When Self-Publishing Is More Useful As a Marketing Tool

Broken pencil

The turning point of my long-term publishing plans came when I realized I have very little in common with author Joanna Penn. Have you heard of her?

I started following Joanna on Twitter because she always shared great writing links, but I also began to follow her self-publishing story. She wrote a novel, released it as a 99-cent download, and reached 10,000 downloads after a few months.

Joanna blogged through the whole process and shared all of the details from editing to marketing. She worked really hard to pull it off, and as I added self-publishing to my own long-term publishing plans—plans that included books also published through large traditional publishers—I had no qualms about working hard.

For my self-publishing projects I marked up several drafts, lined up cover designers, sent out review copies, booked blog tours, and worked through spreadsheets listing everything else I had to do. The book received praise from experts, and my brother-in-law, a designer by trade, put together a sharp cover.

For all that fell into place, I dreaded opening those spreadsheets listing everything I had to do. You’d have thought I was being forced to slap a kitten each day.

I’ve always loved writing. Releasing my first commercially published book was a highlight of my life. Why did I hate self-publishing?

After processing my reaction to both self-publishing projects, I read Joanna Penn’s About Page one day. The light flickered on for me: Joanna had a business consulting background. She wasn’t just creative and dedicated to writing; she had the skills you need to run a successful business, which is a huge part of the self-publishing process.

Even the smallest publishing house provides more support than you’ll receive when self-publishing.

Self-publishing means that authors become small publishing companies. They aren’t just writing and editing. They need to manage a complex and draining process. There is layout, design, development editing, proofreading, retail planning, and marketing.

Doing all of these things well enough to sell more than fifty copies to my friends calls for a set of skills that many creative writers like myself simply don’t possess. Even if I had $5,000 on hand to hire designers, editors, and publicists, I’d turn myself into a publisher. Having published through large publishers, small publishers, and now independently, I’d much rather surrender a chunk of my royalties to an experienced publisher—heck, almost any publisher—so that I can pursue my creative calling.

Not sure about my take here? Read what Catherine Howard has to say:

We’ve seen time and time again that the self-publishers who enjoy consistent success are those who treat self-publishing like a business they’ve started up. They act like entrepreneurs, and make like their book is their first product—which it is.

I’m releasing my next book with a relatively small publisher that focuses on my niche, and the experience has been far better for me than self-publishing. They couldn’t pay out an advance, but I’m guaranteed a standard royalty. In return, they have edited the book, designed a cover, written marketing copy, developed a marketing plan, sought out endorsers, and reached out to retailers.

I could lament the non-existent advance, or I could focus on this: they’ve heavily invested in publishing my book after I paid them zip.

Best yet, I wrote the book and have been very involved in the design and marketing process, but they have managed the whole thing. Knowing that someone else is keeping the publishing process on track removes a tremendous burden from my mind and makes it far easier to develop creative marketing ideas.

I used to think of self-publishing as the only alternative to publishing with a large house. Now I’m committed to working with both large and small publishers. In addition, there are some strong subsidy publishers that provide excellent support to authors who have the means to pay for their services.

Now for my caveat: I haven’t ruled out self-publishing completely.

I’ll still create e-books that readers can download for free if they subscribe to my e-newsletter. E-books are also a great promotional tool. Even just selling a 10,000 word e-book on Amazon for 99 cents is a simple way to introduce readers to my work. It’s like I’m getting paid to advertise, but I have no illusions about building my career on these self-published books.

For example, each April 1, I release a prank e-book that my readers can download for 99 cents on Amazon (this year and last year). These e-books, which lovingly poke fun at the Christian subculture and my own quirks, are not a way to make money. They’re simply a way to introduce readers to my writing—even if I lose a few subscribers each year who miss the prank and think I’ve lost my mind.

Self-publishing is a great tool to keep in your publishing plans, but for creative writers such as myself, it is far more useful as a marketing tool. I don’t plan on writing another e-book until next April 1 because I don’t have the chops or desire to run my own small publishing company. When I hammer out 3,000 words in a morning, I hit a high that leaves me chattering about all of my ideas to my wife. When I run my own publishing company, she hears sobbing noises from my office.

I’m grateful that there’s a Joanna Penn in the world. I’ve learned a lot from her about publishing. The greatest lesson she taught me is that I’m not like her and that large and small publishing companies exist because there are authors like me who just want to write.

