Self-Publishing: It’s Not a Backup Plan

Photo credit: luipermom on Flickr
I’ve noticed a trend on the web as of late, or at least, I’ve noticed it in the comments here at Writability, and it’s something I think is worth discussing. You see, oftentimes when talking about the very real possibility of not getting published (whether it’s a WIP or at all), invariably, people will say something to the effect of well, there’s always self-publishing and I die a little inside every time I see it.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t think self-publishing is a valid option—quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is that a lot of writers view self-publishing as a backup plan should their attempts to traditionally publish fail, and truthfully, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it.

Self-publishing isn’t meant to be a Plan B just as the e-book marketplace isn’t meant to be a last-ditch effort to sell failed manuscripts. Because it’s technically possible to go indie completely on your own, people sometimes take self-publishing lightly, but the decision to self-publish should never be based solely on the fact that you couldn’t sell your novel traditionally.

The hard truth is this: if you find that you can’t sell your manuscript through traditional means, there’s likely to be a reason for it. Now, sometimes it’s because you didn’t try long enough, or the market isn’t right for your manuscript, or you still haven’t developed strong query letter writing skills. Many times, however, it’s simply because you’re just not ready.

I know, no one wants to hear that. No one wants to be told that they aren’t ready for publication, because in the moment, you feel like you’re ready (otherwise you wouldn’t be trying to get published in the first place). No one wants to hear that they need more time to hone their writing skills, or that they’re going to have to spend even more time revising their already revised-to-death manuscript, but guys, sometimes that’s just the truth. It’s not pretty. It’s not fun. But if you can accept that you need more time to become a better writer or write a better manuscript before attempting to publish again, you may very well save yourself a major heartache.

Because the truth is, if your manuscript isn’t ready to be traditionally published, then it’s not ready to be self-published, either.

Deciding to go indie is a big decision. Self-publishing is a lot of hard work: it takes a monetary investment to do it right (editors and cover artists aren’t free), and the hardest work has only just begun when you finally do hit “upload.” It’s an enormous investment and when done correctly with a well-polished manuscript, you can certainly reap some significant rewards. Done incorrectly, however, and you’re only hurting yourself in the long run.

I know it’s not easy to wait, especially when the power to publish is literally just a few mouse clicks away. I know it’s not simple to say I’m not ready to be published yet, and I know it’s far from painless to put a manuscript that you truly loved and had dreams for in the drawer. I know that.

But I also know that dealing with the repercussions of self-publishing before you’re ready isn’t easy, either. And that’s a heartache that you can save yourself from if you give yourself more time to improve and reach the level you’ll need to be at to finally publish.

No, it’s not easy, but no one ever said this writing thing would be. But then again, you didn’t choose this path because it was a simple one, you chose it because you’re a writer, and that’s what you do.

What do you think? Have you ever considered self-publishing a backup plan?


Laura Pauling said...

I never considered it a back up plan. Once I saw the benefits and realized the changes and narrowing of the traditional market - I knew that signing a traditional deal was much more than writing a great manuscript. You can't really compare the two. I know too many self published works that are best sellers who were rejected by agents and New York to say that if NY didn't want you, then you probably shouldn't self publish.

Of course, it might be that way for some. But what I've come to realize is that readers want story. And the most well written story will flop both traditionally and Indie - if readers don't want it.

Alivia Anders said...

To all the current, future, and potential authors reading this post and the comments: Listen to Ava on this. Self-publishing is NOT a back-up plan.

Most like to think that self-publishing is as easy as typing in a Word document, saving it, and posting it up on Kindle/Nook's respective websites and let the cash flow. Our social media networks and news casts across the globe like to let us think that way. Nowadays, most indie/self-published authors are trying to blend into the realm of traditionally published authors with smart covers, perfect formatting, hardcovers and paperbacks, the works.

But all of the above takes a TON of work. Either you're doing it yourself and going 'full-indie' or you're paying someone to do it, which alarmingly becomes pricey very fast. Some places will charge in the upwards of $350 for a single cover!

There used to be a time where self-publishers tossed in a little work, and they were labeled for publishing for vanity. That isn't the case now with self-publishers. We're here to make a mark, and appeal straight to the market, not go through channels of big corps running the fields.

