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Why Self-Publishing Is No Longer a Dirty Word

By Meghan Harvey

As someone who spends her professional life championing self-published authors, it pains me a little to say this, but let’s be real: self-publishing has for too long been viewed as the wannabe little sister of traditional publishing – both from inside the industry and by writers. New York has long looked down its nose at self-publishers, viewing them as those that didn’t make the cut. Most writers have primarily thought of self-publishing as “plan B.” And readers, understandably, are wary, given the onslaught of very poorly produced self-published work that exploded on the shelves with the advent of print-on-demand technology.

But the thing I love about working in this space is the breakneck pace of change, adaptation, development, and thought leadership in self-publishing. Five years ago, self-publishing meant something entirely different than what it means today—and I’m here to tell you, “self-publishing” no longer carries the connotations it used to. For many successful writers, self-publishing is the deliberate first choice. Here’s why:

1. Self-publishers are making gorgeous books.

When print-on-demand made publication as easy as uploading a file and pressing “publish,” the online bookshelves were flooded with first drafts and DIY covers. Self-publishing literally meant publishing by yourself—and the results reflected a total lack of professionalism. Now, firms like Girl Friday Productions and others have made traditional-quality book production (including the same top-shelf editors and designers used at the major houses) accessible to self-publishers.

Print quality, too, has come leaps and bounds, so much so that many traditional publishers now use POD presses for short runs, and for standard formats it’s very difficult to tell the difference between POD and offset books. Self-publishers are making books that readers have no idea are self-published, because creating a book of traditional quality is entirely within a self-publisher’s reach.

2. Self-publishers know how to build their personal brands.

Reader research has shown that people need to have heard of a book an average of 7-10 times before they purchase it—and word of mouth continues to be the strongest form of impression that leads to purchase. Social media provides that online word-of-mouth, the social proof of recommendation from friends, in a scalable way. Furthermore, building online influence is a way to develop direct relationships with your tribe; it’s a marketing channel that as a writer you have so much more control over than, say, publicity, where you’re competing for limited space.

The ever-increasing centrality of social media in people’s lives combined with their evergreen hunger for good content puts writers in an excellent position to connect with hundreds and thousands of their would-be readers in meaningful and ongoing ways. Many writers still struggle with the idea of building an online presence through social media, but more and more writers have embraced it, wielding their voices online to great effect. And, when it comes time to release a book, their readers are already listening. They certainly don’t need a publisher to help them reach their readers and sell books.

3. More access to data is informing better business decisions.

As much as everyone thinks (and wishes) that a publisher’s role in the world is to surface the best writing out there, their role is much more accurately to sell books. It’s no secret that publishers are looking to acquire material that will sell, and that means acquiring authors who have a platform (see point 2, because if you have a platform, you should be thinking critically about whether traditional publishing is the right avenue for you). But here’s an astounding fact: the two biggest book sales reporting agencies (Nielsen and AAP), which the entire industry relies on for the data that drives their business decisions, don’t account for Amazon sales. Why is that a big deal? Because roughly 60% of print is sold on Amazon (and unreported). The industry’s data collection services are literally blind to millions of sales from non-reporting publishers totalling approximately $1.25 billion a year.

In recent years, companies such as Author Earnings and Bookstat have aggregated Amazon sales to give us the first fully detailed picture of the sales landscape, inclusive of self-published books. And their reports show entire niches that traditional publishers are wrong about, such as the fact that the Big Five take only 4% of all sales in the African American fiction category on Amazon. The market is clearly there (and indies are tapping it), but publishers don’t know how to reach it.

4. An entrepreneurial spirit has emerged at the top of the field.

The dialogue about self-publishing has shifted over the last several years. To self-publish successfully, it’s not about becoming a published author but a publisher. The difference is this: becoming an author has that romantic pull – it’s realizing your creativity, your thought leadership, your story, your soul. Becoming a publisher requires putting on your business pants and making some objective and sometimes ruthless decisions.

Successful self-publishers understand 1) that they’re making a product that will need to be purchased and will sit in a landscape of dozens of similar books in the reader’s consideration set, 2) the job of driving people’s attention to that book (impressions, reviews, referrals, links, mentions, and all of the above) is as critical to the book’s success as the stellar writing and design, and 3) they understand their profit and loss projections, their investment and royalties, their short and long term objectives and strategies, and their personal goals.

5. Traditional publishing is becoming a dirty word.

It’s fairly well known that the vast majority of traditionally published authors get little to no marketing support for their books. I was still shocked the other day when speaking with an author whose traditionally published book is releasing in February (she has an established platform, has appeared numerous times on major national TV, is a thought-leader in her space). I asked her what her publisher was doing to support her launch and she said, “When I asked that question they told me to go hire a digital marketing firm.” Yes, as a traditionally published author you don’t have to pay for your editorial and design work; yes, you get an early payday. But, you’re doing half of the legwork and getting a fraction of the royalties for your effort.

Traditional publishing is not a dirty word, truly. There are many types of books that I think are better left to traditional publishers. But for anyone with an established platform, nonfiction subject-matter experts, people with influential online brands, entrepreneurs, novelists with dynamic social followings: far from being a “dirty word,” self-publishing is not only a viable avenue for publishing your book—it may be the right one.

Meghan Harvey

Meghan Harvey

Meghan Harvey is the Executive Director of Independent Publishing at Girl Friday Productions. Connect with her on Twitter: @meggsaladpdx.