My Final Comments on Self-Pub

First of all, I want to reiterate that I absolutely love all the conversation yesterday’s post inspired. This is why I blog – to have an interactive experience, and to be able to engage with the writing and publishing community. It’s invaluable to hear all your perspectives, regardless of whether I agree or disagree (or feel defensive or even hurt, sometimes).

There are a couple of things I want to stress about self-publishing and all of its various permutations (independent publishing, vanity publishing, subsidy publishing, e-book, POD, whatever). After all of the conversation, I still have two major pieces of advice for writers when it comes to this topic, the same things I’ve always said to writers.

1) Understand that self-publishing is usually an alternative to traditional, royalty-paying commercial publishing, not a stepping stone to it. I wrote an entire post about it HERE. For this reason, I caution writers to be wary of publishers’ hints that publishing with their self-pub division might lead to a royalty contract down the road. Sure, it might. But that’s not the main purpose of self-publishing. For most self-pubbed authors, a royalty contract is not the result. So make your decision about self-publishing without regard to the “carrot” dangled in front of you, the royalty contract.

2) The most important consideration when entering into a self-publishing arrangement (whether through WestBow or Harlequin or any other company) is to avoid deluding yourself about your ability to sell your book and recoup your costs. Significant distribution is not normally part of a self-pub deal. So who is going to buy your book? Make sure you have an audience.

Non-fiction books on specific topics that have a built-in audience or subculture are much easier to sell than fiction. Either way, do you have a platform? It could be a website or blog frequently visited by your fans; it could be a speaking career where you’ll sell books back-of-the-room. Whatever it is, be realistic when projecting how many books you’ll sell. (Obviously if money is no object to you, then this advice is irrelevant.)

In the past, I’ve written a few posts on self-publishing, and if you read them HERE, you’ll see I’m not against it. I’ve simply acknowledged that as a literary agent, it’s not a business I’ve been involved in. But as the industry changes, that may change too.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

*Comments have been closed.*

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Anonymous on November 23, 2009 at 1:07 AM

    >"pup it on the intertubes" ?!

  2. Anonymous on November 23, 2009 at 1:06 AM

    >"I feel that is an under-handed way to go."

    So many newbs, so. little. time.

    I'll say it again: it's not about "getting published." It's about selling books!

    So why is self-publishing an "underhanded" way to go IF you can move units that way?!

    Being traditionally published is "underhanded" if you don't sell!

    I'd rather do whatever it takes to sell massive quantities of books–who cares how it happens?! Traditional, self, both simultaneously, who cares! Get the word out, bring on the benjie$!

    It actually doesn't make much differnce these days how it's published–as long as it's ISBNed on AMazon and B& for sale, yuj pcan pup it on the intertubes. Ultimately it's word of mouth that sells a book, anyway. DOn't matter how it got there.


  3. M. J. Macie on November 22, 2009 at 2:36 PM

    >Thank you for your honesty. I appreciate it.
    M.J. Macie

  4. J. R. McLemore on November 22, 2009 at 11:00 AM


    Thank you for your insights and opinions about self-publishing. As a yet-unpublished-writer, I've been on the fence of self-publishing. I considered going the self-publishing route earlier in my writing career, but stayed the course of traditional publishing after reading some unflattering things about vanity presses.

    I've come to the decision that I want to get my book published through traditional means because of the merit of my work, not because I can front the money. I feel that is an under-handed way to go. However, I agree with self-publishing under the circumstances that you mentioned, non-fiction, when the authors already have an audience and sell their books at speaking engagements, etc.

    I, too, am worried about the traditional publishing houses following suit to chase the almighty buck. That scares me as a reader and as a writer. When I eventually get published, I would hate to be looked down upon because the industry has changed in such a way that anyone can get published and good literature has been lost in the transition. I hope to be an accomplished writer one day and the stigma of being in the class of pulp writers and self-published novelists worries me.

  5. Peter Taylor on November 22, 2009 at 5:23 AM

    >Thank you for all you insights nd discussions!

    As Coordinator of Australia's Queensland Chapter of SCBWI, I am most concerned about 'inferior' books being given to children – and I have seen many self-published and vanity published books that I would not want children thinking that their content was somthing to aspire to in their own creativity.

    I similarly worry about books initially intended for shared reading being transcribed to iphones apps and given to children to keep them entertained.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that traditional publication has safeguards that do a wonderful job – but I don't believe that vanity or self-publishing are in themselves 'bad'.