Before you jump on the self-publishing wagon, you really do need to consider it as a separate entity, not a back-up plan. Because once you take the self-published route, time will vanish. You will need to dedicate a lot to making your book(s) sing through the muck and mire out today.

Jen said...

Self-publishing IS a back-up plan for some people--and guess what: that's okay. Success is personal. If your dream is to land a big house publishing contract, then publishing your book yourself may never truly feel like success. To other people, self-publishing is the perfect way to get their work out there and they couldn't be happier. If that's you, great, but you have no right to frown on or judge those who are trying to accomplish something different--not better, just different--but also believe in their work enough to say, "If all else fails, then I still want my work out there." That doesn't mean they are not taking it seriously, and it doesn't mean they think any less of the work that went straight to self-pub.

Daphne Gray-Grant said...

I self-published my non-fiction book ( and it was NOT a back up plan; it was my first choice! But then, I have a well-established newsletter with lots of loyal readers and a shopping cart on my site. I've also produced books before (I worked for a newspaper company) so I knew how to work with graphic artists, copy editors and negotiate with printers. I agree -- it shouldn't be a back-up choice. It's a very reasonable FIRST CHOICE. But, as you say, you need to know what you're doing.

Ava Jae said...

I certainly didn't mean to imply that all writers who are rejected by agents or publishers won't find success in in self-publishing--in fact, I know there are more than a handful of authors who have found success that way. What I was trying to say was more that we should be cautious. Self-publishing isn't an easy answer that should be taken lightly, as I'm sure you know, it takes a lot of time and hard work and it's something that should be thoroughly considered before diving in.

On the other hand, I definitely agree with you about it coming down to the readers. If they want the story, it'll do well regardless of how it was published. If not, well...

Ava Jae said...

Your point is exactly what I was getting at, Alivia. The decision to self-publish is a huge one, and it's absolutely not something that should be decided on a whim or just because traditional publishing didn't work. Choosing to go indie is a career choice, and it takes a huge amount of work before and after you publish if you want to be successful at it.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, it seems I wasn't quite clear enough on exactly what I meant by this post. Please allow me to clarify.

I am in no way judging anyone who chooses to put their work out there through self-publishing avenues. I have a lot of respect for people who are brave enough to go out and put themselves out there. It's not an easy decision.

What I was trying to say was that I think we should be cautious. I'm not saying that if you got rejected by agents or publishers that it's impossible to do well as a self-published author--there are in fact more than a handful of examples that prove otherwise. But self-publishing is a big decision and I believe that your reasons for choosing to go indie should be more than just not being able to publish traditionally. Choosing to go indie is an enormous, career-changing decision and if you want to be successful, you need to put a lot of work into it before and after you publish. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that.

On another note, I agree with you 100% that success is personal. What means success to one writer can be entirely different from what success means to another--which is why (among other reasons) self-publishing is a great option for one writer, but may not be a good choice for another. A lot of it comes down to deciding what it is that you consider success.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion and you are absolutely free to disagree. I always welcome an open discussion. :)

Ava Jae said...

Whatever choice you make--traditional or independent--it's absolutely essential that you are informed. The last thing you want is to be knee-deep in either process only to find that it's not what you thought it was because you weren't well informed before diving in.

Joseph Eastwood said...

I always love your posts, Ava. (I just don't comment on them enough.)

It's so true. I've also heard some people say that if they can't find a traditional publisher that they will self-publish, and all I can do is roll my eyes at it.

Alivia also makes a great point. Being an indie author is harder than people think, as there is so much work that needs to go into it. Cover art, editing, promotion, etc.

But I'm glad that I chose to go indie from the off.

OutdoorWoman said...

I stop reading 90% of the self-published novels I start because of poor editing. Spelling and grammar matter. When the first sentence is cliche and "had" appears six times in the first three-sentence paragraph (no exaggeration) I put the book down. Your best work matters regardless of which publishing route you choose.

Irene said...

True words. It's not easy to admit you're not ready yet (been there, done that, multiple times). But even though the truth hurts, it's the lying about it that will kill your spirit.

Carradee said...

I'd think it depends on what you mean by "backup plan".

