How to Decide About Self-Publishing

Getting a big, traditional publisher to consider your book is difficult – sometimes it even seems hopeless.

Many authors find themselves considering another option – the gigantic, glimmering world of  self-publishing.

It seems like the easiest possible scenario!  All you have to do is submit your book, shell out of a few dollars, and boom!  You will have a book done with your name on it.  You can write whatever you want, without an editor (or an agent) breathing down your neck.  In moments, your book can be for sale on Amazon – ready to be purchased by millions of readers worldwide!

Woo hoo!

There are a few authors who have become truly successful self-publishing.

How likely are you really to become one of them?  According to R.R. Bowker, the company that does the analytics for the publishing industry, the average self-published book sells…250 copies.  Total.   (Read this great article by our friends at Berrett-Koehler, a small but highly respected business book publisher.)

“No!” you say. “I know I will sell more than 250 copies!”  And you may be right.  But with 700,000 new books published each year, thrown onto the heap of all the books published in all the years before, what’s your strategy for helping your book somehow get in front of the consumer’s eyes long enough for them to focus on it and decide to buy it?  Yeah.  Don’t worry. Most authors’ plans include divine intervention, someone who knows someone who knows someone who works for Dr. Phil or Oprah, and the occasional “When my book comes out, I’ll hire a publicist and be on a whole bunch of talk shows.”  Good luck with that.

The Harsh Truth

The tough truth is that the authors who actually sell more than 250 copies have already taken the time to build a rock solid platform (a large group of followers through social media, media, speaking engagements, etc.)  And if you’re going to all that work, and the public is responding positively – your audience is growing – then you actually would be attractive to a traditional publisher…but not before then.

Self-Publishing Wrong Will Damage Your Future as an Author

Most self-published books do poorly, that’s just a fact.  This will not only be personally disappointing, it will most likely damage your chances of attracting a traditional publisher in the future.  Why?

In order to be sold on Amazon or in bookstores, your book is assigned an ISBN number. That’s the bar code on the back.  If your book sells poorly, even though you will swear on a stack of bibles that it sold 50,000 copies to because of all your speeches, or your stand at the county fair, or because your nephew’s Boy Scout troop went door-to-door, the publishers (and therefore the agents) will only look at how many it sold “through the trades.”  That means through our industry book outlets – bookstores,,, etc.  Places known to sell books.

Too many self-published authors have lied to the industry, so now it can be precisely tracked, from the day it released to the day you try to convince a publisher that even though you failed to sell copies when you were making all the money, your next book (or some re-hashed version of this one!) is going to miraculously do better.  Yeah, right. 

The exceptions are:  If you actually have a contract with a TV studio to do a film based on your book that is more than 12 months away from release; OR you have a signed contract to host a TV show in a major market; OR you are suddenly a speaker doing 20 or more paid, provable engagements per year and you have invoices from your printer to prove you’re moving a lot of units in the back of the room when you speak.  Other than that, most publishing people won’t believe you – we’ve heard it all before.

I’m not saying “Don’t self-publish!”  For some people, that’s the only option they will ever have because they are lazy about building a platform; their book appeals only to their family and friends (such as the story of a dreadful childhood or how someone overcame cancer/scabies/being overweight/being in a bad marriage); the book appeals to a tiny niche, such as “people who want to breed and sell rare blue-eyed African hamsters”; or because the book is poorly written and the author has no willingness to edit it.  Those people should self-publish, for certain! 

It’s not all that difficult to build a platform. Build a platform allows you to find out if anyone in the real world is interested in your opinion on your topic.  From that, you can choose to develop a book proposal. Since you have a platform, you’ll get an agent.  The agent will shop your book to excellent, highly qualified publishers.  While the agent is shopping your book to publishers (plan on 4-6 weeks), continue writing and building your platform.  You’ll have to do that anyway!  Then, if you like the deal the agent brings you, sign it. If not, don’t. (We all work on straight commission – you won’t have lost anything.)

In Summary

Be an informed consumer when it comes to self-publishing. If a self-publishing company promises you they will get your book into bookstores, go to the nearest bookstore and see if you can find even one book on their shelves – in any genre – that they printed;  ask the store manager how many books from that publisher they have on hand.   If they promise to take a little extra money of yours to put you in the New York Times or any other publication, ask for a list of authors whose books they featured last time. Then look those books up on Are they selling?  Any book out less than a year that has an sales rank over 700,000 IS NOT SELLING AT ALL! (The sales ranking is about halfway down the page); If they start telling you your book is “excellent” and “doesn’t need editing” and “one of the best they’ve seen” grab your credit card and run away!  There are many charlatans in the self-publishing industry! (There are also a few reputable companies, too, but far, far more criminals who prey on author egos!)

The wrong decision will affect your future dramatically – for longer than and in more ways than you can imagine today.

If you are considering self-publishing, ask yourself these questions:

1. Do you have a “platform” – a large group of existing fans right now who will rush to buy your book the minute it is printed?

2. Are you capable of managing the marketing and distribution, the promotion and publicity required to differentiate any one book in the tsunami of 700K+ published annually in the USA?

3. Do you need your book super-fast for some reason?

4. Are there any special reasons your book should be self-published, e.g., some corporation has asked for 4,000 to give to their employees?

5. Do you have a written strategy for making the book successful?  Do you know what will happen to your career as an author/speaker if a self-published book fails?

6. Does it matter to you if a large quantity of books are not sold, e.g. are you merely writing your memoirs for your grandkids to read someday?


If you need to know how to put together a smart marketing plan for a book you plan to sell to a publisher one day, or you want to know how to give yourself at least a shot at success with your self–published book, click here.