The Best Time NOT to Self Publish? Never!

by | Mar 28, 2014

By Marcy Goldman

Today we have a rather unique self-publishing perspective from cookbook author, Marcy Goldman. I think you’ll find it quite interesting.

There are so many op eds these days on when to self-publish and more so, features on how inferior self-published works are just by the very fact they are self-published.

This premise is applied even if the self-publishing author has the budget, foresight and professionalism to engage all manner of expert editors, proof readers, formatters, designers and thoroughly research the distributing and promotion of his/her work.

There’s also a presumption (or fear) that without sufficient social media or platform, books (even great ones) won’t get noticed, i.e. if you publish it who will find you/it? This suggests that Shakespeare or Elizabeth Gilbert, without benefit of Twitter, Facebook and Instragram or a YouTube video of Othello, would never have been discovered – which is to suggest, we as authors, creators, publishers actually believe form trumps content.

What amazes me in the vast acreage of articulated opinions on these issues is a few fold. For one thing, there’s a passion, even a nervous derision or tempered contempt or dismissiveness offered to self-published authors in most of the opinion pieces I’ve read. There’s the assumption that a self-published author is a never-published author or can’t-find-a-book-deal author.

The articles I’ve read also seem to refer to fiction writers when there are many other types of authors. I am, in fact, a cookbook author, another genre of author now in the fray. Let me explain a bit about cookbook authors.

The Unique Challenges of Writing Cookbooks

Cookbook authors are writers (we are not verbose home economic teachers – we are specialty writers with a second specialty in food. Some, as I am, are trained chefs in addition to being wordsmiths).

Consequently our challenges are even more than regular writers. We battle:

  • the plethora of amateur recipe blogs and zillions of free recipes (sometimes even our own when we encounter our own recipes on repository sites)
  • the charisma of celebrity chefs on TV
  • blogs or YouTube phenoms

In addition, our books require:

  • expensive food photography
  • complicated book design
  • our recipes need extraordinary copy editing
  • legions of volunteer recipe testers to make sure our recipes work.

When it comes to food photography in our cookbooks, many a time my advance (in traditional publishing) was a quarter that of the food photography/photographer budget.

In short, if you think self-publishing the average black-and-white 300 page paranormal novel is difficult, try self-publishing a 300 full colour cookbook.

No one would chose to do this alone – not even Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel Ray or the ex-Mrs. Billy Joel. Jamie Oliver and Ina Gartner (Stephen King or Joanna Rowlings) could well buy Random House ten times over (I imagine) and even they don’t self-publish. Why? Because even the well-heeled and well-connected use publishers for their cookbooks because it’s hugely difficult – even with a team assisting you.

(Did I also mention that recipes are not copyrightable, stolen constantly and generally free online).

Why Self-Publishing Just Made Sense

So it’s not about money – because given self-publishing garners you 70% royalties versus 15% royalties, if it was, wealthy authors would indeed, do it themselves.

On the flip side, what is more prestigious (or used to be) in saying you’re a Random author or Scribner author – at least, when that meant something and had a fiscal bottom line.

But here’s my beef: overall there is a premise that if you self-publish you are either an inferior or unaware author or (and this one blows me away) having had a reasonable advance, you somehow chose to ‘go rogue’ and venture into self-publishing due to a misplaced vanity press adventure spirit or thought you could out earn on your own what a traditional publisher was offering you.

As a traditional and well-established cookbook author, with a track record and solid book sales, I don’t see myself represented in these discussions and yet I am part of a silent majority – the mid list cookbook author.

Furthermore, let it be said that I find it hard to believe that any traditional author, with great book numbers, a brand, a platform and a plan would consider self-publishing if, in fact, their advances hadn’t shrunk dramatically (some 80-90%). It’s not a whim; it’s a have to choice.

After 25 years of great publishers, great cookbooks and what I thought was an upward-spiraling career, I self-published my first cookbook, When Bakers Cook, two months ago. I did this not because I wanted to but because I had to.

I love words, books, and—in my case—creating ambrosial baking I want to share with my readers. As publishing up-ended itself (blame transitions of the times, publishers being old school and late in their response to the new world of everything, the economy and life itself) I realized (with skepticism, then denial, anger, sadness and then finally, pro-activeness), I had three choices (and early retirement or marrying rich were in the trio):

  1. I could quit and be a WalMart greeter,
  2. I could take tiny (untenable) advances and supplement with freelance writing, or,
  3. I could dive into the Bermuda Triangle of self-publishing.