    Both well serve artistic people who delight in producing a book that's entirely their own – layout, type font, artwork and more – as you say, providing they don't expect automatic sales. The book will be judged and found wanting or entusiastilly acclaimed.

    My first two books were traditionally published by international publishers – and written for adults. When I wanted to talk in schools about writing for children, without a book for 'show and tell', how could I claim to have any credentials? How long does it take for a picture book to be released after text acceptance – should a contract eventuate? So in 2004 I vanity published a full colour picture book. At that time, this was the only way to self-publish a full colour book at reasonable cost and have it available for worldwide purchase. It sells in the Queensland State Art Gallery – so can't be too bad. It's done its job and I don't think it has done me any harm, but has not made much money – but that was never the aim.

    'Powerful people' have appreciated its quality. I think it has actually been good in building my reputation as an author. I have since co-authored a traditionally published children's book that sells worldwide and another book is contracted and due for relaease next year. (Better get to work on the changes the editor has suggested – the gatekeeper has been working overtime!)

    Best wishes,

    Peter Taylor

    PS I still haven't told my agent about the vanity published book.

  6. Anonymous on November 22, 2009 at 12:20 AM

    >You're welcome!

  7. ~Ellie Kings~ on November 21, 2009 at 11:35 PM

    >Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. It's one that had crossed my mind before. You've clarified it well.

  8. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 9:02 PM

    >I sold a novel to a small press directly without an agent for an advance and standard royalty paying agreement. Distribution to some physical stores, competitive mass market paperback price.

    Having been paid a real advance gives me the confidence to spend a lot of time promoting. Don't know if I cold muster that up (not to mention justify all that time to my family) if I were paying to do it.

    I am not going to let go, though I tell you that. I have finally broken through and I'm going to do everything within my power to move massive amounts of units, by any and all possible methods.

  9. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 8:57 PM

    >I agree that self-pubbing can can work for those who have the drive and time to be able to promote their books (not to mention who wrote a commercially viable book). The traditional pubs haven't done the greatest job of selling their own books in the last few years.

    As a writer, I think it's best to remain open-minded toward any opportunity, "traditional" or otherwise, that will enable you to sell books to a readership. That's what it's about; it's not about "getting published" any certain way, it's about making money selling books and getting your stories to the masses.

  10. james on November 21, 2009 at 8:49 PM

    >I was trying to put this in perspective and here is what I cam up with.
    1. It costs me approx $2000 per year to renew my securities and mortgage broker license with no guarantees I'll sell enough to cover that.

    2. If a new golfer wants to play on the PGA he has to pay $5500 to go to Q school, with no gaurantee he will qualify.

    Realizing its not all about money, but what these self pub companies are doing is allowing some to get in the business and have a shot.

  11. Joylene Nowell Butler on November 21, 2009 at 5:27 PM

    >sorry, on 2nd glance my 2 posts sound a lot like self-promotion. I was actually trying to make a point.

  12. Joylene Nowell Butler on November 21, 2009 at 5:21 PM

    >Forgot to mention that I'm doing a guest blog for J. Kaye's blog about self-publishing. When I queried Theytus I included J. Kaye's review of my novel Dead Witness. J. Kaye is trying to encourage more reviewers to review self-published novels, and hopes my article might help.

  13. Joylene Nowell Butler on November 21, 2009 at 5:19 PM

    >I published by accident (it's a long story) and made no money, but didn't expect to either. What surprised and pleased me was the response to my suspense thriller. It wasn't until it was published that I realized I actually did write a good book. And for that reason I landed a contract with Save-On Bookstores, and signed with a reputable distributor: Sandhill, who in return introduced me to Theytus Books, who bought the rights to my 2nd book Broken But Not Dead, due in 2011.

    Life is an adventure: good and bad.

    Thanks for sharing all this excellent information, Rachelle.

  14. writer jim on November 21, 2009 at 4:45 PM


    Thank you for asking me to read your blog posts. I have. I appreciate your efforts very much; I truly believe you are doing right for God by helping writers, and being honest with them.

    I think we all often may not ascertain the true motives/hearts of each other…and make the mistake of thinking our ASSUMPTIONS are correct and judge one another thereby. I think that's the case in much of the GOD TOLD ME controversy.
    I do understand, and agree with, your disgust with people trying to USE OUR WONDERFUL GOD'S NAME in wrong ways. I also see how writers that truly love and honor God, and feel led to write; want to tell that to an agent. I'm not an agent, but I think I would just try to be patient in that regard. However, I know it's hard to be patient when reading 18 million queries. Thanks again

  15. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    >I work in the media. Rachelle is too kind.