I have a short story that's finishing up a good year of going around to pro markets. No bites, so far, and if none come soon, I'll be self-publishing it. It's related to another story I've already released, and some fans have already told me they very much like that first story.

That could be called a backup plan, but it's an inherent part of my business plan.

So in that way, I don't have an issue with self-publishing being a backup plan.

Margaret Alexander said...

I think preparing a manuscript for publication in either format takes a huge amount of dedication and time. A lot of factors can affect whether you're chosen to be traditionally published, but that shouldn't stop you from fulfilling your dream. The fact is, anyone who decides to go indie is going to at least *try* to get traditionally published. Some will try harder than others. Obviously, if they don't succeed, they'll stick to self-publishing. So long as you know what you're in for and are willing to put in the work to get it to where it's material someone would pay money to read, I don't see why they shouldn't go for it. No, it's not a backup plan, but it's true that all self-published folks try to get into the big houses. It's the marketing that's the issue there. With the big guns, they have a much greater shot at selling their novel. I'm not sure if anyone can actually decide that your novel isn't ready to be published, so long as you've gone through it with an editor and beta readers. People have different tastes. But I agree that either way it needs your full dedication. Good post, Ava :)

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Joseph! A lot of people don't realize just how much goes into self-publishing. It's not just uploading your work and sitting back to see what happens--it's editing, formatting, cover art and endless marketing, then doing it all over again. Going indie is a huge commitment and it's a decision that you have to make while well-informed.

On another note, I'm glad to hear that you've been enjoying your experience as an indie author. :)

Ava Jae said...

"Your best work matters regardless of which publishing route you choose."

This. This a thousand times.

Ava Jae said...

Agreed. The good thing about it is that in this case, time works for us, not against us, and just because you may not be ready now doesn't mean you (or your manuscript) never will be.

Ava Jae said...

I understand your plan and I think your case is a little different from the backup plan I'm referring to. I'm not well-versed in the short story market, but your plan sounds smart, especially as your story is related to another that you've released and developed an audience for and I wish you the best with it. :)

Bicultural Mama said...

Good advice, this will be something I'll consider in my plans for my book. Thanks.

Mark Oetjens said...

Traditional publishing never even crossed my mind. I was always going to self-publish. The fact that my 1st book crashed and burned hasn't deterred me at all. I look at it as a rather expensive learning experience. And believe me, I learned a lot. I'm currently working on my 2nd book, and this time I know what mistakes not to make.

Angela Ackerman said...

Well said. Too many people are impatient to publish, and they turn to SP. this is a shame, because often the stories are good, the writing might even have some brilliance to it, but because a person was in a rush and didn't wait to develop their writing, the book is a shadow of what it could be.

Not saying all SP is bad...I've read some great stuff! Buts some are ready, and some (many) are not. Be patient. Work on your craft. It's your name on the cover, and that should mean a person went above and beyond to make it spectacular. :)


Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Margaret! I think you have some really interesting thoughts, here. While I do agree with your conclusion that regardless of which path you choose, it requires your full dedication, I'm not sure I would say that everyone who goes indie will try to get traditionally published. While that is the case for many, there are some out there who have on more than one occasion turned down the opportunity to become traditionally published because they believed that continuing to self-publish was a better option for them. By and large, however, I would think that most indie authors would at least consider the option of traditional publishing if they had the opportunity, but I don't think every one of them actively pursues it (as you said, some will try harder than others).

That being said, as long as you make a thoughtful, well-informed decision, I don't think there's a wrong choice.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks! Best of luck with your writing!

Ava Jae said...

That's a really fantastic way of looking at it, Mark. Our mistakes along the way can prove to be fantastic learning experiences if we view them with the right attitude, and it certainly sounds like you've made the most of your experience.

I wish you the best with your book!

Ava Jae said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Angela, and honestly I have nothing to add that wouldn't repeat what you already said.

Author Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Self-publishing shouldn't be taken lightly. And I understand the desire to (gently) let people know they're not ready to publish.

...if you find that you can’t sell your manuscript through traditional means, there’s likely to be a reason for it.

