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Discussion about self publishing and e-publishing often centers on the writing and creation of the product, but marketing and distribution are the major stumbling blocks for writers opting to self publish.
When a traditional book publisher enters into a contract with a writer, the publishing house assumes responsibility for not only creating a quality product, but also for putting the book into the hands of the public. The traditional publisher takes on all the risk.
A designer creates the "look and feel" of the book, a publicist works with the author to create advertising copy, sales staff pre-sell books to booksellers across the country, reviews appear in major periodicals, and as a result of the publicist's efforts, the author receives invitations to do public readings, attend festivals, and give interviews.
The book publisher has an entire staff that gets behind the book and the author in an effort to make the title a success. Self publishing books requires an author to manage all this on his or her own, so any discussion about self publishing should include a detailed plan.
With the onset of Print on Demand (POD) publishing and e-publishing, some services normally handled by traditional publishers—editing, design, cover art, registration, etc.— can now be had for a fee. However, distribution of the book is still a major problem, even for e-books. Fictionwise, one the larger e-book distributors, will still not accept self published books, for example.
POD publishers may guarantee placement in X number of bookstores, both bricks and mortar and online, but this means little. Any publisher can negotiate for space in a local bookstore, or create online bookstores to fulfill this promise, but a few placements do little for the author, who will sell few books from such limited exposure.
National distributors generally represent publishers, not individuals, so distribution of a self published book will require more time and effort than most writers anticipate. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to get the book into independent and national chain stores without a distributor.
Even the small traditional presses sometimes have difficulty getting a bookstore to carry their books, and individuals thinking about self publishing face even fewer opportunities. Canadian author Jim Munroe managed to get distribution through Insomniac Press, but he had previously established a name when he published with HarperCollins.
The reality is that it will take more work to sell your book, whether a hard copy or an e-book, than it took to write it. Some writers place their book in local stores on consignment and then load up a van and spend months crossing the country talking to booksellers.
Even if the author is personable and the book is well written and appealing, copies can be difficult to sell because booksellers manage their inventory carefully. Large publishing houses accept returns, so those books are less of a gamble for the bookstore.
An author thinking about self publishing might consider providing a similar return policy, to improve his or her chance of placing the book.
A good marketing strategy will also help. If an author can demonstrate a solid plan to raise awareness of the book by hiring a publicist, through public appearances, advertisements, readings, etc., it may be possible to inspire confidence and alleviate some of the bookseller's concerns.
Online promotion is somewhat easier, as some promotional venues, such as BookMovement.com in the U.S., accept self published authors, and offer an opportunity for self published authors to be seen alongside more established authors.
Finally, if one chooses to self publish, and has a good marketing strategy in place, buying books in bulk may provide an advantage over a POD service. If the author is truly self publishing books—that is the books are designed, printed in quantity, and hauled away in boxes—the production cost will be significantly less per book, and those savings can be passed along to the bookstore or used to promote the book.
A nonfiction title has a better chance of self publishing success, as it can be sold through workshops and speaking engagements based on its content, but fiction needs widespread distribution to sell. It needs booksellers willing to hand-sell it, and it needs good reviews and advertising. A publishing company is in a better position than I am to provide all three.
Just thinking about self publishing makes me tired. I find it difficult enough to write and help market my books. If I had to also bear the responsibility for distributing them, I might stop writing altogether.
I can't imagine putting in the work required to sell even a thousand physical copies. It's just not something I enjoy.
Nevertheless, I am aware of success stories, and if self publishing books is an author's dream, who has the right to dissuade? My advice to that author is this: Educate yourself first.
Consider buying the Writers' Digest publication Complete Guide to Self Publishing: Everything You Need to Know to Write, Publish, Promote, and Sell Your Own Book Self-Publishing 4th Edition)
I've bought several books about self publishing, both ebooks and print copies, and this title was hands down the most useful.