I’m a Taurus and we don’t quit so I chose Door 3# – self publish.

Learning Curves

It took me three years (when I was otherwise wallowing in self-doubt and existential, mid-life angst about my value as a baking author) to simply research the self-publishing partners and players.

I had no idea what formatting really meant and I had to cobble the budget to pay my editor, copy editor, indexer, proof-reader, photographer and publishing costs with CreateSpace and Kindle.

Let it also be said that some of the talented staff I hired were recently let go from the prestigious traditional publishers. And let it also be said that we can no longer assume that having a traditional book deal insures a ‘team’ of editorial and sales help – things are lean everywhere.

Speaking more directly to that, I recently was in Barnes and Noble and stumbled on a cookbook by a great colleague, by a huge publisher renowned for their wonderful cookbooks, and in this book was a 3-page addendum of text and recipe errors (my own self-published cookbook has but one error – and it’s a homonym). My point is, we can no longer assume perfect and quality is only the domain of traditional publishing.

Despite having a complete manuscript, self-publishing took me another 13 months to get my book out.

Self-Publishing Success

When Bakers Cook launched on December 20th 2013; thanks to a galley physical copy I had to send to one editor, it was later named one of the Best Cookbooks of 2013 by the Washington Post.

It continues to sell quite nicely, day in, day out. I am now working on my second self-published cookbook, due for this summer, as well as a book on tango and one on scent and probably I will indeed, publish my book of poetry. Why? Because …. I now can. And I am quietly and proudly building my own back list.

While I respect and miss my publishers (who I also feel bailed on their mid list authors), I am no longer waiting for a publisher (or worse, the sales force or book buyer at Barnes and Noble) to determine I am the next hot trend or its derivative, or have enough platform to merit a book deal which is about the same as four freelance features for the New York Times.

This is a new publishing world and what looks like something often isn’t. Twitter follows don’t necessarily distill down into book sales and a good Google ranking doesn’t make me the next Julia Child. But how we hate to release an old romance – however bogus it really is.

In those 13 months (and horrific learning curve) of self-publishing, as my spirits and confidence rose, I noticed the put-down features on self-publishing. I couldn’t fathom it.

I also tried many times to share what a great adventure this has been and continues to be. Few, if any colleagues, struggling themselves, wanted to hear. Overall, I’ve had a sense I’ve betrayed something or someone and crossed a line into a land I never wanted to visit, albeit as its sole resident and one who is beginning to thrive. That’s the part I still don’t get.

I’m not unique as a mid-list author having to face things I hadn’t anticipated. I am not unique in forging a new path but why would authors, both those traditionally published and those eking by be so disparaging to their fellow authors on the subject of self-publishing?

I never wanted to self-publish. I imagined a continuance of Random House, Harper-Collins book deals for my growing baking author platform, and more features in the New York Times. I envisioned more Christmas baskets from my publishers, publisher web staff to help me with my blog and website, publicists to set up my interviews and promotional spots.

Instead, I am now River Heart Press (my own imprint) and I am boldly going where I went when I was 12 years old and was editor-publisher of my own street newspaper The Goldman Times. That little girl knew then what this grown woman/adult author is just learning all over again. Better to publish than to perish.

My Take-Away

  • If you want to publish – whether you’re rife with talent or no one has dared tell you you’re not – do it.
  • If you are traditionally publishing and even established but have another genre of book your current publisher won’t consider – do it.
  • If you are incredibly talented, passionate and have wonderful book numbers and fate or the times have left you without a chair in the musical chairs of book deals – do it.

There are no ‘sides’ in all this – There is no either/or approach. There are pros and cons to it all but overall, between no book or an ‘ok’ self-published book (in content and production) and a potential Pulitzer prize winner (or thwarted or unattempted dream) languishing in your drawer or a Word file – I will take the mediocre (or not) self-published book. I suggest you do too.

And to my colleagues who try so hard to dismantle my efforts to stay afloat and bring my words and recipes to my readers, I say – jump into the pool. The water’s warm, there’s plenty of room.