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Ed Cyzewski
Ed Cyzewski writes and edits books in Columbus, Ohio, and is the author of Pray, Write, Grow, A Christian Survival Guide, and Write without Crushing Your Soul, among other books. You can find him at www.edcyzewski.com and on Twitter and Facebook.
Posted in E-Books, Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion and tagged , .


  1. This is a very good outlook indeed

    Self Publishing has many great aspects to it, and I see more and more getting into it. You have to embrace the entire world it comes with though, and if you simply can’t, or don’t want to do this, well, the traditional route is for you.

    It is like a business when you think about it. You are in control of everything, which ultimately means the vast majority of work rests on your already burdened shoulders

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  2. My writer’s group has this debate all the time; one of the authors who was published under the “legacy” system really liked that model and has no desire to be an entrepreneur, while others of us enjoy that aspect of it a lot.

    I think it goes back to my primary observation about the changes in the publishing industry, which is that now authors have CHOICES where they didn’t before: self-pub, indie press, traditional publisher, or a mix of all three. Before it was rigged system, rigged against the author in almost all ways, but now we have the opportunity to fine-tune our writing career to our own comfort level. And that’s golden! 

    • I agree that more choices are great. Heck, I love being able to pop out my own e-books for April fools day. However, I just want authors to know what they’re really getting themselves into with this self-publishing business. 

  3. I almost believe the term “self-publishing” to be false.  A person might be able to self-publish one or two titles, but more than that, and being successful, requires help.  Right from the start I formed my own publishing imprint.  We just incorporated, Cool Gus Publishing, this past month as our revenue cleared seven figures.  What grew from a few titles of my backlist now encompasses 72 titles and 10 authors.  I have a four page fact sheet I give to potential authors to explain why they would be giving up a small percentage of their earning to us.  ie I explain what we provide that they would be hard-pressed to achieve on their own.  Beyond all the practical matter– cover, editing, formatting, uploading– a key is our expertise having been in on the digital revolution from the start.  A writer can spend the next few years learning what we have or use our experience.

    •  Bob, you are a great example of an author who is a consummate business-man, but I also think you encourage authors to understand that they are part of a business (at least that’s how I read your site!)

  4. It’s interesting–I realized reading your blogpost that I *do* have a business background of sorts.  Before turning to full time writing, I was a physical therapist. The last 12+ years of my practice, in private practice as a solo clinician. Having to manage promotion, billing, paperwork, etc along with the more creative work of the patient care stood me well in the move to publishing.

    Not that I like the business side any better in writing than I did in physical therapy. . . 

  5. When successful traditional published authors are being touted as indie breakthrough it is a disservice to a lot of aspiring authors. They already have the advantage of name recall and an established market, in contrast to newbie authors who don’t have them. Amanda Hocking is a rarity. There are millions of books being consistently thrown in the cluttered space known as literary world–reader discovery is a huge problem for self published authors.

    • Good point! That’s a whole other angle that I didn’t explore here. Many successful self-published authors already roped in readers through traditional means. Self-publishing for them may make more sense, but still, they need to think like business owners. I think I’ll always want to work with a publisher because I want to spend my time on creative projects and let someone else worry about how to sell them. I write that with the caveat that I’m deeply committing to the marketing process. I just don’t want to manage it!

      •  “I’m deeply committing to the marketing process. I just don’t want to manage it!” These two sentences sum up a lot of what I feel too. I enjoy self publishing but feel overwhelmed by it at times. Having someone to keep pointing me in the right direction would be awesome!

  6. I understand completely.  Just curious–I suppose you work without an agent when you’re with the publishing houses?

    • I’m going after larger publishers a good bit of the time Dale, so I absolutely work with an agent who gives feedback on proposals, helps me find the best publishing house, writes a killer query, and then negotiates the deal and anything else that comes up. Even when working with a smaller publisher, my agent handled the nit picky details of the contract so that I could just focus on being the nice author who is easy to please. :) 

  7. I self-published my children’s book to see what was involved in creating and selling a book and realized that it is both writing and a business. I’m not sure what path to take when I publish my young adult novels when the time comes.

    • You have lots of options. Either find an agent or connect with a small press that specializes in publishing stories like your own. The Writer’s Market Guide is there to help. Take it everywhere you go and mark that sucker up!

