FAQ: Should I self-publish my fiction?

I have self-published, and I shout that to the high heavens! Am I embarrassed? No. Have I found success with self-publishing? Yes. Do I recommend others to follow this path? It depends.

I say that "it depends" because I think writers should evaluate their reasons for self-publishing before moving forward. So if you are considering self-publishing, you should ask herself the following questions (This quiz I made was posted a week ago):
  1. Have I exhausted all avenues of trying to get traditionally published? This includes query letters, writer conferences, and asking people for referrals.
  2. Is this material at its best? Am I 100% sure that there is nothing I could do to improve the book's plot, characters, or other story elements? 
  3. Is this material fully edited? Is it free of typos and grammatical mistakes?
  4. Do I have the time and/or money to invest in producing the best product? (A book free of mistakes and formatted well that has professional marketing materials)
  5. Do I have the time and/or money to market this product?
  6. Do I have a thick-enough skin to handle criticism from the public? 
If you answered "no" to any of these questions, then you should not self-publish.

Self-publishing is a very difficult task to do well, and a powerful debut matters. A similar example would be if "Joey" goes on American Idol. Even if Joey has talent, if he isn't ready and blows his shot, America isn't going to give him a second chance, and they're going to move their attention to another potential superstar. If anything, they'll remember Joey as that guy who sucks, and if he wants a second chance, he's going to have to beg for it.

Why would a self-publisher put themselves in that same predicament? It is better to present to the public when you are ready than to rush things and blow your one chance to make that crucial first impression on your audience. Remember, readers are already wary of buying self-published books because of the stigma of their poor quality, so don't give them a reason to never come back to you or a reason to write you a poor review.

The first book that I ever published was Realities: A Collection of short stories. It compiled two stories that were already published and one new story that I had submitted to contests but had never found a publisher. I put the three together because there was a common thread to them--they were fictional representations of three unique stages of my life (high school, college, and post-college.) To publish this book, my friend and I formed a company, Bart Engima, and we published our work through that channel. Technically, because we formed a company we were "independently" published and not "self-published" but really, it's all the same. If people see you are published by a company that isn't mainstream, they tend to group the two together. Plus, to do this "form-my-own-company-then-publish-through-Amazon" is actually becoming very common so there's no point in trying to hide it.

"Even though the quality of my self-published stories was good, the cover was good, and the interior was good, only people I knew personally were buying my books."

The next book I published was The Other Side: A Collection of Short Stories. Like Realities, I published through Bart Enigma, and this book consisted of three stories that I had tried to publish through literary magazines and contests but had no success. I knew that the quality of the stories in The Other Side was some of my best work (in particular my short story "Angels") so I went ahead and published. One thing I noticed, however, was that sales of my second book was less than my first book. This is when it really hit me how hard it is to be a self-published writer. Even though the quality of my self-published stories was good, the cover was good, and the interior was good, only people I knew personally were buying my books.

With this experience, I came to the conclusion that if I were to self-publish again that I would only do it if I had exhausted all of my other options. After all, the average sales number of a self-published book is 100-150. The average sales number of a book from a first-time writer from a mainstream publisher is 400-500. While neither sales figures are blockbusters, there is still a large discrepancy.

Despite the cons, in 2012, I chose to make my young adult novel debut by self-publishing. I knew that I had something special with Hell's Game, and I knew that there was nothing more I wanted to do with the story. I entered the manuscript in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, and it made it to the Second Round. Although it didn't advance further, Hell's Game received two incredibly positive reviews, and those reviews gave me the confidence to move forward. I attempted to traditionally publish the book by querying agents. I literally queried a hundred agents who represented supernatural young adult fiction or adult horror. Only two were willing to read the manuscript, and the rest ignored me or sent a standard rejection.

It pained me to think that Hell's Game wasn't going to even get a shot in the marketplace, and I figured, since no one in the mainstream publishing world was going to even read something that Amazon editors stated "read like Stephen King" then why not just self-publish? Who cares if my sales are less than 100? It was better than zero.

In April of 2012, I released Hell's Game, and amazingly young adult bloggers were willing to read something that agents wouldn't even give a chance. Through the bloggers' help and the support of my Facebook and Twitter communities, Hell's Game cracked the top 100 of Amazon's Spine-Tingling Horror List for two days. I was stunned, and I felt blessed and grateful.

So if you are thinking of self-publishing, here are my pros and cons:

  • Self-publishing is fast and easy
  • You have the freedom to release whatever you want, and you no longer have to wait for the approval of the literary "Gatekeepers" (agents and their assistants)
  • Self-publishing sales are historically lower than those of traditional publishers
  • You will be in charge of your own marketing and editing
  • You may publish something that isn't ready
  • Self-published books still have a "stigma" of being poor quality
  • It is hard for a self-published book to stand out amongst the crowd