Marcy GoldmanMarcy Goldman, is a professional pastry chef, cookbook author, writer and creative voice of Goldman has also been a frequent guest on Martha Stewart Sirius and a contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, Bon Appetit and Epicurious. Goldman’s best-selling cookbooks include When Bakers Cook, A Passion for Baking, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, The Best of, and the upcoming The Baker’s Four Seasons (Fall 2014) and a poetry collection called Love and Ordinary Thing (May 2014).

Photo: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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  1. Jo Ann Phelps

    There wasn’t a word (and there were lots of them) that I didn’t find useful Ms. Goldman. I take each one to heart. I’m not yet ready to self publish, however, when I am, I will not hesitate. Thank you!

  2. Marla Markman

    What a wonderfully, well-written and insightful article! I loved your perspective–and it so true!

  3. Ruth Schwartz

    As one of the “new” breed of publishing professionals who help authors navigate the sometimes confusing self-publishing process, I was thrilled to see this article, as well as the comments by Ernie Zelinski and others.

    Thank you, Joel, for leading the way in this new world.

  4. Ernie Zelinski

    I started self-publishing in 1989. My motto has always been,

    “Do it badly — but at least do it!”

    This motto has served me well. The following inspirational quotation also applies:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    Another principle that has helped me sell over 800,000 copies of my books worldwide is to challenge the “book experts” every chance I get.

    There is also the aspect of whether having a book published by a major publisher is that prestigious. An acquaintance of mine in my hometown around 5 years ago received a $200,000 advance from a major US publisher for his third novel (the first two didn’t sell that well). The third novel didn’t sell much better. Sales of his third book in both hardcover and paperback are fewer than 5,000 copies in the US so far. I estimate that the major publisher took a loss of over $220,000 on the book.

    Sure, my acquaintance got to keep the advance. After the agent’s fee of 15 percent, he received $170,000 in pretax earnings. On the other hand, my “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” was rejected by 35 publishers in 2004, including the major publisher who published the above mentioned novel. So I self-published. The book has sold over 200,000 copies so far and has earned me over $850,000 in pretax profits. Sales have for the most part increased every year and the book this year is selling better than it ever did. I am confident that it will be my first $1 million book.

    So the question is: Which situation would you rather be in as a writer? My acquaintance’s in which you are published by a major publisher, have received $170,000 in a non-refundable advance, but your book has sold fewer than 5,000 copies. (As for me, I would feel like a fraud if my book sold fewer than 5,000 copies and I received $170,000 non-refundable advance for it.)

    Or would you rather be a self-published author with a book that has sold over 200,000 copies, has earned several hundred thousands of dollars in profits, and may earn great profits for many more years to come?

    Incidentally, there are people who trash my self-published book but there are just as many people who trash my other successful book published by a major publisher. I always get inspiration from this quotation:

    “Pay no attention to the criticism of people who have never themselves written a notable work.”
    — Ezra Pound

    Insofar as quality, I will take the book with great information and mediocre editing over the book with mediocre information and impeccable editing. And I don’t care if the book was self-published or published by a traditional publisher.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  5. George Beinhorn

    Bless you for saying these things. I think the Internet has proved that gatekeepers are decidedly a good thing, whether the gatekeeper is an editor at a traditional publishing house, or an author’s internal “standards committee.” Clearly, your standards are very high – and brava! to you.

    Nowadays, the gatekeepers for self-publishers – those who advocate for the reader by serving as guardians of quality – I suspect will be the reviewers, the testimonial writers, and of course the Amazon commenters. Frankly, it’s a been a long time since I trusted quality-control at traditional publishing houses, or the blurb-writers in any genre. Is the new reader like me – I always open a book and read a paragraph at the start, middle, and end, to see how well the author sustains his energy, arguments, and quality control.

  6. Greg Strandberg

    Good insights.

    Don’t worry about these self-publishing brow-beaters. They’ll be proven wrong eventually, if they haven’t already.

  7. Simone

    I’m SO happy I went the self-publishing route. I just didn’t feel like dealing with a bunch of rejection letters and going into months of depression. I researched the hell out of self-publishing and went for it – and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing. Now I’m a published author and have been on Amazon’s top 100 a few times in my category – AND – I consider myself a self-publishing entrepreneur. Thanks for sharing your amazing experience.

  8. marcy goldman

    Lovely to see this ‘in print’ and so well designed! Thanks Joel,

    • Joel Friedlander

      Great story with lots of good advice for authors who are “on the edge” Marcy, thanks for your contribution.


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