NY Published Author Successfully Transitions to Self-Publishing: The Amazing Story of Cheryl Holt

After Writing 24 Books for New York Publishers, Cheryl Holt Adds 24 More by Self-publishing

This amazing, inspiring author success story needs to be shared throughout the indie publishing community.

I was very fortunate to interview Cheryl Holt, who had written 24 books for New York publishers and then successfully transitioned to self-publishing.

You can hear Cheryl’s story straight from her, and there is much that you can learn from her answers to my questions.

(1) What have you done to help market your self-published books? Was this a viable option when you were traditionally published?

When I wrote for the NY companies, I was “just” a paperback romance writer, so I got very little marketing assistance from my publishers. The biggest thing they did for me was to always buy me an ad in a romance trade magazine, Romantic Times, when I had a book released. Otherwise, I was pretty much on my own as far as handling any marketing. So from the very beginning, I had to devise my own marketing strategies, and I’ve continued to use those old tried-and-true ones as well as latching on to new ones that technology has made available.

I market my self-published books in exactly the same way that I marketed my books that were published by the NY companies. My biggest marketing tool, and the one I spend the most time on, is growing my mailing list. I started my mailing list with my very first release, and I constantly work on it. I have sign-up forms posted all over my web site, and I run contests several times a year, where I give away autographed print copies of my novels as the prize. The entrants’ email addresses are added to my mailing list. I work on the list constantly; I work on it everyday. The number one way to sell something (in any field) is through direct marketing to your dedicated customer base. So I keep track of my readers, and when I need to notify readers about a new release, that’s where I start. They’re loyal and voracious, and they’ve been very kind to me in sticking with me through all my career ups and downs. I’m always so grateful to them, and they’re the first to hear about everything that’s happening with me and my books.

There have been changes to my marketing that have come over the years. I have a Facebook fan page, and a Twitter account, but I don’t use them for personal postings. I simply post about my books, what’s coming, and what’s happening. I’ve always had a web page, ever since it became a “thing” that people could have (around 1999). I’m meticulous about keeping it updated. My readers like to know what’s coming next and when it’s coming, so I try to make it easy for them to log on and quickly see what’s happening. If you’d like to take a peek, the URL is www.cherylholt.com.

When I have a book coming, (in the month before the release date) I do a ton of promo to get myself noticed. I do blog tours at the big romance reader sites, I run contest giveaways, I do interviews, I buy banner ads, I buy spot ads, I do reader promotion at reader sites. I’ve even hosted Facebook parties with lots of guest authors and prize giveaways.

The main problem for self-published authors is that we’re being buried by a wave of content that’s swept over all of us. So it’s a hundred times harder to get noticed than it was ten years ago. There are so many books out there now, and even with my name recognition and dedicated fan base, it’s an enormous and exhausting challenge to get people to notice that I have a book coming.

For example, this was the first year since 2005 that I didn’t produce a book trailer for my new series. The web is so overloaded with video content that it’s just about impossible to justify the expense of creating a book trailer. Even with expanded distribution by a video company, any video is thrown into a sea of millions of other videos. So I’ve stopped doing them.

But otherwise, each and every year, I do more promo. It’s a constant battle to stay ahead of the game, and that hasn’t changed with self-publishing. I’m doing more and different types of promo, and I’m using more intense marketing than ever before.

(2) What advice would you offer new authors who are just learning the self-publishing ropes?

My biggest advice would be to read all about self-publishing and to learn as much as you can about it before you jump into it. And once you get going, keep reading and keep learning. The publishing industry—both on the NY end of it and in the self-publishing world—is changing so fast, and you have to keep up, or you’ll get crushed in the wave of what’s happening.

I heartily advise people to join a writer’s group (both a local one and a national one). At the local one, you can hang with other writers once a month and listen to how they’re working and adapting to this strange, new world we’re in. There are also big national groups you can join in various genres, such as Romance Writers of America or Sisters in Crime. You’ll get a monthly newsletter that contains articles about markets, trends, and changes.

If you can afford it, try to attend a big national writer’s conference. They’re always held once a year. Take all the classes and chat with other writers so you can absorb some of what they’ve figured out.

