As I understand it, 'breaking into the business' is expensive in terms of time. If I have a decent product should I put in the effort, or is self-publishing (e.g. with Amazon) enough?

7 Answers 7


Find a publisher.


  1. Are you good at marketing? A publisher has professionals that will do everything in their power to make your book a success. Can you do that as well as them? And a publisher doesn't only market your book, they also find a great cover artist (and instruct him to create a good cover), deal with the printer, manage the logistics of getting paper and electronic copies in stores, etc.

  2. You might not be able to look at your own book from the distance necessary to evaluate it truthfully. Maybe you are not yet ready to publish and need to write a few more books to learn the craft or an able editor to work with you to perfect the current one. Contrary to popular belief, the editorial process leads to good books, while most self-published novels are [vulgar word for "not good"].

  3. Even if you could do 1 and 2, they would eat up your writing time. Maybe you'd rather write your next book instead of wasting your creative energy on what an industry was created to do for you. Even the rare self-publishing successes such as Amanda Hocking pay others to do the non-writing for them. Elle Casey can "self-publish" because her husband does the managing for her.

  4. Self-published success is rare. It can work for established authors but newcomers that succeed in self-publishing are the exception.

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    IMO, reason #2 should be #1. My recommendation is to "cheat": Take your draft to 3 respected publishers. They'll read and review it for free before asking you to sign, and they will give you very honest feedback---the most important thing IMO. It costs relatively little time to do this. Later when you tell them you've shopped around, it's a good way to negotiate the highest royalty possible. It will also be very interesting to see where the publishers' feedback agrees, and where they disagree. And in the end, you can always walk away from them all without signing.
    – DrZ214
    Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 4:48
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    DrZ214 - what publishers do you work with that give feedback before signing a contract? Do you just mean a rejection or acceptance? I guess they're a form of feedback, but they're not really too valuable...
    – Kate S.
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 14:24
  • But consider also how much it costs to have all of those professionals running around arranging cover designs, working up marketing campaigns, paying sales agent commissions, adding overheads etc.. That is why on every sales of a $7.99 paperback your royalty payment will be around 30c Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 14:54
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    "Self-published success is rare". So is success through normal publishing channels, especially when you consider the rejection rate on manuscripts. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 14:56
  • @KateS. Yes indeed -- a publisher of my acquaintance used to refer some unsuccessful manuscript submitters to third-party services where it looked like they would benefit from the sort of in-depth proofing-and-editing work that was beyond the scope of what they were prepared to do. Then they got accused (on internet forums of course, so nice and public) of being a shill for the service. So now rejected manuscripts all get the same polite rejection letter with no other feedback at all. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 15:33

I agree with most of the points made in other answers here. But I would add this, having come from a conference where numerous, published authors shared their thoughts on this question.

First, you need to examine one big assumption: "If I have a decent product..." I won't say you don't, however, it was pointed out, human nature being what it is:

  • 1) For the vast majority of aspiring authors, the first novel (and second, and third) aren't really that good. It takes a lot of writing to be able to write well.

  • 2) Human beings are very bad at judging their own recent work (and your friends and relatives are not likely to give you the frank opinions as you might need).

Thus, the risk for new authors who self-publish is that their first novel is mediocre (or worse) and now their name is attached to that. Even if they vastly improve with later books, it is too late, their name is tainted.

That being said, if you go through the traditional publishing route, numerous sets of eyes will review & edit your stuff. If you can get past that gauntlet, you can be assured you have probably not given birth to a giant turd.

Of course, if you go the traditional publisher route, you have to be prepared for a LOT of rejection (Harry Potter books were rejected by numerous publishers).

Full disclosure: I am not a published author, I am just repeating what several published authors said in a large conference (and some of them self-publish too). Just more stuff to think about. If I self-published, I'd probably still consider engaging an editor, to get that non-biased feedback.

