To publish or self-publish

The choice you make may come down to your psychology. You may feel the need to be in print the day before yesterday. Why might that be? You may be young and used to things happening quickly, or old and persuaded that there may not be so many tomorrows you can afford to pick wildflowers along the way and lie on the river bank under a tree with grass in your ear.

In either case, you might succumb to negative thoughts. You might try to get an agent and ply your wares from one to the next. After two years you will have succeeded or given up. But even if you have succeeded your agent, after another two years, may not have been able to place your work with a publisher.  And now four years have gone and you cannot get them back. So this option is not for you. You have just ruled out traditional publishing. At this point you could give up and be happy instead, you could self-publish or you could become a publisher.


Self-publication is not without its pitfalls, especially if your eye is caught by the promises of a vanity press. But once you have done it, then you must market your work, which will entail – whether you like it or not – marketing yourself. Not everyone is good at this and it requires intelligently directed effort. You will hope to be selling online to a potentially world-wide audience – though it is as well to bear in mind that several other people will be doing exactly the same.

But what if you want to see your title in bookshops. (Does your book really exist if it’s only visible online?) In fact, you can self-publish and sell your book in bookstores. It is possible, but only on a limited scale. You approach your local bookstore with a copy of Archangel of Fire (#1 in the Sword of Destiny series), tell them what you would like to do and they will either say yes or no. If they say ‘yes’ you will agree terms, provide the store with copies and hand them an invoice reflecting those terms. Should they find stocks running low they will ask you for more copies and will certainly look more favourably upon Forged in Fear (#2 in the Sword of Destiny series).

I have done this myself (minus archangels and swords).

Bookshop 2

With chains the situation is little different. In my experience, the manager of each store has the discretion to take your book or not. If you live in a city with five branches of Better Books, you cannot approach head office and do a deal covering all five, you will need to approach each store individually. So getting your book into stores is a time-consuming business, and that is just to speak of the area in which you live. Shall we now move on to the nation as a whole? I don’t think so, somehow. Are you really going to spend the next two years trudging from one town to the next with a suitcase full of books? If you want potential country-wide coverage you have to be published rather than self-published and one way to achieve that is to set yourself up as a publisher.

Becoming a publisher

To achieve this you pay for ISBN numbers (unless you live in Iceland, where they will be free) and set to work preparing your first book, publishing it to critical acclaim, and having the great joy of seeing it in bookstores.

In theory, at least. But how is it in practice? (Remember, we decided to become a publisher to achieve this end.) A member of the public walks in to Bargain  Books looking for your title. (She knew of it from your website). To her disappointment it isn’t in stock, she can’t believe it but, never fear, because it has been published by a genuine publisher it is registered with Nielsen Bookdata, carried by a wholesale distributor such as Gardner’s, and so shows up on the store’s computer where it can easily be ordered.

So, yes, becoming a publisher can be done, though it isn’t advisable without first figuring out the angles. If you haven’t been involved in publishing before there is a lot to learn. With each title you have to deal with the interior text (by no means as easy as it sounds to make this error free) and the cover. And times being as they are you will wish to convert your physical book into one or more e-book formats. You will also have to keep accounts and, if you aren’t in the system already, be obliged to submit annual tax returns.

If you succeed in all that, you have done well. But if your main interest is writing you may find that you have no time left to do it and even less energy. And whether you self-publish or turn yourself into a publisher (I was thinking of becoming the Hart Head) you will still have to handle marketing whether you like it or not.


6 thoughts on “To publish or self-publish

  1. Self publishing through your own company can be exhausting and daunting ~ you have not added distribution issues ans cost ~ percentage discount required. Instead my idea is to set up more a local cooperative sharing talent and the work load. There is a third way enjoyed by a few ~ self publish – be successful – be snapped up by a traditional publisher.

  2. You’re right, I haven’t mentioned the costs of publishing. Another thing I didn’t mention was the need to have a professional interior text. Even in books from large companies I sometimes find errors, and a self-published author cannot approach a bookstore with a book full of layout and other errors and expect them to take it.

    I like your idea of a local cooperative sharing the talent and the workload. I also admire the way you have gone about becoming an author and your way with social media – very much more effective than mine.

    As for the third way you mention, we can all live in hope!

  3. Yes, yes and yes. As Threadgold Press I have done all these things and it is indeed arduous (I much prefer writing). The killer cost for me, with my last print publication, was postage which, calculated very finely at publication, rose fast during the first year after. So copies delivered from the printer and then posted on to Gardener’s or Bertram’s Book attracted high postal costs and bookshop discounts – wiping out all profit. However, books hand-delivered to the local farm shop (yes, really) made a handsome profit. One more note, every page counts in the printing costs, so you have a balancing act between mean-sized margins/font/line separation and cost per copy. We must be mad.

  4. The best of luck as I am not there yet but know I may have to make the same decision one day. I have great respect for anyone who believes in their writing enough to go as far as become their own publisher.

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