There are publishing companies, such as Writer’s Digest Books, that publish tons of “how to” books about writing, publishing, and book marketing, particularly e-book, self-published marketing. Start buying them and reading them.

Go out on the web and find some good blog sites (how about Chris McMullen’s blog?!) and other sites where authors provide guidance and advice. If you’re a tech dummy, as I am, find companies that can help you figure out how to format and publish on your own. I always use BookBaby to format and distribute my novels. I met them in the vendor’s room at a national writer’s conference, when I was first trying to figure out how I could start publishing my own books. I had no idea how to do that, and it seemed really complicated. I’m not much of a computer person, and all the processes seemed beyond my ability to figure out. At one on-line site, I was told to read their 85-page formatting manual before I tried to post anything! It was all so bewildering.

When I talked to the Book Baby book rep, he said, “We can do all that for you.” I about fainted. It had never occurred to me that there were companies out there that could provide exactly the sort of services I needed.

There are all kinds of companies now that help authors get their books published. When I first started writing novels, the web wasn’t a “thing” yet. I lived in a little town in rural Oregon, and I staggered around for years, trying to figure out how to start. It’s so much easier now to get information. Join a writer’s group! Attend regularly! Find several good blog sites, read them religiously, and absorb every bit of advice that’s offered! Read books about marketing and trends! Do some research and find companies that can help you. Read, read, read. Learn, learn, learn.

That’s always the best advice. Learn—and get smarter and better.

(3) When you made the switch from writing for NY publishers to self-publishing, what changes (if any) did you make to your writing?

I started writing manuscripts in the late 1990s, and my first books were published in 2000. For a decade, I wrote for various NY publishers, and I was a genre paperback writer. When I started out, paperbacks were really long. I’m dating myself, but do you remember books like SHOGUN? They were massive in length. So my first novels were really long, but “book length” was a factor that changed significantly in the decade that I wrote for those NY companies. And that’s precipitated the biggest changes to my current writing.

Book length is measured by word count, and my early novels were around 110,000 words. But starting about 2004, the price of paper shot up dramatically, so the NY publishers responded by shortening the length of books that they published. This caused a significant abbreviation of the size of novels, but it also caused authors to adopt major stylistic changes in our writing as we had to be able to tell much more story in a much shorter span of pages. Authors had to cut descriptive prose and tell the story using more dialogue. This brought us fast, fleet stories that were much easier (quicker) to read, but for many readers, they’ve gotten much less satisfying.

My early paperbacks were around 110,000 words, and when I finished writing for those NY companies a decade later, my books had to be between 80,000 and 85,000 words. That’s a considerable drop in book length, which brought about significant changes stylistically, so my early NY-published books are very different from the later ones.

I liked writing longer novels, and my biggest NY sales came in the beginning of my career when books were much longer and I was able to write long, emotional stories. I’m great at using emotion and drama, and I feel like I’m better at a longer length—and that my readers enjoy a deeper, more satisfying emotional story. So I’ve gone back to writing long books. With my self-publishing of e-books, I don’t have to worry about the price of paper or of page length. I’m typically writing books that are 120,000 words now, and my readers seem to really enjoy the longer length. I’m able to give them a “bigger”, more involved story with more in-depth characters and interesting plots.

My longest books, the ones I’ve published on my own, have been my biggest sellers in my career.

Cheryl Holt’s Story: The Transition from NY Publishers to Self-publishing

BookBaby author Cheryl Holt made a name for herself, as well as a respectable living, writing historical romance novels, first for a dedicated paperback publisher, then for several big mass market publishers. Her books did well, though Holt often had to come to terms with market forces beyond her control, that didn’t light her creative fire.

Holt had started writing as a young mother in her 40s. At home with small children, she wanted something to do, something that earned some money. She landed on novel writing. “I was clueless about how the money worked, or how the business worked,” she admits. Inspired by stars like John Grisham, she drew on her legal training to craft her first books. Her forays into suspense didn’t pan out, so she decided to look elsewhere.

“The romance companies back then used to find their new talent among moms who were at home and writing to earn a bit of extra money. They were essentially paperback mills who ran romance book clubs. They bought straight from the writer. ‘I’ll sell these romances,’ I told myself, ‘then I’ll go back.’”

