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Five reasons why self-publishing a novel is a bad idea

There are a lot of articles on Alltop‘s Books section advising aspiring novelists on how to self-publish and earn money.

Here are five reasons why you should never self-publish:

1) If a literary agent says no, the book is not ready

Kid-lit has written a persuasive blog post about why self-publishing is going to be terrible for the industry. Kid-lit is a literary agent, but he’s coming with a fair point:

Most of the time, when you get a rejection, it is really saying, “This isn’t ready for publication yet.”

If it was a good enough novel to sell, the agent would snap it up. The problem creeps in when the aspiring writer starts to think that agents can’t see a winning novel when it’s in front of them.

2) Books need literary agents and publishers to sell them

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is often cited as an example of a book that agents and publishers rejected, but it’s a bad example. It sat on slush piles for months, and received many rejection letters.

But if Rowling had self-published, would it have received the promotion and marketing support it got from her publisher? No, it would be sat on a database on Amazon, and worse, she would have given up sending it to agents.

The truth is that Rowling’s Harry Potter script was complete, and it was eventually picked up by a publisher. With the publisher’s help it went on to sell millions. There’s no lesson for self-publishers in JK Rowling’s story, other than to stay determined, and have faith.

3) The self-published book will never reach the mass market

Last year The Salon estimates that there were 764,448 self-published books released into the market.

Walk into a book store today. There are thousands of good books in there.

Check a second hand book site. There are millions of good books listed.

A printed book has been written by an author who has then found an agent and had it professionally edited. It has then been accepted by a publisher and marketed, and a company has paid for the book to be printed. In short, a lot of people have invested time and money into the book because it has mass-market appeal, and will sell.

A self-published book will not have that professional reach.

The self-publishing market has no quality control. These are books that would prompt a swift rejection letter from an agent. Here’s a quote from The Salon on publisher’s slush piles (unread stacks of manuscripts sent in by aspiring writers):

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.

Imagine the worst print book you’ve ever read. Perhaps it’s one by Jodi Picoult. Now imagine the hundreds of books that didn’t get published. Think how bad they must have been.

4) Books are hard work, self-publishing isn’t

Are self-publishers really putting the effort in to give a paying reader something worthy of their time?

I’m not sure I like the idea of a writer reading through the second draft of his 200,000 word novel about a secret agent  working for the postal service and saying, ‘Ah, it’s done. Let’s get it up on Amazon and sell it for two dollars.”

I’ve written in an earlier blog post that Stephen King insists new writers practice writing for four to six hours a day. He advises aspiring writers to spend a minimum of 1000 words a day writing.

Writing takes a lot of hard work. If it didn’t, we’d all be successful writers.

Self-publishing attracts the lazy writer, and lazy writers aren’t going to be good writers. Don’t see a rejection letter as anything more than a challenge. Keep practicing, keep refining the work, and keep trying.

5) Self-publishing is stuck in digital

Self-publishing is strictly for the ebook market. It’s far too expensive and risky for a self-publisher to pay for print copy to be produced.

All self-published books will be posted as digital copies on ebook sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, because it’s free and easy for the aspiring novelist.

The Amazon site is going to become a repository for badly-written, poorly-worded first novels about fat vampires in Oregon and IT managers with telekinetic powers. Gradually, people will learn to stay away.

The positive result of this is that the printed book market will become more sacred, because no aspiring novelist with a bad novel is going to get past the wall of literary agents and publishers.

The second-hand printed book market is going to be even more special, as most of the books will come from the time before digital copies.

This isn’t a rally against ebooks, it’s a rally against aspiring writers who think readers of ebooks will be willing to accept trash, because it’s an easier purchase and they can always delete it. Readers of ebooks will be just as critical of poor writing as printed book readers.

Final thought

If you are an aspiring novelist, resist the urge to take the easy road. Keep working hard, and when the book is ready, the agent will take it and sell it. Sit back and imagine that feeling. It will be worth it.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 Responses to “Five reasons why self-publishing a novel is a bad idea”

  1. These are good arguments for traditional publishing. I don’t know if this is the post you mentioned in your comment on the Self-Published Author’s Lounge (SPAL) blog, but it caught my attention. :D

    I hope it’s okay if I play devil’s advocate. I enjoyed your ability to communicate on the SPAL without going into an emotional tirade so I decided to comment here.

    “1) If a literary agent says no, the book is not ready ”

    What about publishers who do not require an agent? Most small publishers will let the author submit directly. If an agent says no but a small publisher says yes, is the book ready?

