Self-Publishing is an Option, Not a Stepping Stone

Seems I opened up a can o’ worms or two with my post yesterday. I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll do my best to clear up a couple of things. There were some questions about whether self-publishing would ever lose its stigma. Truthfully, I don’t think the stigma will fade until most self and indie products are perceived as having the same level of quality as traditionally published books—in writing/editorial quality as well as interior/exterior design. (See this post about self-publishing where I explain my position on this.) I don’t know if it will ever happen.

(But ask yourself where the stigma lies. I think it’s primarily with those of us who live and breathe writing and publishing. But many readers and book-buyers, not connected in any way with the publishing industry, are probably not very aware of any supposed stigma. They either like a book or they don’t, and they don’t care who the publisher was.)

Yesterday when I was pondering future alternatives for getting your work published, I said that smaller independent publishing and self-publishing would:
→ be a viable option for you to get your book out there where people could read it
→ allow you to target a niche market, possibly more effectively than a big publisher would

I didn’t say smaller independent publishing and self-publishing would:
→ have any more prestige than it does today
→ help you get a book deal with a major traditional publisher

Notice I specifically avoided talking about that. I wasn’t saying or implying that self-publishing would somehow become a more viable road toward traditional royalty-paying publishing. I was talking about it being an alternative, an end in itself, a way for your book to reach readers. Period. Don’t look at it as a stepping-stone. It’s possible for it to work out that way, but truthfully, most self-pubbed works don’t gain the attention of a major editor or agent and go on to sell through the regular channels.

What I meant to convey was that there are alternatives for getting your book published… you’re not stuck with only one route. But self/indie publishing is basically a different business than the major New York-based publishing world. One doesn’t lead to the other. They’re just options. But more and more savvy writers with a passion to share their message or story are doing really amazing things with these alternative routes… selling lots of books and reaching lots of people. Don’t discount it as a possible way to get your work out there.

Okay, just so you know, I’m DONE prognosticating for awhile. I’m not really very good at this future stuff, I have a hard enough time figuring out what I’m going to do tomorrow. Yes, I have my eye on possible futures for publishing, but mostly I take things one day at a time. So tomorrow, back to the present!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent with limited crystal-ball abilities.

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. Hipolito M. Wiseman on March 25, 2012 at 4:23 PM

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  2. Chris White on November 22, 2009 at 9:22 PM

    >My take on self pubbing is that it holds more potential and less "overhead" for the writer who is business-minded and motivated. I self pubbed a memoir two years ago and sold two copies. I learned more with that experience than I learned in pursuit of my BS in e-business. My new book, soon to be released through Lulu, is worlds apart. Time will tell if my time spent writing it will pay off in substantive ways.

    Publishing has already changed permanently. It can be a good thing if we adjust accordingly. Instead of focusing entirely on print media, we should, as writers, focus on media in general. That is, our "books" should be available for sale in every possible format, including print, all the ebook formats, and even audiobook formats. The more people you can reach, the more success is possible.

    As for the undoubted possibility of decline in quality, I believe there are a couple of balancing elements to the equation: A broader talent pool stokes competition among writers who want to see big numbers (not everyone who self pubs is like this), and therefore has the potential to increase quality. On top of that, the marketplace and consumer behavior will winnow the field even further. Sorry to say, but in this business model, there is really no place for the agent. And with traditional publishing royalties down around 6% or 7%, I think this is a good thing for the right kind of writer.

  3. Jeff Doles on February 5, 2009 at 5:11 PM

    >Print books will still be around. Brick and mortar bookstores? Not so much–they’re having a hard time. The model will have to change for booksellers to succeed. So the model will change for how traditional publishers do business. Traditional publishers will still be around, but their methods will not be so … traditional.

    It is an exciting time for those who can see where book publishing is going–or where it can go. It is an opportunity to develop creative new strategies, methods, models. The box is coming apart, and instead of trying to hold it together with hairpins and scotch tape, explore the new landscape and discover new resources and markets.

    Because of new technologies and innovations in social networking and community-building, the playing field is becoming more level for small and self publishers.

    Think beyond paper. Think beyond brick and mortar. Think beyond traditional.

  4. The Beaver Bunch on February 5, 2009 at 3:36 PM

    >This comment is TOTALLY not related to this post.

    Yesterday, as I perused through my local Christian book store, I looked at the, almost offense, amount of books. They sat in piles and sack on the shelf, threatening to explode onto the floor.

    I thought of you and how you’ve been saying a lot lately that it is getting harder and harder to get a book published.

    None the less, I found the PERFECT book for one of youth that I have become friends with and I came home.

    Last night, I settled down to read the book I bought for said youth because I firmly believe in reading a book (especially one of this nature) before gifting it.

    Imagine my surprise when I read the author’s acknowledgments and saw your name! Funny how God led me to your blog when I wasn’t even considering seriously writing. He has sparked that desire even more, and then I buy a book that YOU helped market. Coincidence? Oh wait, I don’t believe in those.

    The book? Secrets Young Women Keep by Dr. Jill Hubbard.

    So far, it’s great! I can’t wait to dive into more tonight.

  5. Kat Harris on February 5, 2009 at 3:31 PM

    >I think it’s primarily with those of us who live and breathe writing and publishing. But many readers and book-buyers, not connected in any way with the publishing industry, are probably not very aware of any supposed stigma. They either like a book or they don’t, and they don’t care who the publisher was.