Her seventh manuscript, a Regency-era romance, finally sold. Holt didn’t go back, but dug in, writing and editing steamy tales in the car, at soccer practices and swim lessons, whenever she had a few spare moments. She discovered something she never suspected: She could write really, really good love stories.

At the time, romances ran longer and readers devoured elaborate storylines. “When I was starting and reading, historical romances were just massive,” Holt recalls. “They had wild love stories, when the heroine was, say, taken to harem after being kidnapped by pirates. I’m not a particularly romantic person, but I got hooked on them. Romance readers have certain things they love, but I didn’t know what they were. I had no preconceived notions. Readers loved that.”

Holt’s unconventional takes on the genre led to her selling book after book to publishers. One of her early books sold out nationwide due to a hot cover that connected with fans, and soon she built herself a sizeable following. As tastes changed, Holt learned the hard way to adapt. By 2000, erotic romance was the rage, and Holt wrote what publishers asked for. But her readers longed for the sweeping romantic tales that had launched her career.

“Books were getting shorter, more erotic,” Holt says. “It was leaning toward pornographic really fast. I wasn’t into that. My sales were starting to fall. My hardcore fans kept asking why everything was vampires and erotica, instead of real love stories.”

Then 2008 hit, the economic downturn that kicked the legs out from under many mass publishers. Holt had a deal in place, but her publisher faced a daunting reality: the overwhelming majority of bookstores closed as the economy faltered, stores where her publishers had banked on selling Holt’s work. “They wrote me off as a loss,” she sighs.

Holt found herself unemployed, with a family and a mortgage in Los Angeles, one of many workers in their 50s looking for a job, any job. She was so discouraged, she thought she’d never bother with writing again, though writing had been her profession for years. “The recession cut a swath through the ranks of paperback writers,” she says. “I took it personally. The universe was telling me to go get a real job, but there were no jobs.”

Time passed, however, and Holt noticed that fans were still out there, hoping for new reads from their favorite authors. Kindle came onto the scene, and Holt began to reconsider. “I asked myself if I should start over. I was good. I was popular, but the companies didn’t really care. We writers were a dime a dozen in their eyes. There was no chance to go back that way.”

Self-publishing beckoned. The project management and production side of things still seemed daunting, however. Then, at a romance conference, she ran into some people from BookBaby, who helped her see how simple publishing her work independently could be.

After writing 24 novels for publishers, Holt has put out 24 of her own, letting her own interests and fan response determine when and how she publishes her work. An example: She gave her readers all three books in a trilogy at once, where a traditional publisher would have doled the books out over several years.

Like love, an independent career is not as easy as it seems at first. It takes work. Holt still struggles to find the right supporting team, and income isn’t what it once was during paperback publishing’s heyday. But Holt is glad she’s still able to write and reach readers, now on her own terms. “It’s a blessing to be on my own. My best sellers are ones that the publishers rejected,” she laughs. “My Lord Trent trilogy, for example, have been best-selling books of all.”

You can find out more about BookBaby and their recent Independent Authors Conference.

More about Novelist Cheryl Holt

CHERYL HOLT is a New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon “Top 100” bestselling author who has published forty-eight novels.

She’s also a lawyer and mom, and at age forty, with two babies at home, she started a new career as a commercial fiction writer. She’d hoped to be a suspense novelist, but couldn’t sell any of her manuscripts, so she ended up taking a detour into romance where she was stunned to discover that she has a knack for writing some of the world’s greatest love stories.

Her books have been released to wide acclaim, and she has won or been nominated for many national awards. She is considered to be one of the masters of the romance genre. For many years, she was hailed as “The Queen of Erotic Romance”, and she’s also revered as “The International Queen of Villains.” She is particularly proud to have been named “Best Storyteller of the Year” by the trade magazine Romantic Times BOOK Reviews.

She lives and writes in Hollywood, California, and she loves to hear from fans.

Visit her website at www.cherylholt.com.

Follower her on Facebook.

Check out her latest series:

Forever Yours by Cheryl Holt

Write happy, be happy. 🙂

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2017

Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing
  • 4-in-1 Boxed set includes both volumes and more
  • Kindle Formatting Magic (coming soon)

Click here to view my Goodreads author page.