    At work we receive many self-published works to review.

    And, we sit around reading them out loud to one another for a good laugh.

    One of the best chucklers we read regularly in manuscript form was found recently on the shelf of a B&N.

    That was depressing to us pro writers.

    Anyway, I can't fathom what the agents must see regularly.

    On the other hand…

    Although they are making a living, I can't imagine the so-called gatekeepers in Christian publishing wallowing in pride over the quality of books they publish.

    Memoirs, end-times and prairies – oh my.

  16. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 3:10 PM

    >It is very interesting for me to read the blog. Thank you for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.

  17. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 2:16 PM


    I agree with you about people invoking God for self-serving ends. It really bothers me that people would try to get a publising contract in this way. It also bothers me when politicians do this.

  18. james on November 21, 2009 at 2:15 PM

    >It is blogs like this that allow us all to make better, more informed decisions about the path we choose to follow. I am very grateful to Rachelle and all the others that take the time to host and participate.

  19. T. Anne on November 21, 2009 at 2:08 PM

    >Thank you for letting your readers know point blank you do not think self publishing is a stepping stone towards traditional publishing. I believe that's the biggest myth, not that there aren't a hand full of instances that people lean on to support that theory. Writers spend so much time on their craft, laboring on their paper child. We sometimes forget all too easily the end goal is not to see our work in print. It's to have it read and appreciated by a large audience.

  20. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on November 21, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    >Hello, Rachelle.

    I have one thought about the future of agents that has been implied in yesterday's comments, but not stated explicitly.

    Many agents will develop reader-following reputations that some publishers have had in the past.

    I base this statement on my personal experience over the past year. That's when I began following your blog. Since that time, I have read three books written by authors your represent. Each one has been stimulating and a stretch – two of the three were not in a genre I normally read. At this point, I am likely to buy any book your represent based on the quality of the work from the writers who have you for their agent. I trust you to choose books I would like to read.

    Having said that,I propose the following hypothetical situation: if you had a writer with a manuscript that you are passionate about, but couldn't sell to a publisher, I would likely buy it, even if the book were published outside the traditional route.

    Do you see where I am going with this? The name Rachelle Gardner will become a powerful and dependable marketing instrument used by readers who have learned to trust your judgement.

    That scenario is already happening on a small scale(of at least one person – me!).

    Be blessed,


  21. Sophie Playle on November 21, 2009 at 1:43 PM

    >Interesting post, and interesting comments. I'm going to have a quick look at the Flogging the Quill blog post in a moment. Sounds like interesting reading, too.

    I'm not convinced that the control that the author has over their book when self publishing outweighs the benefits of going with a publisher.

    The way I see it, if I have a choice between two books, one is self-published and one is published by Vintage or Penguin, I will always choose the book published by the publisher I recognise, because I trust their judgement on writing. Anyone can self-publish and it is a lot harder for a reader to activly pick out the best of those. With a publisher, you *know* you're getting the best quality control possible.

    In my opinion.

  22. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 1:00 PM

    >At the end of the day, it comes down to reader word of mouth. If a book is really captivating, people will tell others about it and news of it will spread. The first step is making it widely available as possible.

    Then letting people know about it. The bigger the reach the better, because you want to get a large group a chance to spread the buzz. But if it sucks, they won't pass the word. So the self-published book aren't much of a threat to the established system. In fact, it may take some of the pressure off by unclogging the agent channels a bit, since now writers who just want to see what they've written in book form with an ISBN available for sale can do that.

  23. Anonymous on November 21, 2009 at 12:56 PM

    >The reason writers who can't place their work with an advance-paying, royalty-offering publisher will always self-pub from now on is because they've taken all this time to create a book, and now with Amazon and B&N online, and the social nets to be able to promote online to a large potential audience, they figure, "What the heck–I'll just throw it up on Amazon and see what happens. maybe it'll even sell well!" Meanwhile, I'll write another book. So we're gonna see a lot of this kind of thing going forward.

    Of course, just making it available on Amazon means almost nothing–witness the thousands of traditionalyl published books languishing in the >1,000,000 sales rank within weeks or months of publication.

    Now we're gonna see a flood of books in the >5,000,000 sales rank range, the self-pub.

    You need to be under 100,000 sales rank on Amazon for a sustained period to make $. If you can do that self-pubbing, then you should do it. But you won't be able to. That's the thing!

  24. Rachelle on November 21, 2009 at 12:54 PM

    >WriterJim: I do hope you'll read my blog posts in which I've shared my thoughts on "God told me." I strenuously object to people using the name of God irreverently, that is, to serve their own ends, and I addressed it in my posts.

