7 Scenarios for Successful Self-Publishing

by | Feb 25, 2010

871392_20997321.Rainer SXC SchmidtI’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 She felt it would not be published according to her vision by a commercial publisher, and so she created the book herself and sold it through her own consulting company.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.
  • 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 theorist.
  • 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.

  • 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.

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.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Chris

    I appreciate the perspective provided by Mr. Marcus here. It’s been said that while writing is an art, publishing is a business. If you want your art to be successful as a business, or commercially, a business approach is helpful. If you write to write, and any commercial success is icing on the cake wonderful. But if you want to reach readers and sell books, a different approach–one of marketing and sales–is almost necessary.

    As Joel points out, across the continuum, knowing your goals and having a plan and publishing option best suited to help you reach them is an important piece of the process.

  2. Joel

    Dan, thanks for your comment. You seem to have a very realistic grasp on how self-published books can be used for different purposes by different authors. Did you price out your book at Blurb.com? I’ve done a couple of books for clients there recently and been very happy with the quality of the color reproduction.

  3. Dan Monroe

    Yes Joel, it is the book I published at Lulu. I am planning to do several more on other subjects, this way I can illustrate my own stories, and have some cogent examples of finished projects to show prosepective clients, and if people want to purchase them, well, that is an extra little bonus!

  4. Joel

    Dan, that’s a great use of self-publishing. Is it the one you did at Lulu? It’s interesting how having a book in print can open doors on many levels. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Dan Monroe

    I self published an artbook which is a compilation of so many illustrations I have produced over the years for different publishers. I even included a short sketchbook in it. The quality of this hardcover book is unbelievable and I am actually able to send it to other publishers so they can see my work in print. My local library has a copy of it and I am finding myself receiving some recognition from it as well. I think that this is an invaluable way for any artist to promete themselves and their talent!

  6. Joel

    Wanda, that’s awfully generous of you, thanks. My main goal here is education, so link away.

    I’d like to keep in the loop about how your project works out, the model you’re pursuing has a lot of implications.

  7. Wanda Shapiro

    Thanks for the support Joel. I do hope we’re right about this. I would like to add a link to your blog on my site, I’m assuming you won’t mind.

  8. Joel


    Thanks for your comment. There’s never been a better time to be an indie publisher, and a self-published author. And the tools we have now to at least help level the playing field are far more powerful than when I published my book in the 1980s. Old publishing models are under assault on so many fronts, change is continuous at this point.

    I liked your website, hope you do well with your book, and thanks for stopping by.

  9. Wanda Shapiro


    I’d like to add at category of self-publisher to your list because it’s a passion of mine and I was fascinated by your post. You covered a lot of categories with the examples from your life. But my category of self-publisher is a little different.

    I’m a writer who thinks the world is changing and self-publishing has the potential to change the publishing industry the way indie music and indie films changed their respective industries. It’s a new world out there and it’s a different economy. Middle men are outliving their usefulness as technology empowers individuals and brings them closer together.

    And in the end, I ended up being one of those “weirdos” too. I learned how to publish a book because I decided it was a good business decision, but I didn’t expect to love every minute of it.

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Joel

    Michael, thanks for that. I guess I’m another one of those “weirdos” too.

    This, of course, is not an extensive or an exhaustive list, and I could have gone on at some length because, as I said, each client has their own rationale. But I thought they were at least representative of many people self-publishing.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Michael N. Marcus

    Hi Joel…

    I’d like to add another scenario which may overlap with some that you’ve described: the person who _enjoys_ self-publishing.

    Just as auto repair, gardening and carpentry can be both occupations and hobbies, some people — like me — actually like the work involved in self-publishing.

    We weirdos think it’s fun to pick typefaces, to modify paragraphs to better fit a page, to select the right photos and illustrations, and to devise and carry out a marketing plan.

    For me, publishing is a labor of love. Money and fame are certainly nice, but not necessary.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — president of the Independent Self-Publishers Alliance, https://www.independentselfpublishers.org
    — author of “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661742
    — author of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” coming 4/1/10. https://www.silversandsbooks.com/storiesbookino.html



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