    “2) Books need literary agents and publishers to sell them

    But if Rowling had self-published, would it have received the promotion and marketing support it got from her publisher? No, it would be sat on a database on Amazon, and worse, she would have given up sending it to agents.”

    How much did that publisher really help her? Do all authors receive immediate help and support from their publisher, especially with the recession when they are cutting back on their expenses? I know an author who published two books with Simon and Schuster, had a literary agent, and still had no real help with book promotion. She and her agent are now going with an ebook publisher. She’s pretty disgusted with how little support she’s gotten from Simon and Schuster.

    “3) The self-published book will never reach the mass market

    A self-published book will not have that professional reach.

    The self-publishing market has no quality control. These are books that would prompt a swift rejection letter from an agent.”

    It is true that self-publishing will limit your reach. The New York publishers have amazing distribution channels. But what about the smaller publishers whose reach doesn’t go far either? To me, the chances of exposure with a small publisher is similar to what it is going on one’s own.

    Also, I have seen books on Smashwords and Wattpad and was pretty alarmed by the poor quality I found there, so it’s hard to argue the quality control point. I figure that readers will just not buy those books so they will fade into the background.

    I know self-published authors who have produced quality books that rival the quality found in traditionally published books. It depends on the author. However, I admit that you still have a point. Until more self-published authors shape up and care about their work, this truth will harm the self-published author’s image.

    “4) Books are hard work, self-publishing isn’t

    Are self-publishers really putting the effort in to give a paying reader something worthy of their time?”

    I do. ;-) But do all of them? No. So again, I consider this a valid point.

    “5) Self-publishing is stuck in digital

    Self-publishing is strictly for the ebook market. It’s far too expensive and risky for a self-publisher to pay for print copy to be produced.”

    Through CreateSpace, I have paperback versions of my books available. I paid $39 so I could make my price lower, but that’s all I spend to get a paperback version of my book ready for the public. You can publish for free on CreateSpace if you are willing to put a higher price on your book. The key is to format your Word document and book covers right. So there are more paperback versions of self-published books out there than most people realize. Is this a scary thought? :-)

    However, I will admit that a great number of self-published paperbacks have that “I was self-published” quality to them. The covers are standard templates which look cheesy, the margins aren’t justified, the chapters don’t begin on the right page, etc. Those are worse to read than their ebook versions. At least with Kindle, I can use the text to speech feature and listen to it instead of read it.

    I’d like to add a #6 because I don’t believe everyone should self-publish. In my opinion, no one should self-publish unless they are 100% convinced it is right for them and they are willing to do their absolute best with the book. There is a lot of rejection and stigma attached to self-publishing, and the author has to do a great deal of footwork in book promotion if they want to start seeing sales. The traditional route is harder to get into but easier to market because people take you more seriously.

    This was a good article on why you shouldn’t self-publish.

  2. Henry Baum says:

    Stopped reading after #1. If it’s “good enough” in agent-speak often means marketable. If you think “can make money” is the best sign of “good” then you’ve got a sort of tragic view of art.

    • Patrick says:

      In book publishing, when a book is marketable it means it is ready for readers to pick up and buy.

      A book becomes marketable when it is edited, properly formatted, coherent and has a carefully managed plot and structure.

      Spelling and grammar mistakes will have been corrected, and any needless rambling or writing which doesn’t drive the story will have been deleted.

      Marketing is what brings a good book to market. Unless the author is incredibly self-disciplined, self-publishing misses this crucial step.

      The threat of losing money compels publishers to produce books with strong stories and with careful editing. Pshers don’t have “free” as an entry point, unlike self-publishers.

      Unfortunately, that same profit mechanism also ignores or marginalises great stories in favour of definite bestsellers such as celebrity autobiographies and cookery books.

      On the day Amazon announced it now sells 43 per cent more e-books than hardback copies, the argument about self-publishing is going to get more important than ever.

      Thanks for your comment Henry (although I wish you had finished the article, and then read Ruth’s comment too)

      • Rik says:

        Any publisher would be degtihled to publish your work *if* they thought they could make a profit by so doing. That means your stories have to stand on their own merits against published stories written by adults. Being merely good for your age isn’t going to cut it.As an aside, most of the major publishers (the ones who can get your book into bookshops) won’t consider your book unless you have an agent. An agent’s job is to sift through the thousands of mostly-unreadable manuscripts that wannabe authors send him every year and forward the ten or twenty that he thinks stand a chance to whichever publisher(s) he thinks will be most interested in them.