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    Still, if it weren't up to typical publisher standards, I wouldn't want to throw away months and months of work. What's about self-publishing under a pseudonym? If it's successful, great. That's my new name. If not, no big deal? Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 20:47
  • Very good argument for trad. publishing although I believe that they are blood sucking parasites exploiting desperate authors. As Tim says, at least if it is trade published you are pretty much guarantied a decent product. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 0:22
  • @horsehair Chalk it down as "trade practice". It doesn't have to be published to be a net good, as long as you learned something from writing it. I have at least one novel that I've given as ebooks to a couple of people, who have said they liked it; I am somewhere between "hesitant" and "determined not to" hand it to a publisher as a manuscript and self-publishing without at least a couple of assisted editing passes would definitely be "less than it could be". I don't consider the time and effort spent as wasted, or thrown away. I learned lots, which is now helpful.
    – Vatine
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 11:19

Based on the various posts and articles on this hot debate, the general advice is:

  • First try to traditionally publish, they take care of everything and put the book though the wringer to make it a more salable product, distribute through channels you can't access and reach a great lot more readers than you ever could. Plus, there is a stronger validation and status symbol as a traditionally published author. In exchange of their expertise, however, they grant the author very low royalties' rates. It also may take a couple of years before you see the book in print, and longer before they deem fit to release any royalties to you.

  • If after up to a year you receive only negative, or non existent, replies, re-take a good critical look at your book, the problem may be there. If you are still convinced that the ms is fine as is and should have been picked for publication, then self-publish.

  • Once you have a backlist of 5 books or more and an established readership, the choice becomes harder and that 70% self-publishing royalty rate has never been so alluring. Some authors choose an exclusive side, but most use both resources and may use self-publishing for out of print books, un-commercial novellas, novel's companions, or books from the rejected pile.

  • Also, although some sources argue that there are bridges between the 2 camps, it is rarely true. If you self-publish you have used-up your First Publications Rights, so the book may only be taken up by a traditional publisher if sales are stellar.

As to your second question:

"As I understand it, 'breaking into the business' is expensive in terms of time. If I have a decent product should I put in the effort, or is self-publishing (e.g. with Amazon) enough?"

Some self-important authors clamor, rant, argue, campaign and generally foam-at-the-mouth with marketing pro-activity.

They are so convinced that their book is a marvel that they flog that poor horse until it is nothing but bones. Marketing is not a cure-all; if your project doesn't sell well, fold and repeat. As a writer your job is to write and marketing is a very far fourth or fifth priority. Steven King says it takes about 1 million edited words, or about 10 books to start to master writing.

So, instead of being a quixotic character fighting giants to be heard over the general silence their mediocrity engenders, burn that pile of dung and write us a fresh one.

Some non-fiction books can gain great exposure with an aggressive marketing campaign, but less so for novels. If you are a fiction writer, your job is to write. So, don't go losing time shoving your product down unto reticent throats.

Yet, some effort on your part is warranted for self-published works. A self-published author is a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur.

It takes quite some timer to self-edit, to format the manuscript in different e-formats, to design the cover art….

As to Marketing, without going over board you need at least some. So, use social networks like Facebook, create an author web-page, blog from time to time…

I hope this was helpful.

EDIT 1, the cover...

Speaking of book covers, I can’t emphasize its importance enough. Many authors who put great time into writing, editing and marketing their books literally shoot themselves in the foot with a substandard amateurish book cover.

People do judge books by their covers. It is one of the great difference between self-published and traditional publishing. That is also why traditional Houses normally do not allow the author to have any creative control over the cover design. It is just too damn important, much more important than the book content as far as the publisher is concerned.

The cover is what sells, not the content!

or as David Aldridge rephrases: "The cover gets it off the shelf, the first part of the content makes the sale."

The content is there to generate a satisfied reader, a fan base, repeat business and recommendations. But the decision to buy is mostly based on looks, i.e. the first impression: the book cover, jacket hook, synopsis, and sometimes a couple of paragraphs. Even an established writer and famous publishing house only marginally help make the decision to buy.

So, either buy a professionally made cover art, or learn to use Photoshop or Illustrator like a pro.

N.B. obviously, since most kindle book covers are black and white, this doesn't apply as much in that case.

EDIT 2, from comments

Does anyone have any backing for the "Some trad. houses even tend to reject new manuscripts by previously self-published authors,(...)" part? It feels like a rumour more than a fact, to me

I edited it out since some feel that unsourced material is worthless. also some other books say the reverse.

my original post was

"Some traditional houses even tend to reject new manuscripts by previously self-published begining or early carrer authors, so you may have to send the manuscript through an alias to start with a clean slate with those traditional publishers."

I read it somewhere and it also makes sense given my understanding of human nature. Since i can't find the source and some posters disagree, i deleted that though i beleive it applies.

You rolled back the "over 90% of the profits" edit - do you have a source for THAT number? Because again, from personal experience, 90% isn't a good number

I beleive that Over 90% of sales is a good approximation that illustrates that the publishers take most of the money. Yet, given that several people disagree with that approximation and perfer a vague statement, i edited it out.

