When you work in a coaching role like literary agents do, you tend to get a lot of the same questions. This is one of the big ones.
So, in the interest of efficiency, let’s hash it out right here. Should you self-publish or traditionally publish?
Most often this question comes from writers and bloggers who are feeling stuck and frustrated with their careers—they can’t get a literary agent to sign them, or they haven’t been able to get the book deal they wanted, and they just don’t understand why.
And I totally get it. Publishing is frustrating. It’s frustrating for all of us—from literary agents to editors to publicists to authors. And the reason it’s frustrating?
The world is noisy. It is hard as hell to be heard above the din of the millions of content channels that exist today. It’s increasingly difficult for authors to build platforms on which to broadcast their messages; it’s just as tough for editors to sell their sales teams on why your book is special; and in-house publicists are casting their nets ever wider in the hope of landing an elusive book review or feature.
The struggle that people within the industry face as we try to pitch your book to everyone else in the value chain—sales teams, marketers, booksellers, and ultimately readers—is why the gatekeepers at the very beginning of the chain (the literary agents) have to be so very selective about the authors we take on. We know what an uphill battle it is when an author is starting the publishing process from a place of disadvantage, and we also know how laughably easy it is to have all the doors flung right open when an author enters the publishing process from a place of advantage.
So, there are two ways to look at it. You can see the traditional publishing process as full of gatekeepers who don’t get your work, and who you don’t need anyway in order to publish. Or you can look at them as a valuable source of feedback–as people who have a deep sense, honed through years of experience, of when an author is ready to publish.
The truth is, writers and bloggers don’t need publishers if they want to produce a book. Many of the services publishers provide—editing, copyediting, printing, etc.—can be purchased by authors from freelancers or firms that specialize in book production. It’s easy to produce a book—anyone with a good grasp of InDesign can do it. But it’s difficult to promote and sell a book.
So when aspiring authors ask me if they should consider self-publishing, I say that it all comes down to this: your audience. If you have direct, deep connections to thousands of fans who would buy anything from you (including a book), then maybe assembling a team for self-publishing and managing your campaigns on your own would work fabulously for you. (Leo Babuata of ZenHabits did an incredible job of this with his last book, which was successful because he has such a huge, devoted audience.)
But if you don’t have an audience yet, then it could be an uphill battle to get your book out there in the way your message deserves. Whether your book was produced and printed by you or by a Big Five publisher, at the end of the process, you will still be holding a physical book in your hands, asking yourself how you can tell people about it.
For more on how to build the type of audience that can support a book launch, read this and this. (And if self-publishing is the right path for you, Jane Friedman has wonderful resources on how to self-publish your book.)