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Self-Publishing Book Update

Click the image to view the book on Amazon.

Introduction

In this article, I will discuss how to update a book on Amazon through both Kindle and CreateSpace.

Since I have just done this with one of my own books, I will use that to provide a concrete example.

Here are some of the concerns that I had when I did this:

  • Should I create a new edition or upload new files into the old edition?
  • Will it be worth the effort of making revisions?
  • For how much time will the paperback be unavailable once file revisions begin?
  • How will the revised edition impact customers who own the old editions?

I will share my experience with these questions, but first I wish to illustrate some marketing points with the Look Inside.

Look Inside

The cover, blurb, and Look Inside of these books illustrate some important marketing features (although the sales rank of the paperback has slipped from not being available for a while during file review).

Here are links to the books, in case you may wish to check them out:

Paperback: http://amzn.com/1442183012

Kindle: http://amzn.com/B002A9K630

The new cover was designed by artist Melissa Stevens at www.theillustratedauthor.net. For comparison, you can view the old cover (which I made myself) here:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13068105-how-to-self-publish-a-book-on-amazon-com

Let’s begin with the cover.

  • I feel that the new cover looks more professional and has more pop. The old cover may have more effectively conveyed the content, but I wasn’t happy with the look. Changing designs like this hurts branding efforts, but I feel that the potential of the new cover outweighs this risk.
  • The title is more visible in the thumbnail. This is a very important marketing point for books that sell through visibility on Amazon.
  • Check out the gold starburst in the top right corner (hidden by the Look Inside triangle, yet will be a nice surprise for those who click to Look Inside). Sometimes, a subtle feature can make a big impact.
  • A single image is more memorable. It’s tempting to fill up the entire cover with designs (I’m guilty of doing this with some covers), but simple designs can be more effective with branding.
  • Maybe the Kindle cover is a little narrow. I went with Amazon’s recommended 1:1.6 aspect ratio to try it out; I usually go with something wider. I like the way this ratio fits in the Fire, but the cover is automatically skipped anyway when purchased. I’ll probably go with a wider ratio with my future Kindle covers.

Next, I’ll comment on the blurb:

  • Shorter blurbs are often more effective. For one, the longer a blurb runs, the harder it becomes to maintain the shopper’s interest. You want to grab that interest quickly and encourage a peek inside.
  • Nonfiction blurbs can be longer than fiction blurbs, but need to be divided into paragraphs or use bullets. I added blank lines and boldface through CreateSpace using basic HTML, and did the same at Author Central (where HTML is optional) for the Kindle edition. It’s better to do this at CreateSpace for the paperback (then preview it immediately in your eStore in case there are mistakes) than at Author Central if you have the Expanded Distribution (since other retailers, like Barnes & Noble, may use your HTML).
  • An update stands out at the top. The “brief description” paragraph makes it look like a short blurb, especially since the only other text you see without clicking “Show more” is about the author. My goal is for the customer to peek inside. But for those who want to learn more first, they can click “Show more.” The list in the long description might format better as bullets (one thing I’ll consider changing).

The Kindle edition’s Look Inside has some noteworthy features:

  • In my opinion, the best features are subtle. Subtleties can make the Look Inside seem professional or amateurish, and can put the shopper in a good mood or bad.
  • Note how the first page of each chapter is properly non-indented. Even when there is no indent on the Word file and no indent on the actual Kindle file, there are often indents in the Look Inside. The way around this in Word is to properly create a Style for non-indented paragraphs (also apply this to lines from the copyright page) with First Line set to 0.01″, then edit the HTML in Notepad to change the 0.01″ indent to zero. It’s important to have consistent indents and proper non-indents.
  • I set the indents to 2 em’s, not a value in inches. Go into the HTML and change the value in inches to a value in em’s. An em refers to the size of the letter M, which will vary with the device’s screen, font style, and font size. Using a value in em’s instead of inches helps the indents look good on any device, including the Look Inside.
  • There is a formatting issue with drop caps in Kindle devices. A common alternative is to put the first few words in ALL CAPS.
  • I like that colorful bookshelf (drawn by Melissa Stevens, who also designed the cover). I think it adds a little pop on devices that support color. There is a danger in using too many images in the Kindle edition. Shorter images tend to be better. A main concern is not distracting the reader from the text or detracting from the story. It’s ideal to use a light decorative touch that adds appeal. It’s not easy, as there are many potential pitfalls (image quality, fitting the content well, interrupting the flow, creating orphans, etc.).
  • The cube is repeated. When you buy the book, you don’t see the cover, you just see the cube first. But in the Look Inside, you see both. That repeated cube is another thing I’ll consider changing.
  • There are a few subtle features that I may improve, but overall I’m pleased with these Look Insides.

