On self-publishing. Again.

Even a lot of brave men dare not wade into this subject, so I guess that just makes me a fool for doing it.  But the topic of self-publishing flared up in the comments section for my last blog entry, and I still have things to say about it.  I know the brickbats are going to come flying, as they always do when it comes to this subject.  Still, here goes.  Aspiring writers can either accept my wisdom, or they can cover their eyes and stop reading right here and now.  And please, save the nasty emails. 

First, a few preliminary comments:

1.  If you have to pay to see your novel in print, then it’s self-published.  End of definition.

2. My remarks below are restricted to NOVELS.  I do agree that there’s sometimes a legitimate role for self-publishing if you’ve written a non-fiction or advice book.

Whenever this subject gets addressed on any traditionally published author’s blog, the self-published novelists come storming in with their charges that the “system” is rigged against them, that everyone wants to see them fail because they’re bravely beating at the doors of traditional publishing.  And they’re partly right.  The system is rigged against them.  Reviewers won’t review their books.  Authors will seldom blurb their books. Worst of all, most bookstores won’t sell their books.  You’ll probably never see your self-published novel in Barnes and Noble or Borders because those chain stores will stock only returnable books.  If the copies don’t sell, B&N wants to be able to return them to the publisher for credit.  If they can’t get credit back, they won’t stock the book.  Self-published books, for the most part, don’t come with guaranteed returnability.  So for the bookstores, it’s a simple business decision, and it has nothing to do with suppressing free speech or being nasty to self-published novelists.

So yes, I agree that the system isn’t your friend if you’re self-published.  But the system isn’t particularly friendly to traditionally published authors either.  Most books don’t get reviewed.  Many books, even from major publishers, aren’t carried in chain bookstores.  There’s limited shelf space and we’re all competing for it, so don’t assume that just because you get a book deal from Random House or Simon & Schuster that you’re going to be in every bookstore in America.  But at least you’ll have a fighting chance, and that’s the best a new author can hope for.

Self-published authors don’t get that fighting chance.  Most of them can’t even get their books in the door.  They have signed up for a lesson in frustration and of course they feel rejected and angry, so they want to blame the “system”.  They should really be blaming those self-publishing companies who prey on their hopes and dreams, companies that lure them in with promises of fame and success and then take their money.

But are these authors angry at the self-publishing companies who’ve victimized them?  No.  Instead, they’re angry at whoever points out the truth.

Years ago, whenever I’d visit my mom in California, I noticed that her house was filling up with magazines she never read and vitamins she never took and various products that she never even unpacked from their boxes.  When I asked her about them, she’d turn evasive and say she might need them someday.  Then one day I picked up her mail and was shocked by the deluge of sweepstakes entries.  “Win $100,000!  Enter today!”  They all promised her a chance at a big jackpot, if only she’d enter their contests.  And it might help her chances to win if she subscribed to their magazine or ordered their useless product.  So over the years, my mom had been spending thousands of dollars every year to enter those contests.  Soon every scam company in the world knew my mom was a sucker, and the contest mailings poured into her mailbox in ever greater numbers.  She kept entering.  She kept sending money — I have no idea how much she eventually was cheated out of, but it had to be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

I told her she was being conned, that she had to stop sending those thieves any more money.  I told her the chances of her actually winning anything was infinitesimal, and she’d be better off investing that cash.  Do you think she was grateful for my advice?  Hell no, she was pissed at me.  She told me I was trying to stop her from winning her dream jackpot. I was trying to destroy her hopes of getting rich.  She didn’t want to hear my advice, and I couldn’t convince her to stop sending in those checks.  In every other way, she was perfectly competent to manage her affairs, so there was nothing I could do except watch, helplessly, as my mom spent a fortune so that she could become rich.

It wasn’t until years later, after I’d sent her news article after news article about elder scams, that she finally came to agree that I was right.  Now she no longer enters sweepstakes contests.  But because of her dreams of easy riches, she frittered away a lot of money.  Instead, if she’d been patient and saved that money and taken the time to understand how to invest it, she’d now have as much as those contests promised her.  But that was too much trouble.  That took too much planning, too much effort.  She wanted to do it the easy way, and she got burned for it.

