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What is Self-Publishing (And How Risky Is It)?

“My sense is that self published books go nowhere.” This hit my texts yesterday, in response to the potential loss of Scribe as a publisher and what options might exist otherwise.

If you’re NOT scratching your head about that irony, this post is for you.

I want to tread gently here, because there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in publishing, self or otherwise. But I also want to get real about what publishing is and does, because it is *not* the magic of being an author.

The sooner in the book-creation process that you know it's an investment, not a gamble, the better both the process and the book will be.

All Book Publishing Is An Investment

Here's the cliff's notes version of how the main publishing buckets work:

Traditional publishing allots resources to a certain number of books per year, and vets those books by a number of factors that boil down to a good guess as to whether that book will have been worth the shelf space. “Worth it” is determined by how many times readers grab the book off the shelf and leave their own resources in exchange, for the publisher and author (and agent) to divvy up. The better the guess, the more resources they devote to the author who can bring that book (and hopefully others) to the shelf.

Hybrid publishing balances out the resource game by making some concessions in the resource department—and by that, I mean the author brings more of it to the table. Pay to play or vanity publishing can get really predatory here, so you have to be careful about what the exchange is. But in many cases, you get out the door with a book in hand and decent support along the way. Because the resources are spread out, so is the room on the shelf, and the publisher doesn’t need as good a guess as to who’s gonna do well.

Self-publishing takes one look at the industry Matrix and says “there is no shelf.” Everyone has access and anyone can take advantage of that fact. But to do so, the author has to bring all the resources. In exchange, they get all the wins (or losses) on the other side. The guess in this case isn’t usually a guess so much as a gift. They’d like it to do well and maybe hit that magic viral-button, but really they just believe in it so much that they’re willing (and able) to do what it takes to give that gift to their readers. Something like, “If just one person is changed by my book”…

In all cases, there are resources exchanged and outcomes in mind.

Winning Big Comes at a Cost

People love to talk about the guess and the gamble in terms of hitting it big.

If I get a big advance.

If I get on the best seller lists.

If I gained a cult following.

If if if.

And the industry LOVES that narrative. It keeps people sending them tons of books they can skim until they find their best odds. I don’t want to fully paint publishers as The House, because they’re not. There are lots of cases where a trad pub deal is the way to go. They are dream makers and supporters and shelf-space-clearers.

But they are, ultimately and realistically, just investors.

When you pitch a book you are pitching for an investment. And to get an investment you have to show promise of ROI. And in a subjective field like book-making and selling, that’s not easy to do.

To carry this out, hybrid is more like a collaborative investment. You’re throwing in seed money and startup energy. Self pub is the authorpreneur putting all their skin in the game. In all cases, investments are being made, not gambles. Maybe a 7 figure deal or best seller list or cult following feels like hitting the jackpot, but so does landing a huge deal on Shark Tank. A lot of work happens before and a lot has to happen after in order for that deal to a) happen and b) mean anything. And plenty of businesses do very well without ever landing that sparkly deal.

The point is that in any and all cases, the author is responsible for making the deal happen and making it mean anything. Even in 7 figure advance cases there is work to be done (usually for celebrities in nonfiction, though some fiction newbies get that call, usually in YA). You don’t just get the jackpot and go live in Malibu. You now owe them a product that will live up to all 7 of those figures, and that’s not easy weight to carry. The person who convinced the publisher to make that investment is carrying that weight too, so everyone else on the shelf loses marketing energy so that the 7 figures can hopefully be recouped.

That isn’t to say a publisher doesn’t help you, but it explains why nonfiction authors have to prove they have an audience or a pathway to creating one if they want to get picked up.

In hybrid scenarios, you may get a nudge of marketing help, especially if you’re in a royalty sharing kind of situation, but the lack of investment on their part also creates a lack of interest in…effort. At all. You’re part of their portfolio and perhaps their promotion schedule for themselves, but anything else is probably an add-on service.

When the 7-figure deal shows up, it's because you’re a pretty sure shot that a long-time investor feels good about making. And in nonfiction you’re a sure shot if your audience (that you’ve marketed to) will eat you up.

When you get on the best seller list, it's because you have that audience eating you up (or you can buy your way on, but that’s another conversation).

When you become the cult classic, it's because you put your work out in front of the people who will need, love, and share it. (Otherwise known as marketing.)

In all cases, investments are being made. Smart ones, hopefully.

In that sense, you can’t publish without taking self-ownership of your space on the shelf, no matter who made that space for you or how limited or infinite the shelf seems to be.

