Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress

Kevin Larimer

I also have several authors who started out in the traditional-publishing realm, Jana DeLeon and Courtney Milan. Last year, Jana was doing so well digitally publishing her backlist as well as her new frontlist titles that she was able to quit her day job for the first time in a decade of writing. She even hit the USA Today best-seller list on her own—something her previous publisher could never do for her. Courtney is having good success as well. She makes four times what she made with her traditional publisher and she even hit the New York Times best-seller list on her own. I’d say these gals are “making a splash” even if they aren’t household names. Even today, I could probably rattle off the names of fifteen self-published writers who are making it big this year. It’s becoming quite common, actually. Most of it is happening in the genre of romance, but Hugh and other rising stars are not writing in that arena and [are] finding success.

For an agent, the tough part is determining how a traditional publisher and a self-published author can work together. Some of these independent authors are making so much money on their own, traditional publishers literally can’t offer enough money to make it tempting to partner. If a self-published author is making a hundred fifty thousand dollars a month, it’s hard to seriously consider a traditional offer for, say, half a million dollars for two books—for all rights, including digital. Is having the print component or bookstore distribution worth it? Probably not. However, many independent authors would seriously consider it in exchange for something more reasonable, such as a finite term of license or a truly reasonable sales threshold…. Independent authors don’t want to give up all rights with no hope of getting their work back at some point if a publisher loses interest. It would then be lost income for them.

Now self-published authors have made the leap to traditional publishing and love it. But many are regretting it. These days, part of my job is to make sure that I routinely have conversations with publishers, and to keep the door open to any possibilities that make sense as my independent clients become even more successful.

Nash: I think it is important to look at this in the larger context. Given the dramatic increase in the total amount of content available, and the velocity at which it travels, we’re seeing a shift from a world of a few handfuls of million-copy sellers and tens of thousands that sell four figures in units, to one where there is one series every two years that will sell ten million–plus, and millions that sell hundreds, or tens, or ones.

In other words, the distribution of success has become even more skewed. This also means that publishers have to focus on “tentpole properties,” a term they stole from the film business. Now, self-publishing is actually a pretty good purveyor of tentpoles because [tentpoles are created] by consumer response. They’re memes. Gangnam Style. Although we see that for those numbers to be maxed out, you want the infrastructure of a media company. Is that necessarily a publisher? Not purely, no; it could be a movie studio. What exactly happens there is less about abstracting the attributes of publishing or self-publishing and favoring one over the other, and more a function of the specific personality of the writer and the specific cultural and economic context of the books.

In terms of the ones selling a degree or two below—say, steadily in the range of fifty thousand to five hundred thousand books—that is largely the province of institutional publishing. That’s not a stable place for a solo enterprise because velocity is critical: Sales at that stage happen because of consumer buzz, people want to eat in the Chinese restaurant that everyone else is eating in. Self-published authors either zoom through that fifty thousand to five hundred thousand unit number, or they don’t even come close to it.

Now, all the forgoing has to do with sales. There are authors publishing for reasons other than sales, so the question becomes what type of splash, what impact do they want to have on the world. And there you face a very fundamental fact that, all other things being equal, it is typically easier for a team to make a splash than a person. So whether your self-publishing goal is to raise visibility for yourself as a nutritionist or as a 
human-resources consultant or as a poet, having a team of experienced people supporting you makes it easier. At that point, then, you’re starting to make a series of judgments—appraising your own skills, ascertaining skills to which you have ready access via love or money, determining your precise goals, deciding how you want to monetize (i.e., it need not be through selling books), and so forth. These things simply aren’t binary, even though the media, and some tweets and some panel discussions, can make them seem that way.

Ciotta: I agree with Kristin and Richard. Coming from a self-published author’s point of view, there’s the terrifying BookScan that traditionally published authors must contend with. To be blunt, if you’re not selling the way a publishing house wants you to, you’re out. Even great writers are under the gun. It’s all about profit-and-loss margins.

As I discuss in my self-publishing guide, if you want to be a successful self-published or traditionally published author in today’s market, your mind-set should be: “It’s all about the money, honey.” You have to be the businessperson and the author. Your job is to write a great book and sell it. And if you’re a self-published author, it’s heightened big-time.

Since independent authors are becoming so business savvy—and, as Kristin noted, many are making much more money using print-on-demand services, other print services, and being digitally published than being traditionally published—self-
publishing is only going to keep flourishing. Are more than three to four self-published books making a splash in a year? Absolutely!

If, as Richard says, it’s easier for a team to make a splash than a person—and Jennifer, you discuss in your e-book the various people and services you employed during the publishing of I, Putin—then what would you say to a writer who is starting out, alone, on the path to self-publishing a book?