And when I tried to save her from herself, she directed her anger at me. 

The point of this story is that the bearers of truth seldom get any credit.  And those who could benefit from the truth are seldom grateful. 

Yes, the system is rigged against the self-published. So why would you choose to seek out the precise path that will throw up the most obstacles your way?

Here’s my advice.  If your novel doesn’t sell the traditional way, maybe there’s a good reason, a reason you just can’t see because you’re too close to the project.  You need to let it go and move on to another story. Write another book.  And another one. If you’re really a writer, you’ll do that anyway, because you can’t help yourself from telling stories.  Don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a short cut to publication.  There really isn’t.  Sometimes it takes years, sometimes decades.  Sometimes it never happens at all.

A traditional publishing contract is what the industry understands and values.  You can earn success the hard way, by writing a publishable book and walking in the front door.  Or you can do it the even harder way, by trying to pry your way in through the back door. 

The difference is all in how you’ll be greeted.

20 replies
  1. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    LOL! The analogy between your Mom buying magazines to win sweepstakes contests with self-published authors was a hoot, Tess, and probably for the most part true. Some of us know what we did is not real publishing, and we don’t blame the real publishing world, or the self-publishing sites who helped us with our private vanity projects. First Books, which later was bought out by AuthorHouse, never promised me anything, except what they delivered, a finished novel with my name on the book. They did a great job. My writing inside may be another matter entirely. 🙂 I sell my novels in the little comic and used book hobby shop I own and operate when I get done with my day job. It’s a kick, and I even developed a small loyal following. Admittedly, it could be they’re loyal because while I may be a hack writer, I’m a really good mechanic, and they’re afraid to say anything for fear I won’t fix their vehicles anymore. 🙂 I wanted to point out not all of us self-published authors are in denial, nor are all of us ready to unload on innocent published authors. I’ve learned more about publishing over the past year since discovering published writers’ blogs than ever before. Thanks to you all. Us self-publishing authors still go the traditional way with our new stuff. We just have less patience. 🙂

  2. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue Tess as I feel its something that very few people look into without getting angry at people who either criticise or even mention about the way that the companies function.

    The fact that it plays on people’s insecurities for me makes this a “scam” and as such is something that needs to be addressed. As youve said, if you keep trying you’ll make it eventually and even learn a lot by your failures. You often hear how often authors were knocked on the head by publishers and the best feeling in the world (or so Im told) is when that one little golden letter lands that says “Yes, we would like to print your work.”

    Might I also suggest a post on the work that goes on after the novel is accepted by a publisher IE Self publicity etc, getting yourself known and even how to get yourself noticed.

    Once again congrats on tackling this issue very bravely tess,


  3. Craig
    Craig says:

    Once again I’m going off topic. The Bone Garden made it into my bookstore sometime this past week and is now prominently displayed Top Shelf under “New Arrivals”. You may recall that you sent a generous number of Bone Garden bookmarks to me earlier in the month. I received permission to leave a complimentary bookmark in each copy and more at the register. This brings up a question. Some of the folks on this blog got their copies a week or so ago; my bookstore got their copies this week. How much does the delay affect chart position on the NY Times.?

  4. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    I should think that the sense of satisfaction in having your book published the hard way-(not self published)would be a more fulfilling feeling overall then having a book published and your the only one who knows that YOU paid for it.

    Me? I don’t think I could look myself in the mirror.
    IN fact I just got a couple of short stories accepted online and I’m STILL walking an inch or two over the sidewalk.

  5. Felicia Donovan
    Felicia Donovan says:

    Most published authors have a pile of manuscripts that never saw publication. Is it a loss to set something you labored over for a year or more aside because it never received an offer? Absolutely not. It’s called practice.

    A craftsman doesn’t build a fine home the first time out. They learn about foundation, structure, framing, etc. They learn how to build the staircase one step at a time. The same holds true for the author. Getting published is as much about perseverance and tenacity as it is about talent and timeliness.