The paperback Look Inside is somewhat different:

  • The paperback features drop caps, grayscale decorative touches, headers, page numbers, and a slightly fancier chapter heading style.
  • Note that there are no headers or page numbers on most of the front matter (until the second page of the introduction), the odd-page header has the title while the even-page header has the chapter name, and the introduction has Roman numeral page numbers while the body has Arabic numbers. It’s a little “fun” to achieve this in Word, but it’s worth doing. The “secret” is to insert Next Page section breaks (instead of page breaks) where you want the header or footer style to change and place your cursor in the header or footer area and uncheck Link to Previous to make the Same as Previous flag disappear.
  • When the paperback Look Inside first updated, it was showing 100% of the book. Bursting bananas, Monkeyman! That’s why you should always check your Look Inside. CreateSpace was very quick to respond to my inquiry and the problem was quickly remedied.

Republishing

Let me address the questions that I raised in the introduction.

Should you create a new edition or upload new files into the old edition?

I chose to upload revised files, but this may not necessarily be the best decision for you:

  • My original edition had 41 reviews and a healthy sales rank. I wanted to keep these, not start from scratch.
  • If your book has only a few reviews, including a bad one, you might prefer a new edition.
  • If your book has a history of slow sales and you’re hoping for better, a new edition offers hope. It’s easier to maintain a good sales rank than it is to overcome a history of slow sales.
  • A new edition gives you added visibility through the new release filters (i.e. Last 30 Days and Last 90 Days).
  • It is possible to have a new edition linked to an old edition (kind of like how the paperback and Kindle editions can be linked). This consolidates reviews, but doesn’t transfer sales rank from the old edition. Note that if the revisions are significant, recently Author Central has been reluctant to link the different editions. (Doesn’t make sense to me…)

Will it be worth the effort of making revisions?

The risk is that you can spend much time making revisions, and may even invest money on editing or cover design, but might not see any improvement in sales.

In my case, the book had been selling frequently enough to warrant the effort of an extensive revision and the cost of cover design. Here are some points to consider:

  • If you’re strongly committed to having multiple titles out and a professional author platform some years from now, even if it’s a slow going in the first couple of years, then any improvements you can make now might have a significant impact on your distant future even if you don’t see any short-term benefits.
  • More feedback from your target audience about your current edition and your potential revisions can help you decide if the changes may be worth making.
  • Even if the revisions don’t improve sales, if they make you feel better about your book that may be enough to make it worth doing.
  • If the changes are relatively minor and you’re content with sales now, you might consider the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. You can always make the changes in the future. This depends on how minor the changes are.

For how much time will the paperback be unavailable once file revisions begin?

When you upload new files at CreateSpace, your book won’t be available until you click Approve Proof. This can take as little as 12 hours or so, if you view the Digital Proof carefully and okay the changes. But it can take much longer, especially if you order a printed proof. The printed proof is more reliable, while the Digital Proof is quicker. Watch out for chain reactions: You can add a word on page 2 and it can cause crazy changes to the layout and formatting of pages that follow. It’s worth viewing every page.

You can get caught by surprise: You might get some unexpected error (like not making any changes to the cover, but seeing the cover changed or getting an error message about the cover) that takes days to resolve.

Your sales rank will rise while your paperback book is unavailable. I’ve had books with sales ranks that had held steady between 10,000 and 50,000 for months, which rose up to the 100,000’s after uploading revised files, for which the sales rank didn’t return to normal for a couple of weeks. This particular book was in the 40,000’s prior to revising the paperback files, and is presently at 200,000.

Kindle e-books are different: Your old edition remains available for sale until the new edition takes over.