The reasons:
1) for 80% of the people in the slush pile, it's because their manuscript is not (yet) publishable.
2) for 15% of the people in the slush pile, it's because their manuscript isn't what publishers are buying right now
3) for 4% of the people in the slush pile (or less), their manuscript is publishable, publishers are interested, but they've already got werewolf/fairie/vampire story just like it already in their queue.

The remaining 1% get published because they have a publishable manuscript that publishers think they can sell in very large quantities.


Self-publishing is a very viable option for the 20% of people in the slush pile with publishable manuscripts. To say to those people, "Don't use self-publishing as a back-up" if they want to try trad-pub first, is essentially telling them to forgo what could be a profitable business that supports their writing, i.e. selling work that's publishable but that NYC happens not to be buying right now.

I've been very happy with my self-publishing, and I'll continue to do so, but I also have an MG manuscript that I plan to try to trad-pub (because there are advantages that trad-pub still offers for that market). If it doesn't sell traditionally, I will absolutely self-publish it. There is no reason not to, and many reasons to do it -most importantly, I will be putting my work in the hands of readers who will love it.

And that's a good thing. :)

Holly Worton said...

No, I've never considered self publishing to be a backup plan. I've considered it to be my ONLY plan. I know enough traditionally published authors to have heard the horror stories. I don't want to take whatever cover design they decide on. I want to work with a cover designer to create something that I like. The same goes for editing, proofing, design, etc. I want to pick and choose the people I work with for creating my finished product. I don't want to take what's given to me.

Andi-Roo said...

I found this really interesting because I have always wondered about the appeal of going indie. To me it's one or the other, not one if the other doesn't work out. I know for myself I will pursue traditional publishing, because that's what I've always had in mind. I am way too undisciplined & lacking in book-world savvy to undertake that sort of thing on my own. It would never occur to me to use self-publishing as a back-up plan; for me, that's not a plan at all! I have utmost respect for those who are able to make it work, & I salute them heartily! :)

Ava Jae said...

You make an interesting point. For about 97% of the topics I write about, there are always exceptions to the rule, and I think that for the twenty or so percent that you mention, self-publishing could be a consideration. My point here isn't so much to say that you can't self-publish if you tried to publish traditionally, it's that I think we should be cautious and make these sort of decisions carefully and thoughtfully. The fact of the matter is that unfortunately many writers jump into self-publishing too soon. For some it's too soon because they're manuscripts aren't ready (such as the eighty percent that you listed) and for others it's because they weren't prepared to make a full commitment to it yet. When this happens, it's unfortunate because more times than not, their novels are left to quietly fade away online.

I suppose I probably didn't explain it as well as I wanted to, because I've had a few people make similar points, but the main thing I'm trying to say is what you started your comment with: self-publishing shouldn't be taken lightly.

As for your MG work, I wish you all the best. Considering how well your self-publishing efforts have gone, I don't think you have much to worry about, even if the traditional publishing bit doesn't work out. :)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Susan!

Ava Jae said...

Sounds like self-publishing is definitely the right option for you, then. The amount of control you have with self-publishing is probably tenfold the amount you have with traditional, so since that's important to you, it sounds like it's the way to go. :)

Ava Jae said...

A lot of people, especially at first, don't realize that self-publishing isn't an easy route out--it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and investment to be a successful self-published author, and it's a commitment that can't be taken lightly. It's certainly not for everyone, and like you, I absolutely respect those who have chosen to take that path. Whichever way you go, it's not an easy decision!

Robert Cubelo said...

I found this really interesting because I have always wondered about the
appeal of going indie. To me it's one or the other, not one if the
other doesn't work out. I know for myself I will pursue traditional
publishing, because that's what I've always had in mind. I am way too
undisciplined & lacking in book-world savvy to undertake that sort
of thing on my own. It would never occur to me to use self-publishing as
a back-up plan; for me, that's not a plan at all! I have utmost respect
for those who are able to make it work, & I salute them heartily!


Self Book Publishing

Ava Jae said...

Hello Robert! You're completely right about the extra responsibilities of the self-published author--particularly the discipline, although I would argue that discipline is important regardless of the route you choose, traditional or independent. :)

As for the appeal of self-publishing, it certainly exists, you just have to be sure 150% that it's what you want to do before jumping in. If you aren't fully committed, you won't do well, and it'll only hurt you in the long run.

Thanks for commenting!

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