    But if you choose the self-pubbed route, keep in mind that it will be harder to promote because even many smaller newspapers will not touch a book review or considering doing a story on a self-pubbed book.

  6. Mama J on February 5, 2009 at 12:55 PM

    >This post series and all of your comments just sparked an idea — a survey of potential readers. I have a good database of potential readers and can partner to access databases of other potential readers. What does my audience want on my niche topic? Audio very soon? Paper book who knows when? E-book within a year? And so on. This could be one way to live in the present while the future arrives.

  7. T. Anne on February 5, 2009 at 12:47 PM

    >After reading the headlines (on my laptop) regarding the sorry state of the newspaper business. I have to think paper books are not too far behind. Honestly it’s been months since I’ve stepped into a brick and mortar bookstore. I ignore the nice selection at the costco and my local grocery store (they stock a lot of new hard backs as well a nice array of everything else). Almost every book I’ve purchased over the last several years has been through Amazon. And you know what? I’m sick of storing them once I’m through. I can’t wait for Kindle prices (or the new apple device yet to be seen) to drop. On that note I’m seriously considering offering one of my paper children up for sacrifice and going straight the e-book route. To me it’s going to be an experimental ride. A stepping stone? Hopefully.

  8. Rachel on February 5, 2009 at 10:44 AM

    >whoops–I meant “a person could sell 5000 through a self-publisher” to follow my initial clause…

  9. Rachel on February 5, 2009 at 10:42 AM

    >Yeah…but, hypothetically, a person could sell 5000 copies of a book through a traditional publishing contract and earn $5000, whereas, a person could sell 5000 copies (if they could ever manage it…not impossible with aggressive marketing) and earn $65,000. So an author wouldn’t have to sell the volume of books to recoup their initial investment into the publishing process. It isn’t like self-pubbed authors “pay people to read their books.”

    Course, if we cared so much about making money, we’d have taken our “creative writing” degrees and gone on to law school, right?

  10. Chatty Kelly on February 5, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    >I have a friend who self published her first book in order to “be published.” She has several books out now and says that many publishers won’t look at you unless you’ve already been published, hense the self-publishing route for the first book. Do you think there is any true in that?

    As for what the future holds…
    Matthew 6:34 –
    “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

    Each day has enough trouble of it’s own…isn’t that the truth?!?

  11. CoreyBlake on February 5, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    >While I agree that most self published writers fall into that category, those who look at their book like a business and invest in it as a growing brand can find plenty of press, sell tens of thousands of copies or more and eventually make their way into the bookstores. It’s a tough road and it takes incredibly high standards and a massive investment of time and money. Over the last three years I have worked with nearly a dozen people on this path and the journey for most of them has been amazing.

  12. Dara on February 5, 2009 at 10:21 AM

    >All the reasons you’ve mentioned in this post (and your earlier one about self-publishing) are exactly why I don’t want to go that route.

    At least, not at this point in time.

    It works for some people but not for others. It’s great though that there are plenty of options out there for writers instead of only one way.

    Thanks for the post!

  13. Rachelle on February 5, 2009 at 10:09 AM

    >Anonymous 7:31,
    People who are having success with their self-pubbed books are definitely NOT selling through traditional bookselling channels. They’re usually selling direct through their websites, and other online sources like Amazon. I keep trying to convey this point: Self pubbing is a completely different business. You have to get all the "traditional" stuff out of your mind and look at pubbing & selling your book in a whole new way.

    You're right… Barnes & Noble doesn't want to stock your self-pubbed book, radio stations don't want to interview you, print publications won't give you a review. Self-pubbed books generally sell online and through personal appearances (speaking engagements).

  14. Jessica on February 5, 2009 at 10:00 AM

    >I think you’re right when you say it depends on what works for the writer.
    Self-publishing probably isn’t a route I would go for what I write. Right now I want writing to be my career, and so I’m looking for people to pay ME for my stuff. I don’t want to pay to have people read my stuff, even if there’s the chance that I’ll make money. It’s a small chance, from what I’ve seen.
    However, if I already had a career (like being a speaker/pastor) in which I was in the public eye, then self-publishing would be a viable option for me.
    So I think it’s important that a writer know where they want to go and why they’re choosing that route.

  15. Anonymous on February 5, 2009 at 9:53 AM

    >That stigma DOES carry over to other related industries. Having worked for a large chain bookstore, I’ve seen them cringe at having self-published books in inventory. I’ve also worked for a well-known radio broadcast and we always would steer clear from self-published authors.
    These experiences have kept me from going the self-publishing route.

  16. Sharon A. Lavy on February 5, 2009 at 9:01 AM

    >Good post. Thanks.

  17. Myowne on February 5, 2009 at 8:08 AM

    >I agreed with your take on self-publishing, especially in terms of niche writing and audience building. Real writers, I think, aren’t worried as much about stigmas as they are about not ever finding a reader to appreciate the words they have written. Thank you for your insight. I actually self-published and for what I was doing it served a great purpose.

  18. Timothy Fish on February 5, 2009 at 6:43 AM

    >If we follow the self-publishing path to completion, what we have is a company like O’Reilly. Tim O’reilly started out self-publishing and now leads a well respected traditional publishing company that is about half the size of Thomas Nelson. But that isn’t to say that everyone is able to follow this path to completion, only to say that the success of self-publishing comes by publishing, not by selling publishing rights.