marketing but I don’t do too badly at it. I’ve met so many lovely people from all over the world, all going down the same route. Eight books published, two more in the planning department and sales enough to make me want to continue forever on this lovely independent pathway.

  • Kari S.

    Great list Orna! Thank you! Just wanted to let you and Jane know that we linked this post over on WaveCloud’s blog:

  • Anne Selby

    Yes to all of that… although I do have a publisher for my book!

  • Anne Selby

    the big publishing houses trawl Amazon and other online bookstores all the time and they frequent pick up people who self publish, although generaly they tend to pick from the stores’ best seller lists. However you can get lucky if they see a book that they fancy that isn’t a best seller by an unknown author.

  • Orna Ross

    Again, Matt, it depends. It certainly *could* be picked up but there are no guarantees. And what happens then varies — see earlier comment re electronic rights above. Some indies start off using self-pub as an “attractor” for a trade deal and then turn down the offers they get from trade publishing because they don’t compensate — or because they’ve got used to creative freedom and control and like it that way. Others are very happy to be picked up. Others self-publish and trade doesn’t make an approach. The subject matter and quality of the book are the primary factors and there are many others to take into consideration.

  • Orna Ross

    Congratulations Pam… I’m so glad going indie has been such a great experience for you. Me too!

  • Orna Ross

    Thanks Kari, appreciate that!

  • Orna Ross

    Good for you Anne!

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  • Ralph A. Garcia

    Thank you for the excellent guidance with the 15 questions. I have self-published and my book has been on the market for two months now. I have some scheduled book signings past and coming up, as well as been invited to a specific authors’ round table discussion group where I will also be able to sell my book. My question is about your item 14 re marketing. Where can I find info on who and where to arrange for book signings? Is there info on the subject to guide me in this area of marketing my book? Thank you for your time and energy in this subject. Ralph A. Garcia “Harbor Knight”

  • Sara Beatty

    Great list, and great discussion. Thanks for pointing out that these skills can be developed. As an indexer, of course I’d add “indexer” to the team in #11 for any non-fiction book.

  • Dlady47

    I’d like to add the main point that this author missed, and the BIGGEST reason I don’t self-publish. Do you have the time to take precious writing hours and use them for publishing activities?I have a full-time day job and writing is my night-weekend job. I need the support that a good publisher provides as I simply do not have the time to guide my book through the editing/publishing process, while trying to write, work full-time, and market my book.

    Jami Davenport

  • Christine Hurst

    What a great list. Most helpful for me to ensure I am on the right path. I am just starting my Indie/self publishing journey and I am very excited!

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  • Orna Ross — ALLi

    Yes Jami, that’s completely understandable and I agree — self-publishing is not for every author at every stage of the writing journey. Good luck with your book.

  • Orna Ross — ALLi

    How exciting for sure, Christine. Let us know if we can help and very good luck!

  • Orna Ross — ALLi

    Good point, Sara, thanks for the reminder.

  • Orna Ross — ALLi

    Dana Lynn Smith, one of ALLi’s advisors on Marketing Matters, has some useful information on this on her website, Ralph. Here is her resource page:

  • Karolina Jones

    I would say don’t sell your e-books for 99 cents and don’t give them away and you’ll be fine.

  • Karolina Jones

    I wonder if an aspect of this list could be about the people you know and the friends you have. Is it worth snagging one of your more outgoing, social media junky girlfriends to get out there and be your PR person? I’ve found in life that I sort of accidentally didn’t surround myself with particularly creative people; because of that, they’re all hugely encouraging to see me succeed at my efforts. Maybe they feel like if I succeed they will too. Regardless, I think if you look around you’ll find no shortage of people who’d like to help self-publish your book.

  • Karolina Jones

    I would say spend all of your marketing time marketing yourself. Even if an agent or publishing house doesn’t necessarily want to publish a book (or books) you’re already selling, they might be interested in you the person and the fanbase you employ.

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  • Tam Francis: The Girl in the J

    This was wonderful and not to pro, pro, pro self-publish. I have been looking for something balanced and this is. My favorite is:
    “On the other hand, many books fail to find an agent or publisher because the writing isn’t ready for publication. The process of trying to get through the gates—taking the rejection, learning and applying the lessons, mastering your craft over time—is often a necessary one, if you want to get real about what’s involved in putting together a book worth reading.”
    I know it’s important to “believe in yourself,” but it’s important to understand the reality of craft.

  • Tam Francis: The Girl in the J

    Thank you. I am reading all of this and still on the fence. The peers in my writer’s group are encouraging me to self-pub, but I’ve been having fun AND learning a lot from the query process, not to mention good odds on ms request. Still on the fence, but your article helps.

  • Tam Francis: The Girl in the J

    I can answer “Have you tried to find a publisher.” When I first started querying, I had an agent ask: “Are you planning to make this into two books?” Translation: My novel was too long. I went back to the chopping block and cut 20,000 words out. When another agent said one of the story lines wasn’t as compelling as the other, I looked at it and saw where I could create more interest for that character. It’s been a godsend.

    Not only that, in my quest for an agent, I got off my butt and finished my website, signed up for social media and started building my platform (to attract an agent). Now if I do DECIDE to self-publish, I am ahead of the game.

    And finally, I want it to be a DECISION to self-publish not a last resort or impatient choice. I hope that helps. I truly see and have benefited from the query process.

  • JanetMermaid

    Jami the world of “professional” publishing has changed. Especially first time writers get NO help with marketing and promo other then “helpful lists of suggestions”. At least with self-publishing not only am I in charge of my own promo (as I pretty much would be with a publishing house anyway) but I am the one making the money for all my hard work.

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