So when self-published books “go nowhere,” it isn’t a fault of self-publishing. It’s a feature of publishing in general. It’s just that you are the only investor. You don’t have anyone in your corner with you, shouldering the weight of the good-guess-gone-wrong. It feels personal, and that feeling can spiral into more inaction, and so the cycle carries on.

It’d be like someone throwing a bunch of money on just one stock, then pulling out when it didn't perform after a few months. Then maybe never speaking of it again.

The point is, you either work to make your book a success or you redefine success and then work to get the resources in place to make that happen. But there is no fairy godpublisher who will pluck you out of obscurity and turn a pumpkin into a marketing plan. You've gotta get yourself to the ball, baby.

Look, Publishing's Not All Bad

Trad publishing can be incredible for folks who need the credibility, support, and attention that comes from an outside entity partnering with their work. If you can get an advance to cover your time writing, it can give you space and energy to just focus on the writing rather than fitting it in around your life. A good partnership can turn into recurring writing space. And when you’re with the right publisher, they will create room on their shelf for you and partner with you in marketing and bringing the work to the people who will love it. Just know that partner is the keyword here, and you’ll need to do a lot of the heavy lifting especially on a first book.

Hybrid publishing does the lift around support and connections. You won’t have to vet every last person who comes to the project, because they will have done that for you. They do want you in their portfolio and should put in the work to show it. And because they have less skin in the game, they’ll do less vetting of your content, which can give you a little (or a lot) more creative control.

Self-publishing of course keeps all creative control in your hands, and if you’re in the right network or can get into one, there are plenty of people to help you steer that ship toward your desired outcomes. And because you're making the investment, you get to decide the outcomes. One person's "didn't go anywhere" is another person's "A single reader was changed forever and I am so glad I did that thing."

Here’s why I consider a company like Scribe the same as self-publishing: because it literally does not matter how you got to market once you get there. And without having a company behind you who has invested in you and has a reason to push that investment toward a return, there is absolutely no reason to expect that they will help you sell books unless it's explicitly part of your agreement, paid-for or not.

Instead of vilifying self-publishing as risky, vain, or inaccessible, I think it's more helpful to think of levels of "supported self-publishing," where even traditional publishing falls on the most supportive end of that same spectrum.

If you're trying to decide which end of the spectrum you need to fall on, consider this: if your publisher* is not actively helping you sell books, they're good matchmaking and a nice logo. Nothing more, nothing less. If that's okay with you, the field is wide open for you to curate your ideal publishing support structure based on time, money, and who you want to partner with.

Because the process of publishing itself can be done by literally anyone, and you can find folks who can support you well literally anywhere. (And if you can't, send me a message. Seriously. We have people.)

Publishing Options Summarized (Hint: It's All About You)

I’ll make it even simpler: trad pub uses their connections to put books on literal shelves and hopes you’ll be able to sell them. Hybrid uses their connections to bring you people to make a book and you hope you’ll be able to sell them, on whatever shelves you get on. Self-pub asks you to make connections from start to finish, hopefully without burning you out so much that you get sheepish about selling or doing the leg work to get on shelves.

In all cases, the actual “publishing” part is now down to an upload and a click of a button. That's it. That's the work they're doing for you.

Anything strategic around that button—bookstore connections, metadata and keywords, resales—comes down to networking and hire-able support.

And no matter what, once you hit go, you’re effectively on your own. Yes, maybe there’s marketing support in the package you bought or the deal you negotiated, but when all of that ends, yours is the name on the book.

I’ll prove to you that this is all that matters: Ready? Name your top 5 favorite authors. Now tell me the publishing imprint for 3 of them.

If you could answer, congratulations, you’re in the publishing industry. If not, welcome to normal human readership.

The author is who matters, not the publishing house.

The book is what matters, not the deal that made it happen.

What “goes somewhere” looks like for one book will be different for another, and only the author can decide what that is and what's worth doing to try to get there.

…There’s probably a whole book here that I haven't yet written, funnily enough, but I’ll stop for now with this: Anything short of an agented, traditional deal is effectively self-published for what authors expect that to mean, and all authors would do well to act self-published when it comes to taking responsibility for their ROI.

No stamp of approval can stand in for the confidence in your message and energy for transmitting it that only you can provide.

You’re an author when you say you are.

Everything else is just play space on an imaginary shelf.

*I considered putting quotes around "publisher" when talking about them being good matchmaking and a nice logo, but I don't want you to misunderstand this post as a hybrid-bashing party. Traditional pub deals can be just as empty as a logo in some cases. Do your homework. Set your objectives. And make every decision based on what's good for you, your reader, and the journey you want to go on together.

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