Self-Publishing and Control Issues

I was reading in a writing forum about whether it’s okay to self-publish or not, and specifically, whether self-publishing will keep you from eventually landing a traditional book deal. One of the arguments put forth in favor of self-publishing included these lines of reasoning:

It seems to me that if you self publish, and get a few thousand copies out there, you will be much more interesting to agents and publishers. They will know that you have a product that already sells. And they will see how motivated and involved you are in selling a book – something that is necessary even with a big house contract.

In addition, when its time to sit with a publisher and talk about contracts and an advance, you will have a lot more leverage. You will be able to show that you will already make X amount of money without them, why would you accept less?

I think its becoming more and more common today for authors to use self-publishing as a path to more traditional publishing.

Beside all of that, while you are waiting for the Big Contract to appear, you will be making money, getting your work out there, controling every aspect of your book, and having fun doing it. Its a lot of work, yes. But its fun.

Apparently, the person who posted that has self-published something. Otherwise, he wouldn’t know how much “fun” it is. But here is my response:

Does getting a few thousand copies of your work out there really make you more interesting to traditional publishers?

I’m not sure about that. If your book is quality, then I think that’s still going to be of greater importance than how many copies you’ve sold. Anyway, how will your traditional publisher know for sure how many copies you’ve really sold? They’d have to take your word for it. The question is, will they?

“You will be able to show that you will already make X amount of money without them, why would you accept less?”

Two things trouble me about this mentality:

First, if you self-publish, even if you sell a thousand copies, depending on how much you’ve spent, you still may not have made near what their advance would actually be if they did offer you one. So it’s possible that if your earnings are less than their typical advance, they might be motivated to give you less money if they do offer you anything for your work.

Secondly, if it’s true that self-publishing is proof that you don’t need them, I’m not sure why you’d expect them to want to work with you: why bother taking on a client who feels that you’re unnecessary in their career? If I were a publisher and felt that a writer was of that mindset, the last thing I’d do if offer a book deal.

If it is becoming more and more common, that’s not automatically a good thing. A friend of mine recently self-published her novel. She maintained “full control” of her work, and paid thousands, including a $500 editing fee that basically gave her a spell-check: her manuscript, which was replete with grammatical errors going in, is still replete with the same errors after the “professional edit.” She would have to sell more copies than she’s likely to sell just to break even with what she’s spent getting her book published. If she’d taken more time honing her skills and landing a “real” deal, she’d have been working with people committed enough to her work that they’d have paid her for the opportunity to get her work in readers’ hands.

I’m not saying all self-publishing is bad, but I think a good deal of it is. Getting “in” the traditional way is difficult, but often, I think, it’s worth the wait and the struggle. You’re much more apt to learn more as a writer working with people who take some of the control to help you shape a more salable end product, than you are to go it blindly alone, convinced that your way is the right way and hoping that your readers will agree.

I’m sure scam artists pretending to run on-the-level vanity presses are pushing that “keep full control of your work” mentality as hard as they’re pushing the old “traditional publishers are only out to make money for themselves” sell.

If you self-publish, you do keep control, and you are 100% committed to making your book a success because you have 100% of the financial stake in doing so. If you go with a traditional publisher, which means you’d have someone paying you for the work you’ve done, then you’d still have a financial stake (in terms of earning out your advance and making royalties plus the chance of a second book deal), but so would your agent and publisher, who likely know more about publishing and book promotion than a novice author does.

When I do that math, the answer seems pretty simple to me.


  1. There are self-published authors who have landed major book deals, including distribution deals for their self-published novels. These few big successes give people the idea anyone can do it. Of course, those books sold well enough to catch the eye of a traditional publisher and they were well written. MJ Rose is one such author as I recall and there are others who started that way.

  2. So sorry to hear of your friend being duped and ripped off in this way.

    The saddest part, Matt, is that my friend doesn’t understand that she’s been ripped off!