For either edition, it can take a few days for the Look Inside to fully update. Occasionally, this is quicker (this time, the Kindle updated within a day), and sometimes it takes longer.

How will the revised edition impact customers who own the old editions?

With Kindle, if you upload revised files instead of creating a new edition, it’s possible for customers to obtain the new edition at no cost, and it may also be possible to notify your customers of the changes:

  • Login to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), click the Contact Us button (in the bottom left corner of most pages), choose Publish Your Book, and select Making Corrections. Copy and paste the ASIN from your product page into the form, then type a message in the space below.
  • In your message, describe the changes that you made very specifically.
  • Wait up to 30 days for KDP to investigate the changes.

There are three possible outcomes:

  • KDP determines that the revisions are minor. Customers won’t be notified, but can receive the updated edition, depending on their settings under Manage Your Kindle.
  • KDP determines that the revisions are major. Customers will be notified that an updated edition exists. They must use Manage Your Kindle to get the update.
  • KDP determines that the revisions are critical. KDP will remove the book from sale until you correct the issue. Once the issue is resolved, customers will be notified of the update.

For paperbacks, previous customers will simply have to buy a new edition in order to get it (well, I guess they can sell the old one used, which means a new customer receives the outdated edition…).

Even worse, shortly after the transition, it’s possible for a customer to receive the old edition when buying the new edition directly from Amazon. One possibility is that Amazon may have copies of your old edition in stock, e.g. through returns. Another possibility is using a third party printer to fulfill an order, for whom it may be several weeks before the update occurs.

You should order a copy of your book from Amazon.com to see how it looks. Rarely, there is a problem with the files at CreateSpace that causes the old edition to continue to print, or strangely a hybrid book that seems to be a combination of the two editions (this is very rare, but it’s worth checking just in case you win the “lottery” here).

Promotional Sale

The Kindle edition of my updated book will be on a Countdown Deal for 99 cents from March 21 thru March 28, 2014 in the USA. (If you live in the UK, you’ll have to wait a month or so. Sorry, but the UK price had been below the minimum, and the rules require waiting a month after making the UK price eligible for a Countdown Deal.)

Amazon.com paperback customers can always get the Kindle edition for 99 cents through MatchBook.

If you have the old Kindle edition, just wait patiently. I put in a request for KDP to make the updated edition available and to notify customers. It may take up to a month for the updated edition to become available through your Manage Your Kindle settings at Amazon. (KDP may or may not notify you of the update. We’ll see…)

If you have the old paperback edition and wish you had the new one, I’m sorry. If you’d really like the new edition, try using the Contact Me feature here on my blog.

My newest self-publishing books are called A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Volumes 1 and 2 (see below for links to these). How to Self-Publish a Book on Amazon.com is my original self-publishing guide from 2009: It has been significantly expanded and updated, but my Detailed Guide is more thorough (especially, if you have both volumes, as the second volume includes many subtle formatting tips and a huge chapter on marketing).

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Follow me at WordPress, find my author page on Facebook, or connect with me through Twitter.

Should You Self-Publish?

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For most authors, the decision of whether to self-publish or search for a traditional publisher is a tough one. I wrestled with this decision (it fought like a crocodile) in the years leading up to 2008. Even after self-publishing multiple books in 2008 (I had one completely written and the material for several others already well-prepared), I continued to wrestle the crocodile for another seven months. Then sales of two of my books erupted and later the next summer I launched a series that became popular enough that I no longer questioned my decision.

That’s what you hope for, when you’re wondering which route to take. You’re hoping that a day will come when you no longer look back over your shoulder, wondering about the other road (that road you didn’t take is such a clichéd road, it really isn’t worth any anguish).

Not an Easy Way Out

Self-publishing isn’t the easy way out. It might seem that way at first:

You don’t have to find a publisher or an agent, you don’t need to write query letters, you don’t need to put a book proposal together, you don’t need to buy Writer’s Market, you don’t need to meet the right people, you don’t need to write sample chapters for a book that might never get published, you don’t need to make marketing commitments, and you don’t need to wait years hoping to get lucky.

You also won’t have to deal with a pile of rejection letters:

Self-publishing is a sure thing, baby! (Well, at least as far as getting published is concerned; whether or not you’ll sell a copy to anyone other than your grandma, that’s another question.)

