Monday, August 10, 2009
Can self-publishing damage your career?
“More than a few writers are turning to POD publishing after their agent cannot sell their book, or after they can't get an agent to rep their book. When they go to sell the next book, will this POD or self publishing work against them if they end up selling only a few thousand books? Is it better to do an ebook or think of another way to get their material before their readers that doesn't generate an ISBN number?”
--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California.
Understandably, authors worry that self-publishing their book with a print on demand (POD) service could end up hurting them in the long run. They worry that an assigned ISBN could track their book’s sales, and that if sales are weak, a future publisher will reject future books based on their track record.
But there is nothing to fear. Publishers are sophisticated enough to differentiate whether an author’s prior books sold poorly as a result of being published in a POD format or as a result of being published by a major publisher. If an author’s books were published by a major publisher and sold poorly, then yes, this would be a major problem for a future acquiring editor. But if the poor sales were the result of a POD edition, then all is forgiven, and the author is treated as if he had never been published at all. And if the sales were strong, the POD edition can become an asset.
This has been my experience as a literary agent. I also discussed this question with an editor at a major publishing house, and he concurred.
This topic also begs the broader question: whether to self-publish at all. Keep in mind that the majority of authors who self-publish will find that just because they “published” their book and perhaps even built a website, it doesn’t necessarily mean the masses have shown up to buy it, or that they’ve been able to draw review attention. I would guess that most self-published books sell but a few dozen copies to family and friends, and sadly, never lead to a book deal.
If you want to self-publish merely for personal satisfaction, or to share your book with family and friends, then by all means, do it. But if you are embarking on this path solely for commercial reasons—as a way to land a book deal with a major publisher—then I would say only do it if you realize that 1) the chances of this happening are remote; and 2) you are going to have to put a huge amount of time and effort into bringing traffic, attention and publicity to your book online. If you have 100,000 followers of Twitter, or a video with 500,000 views on youtube, or an e-zine with 100,000 subscribers, then you may be a good candidate for self-publishing. If you can manage to sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies on your own, if you can manage to land one or two major reviews in established venues, you may be able to defy the odds and land an agent or publisher. Online, it’s all about what you bring to the table and how hard you are willing to work. Which is, in fact, good training for being published by a major publisher. Successful traditionally-published books also have in common authors who bring their own resources to the table, and who push their own books relentlessly over extended periods of time.
Ultimately, the same factors that affect a traditionally-published book’s success will also affect the success of a self-published book: does your book have a unique concept? Does it have competition? Is there a large market for the genre? Do you have the means to reach out effectively to the market that needs to know about it? How strong are your writing skills, and how well-written is your book?
If you have something important to say and say it well, your book will eventually find its audience. If not, technology can never replace quality.