    On a personal note, Tess, the trouble with my mother (not that my mother is any trouble at all) is that she DOES win – cars, $, you name it. Luck be a lady and it happens to be my sweetheart Mom. If only it ran in the family…

  6. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I considered going the self-published route at one point, but then I decided that I had more faith in my work and myself to be able to. It would feel so crappy to say “Trafford” when someone asked me who published my book!

    Even self-publishing “success stories” like Christopher Paolini, you have to realize that they didn’t publish the book they bought. They ended up going through and deleting some 150 PAGES from the book, as well as a lot of revision. It wasn’t really his writing that caught Knopf’s attention, but the story. Had it been the same writing and a different, more common storyline, would he have been picked up by a traditional publisher? Who knows, but probably not.

    One of the things that really annoys me about the self-publishing industry is the way they continuously slap you in the face. Pick up any kind of magazine even remotely dealing with people who want to get published, and their ads are plastered throughout, from pretty much the second page in, to the back cover. It’s insane.

    Plus, doesn’t self-publishing hurt you in the long run anyway? I heard that if you try to sell a book already self-published to a traditional publisher, they actually look at its sales record? If you sell too few, they don’t think there’s a market for the book… and if you sell too MANY, then the market is saturated with your book and might not sell well again. Two barrels, one trigger. Ouch.

    Just have more faith in your work and yourself, and hopefully you’ll make the same decision that I did to STAY AWAY…

  7. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    Slighty off topic, Tess, but next time you see your mom, give her a great big hug for me, please. I still miss mine like crazy! (She gave me the first book of yours that I’d ever read.)

  8. Tess
    Tess says:

    it’s a shame BONE GARDEN didn’t arrive at different stores on the same day. It was supposed to go on sale on Tuesday, and yes, this will affect its chances on the bestseller list. Yet another thing an author can’t control.

  9. bob k
    bob k says:


    I was in a bookstore last night that didn’t yet have The Bone Garden. I was surprised, to say the least.

  10. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    All the details, delays, release dates, and angst after a real publisher and author achieve a finished product is a truly daunting aspect of writing I never realized.

  11. Allison Brennan
    Allison Brennan says:

    FWIW, I sold my fifth completed manuscript. The first four were practice. At the time I finished them, I thought each of them were “perfect” and started querying agents. Needless to say, I quickly learned how imperfect they were 🙂 However, each one was better than the last–I learned through the process. Most authors don’t sell their first book, and I knew that, which is oddly comforting.

  12. HHChen
    HHChen says:


    I have been reading your blog for a month now. I want to thank you for all the things I’ve learned from you.

    I am a full time computer programmer and recently I completed a YA novel. I have studied how to write query letters and compiled an agent list… etc. I haven’t sent any query letter out yet. At the same time, I also read a lot about self-publishing. I’m so happy that you talk about this subject today because just yesterday, I wrote a couple paragraphs on my blog on the same subject.

    Is it possible that what you said about self-publishing only applied to those who write full time? In other words, under the circumstance that writing is my passion, not my career (not now. I, too, selected a career path that my parents liked me to. I like it enough to stay) doesn’t self-publish make more sense (at least for now, since my job is quite demanding)?

    I value your advice. I hope you will answer my question.


    Helen Chen

  13. Tess
    Tess says:

    yours is JUST the attitude that describes a real writer. Never give up, always keep learning — and eventually you win. (And in your case, even hit the NYT bestseller lists!)

    almost all published writers started off as part-time writers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re otherwise employed, the struggle remains the same. It takes time to achieve success in this business, and a self-published novel is no indicator of success, only an indicator that you’ve opened your checkbook. So my comments on self-published novels are the same, regardless of one’s employment status.

  14. Rose-Marie
    Rose-Marie says:

    Hi Tess — Yesterday there were no copies of THE BONE GARDEN in my local Barnes and Noble in Shreveport, Louisiana, that I saw. Certainly there were none on the front table. I didn’t realize it was already supposed to be out so I didn’t ask for it. I’ll ask when I’m out and about tomorrow.

