So you want to self-publish your own book: are you crazy? Two writers discuss the pros and cons

With many mainstream publishers downsizing and disestablishing and generally being kind of dismal places to work, fewer New Zealand books are being published. A solution: self-publishing. Two writers – Sarah Wilson of Nelson, and Auckland novelist Kirsten McKenzie, who released her novel 15 Postcards last year – discuss some of the pros and cons.

Sarah Wilson

I lay back in the leather chair and tried not to squirm. Cheeks stuffed with cotton swabs, rad plastic sunglasses in place, fingers squeezed into fists – and the dental surgeon leaning over me goes, “So what do you do?”

A small trail of drool oozed down my chin, and I said something that sounded like, “Igh a i-er.”

“Oh, I’m a writer too,” she beamed, inserting her tiny silver hook of death into my gum.

“My novel’s with an editor at the moment,” she continued. “I’m self-publishing.”

It shouldn’t surprise me. With the internet providing easy and inexpensive access to almost everything you need to create and distribute books, it seems like every dentist and their dog is keen to have a crack. All those people who claim to “have a book inside them” no longer have an excuse not to write it.

But that doesn’t guarantee anyone’s going to want to read it.

For readers, searching the flooded market of erotic novels, self-titled autobiographies and self-help manifestos can be like looking for a diamond in the dirt.

Not all self-published work is bad. There are many reasons an author might choose this route. They may not have approached a traditional publisher, and even if they were rejected, it may mean little about the quality of the work. We’ve all heard the stories of how many times authors like JK Rowling and Stephen King got rejected before they made their break.

Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman said that there’s plenty of good writers about, but less publishing opportunities, partly because of the economy and the internet.

“The cost of doing it yourself is much lower than it used to be, and people have a lot more knowledge and options available to them. More writers understand the process and don’t want to make any compromises.

“On the other hand, even the most experienced writers need editors. You can buy editing services, but what’s harder to get is the dispassionate, independent quality assurance a publisher provides.”

My dentist approached two publishers with her novel, which she’s been working on since 2011.

“One never got back to me. The other asked for the rest of the manuscript, but wanted $3500 to publish the book. So I went my own way.”

After she’s finished removing her murder implements from my mouth, I asked what her plans were with her novel.

“Get it out on Amazon, I guess,” she said. “I looked at Smashwords and stuff, but I got a bit overwhelmed.”

Smashwords is one of several platforms that helps authors through the self-publishing process, and distributes their material. They take commission, but also offer extensive templates, tutorials and tips for creating books, as well as access to all the major online stores.

Sarah Wilson and her cat, Carina

Sarah Wilson and her cat, Carina

I explored it myself, several months ago when I was 50,000 words into a novel. I’m still 50,000 words into a novel and I’ve probably spent more time creating Spotify playlists for my characters than actually writing them.

Self-publishing has other drawbacks. Without an external deadline, authors can get caught in an endless editing loop. It’s common to feel like your work is never quite finished; never quite good enough. (Which in turn can lead to distraction techniques like making roadtrip mixtapes for your protagonist).

The dentist paid for the services of an editor. “Now,” she said, “my main concern is marketing.”

This is by far the thing I found most difficult in my limited self-publishing experience, which includes a tiny poetry chapbook and I guess my website, if blogging can be considered a form of self-publication. Without access to a publisher’s network, how do you get your baby noticed?

I’m no good at shouting, which is necessary if you’re going to carve a space for yourself in all the noise. When I promote my own work, I feel both arrogant and needy – even though I don’t see other authors that way. And how do I know when to stop? At what point have people gotten sick of me whipping out my poems at dinner parties (I don’t do this), or harping on about them on Twitter (I do way too much of this)?

Ultimately, the relationship between author and reader is one of intimacy and trust. A traditional publisher can help facilitate that by crafting authenticity and reassuring the reader they’re in good hands. But social media means authors can build relationships with readers in ways that was never before possible. So maybe the stamp of authenticity doesn’t have to come from just one place.

Authors are taking the power back, and the world of publishing has been democratised – but it’s still readers who make the final choice.

It is easier now

It is easier now

Kirsten McKenzie

Should authors give away their work for free as eBooks?

There are thousands of blog posts on the subject. Q&As on Goodreads and Facebook, and on every other site purporting to help authors with their marketing. Long streams about the pros and cons of giving your books away for free on LinkedIn. Even Google+ has its share of posts relating to giving away eBooks on Amazon, and on the hundreds of other sites out there.

Each post talks up the benefits of giving away eBooks as a method of getting your name out there, of attracting a following, for marketing purposes, to generate reviews, to be the next Andy Weir. But does it work? Or are there millions of free unread eBooks mouldering away on Kindles, discarded and forgotten?

An Amazon search brings up 93,488 eBooks currently available for free. A plethora of erotic novellas, Game of Thrones-esque length fantasy books, fan-fiction, and self-help books feature heavily. The result of those 93,488 free eBooks? Readers expect more books to be free, and balk at paying less than the price of an average coffee for your average book.

There was a post recently detailing the circumstances where a reader, who’d enjoyed the eBooks they’d purchased on Amazon, had returned them, because, although they’d enjoyed them, they only wanted free books, and asked the author to list their books for free from here on in. They didn’t want to have to pay for them

Many people would be surprised to know you can return eBooks, or that such a facility exists on Amazon. Have you ever tried returning a book you’ve read to a bricks and mortar bookstore, and asking for your money back? There wouldn’t be many instances where they’d refund you after you’d read and returned a book you’d purchased. So why does Amazon allow it? The internet is littered with petitions asking Amazon to fix this, but nothing ever changes.

Kirsten McKenzie in her workspace

Kirsten McKenzie in her workspace

A book can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to write. Then, traditionally, authors have to find an agent, a publisher, followed by editing, cover design, marketing. Even self-published books need editing, formatting, a cover. It all takes time, and money.

I haven’t listed my book on Amazon for free. The eBook remains at the same price it was when it launched – $2.34. That’s about the price of half a cup of coffee but it’s still something. I put too much work into it to give it away for free. My book is in libraries. It’s in bookstores. I’ve done readings. I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, and yes, even Google+. I work hard, and damn it, I want to reap the rewards of that, in the form of quarterly and annual royalties from my publisher. You don’t get royalties from free eBooks.

In all the posts about the pros and cons of giving your work away for free, an overwhelming number of authors point out that giving their work away for free has not resulted in reviews, or increased exposure, or a stratospheric rise up the Amazon Best Selling Lists.

So my advice is: don’t do it. Put the effort in and do some old-fashioned leg-work. Make personal approaches to well-regarded book reviewers. Take a table at a local fair and talk to your potential audience. Approach your library.

Keep writing. Value the work you do. Because if you don’t value it, no one else will either.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.