But self-publishing is still a lot of work. You’re the writer (so you still need to learn the craft), you’re the editor (which means a great deal more work once the book is written), you’re the formatter (which means learning a new art and how to use the software to pull it off), you’re the illustrator (can you draw, too?), you are your own marketing department (put Executive on your name badge), and you are your only public relations specialist (if you fail at this job, you can kill all your hard work faster than your favorite speedy cliché).

That’s a lot of work for someone who just wants to write. It might just be easier to find an agent or publisher after all.

And you don’t really escape the pain of rejection… because anybody can post a critical review right in plain sight where the whole world can see it (stock up on thread to mend your bleeding heart).

You’re not Really Alone

It really isn’t self-publishing. It’s indie publishing.

You only do it all yourself if you choose to do so:

  • There is an abundance of free information available to help authors learn writing skills, editing skills, cover design skills, marketing skills, and publishing skills.
  • The CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing community forums have many knowledgeable participants to help out if you have a question.
  • You have the option of joining a writing group or organizing a focus group from within your target audience to help provide valuable feedback.
  • You can recruit extra pairs of eyes to help you proofread.
  • Services are available for editing, formatting, or cover design if you need to hire help. You may find affordable service at high quality if you do your homework well.
  • What you lack in financial resources you can make up for in time (it’s money, right?). You can choose to take your time to get it right.
  • You can find support from others, such as this wonderful WordPress community.

Changing Tides

It wasn’t long ago that self-publishing equated to hundreds of books piled in an author’s garage (though somehow I still have hundreds in my home office…).

For most authors, it was either traditional publishing, vanity publishing, or no publishing (and too often, the latter was the case).

Print-on-demand services like CreateSpace and e-readers like Kindle have revolutionized the publishing industry. Now anyone can  publish (and, believe it or not, there are even some authors who have their dogs publish, so if you hear this expression, there is a little truth to it—a photo book about dogs, surely; why shouldn’t it be written by, narrated by, and published by the dog?).

And hundreds of thousands of indie authors are publishing.

Self-publishing was ripe when it first came out. Many readers weren’t aware of the new concept in the early years. There were fewer authors and books, too. E-readers were new and quite appealing. The market was growing rapidly.

Then word started to spread about books with editing, formatting, and content problems. Many customers discovered these problems firsthand. Some review abuse from authors didn’t help the image (fortunately, Amazon has made great strides toward limiting this in the past couple of years). There were also some people (perhaps the extremists we will not label as authors) who had heard of amazing success stories, who were hoping to make a quick fortune with little effort (you can easily spot them because they have deep scars where they continue to scratch their heads).

Yet the number of indie authors and indie books continued to grow, and support for them grew with it. Take tens of thousands of authors, add their families, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, and you can see that there is ample support for the concept of self-publishing. Many indie authors read indie books; many more people who know indie authors read indie books (and not just by authors they know). It’s not uncommon to search Amazon for “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform” to try to find a good self-published book to read.

Amazon and traditional publishers both did indie authors some huge favors. Amazon’s role is obvious: Thank Amazon for the beautiful red carpet. Every big traditional publisher must yearn badly for a time machine. How has indie authorship come to take so much of the current market share? Would the publishers change their e-book pricing strategies if they could dial the calendar back several years? Would they focus more of their efforts on the advantages of digital books? Would they try to get to market faster? Would they encourage their authors to utilize more marketing strategies that top indies have come to thrive on? You might sooner solve the Tootsie Roll riddle…

Traditional publishers have responded to the effects of print-on-demand and e-books. But they also have the disadvantages of being big business: especially, s.l.o.w. response time. Things continue to change, though. They are looking ahead, they have a great deal of publishing experience, and they have many resources. They haven’t disappeared; they just haven’t dominated the market like they once did. Definitely, don’t count them out.

Several bookstores, especially chains, might wish they could turn back the clock, too. So many indie books selling each year. Some bookstores have taken advantage of this opportunity; some have avoided it at all cost. It may have been silly for them to blindly stock several copies of every indie book. But there were some good opportunities to get some of this traffic.