Ciotta: Always start with this in mind: Write a good book. Make sure the book is professionally edited, preferably by an editor who has knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style. With regard to the technical side of self-publishing, if you can do it yourself and do it well then go for it. For example, I’m a book-manuscript editor by day, thus I edited my own books. However, I’m not a book-cover designer at all, nor am I a formatter. So I paid for professionals to do these tasks for me.


so much misinformation

The only thing true about this article by these 3 interviewees is when they say self-publishing is here to stay. Other than that, there's quite a bit of hypocrisy and misinformation being thrown about.

If self-publishers are bringing in millions, it's news to the millions who have self-published. It's actually the self-publishing industry that has grown up around self-publishers making the millions: Cover artists, fly-by-night editors, author services charging exhorbitant rates, only to have these books languish, known only to friends and family, never to be seen by strangers. Sockpuppet reviews. Dismal Amazon ratings. Haranguing of friends and family on Facebook to buy/review whether they've read the book or not "just drop me a 5".

I'll continue to trust the gatekeepers to continue publishing authors I like, books I like, and I'll depend on word of mouth from trusted friends, none of who have ever recommended a self-published book. 

Now, why not do an interview about the real truth of self-publishing? About how only a very few sell even in the hundreds. Look at the dismal Amazon ratings of self-published books, pick a few and then interview THEM. That's where you'll find your millions. 


Actually, the famous author Stephen King self-published. In my view self-publishing can be a first step in the career of a writer. When you consider that the publishing industry has only 4 major publishers who much prefer scandal bios these days or celebrity names, it's the publishing industry that's done itself in. Too many editors in these publishing houses act like maniacal, autocratic powermongers. When the attitude is "I have your writing career in the palm of my hand," self-publishing begins to look far more appealing than dealing with editors of the major publishing companies. 

Also, there's the bizarre conundrum for writers who are unagented. No agent? No solicitation of your work to publishers. No published work? No agent wants an unpublished author. What kind of nonsense is that if not overzealous commercialism of the literary world. When money is the only reason to write,'s not good enough for me. I write my novels because they interest others. Those who are not interested? So be it. Writers are like starving artists...we know going in there's a dearth of competition out there. Those who can stand it, do. Those who can't don't make it. 

Too many people will point to

Too many people will point to the outliers as "proof" that self-publishing is a grand success for all, when the truth is that most self-publishers will barely sell anything. Some because they just can't write, others because they don't know how to effectively market or publicize, others because their books are poorly produced (again, through lack of knowledge). The lack of print editions, or audiobooks, is another drawback. Many have been told it won't cost them a dime, when in fact, to produce a professional level book, most writers haven't a clue, and that means laying out some cash for editing and cover design, at the very least.

I wouldn't actively discourage a writer from self-publishing, but I would strongly encourage them to educate themselves about publishing first, and that includes trade publishing. Look at the biases of the people pushing one into SP. And as always, remember that if it sounds too good to be true...

Darrell Lindsey says...

Self-publishing is the easy way out for some people. But there is no substitute for good writing and good marketing. Those who have had self-published book success could probably teach some of the major publishers a thing or two!

Darrell Lindsey
Author of Edge Of The Pond ( Popcorn Press, 2012)

Self-publishing ... Go ahead; write, publish, promote!

Self-publishing is the way to go today. I started back in 2008 with a property preservation book -- and that initial title made it possible for me to quit my day job. 

Self-publishing opened up a whole new way of life for me:   live about half the year in the Caribbean (other in Atlanta, writing still), with the sea just in the distance, working on romance novellas -- and non-fiction works when I need a creative break. I pay my bills and fill my belly with income from the books I've written. I'm certainly not rich, but the point is you can earn a decent living self-publishing your own books -- and have the freedom to do what you want with your time when you're not writing. And contrary to what many believe, it does not have to cost you an arm and a leg  to publish and promote your work.  Personally, I spend less than $20 bucks producing each of my books. To upload to BN and Amazon is free; you can create your own ebook covers using simple programs like Paint; you can buy photos for less than a few dollars on internet photo sites; and you can promote your books yourself with article marketing and social media. 

Mind you, it's not easy (re: self-publishing is a REAL business), but it's soooo possible. 

The key, I've found, personally, to be a successful self-publisher, is production/volume and marketing.  You have to produce -- and you have to produce A LOT -- and you have to market, period.  (You also need a thick skin because you'll have naysayers in both ears.)

Good Lord, go for it! With outlets like Amazon and BN, it's such a viable option for the writer ready to get their stories in the hands of actual readers -- vs. just in the hands of agencies and pub houses that can turn your work down for a myriad of reasons that, ironically, may not have anything to do with your story or your writing.

Go ahead; write, publish, promote! Good luck to you. :)

Fantastic article on the pros

Fantastic article on the pros and cons of self-publishing.  I have always been leery of self-publishing  because it is such a lonely endeavor with no outside support.  But I love the idea of becoming a hybrid author, with an agent who understands and even encourages self-publishing!  Who says the publishing industry isn't getting more progressive?  Janelle