    I have a funny feeling that THE BONE GARDEN is going to be your most successful novel to date, and that in addition it has “Hollywood” written all over it. 🙂

  15. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    Even the self-publishing companies that have returnable books have return policies that bear no resemblance to a traditional publisher’s return policy. The policy ends up costing the bookstores money. The bookstores know this, but the duped authors go in and insist that their books are returnable so the store should sell them.

    I’ve poked around the forums for some self-publishing companies and the level of denial and heavy-handed moderation is frightening.

    I hope you reach people before they spend any money.

  16. Paula Villegas
    Paula Villegas says:

    I appreciate the rigorous process involved in publishing. With huge amount of writers
    and internet reviews, I trust the industry and public to validly evaluate what they want to read. The insight that fantasy is clung onto at the expense of reality is so true. As a psychologist, I have to deal with the delicate process of telling people what they really want to know (or they wouldn’t be paying me to tell them) but really don’t want to know because a denied truth may unsettle their personal fantasy about themselves, the world, whatever. Seeing yourself as a victim of the publishing system will only keep you from taking a long hard realistic look at your work, business strategies, and overall personal approach to the relationship between creativity and success. I try to get as much information as possible from people I respect who are straight shooters. If I don’t achieve my preferred goal then at least I tried and learned a lot in the process that I use for other interests.

  17. therese
    therese says:

    Thanks Tess for posting this information.

    Helen, I also agree with Tess. I’ve been a part-time writer with a demanding job and family for many years. I’ve submitted novels for publication that are now archived. LOL! Friends have encouraged me to self publish or e-pub and I have researched these options as well as heard wonderful stories of marginal success.

    As my writing life is changing from a hobby to a public forum, I’m very glad I have nothing out there to be held up in comparrison to a finished product with an editor and a solid publisher investing in my work.

    Writing is a journey, enjoy it!

  18. Sigmagirl
    Sigmagirl says:

    Tess, we met last night at your Cleveland-area signing — I was the woman with the cobweb-covered book.
    I write the book review column for a daily newspaper, and we do review self-published books. Some of them are good. Most of them are crap. I have talked to very fine authors who have gone through years of heartbreak trying to attract an agent and get their books sold, only to give in and go the self-publishing route. The results have been memorable fiction that should have been picked up by major houses. Some authors have been treated well by the more reputable self-publishing outfits; some have been cheated and misled. I shall name no names.

    Some books are utter dreck, but even worse for me are those that show a glimmer of talent that’s been stamped out by the author’s refusal to go the extra mile for editing services. Some authors are willing to pay to publish their work, but are so confident in their abilities that they can’t concieve of shelling out for copy editing, let alone having a professional evaluate the text for pacing, character development, etc. Say what you will about the value or lack of prestige of self-publishing companies, but it’s been my experience that the editing services they offer are worth the money. So many people write the book and consider it done . . . but it’s only half done. The spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors I see are unbelievable. And you bet I point them out. If these people want to be considered professional authors, they need to behave like professional authors. Don’t let your family and friends look it over and tell you it’s really good.

  19. leahorr
    leahorr says:

    Tess, I am a self published author through AuthorHouse and I have to say I have had great success. My first 2 books have sold over 5,000 copies combined, I can be found in bookstores, and the books sell very well on amazon and barnes and noble. I don’t think I was lucky…I worked hard for my tv spots abc/nbc/cbs, and went to countless book signings. My cost was minimal, Authorhouse staff were professionals, and I was able to raise nearly $50,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation since the profits from the books go toward finding a cure. If I had gone with Random house, which was an option, they were going to give me about 50 cents per book. I think I made the right choice. My next book Messy Tessy to be released in the fall is going to go through Authorhouse as well. They are a reputable company for anyone who feels they would like to self publish. My other titles are Kyle’s First Crush, Kyle’s First Playdate. My story is real. You can see it on abc’s healthwatch

    Leah Orr

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