The image of indie publishing seems to be rebounding. Customers have realized that they can filter out what’s good to read by careful study of the product page and Look Inside. Excellent content is good to read regardless of how it is published. Some indie books have exceptional covers, wonderful editing and formatting, and great stories, too. Indie authors have the freedom to provide content that traditional publishers would never have published in the past. An indie author can choose to write to a smaller audience; that smaller audience may appreciate this. Many indie authors provide personal experiences with their marketing, which helps to attract new readers. The best indie books are competing with the best traditionally published books.

Successful indie authors are opening doors for everyone else. Some are even turning down lucrative offers from traditional publishers (check out this article, recently referred to from the CreateSpace community forum). If you do sign with a traditional publisher, you risk having your digital or other rights tied up for a very long time (if you can get a little success, by that point in time you might do much better than the advance offered up front).

Success Still Isn’t Easy

Amazon and other companies are giving indie authors the opportunity to publish. But everyone won’t be striking gold. You might not even strike dirt.

There are millions of books available for sale. Only the top 200,000 or so sold one copy in the past day. Most books don’t even sell a copy per day, on average.

You put so much time into writing, editing, formatting, cover design, and marketing (what you don’t do yourself, you still put time and money into arranging). You invest months, perhaps years of hard work, and you may also invest good money along with it. But sales aren’t guaranteed.

Sales are still hard to come by.

Traditional publishers and agents do have benefits to offer (you might also wonder if they are receiving fewer submission: are your chances better now?). They may be able to help with editing and formatting. They might help a little in the way of marketing, like getting your foot in the door for television or radio interviews, hooking you up with an effective publicist, sending out advance review copies, and listing your title in their catalogs. You’ll probably still be expected to market. You might receive an advance, though it may be $5,000 or less, not the big number you’ve always dreamed about. You have better prospects for getting your book stocked in a chain bookstore (then you get to learn the reality of returnability and big discounts).

No matter how you publish, the key to success is hard work combined with marketable content.

In the end, to the customer it’s the quality of the book that you’ve produced that really matters, not how you got it published.

Option Three

It isn’t indie publishing versus traditional publishing. Both have merit, not just to authors, but to readers, too.

Some authors are choosing both.

Traditional publishers can only produce books so quickly. Some authors write books faster than they can be published. Other authors write a few books that interest big publishers, but several other books that may not. One way to publish all their books is to traditionally publish some and self-publish the rest (sometimes, with a pseudonym). More and more traditional authors are exploring self-publishing.

On the other side, many authors are starting out with self-publishing, hoping to attract traditional publishers.

This can work two ways. If you self-publish a book that scarcely sells, it will be hard to convince a publisher to take up your book. But if you grow a large following and gain frequent sales and many reviews, a publisher may be interested in publishing a subsequent book (or even republishing the same book). They’ll want to be impressed with your success and your marketing platform, and it won’t be easy, but the potential is there.

Yet if you can build a large following and earn frequent sales on your own, why would you want to sign a contract with a publisher, tie up your rights, and take a big cut in royalties (even though a large sum up front would be enticing)? If you can be self-made, why give that up? It’s easy to fantasize about receiving a lucrative offer and turning it down, but if you wind up wearing these shoes, it might not turn out to be so easy. It would sure be a nice problem to have, though, wouldn’t it?

Other authors wonder if the grass may be greener on the other side. Some authors try self-publishing, then try to find an agent or publisher when that doesn’t pan out. Some authors land a contract with a traditional publisher, but don’t make what they were expecting, and switch to self-publishing.

Conclusions

There are a lot of opinions out there on whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is better.

Personally, I think it’s the wrong question to ask.

What’s better for you may not be the same as what’s better for someone else. Other people’s lists of advantages and disadvantages can help you collect ideas for your own list, but your list of pros and cons will be unique.

I believe both options can be good, and so is “option three” (i.e. both).

Nothing beats the feeling of holding your book in your hands, knowing that you gave it your best, believing it to be done professionally. That’s what you should strive for. Whether you do this yourself, with help as an indie author, or via a traditional publisher or agent, the end result is still the same—you shared your passion with readers.

Publishing Resources

I started this blog to provide free help with writing, publishing, and marketing. You can find many free articles on publishing and marketing by clicking one of the following links:

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

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