  3. Brian says:

    Don’t numbers 1 and 2 contradict each other? If Potter got rejected by an agent, then by your definition it wasn’t ready, yet Potter got rejected by many agents before finding one that saw its potential.

    The stuff about self-publishing being lazy is just kind of odd and seems like link-bait, frankly.

    • Patrick says:

      Publishing houses chase profits – there’s no conspiracy as to why certain books aren’t getting picked up. If they won’t sell, the publishing house won’t buy.

      Publishing houses can’t just be chasing the next Stephanie Meyer, because there are so many incredible novels published every year in categories that could be considered undefinable. The Kite Runner, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and House of Leaves all exist outside of a genre, and yet have been picked up and published.

      JK Rowling was rejected by publishers for many other reasons than the quality of her book. A literary agent or publisher doesn’t have the capacity to run with every book they are submitted, even if it’s good.

      The point is if she had given up, Harry Potter would be sat on Amazon, getting digitally dusty. Perseverance is a key trait for good writers.

    • Asawari says:

      Independent of what?You can always check Writer’s Market for pubsrlheis large and small who seek works in your genre, and learn whether they require agents as middlemen or deal directly with authors.Since New York is the center of the publishing business in the US, nearly all of whatever kind of publisher you seek will be located there.

  4. Brian says:

    I would also add that the vast majority of people have no idea the difference between traditionally distributed books and self-published ones. Even other writers often ask me how I got published and I’m just like “um I didn’t”.

    • Patrick says:

      That’s true, so long as the ebook has been edited and written to a high standard.

      Also true: I hardly ever look at who published the book, and I work on book reviews. Whether it’s Pan, Penguin or Harper, it doesn’t matter, because the quality is apparent. I have read a fair few ebooks where I am constantly jarred out of concentration by poor grammar, confused vocabulary and bad editing, which leads me to believe I could spot a self-published ebook from a published book.

  5. Jeremy says:


    I appreciate the point you’re trying to make, and you do have a valid argument in one respect. In fact, that argument doesn’t necessarily end with the book publishing industry. We live in a world now where there are so many tools available to every average Joe that weren’t even there five years ago. I personally have studied the music business, and that’s a screaming example of a situation where almost anyone with a microphone and guitar can throw a recording together in their apartment and attempt to pass it off as art. Similarly, I am sure this phenomenon will open up the floodgates of worthless crap to be foisted upon us from every wannabe author.

    However, sometimes you have to accept the bad with the good. I think, on the flip side of the above-described scenarios, you have a select group of artists who simply want (and deserve) a voice. An author might not have the prowess of a Stephen King or Michael Crichton, but that doesn’t mean his or her work is worthless. Similarly, not every singer/songwriter is Paul McCartney, but their work may still have its merits. Sometimes, we like a song or a book as a so-called “guilty pleasure,” that others might just consider crap. The fact remains that your contention that, “If the novel was good enough to sell, the agent would snap it up,” simply doesn’t hold water. (Also, I should point out that the correct grammar would be, ‘If the novel WERE good enough to sell….” Should we discount your blog because you didn’t do a thorough enough self-editing job? You’re utilizing unmonitored self-publishing just by HAVING a blog!) You think that every quality piece of art finds its way to the mass market? I don’t believe that. Nor do I believe that just because a professional tells you something is no good, means that you should accept that as gospel. Life is full of rejection…much of it warranted, some of it not. As you rightly point out, the publishing houses and agents are after one thing – money. Well, maybe an author isn’t looking for a windfall of cash, expecting that they will sell as many copies as The DaVinci Code. If it’s a “how-to” eBook, or a piece of inspirational writing, they might just want to reach a modest audience, hoping that they can positively impact just a few peoples’ lives. That’s not something a major publisher will give credence to, but that doesn’t mean the product won’t have value to the 100 or so folks to whom it speaks.

    I personally self-financed the recording of my sister’s debut CD. Is it something that will be on the radio or be flying off the virtual shelves of iTunes? No. Is my sister talented? Again, she might not be (name your favorite songwriter here), but I believe she has a knack for conveying her thoughts and emotions through song, and there is a small group of people who appreciate her work. Plus, the sense of self-accomplishment is good for her, since she in no way expected to sell boxloads of CDs.

    Just another way of looking at the situation…


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