  25. writer jim on November 21, 2009 at 12:53 PM

    >Sorry, I meant to also mention that today's post from Rachelle shows she is interested in protecting and helping writers with good FACTS and warnings. That is great. I bet lots of agents are trying to figure out how to walk the fence to grab $ from writers who are misled into some wrong types of so-called self-publishing.

  26. writer jim on November 21, 2009 at 12:43 PM

    >Although it is Saturday, I just posted my opinons concerning the GOD TOLD ME controversy on Friday's blog, because it fits there. I think it is a situation we should all take very seriously. Thanks

  27. Cam Snow on November 21, 2009 at 12:41 PM


    I have a question for you: Have any big name authors ever decided to self-publish a work as opposed to going through the traditional routes?

    If someone like a J. Grisham, S. Meyer, or D. Brown decided that they wanted to go it alone, do you think they could generate more just b/c of the higher returns?

  28. Derek on November 21, 2009 at 11:53 AM

    >The reader's point of view so often gets lost in these discussions. I'll say that self-publishing is a good thing because it makes books available that wouldn't otherwise be. I'm thinking of niche nonfiction here.

  29. Josin L. McQuein on November 21, 2009 at 11:42 AM

    >Self-publishing =/= vanity publishing. Not even close.

    Self-publishing: I own the ISBN. I own the rights to everything. After my start-up costs, I get 100% of the profits. The "publisher" listed is me, and if another entity wants to purchase my book, I can sell it without a hassle. I set my own cover price, so I can make it competitive. I control the quality of the materials used.

    Vanity publishing: I don't own the ISBN. My rights are under contract to someone else for a set period of time. I pay for every copy, plus give the publisher a cut of the profits. The "publisher" listed is the company with whom I have a publishing contract, and my reputation is judged by theirs (which can be a bad thing if the publisher is one of the more well known vanities). If someone wants to buy my book to republish it, then I have to first get out of the contract with the vanity press, which is usually not easy because their only income comes from me and they don't want to lose it. I have NO say in the price of my book, and can bet that it's so high it's not competitive in the current market. I have no control over quality, either.

  30. wordwranglernc on November 21, 2009 at 11:32 AM

    >Good post! Keep 'em coming. We all need reality checks…even when they sting a little!

    btw – @MichaelHyatt tweeted about your post today and I hopped over here to check it out.

  31. Peter P on November 21, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle.

    I'm going to be blogging on the subject on Monday…

    I see some real dangers for authors in the rise of self-publishing abilities.

  32. Christine H on November 21, 2009 at 11:30 AM

    >Author and editor Ray Rhamey, over at Flogging The Quill, has just announced that he is going to self-pub his book "The Vampire Kitty Cat Chronicles" because although just about every agent he's showed it to loved it, they don't think they can sell it.

    He has a post detailing how difficult the decision to self-publish was, and listing all of the things that he is planning to do to try to promote the book. I was astounded when I saw it. I thought, "You have got to be KIDDING! Do all THAT?"

    But he's serious about the book and wants to get it out there before the vampire trend fades. And it looks like a really cute, clever book. So I hope it does well for him.

    But anyone who is thinking about self-publishing really should check out his post:
    (let's see if I can do the link right)
    What's a Writer To Do

  33. Kristen Torres-Toro on November 21, 2009 at 11:26 AM

    >Hi, Rachelle!

    Thank you so much for your blog! I didn't weigh in on the discussion yesterday because I didn't feel I knew enough to form an opinion. I'm going to go back through and read all the thoughts today. I really appreciate all you do for us. Have a great weekend!

  34. Kat Meyer on November 21, 2009 at 11:19 AM

    >Hey Rachelle:
    I completely agree with you. For most authors whose main goal is to make money from the publication of their book, self/subsidy publishing is not the best bet. Authors really need to consider what their publishing goals are and make their decisions based on that. If they do go the subsidy publishing route, they really need to do their homework and understand what they are getting for their money.

  35. Angelia Almos on November 21, 2009 at 11:19 AM

    >Great post. As someone who successfully subsidy/vanity published a non-fiction book, distributed it, and got a publisher to pick it up due to the sales that I personally got, I know it can be done. But I know it would be a lot harder with a fictional book, because as you said, I knew I could sell the nonfiction book to a niche audience and I knew how to reach them. Plus, I worked my butt off to sell and distribute the book. 🙂 I'm not sure I want to work that hard (I think it would be harder) to sell a self-published novel, but you never know, I like that the option is available.