    Her writing is sub-par, so she isn’t able to grasp the sheer number of grammatical and usage errors in her manuscript herself. She paid for the edit and was convinced that the edit took care of all of those problems. Those who have tried to suggest otherwise don’t seem to be getting through to her because she still seems too mesmerized by the BOOK with her name on it that she’s holding onto so tightly.

  3. Interesting discussion here. I’m sure that self publishing has its place, however, that place is not to take the spot of a traditional publisher should you wish to see your book lining the shelves of larger chain stores. Got a book of family recipes you want to share with your million and one cousins – then self publish. Want to finally put your knowledge of uber-nerd super computer tricks in book form – then self publish. You need to really think about your market before making a move like this, and I agree with the others that time spent in receiving rejections is time spent in re-writing, honing and making your work better all around.

  4. A friend of mine recently self-published her novel. She maintained “full control” of her work, and paid thousands, including a $500 editing fee…

    So sorry to hear of your friend being duped and ripped off in this way. There are self-publishing solutions (Lulu.com) that don’t cost any money other than the author’s time to write and format and upload the book. Editing fees are the most blatant rip-off out there.

    The danger of self-publishing that’s not mentioned here is that copies of the self-published book may dilute an author’s already-small audience. If a traditional publisher comes along and wants the book, the author might have already put a poor foot forward (publishing an unedited book with terrible cover art), which could hinder later marketing efforts.

    However, traditional publishers are notorious for passing over quality for titles they believe will make them quick money. Talented authors can languish indefinitely seeking a traditional publisher and never find one. I’ve read two novels by a writer in this category. Both novels were excellent and had been rejected by numerous publishers and agents. I even took some time and edited and agented one of this writer’s titles to a few publishers hoping the “agent” aspect might impress. The publishers weren’t interested. So it goes.

    But one constant does exist — no writer should pay out hundreds (much less thousands) of dollars to someone promising to publisher their book. It’s always, always, always a rip off. Lulu.com publishes authors’ books at no cost and even offers reasonable discounts on copies an author buys of their own book. A former professor of mine published a bestselling novel in Canada in 1999 with the largest traditional publisher in the country. He received one complimentary copy of his novel from his publisher. Lulu.com keeps track of sales and royalties for authors. And there is no minimum order an author must buy of their book. Some places have a 10 or 25 or heaven help us, 100 copy minimum for their authors to order if they want copies of their own work for readings and marketing events. You can buy one copy at a time from Lulu.com if one so wishes.

    It took me more than a decade to arouse the interest of a traditional publisher. Much as I hated receiving all the intervening rejections, I have to say that I spent those years honing my craft. As each rejection came in, I cursed and tossed it in the garbage, but a few hours later I would look over my story and start seeing new ways in which to make it better. I don’t believe work should be rushed into print. Many big name authors do that, and I think it’s a disservice to their work and their audience. My audience is smaller than “modest,” and I wouldn’t dream of taking up their time with anything less than my best work.

  5. I’ve gotta agree with you on this one. The truth is that most any writer needs an editor anyway. You touch on the grammatical errors, but that’s just where an editor’s contributions begin. When I write with my wife, it’s not unlike having an editor already there. She’s willing to argue with me about why a character does certain things, to make sure they do things that make sense. So does that mean as co-authors we don’t need an editor? No, we still need one. I’ve no doubt about it. I believe in the quality of what we’ve written, but we’re too close to the work. We live, eat and breath it. An editor will not suffer this fault, and painful though an editor’s criticism will be, that harsh eye will more than likely make our final product something that sells (without us spending money to get it published).

  6. Self-publishing does not make an author more attractive to agents or editors. If mentioned in a cover letter, it can make an author less attractive. That’s the bottom line.

    As for the other stuff: anyone who pays to self-publish had better have a guaranteed market going in, or that person is just wasting money. There are outlets like CafePress, which allow one to put together attractive work for no upfront fee, and sell electronically. To all those budding authors out there who don’t feel like going through the hassle of submission and rejection, or for products that probably couldn’t sell in a broad market, anyway, go that route.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.