  8. I agree completely that publishing independently requires a business mind, which is why I adapted so easily when I published my first novel last September and even more so with my new book, It Takes An Egg Timer, A Guide to Creating the Time for Your Life, that I just released this week.
    That said, in today’s environment it behooves any writer, whether they go it alone or through a legacy house to understand and adapt to the business, particularly the marketing aspect.

  9. This is just how I am beginning to think.  The more I research what I should be doing to promote my self published books, the more I realize it’s not me.  I want to sit and write for as much of the day as I can, that’s what satisfies me not telling anyone who will listen what a great book I’ve written.  You only have one life. Do what makes you happy.  That’s what I’m trying to live by. 

    • You’ll still need to do a lot of publicity and platform building in order to publish, so brace yourself for that. However, if you can work with a professional publicist who lives and breathes this stuff, I think you’ll be much happier for sure. 

  10. Great post! I have similar opinions. I’m pursuing traditional publishing for my fantasy novel and scifi shorts. My comic book is a labor of love, though. I don’t especially care if I make a profit or not. I just want to share Bubblegum-Man with as many people as I can. That one will be self-published.

    • I can relate William. Just one word of caution. Amanda Hocking aside, Self-publishing is more of a way to just “get something out” than to share a book with “as many people as you can.” If you really want your book to be widely read, then you’ll need a publisher’s help to make that happen. If you just want to get it out there, self-publishing is quite alright. I hope that makes sense. 

  11. This is a really good piece, Ed. Also super timely for me right now. I have a business marketing background, a lot like Joanna. So self-pubbing might make sense for me eventually. But through a serious of unusual events, I’m publishing my first fiction work through a small independent publisher.  

    I’ve got a full time job I still enjoy. And a family. And life outside writing. 
    While I have a skillset that means I probably could take on all the various roles involved in self-publishing with a short learning curve, not having to do so is a better fit for me right now.  I have limited resources of time and energy; I need to preserve as much as I can for the actual writing.I’m not opposed to big publishing, indie publishing OR self-publishing. But I’m still new to this game. Better to find my footing with some more experienced support, particularly on the part of the process where I’m weakest–production and distribution.   Everybody has to find the mix that makes sense for their own resources. 

    • Thanks Kat. Publishing commercially before self-publishing was HUGE for me! I learned so much through that process that I applied to self-publishing. 

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  13. I could not agree more. This post really analyzes the whole changing aspect of  publishing very nicely. I too have a small publisher. I also release my backlist independently, which gives me a great basis for comparison. The novels I have with the publisher do a whole lot better, because of what they do to promote and publicise, which meshes in a good way with how I use my indie books “as marketing tools”.

    Understanding who you are as an author, and what your skill set allows you to do successfully, is a step in the process few are brave enough to take. When forced to take it (it happens in about 6 months after releasing an SP title) many authors stubbornly refuse to face the truth. It is supremely difficult to sustain successful sales levels on your own without some business knowledge.

    Those who complain and claim not being able to understand why their success is not equal to Joanna Penn’s need to look at their product, their model and their marketing … all business aspects.

  14. Thanks so much for the mention Ed – I appreciate the way you’ve teased out why self-publishing may not be for everyone. I have had 5 businesses over the last 10 years and have learned a lot of business lessons, which I bring to the business of being an author.

    However, I do think that even if you’re not self-publishing you should have a business perspective, because otherwise you are putting all the the power in other people’s hands.

    You are in charge of your own reputation, and so you should make sure you have some control over branding and marketing – even if you have a publisher. You are responsible for your long term writing career, so you need to think about income and managing money – and not just sign any bit of paper given to you.

    Education around the business of being an author is critical – whether you’re self-publishing or not. Thanks, Joanna


    • Thanks Joanna. That is a really important point. That business side of things is where authors like myself and some of my friends lean on the expertise of our agents and spend time planning our next steps strategically. 

  15. I think it’s terrific more people are realizing and noting that understanding elements of business is important to successfully publishing–regardless of where you are in the supply chain. Even if writers eschew participating in editing, cover design, and decisions related to retail strategy and pricing, they still have to be active in promotion and publicity, after all.

    One thing: “self-publishing.” Such an imprecise term, especially if we’re discussing it with regard to business (jargon notwithstanding). If we’re going to acknowledge that pretty much every author who decides to publish their books without the support of a bigger corporation is pretty much setting up their own publishing company, calling that “self-publishing” still seems imprecise. Not sure, at that point, considering they’re a small publishing company, we still need an adjective in front of it anyway, and even if we did, “independent” would be more precise. The currently bandied terms (“self-” and “traditional”) are exercises of imprecise usage, and given that we all seem to be writers, one would think we’d consider more carefully the words we’re using and they’re meanings.

