I’ve been having a regular correspondence with my friend and writing instructor Suzanne Murray about the relationship of writers to publishing, and how to best understand the situation they face today. Recently, Suzanne sent me another question:
Why would a writer want to self publish? And what kind of work is especially suited to self publishing?
Here’s my reply:
Because I’ve been involved in launching self-publishers since the 1990s, when I read your questions I immediately started to think of the many authors I’d met and produced books for. More than any “Top 3 Tips for When to Self-Publish” kind of blog post, I’m drawn to the specific personalities, histories and reasons these people became self-publishers.
Even without identifying them with names and faces, their situations speak to the many reasons people decide to publish themselves, and to what effect.
7 Scenarios for Self-Publishing
- Genre switcher. This client was a professional author, and had published a string of non fiction books with major publishers. But his dream was to write a contemporary thriller and sell it to the movies. Unfortunately, no one would look at the book, and told him he should stick to non fiction. Determined to prove them wrong, he mounted a major effort to edit, print and market his book.
A long shot from beginning to end, the book never sold, although it was certainly no worse than many genre novels published more traditionally. But the client was satisfied he had made his point.
- Educational consultant. A woman who was quite well known as a consultant to educators wanted to create a book that embodied her philosophy of education, something that would inspire teachers. She felt it would not be published according to her vision by a commercial publisher, and so she created the book herself and sold it through her own consulting company.
The book came out beautifully, obviously a labor of love, and the consultant had both a contribution she made to her field, and a tool to help market her consulting work.
- Self-proclaimed guru. It’s a dirty world out there. This man controlled a couple of thousand followers, and had developed his own rather bizarre system of philosophy. No publisher would be interested in the book, yet the guru and his followers sincerely felt it was a “gift to humanity” and spared no expense to put it into print.
The publication of the book, even though it was read by virtually no one outside the group, seemed to give the guru even more authority in the eyes of his followers.
- Poet. Although it’s notoriously difficult to get a publishing contract for an unknown author, there’s really nothing to compare to trying to get into print if you’re a poet. This poet, acclaimed and published in numerous anthologies, knew the only way he would ever get published was to do it himself. He set up a company, we published the book, although he has yet to follow with another one.
The satisfaction of having the book to both sell and share with friends and colleagues was very gratifying, and the poet gained a lot of knowledge about publishing that will be useful later on.
- Exercise innovator.
- Political theorist.
- Retired professor. After a long career teaching anthropology, this professor finally had time to put together the book he had always dreamed of writing. Because he chose an unusual form—half straight science and half an imagined narrative that was basically fiction—the book was unsaleable. He published himself to fulfill the dream.
The author went on to publish several more books of a similar style and, although sales were negligible, he had great enjoyment in creating and publishing books that expressed his ideas exactly the way he wanted to.
An innovative thinker in the field of therapeutic exercise, this client was building himself as a brand in a calculated and entrepreneurial way. An integral part of his multi-faceted plan was the publication of a book demonstrating his own theories and exercises, with lots of drawing and explanations of his system.
This author had strong business instincts. He was marketing himself agressively, had a definite plan in mind, and used the book as a building block in his assault on success.
Political theories are often impossible to get published. The very small market is difficult to penetrate. This author had been publishing his own books for years and had built a following of several thousand fans through his speaking and writing activities. He knew exactly what to pay, how many to print, and how to sell these books to his audience.
As part of an ongoing business model, the author’s book publishing perfectly complemented the deep thought and rigorous analysis he was known for.
It’s All About Knowing Where You Are
I admit I enjoy doing these books. Whether the books are “good” or not seems not as relevant to me as the fact that these authors believed strongly in what they had to say, and wrested control of the means to launch their ideas into the world. I kind of admire that, don’t you?
Each had definite reasons that made a lot of sense to them. None had come to the decision easily, although the more entrepreneurial authors always seem much less burdened by the idea that they were becoming “authors.” For them it just made good business sense, and so they did it.
With writers, the motives for writing are so different from person to person. Just reading the entries in Maria Schneider’s Why I Write contest over on Editor Unleashed is fascinating, as each person tries to explain what it is that drives them again and again to take up their pen and attempt to make sense of the world.
To bring that vision to the rest of the world through publishing is, in many ways, an entirely natural thing to do. It’s an extension of the initial drive to write, the desire to communicate, because where there’s a writer, there needs to be a reader to truly complete the process. Publishing is, in a simple way, just that: a way to find the readers that every author knows are out there.
And bravo for every one of them.
Takeaway: Each author who decides to self-publish has a logic all their own. Some books may be more profitable than others, but in my experience this is not what sways authors to publish. The more you understand your own motives and goals, the more likely you are to succeed in self-publishing, because you will more accurately define that “success” for yourself.