To self-publish or not to self-publish? That is the question

Among the zillion and one things the internet has made more accessible, perhaps the best one for young writers is publishing. Perhaps.

In the 21st century, there’s no need to send off your precious manuscript to a publishing house, hope they’ll like it, and hope someone will buy it and read it. If you want an audience, you can easily start a blog or share your work in an online writers community like Figment or The Young Writers Society.

If you want to go big time, though, and potentially attract some readers other than your mom, grandmother, and Facebook friends, the miracles of the 21st century allow you to formally self-publish your work. With the help of sites like Smashwords, you can self-publish your book for e-readers.

You make royalties off your work, so with some talent, marketing savvy, and a bit of luck, self-publishing can make you a decent living. If yours e-books are successful enough, “real” publishers will approach you for a book deal. That’s what happened to the wunderkind of self-publishing–and native Minnesotan!–Amanda Hocking, the subject of this recent New York Times article. Hocking has already made millions by self-publishing e-books and has much more to come.

(Common sense disclaimer for our eager young writers: while you should certainly believe in yourself and your writing, please don’t count on making as much money as she has. Go to college. But if you do make millions, please donate some to The Loft.)

But what if you’re hesitant about the e-reader phenomenon? Maybe you don’t want to spend the money on the device, or maybe, like me, you believe in the power of a good old-fashioned book with pages made of actual paper? What if you want the thrill of seeing your name on an actual hard cover?

Writer/blogger Cheryl Shireman celebrates the fact that writers no longer need a publisher’s approval. There is no need to join the “slush pile” of unread manuscripts in a publishing house if you can do for yourself everything you once needed a publisher for.

On the other hand, that means that we all have to wade through the slush pile, as Eric Felten of the Wall Street Journal laments in this article. I find his argument a bit snobby, but he has a point: When every Tom, Dick, and Harry can publish his own book, how can we tell what’s worthwhile and what’s not? As writers, we may resent publishers for first rejecting us and then keeping most of the profits, but as readers, can’t we appreciate how that barrier (usually) guarantees quality?

As writers, you should also beware of some pitfalls of self-publishing. It can be complicated and risky. You could easily be lured in to “indie” self-publishing sites like Lulu, which is “free to get started,” but you may end up spending tons of money without selling a a single book, as bookseller and blogger Jarek Steele warns. If the Lulu method appeals to you, don’t jump in until you’ve read some advice, like David Carnoy’s, on how to self-publish in a professional, profitable manner .

I suppose the moral of the story is that there are positives and drawbacks to any mode of publication. At the end of the day, though, isn’t is great that young writers can get some readers without a publisher’s help?

Have you used any of these publication method? Do you have any thoughts, comments, or advice? Please comment below.


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