    As an example, I’ve never heard anyone refer to Dave Eggers as a self-publisher, but really, what he’s done isn’t different from what, say, Bob Mayer is doing. I mean, it’s different in terms of strategy, for sure, but at its foundation? Seems less so.

  16. Great post! We’re about to release a blog post with similar themes. Self publishing certainly isn’t easy, and there are no guarantees. The self pub route provides very clear benefits, such as: your own timeline (which could go either way depending on how motivated you are), more favorable royalty structures and of course distribution of content on a broader scale that was previously unavailable. However, it doesn’t exempt you from any of the rules that would make someone actually read a book, i.e. interesting plot or content, good characterization, correct grammar, you know, the little things 😉

    We encourage you to check out our site since you haven’t ruled out self-publishing entirely http://kbuuk.com

  17. Ed, you make an excellent point that needs to be explored by any writer trying to decide what choice(s) to make in the new world of publishing. I’ve come up through the trad publishing experience (the queries, the waits, the submissions, the waits, the offer, the waits…). I’ve been successful at indie (self) publishing and it has opened my eyes to what my trad publishers did (and didn’t do) for my books. There is a way to reduce this decision to a dollars and cents comparison (assuming long-tail of 35 years for both models, because it seems likely that is the amount of time an author will be bound to a trad publisher — although I think there are smaller, more innovative publishers offering shorter terms). But, ultimately, if you don’t want to be CEO of your own business (the buck stops and starts with you…which is scary), you are right to make sound decisions as to who you will sign control of your work over to so that you can sleep well at night and be creative in the day (or vice versa if you’re a night owl). For some of us who’ve left the trad world for the indie model, we have experiences that have caused us to mistrust the old model in a way that obstructed our creativity. I wouldn’t be surprised if –in a few years — some of us create real publishing companies (like Bob Mayer); turn over management to an agent (like Joe Konrath); or hire out the work that interferes with creativity (like Joanna Penn). Those few years, however, contain a goldmine of hard numbers and facts –information to allow us to make the right decision, rather than one that will cause us to look back with regret at all that we did not understand. We will, no matter what model chosen, owe a debt of gratitude to pioneer authors who opened the new paths, and carefully marked the pitfalls of following in their footsteps.

  18. Ed:

    I’ve been reading some of Joanna Penn’s blogging and have found self-publishing very helpful for a type of work that I want to publish. She answered my queries and freely shared what she knows. I think she is a tremendous resource in that regard. Thanks for writing about what she does.

    Self-publishing works for some written products, but there are other works that I will use more traditional publishing methods for.  For this reason, I am now looking at publishing options for my written work as an array of tools in my writing box. Some choices work for this written work, and others, for that. And so on.

    I think that self-publishing has actually strengthened the market for books; it has also probably increased the number of people who actually read. From a former reading teacher’s perspective, that’s a great development!

    • Joanna’s popularity is certainly well-earned! 

      I think the real benefit of self-publishing is that experts who want to deal directly with customers can determine the terms of the relationship. In that regard, you’re right in saying that the book market has been strengthened. I’m sure that there are plenty of examples that folks will point to about the downside of self-publishing, but hey, I’m always in support of more opportunities and options. That’s a pretty good upside!

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  21. Before any author self-publishes, I encourage them to do a significant amount of research. It’s true that some self-publishing firms do not offer much in the way of support. Others, though, offer a great deal, from editing to cover design to marketing and publicity outreach.

    Another significant component to look for is how much money an author will retain. One relatively new company that is garnering attention is Booktango, because it is paying authors 100% of their royalties on books sold through its online bookstore. Most publishing houses, even self-publishing ones, pay only a third of that, at best.

    As other commentors have said, much of self-publishing is what you put into it. Don’t cut corners just to save a few bucks! And don’t skimp on the front-end research.

  22. Self publishing is a good tool, but needs a lot of defense towards the company. They never keep their promises of distribution terms and prices.  They care only how to charge you more for every step the suggest for marketing, publicity, etc,etc.. But for a new writer still is a good tool.. At least you have a book in your hands.   

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