If you prefer vagueness over approximation, then the publishers take an arm and a leg, demand a pirate’s ransom, get the lion’s share and ride the gravy train while the author gets pin money, chicken feed, or a gnat's eyelash worth of royalties.

My personal experience is that there's no trouble going from self-pubbed to trade pubbed, so in the absence of any authority to the contrary, I feel like we should delete that line. Thoughts?

As for the traditional publishers versus self-published rivalry, or lack of thereof, I feel that it depends. Human beings are subjective and very judgy. It is like dating, and judging someone using internet dating over the real thing, some will think there is something wrong with that person, else why would he/she use online services.

If the present manuscript is judged only on its own merit, then yes it is a product and there is no issue as to its provenance. However, if it is the author who is evaluated by an agent, a publishing editor, or the likes, who is aiming to establish a long term relationship, or building up name recognition, then yes I believe it greatly matters. The Q may arise, if they chose self-publishing before, that there is something wrong with their writings, or something else.

Yes that attitude may be slowly changing, but we are biased and the image of that horrendous vanity-press book that an emaciated nervous wreck of a peddling author is trying to shame us into buying is still haunting our collective minds.

So, if the majority of opinions say that there is no problem going back and forth between the two, I am glad to offer a different perspective that could potentially be of use to some.

Also, I tried to be relatively objective in this A. I personally wouldn’t use traditional publishers, not only because of the meager royalties but because of time. None of us is getting younger and I am not going to wait 2-3 years after finishing a book to see it published, by then I would have written other books and moved on to other projects. That industry is a dinosaur scheduled for extinction.

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    For now, I'm voting down this answer as having too much inaccurate information, but I think it could be improved into something valuable, if you're willing to bend.
    – Kate S.
    Commented Aug 4, 2015 at 13:30
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    I agree with @KateSherwood - while this would make a great essay or blog post on the topic, an answer with this many numbers needs to have citations. Downvoting for now, but would like to eventually reverse that if this becomes a better answer. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 3:57
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    What's your background, Reed? Do you have enough personal experience to be an authority yourself? This is a pretty controversial topic and there's a lot of misinformation flying around in a variety of directions, so I think it's better to avoid repeating information you've just heard somewhere, as opposed to information you KNOW is true.
    – Kate S.
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 10:59
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    And with the edits, you're adding more numbers that don't really jibe with my experience. Your estimate for an advance, even for a new author, is really low.
    – Kate S.
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 12:19
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    Reed, adding something more about how you know what you say would help this answer. You've obviously put a lot of effort into this; do you remember what writing books you read or where you heard this info? Thanks. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 3:38

There's a very simple answer to this question: Self-publish if-and-only-if you excel at sales and marketing, and are willing to relentlessly promote your book (including book tours, interviews, author talks and so forth) and/or if your book would be a natural add-on to your pre-existing business (as a motivational speaker, for example). Self-publishing success stories result more often from exceptional salesmanship than exceptional writing.

(Self-promotion skills would also dramatically increase your success as traditionally published author, but your margins per book will be several magnitudes larger if you self-publish --assuming you don't go through a vanity press and/or do POD.)

If you expect the primary reason that people will buy your book will be the sheer quality of the writing, and not the force of your personality (or your skill at networking), then DO NOT self-publish. You should be aware, however, that your book will probably need to be beyond excellent to even make it out of a publisher's slush pile ("decent" will not make the cut).

  • @-Chris Sunami This advice is good for non-fiction books that, as you put it: " would be a natural add-on to your pre-existing business" @-horse hair didn't specify the type, but i have a feeling he is talking about fiction. A fiction writer with potentially several books on the pipeline is a very different creature than a non-fiction writer who must capitalize on his single title...a writer job is to write, and if more than 10% of his writing time is dedicated to something else, he looses precious opportunities. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 3:28
  • @Reed It doesn't matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction, if you self-publish and you aren't selling the book yourself, no one is. If you write fiction (or non-fiction), and you don't feel ready to devote a large portion of your time to sales, don't self-publish. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 3:36
  • Couldn't agree more, Chris. When a young journalist was assigned to meet with Robert Kiyosaki to talk about the success of his book, Rich Dad Poor Dad, she was over the moon. This would finally be her chance to really glean some writing tips from a pro. However, when she asked him for advice on getting her own book sold his answer upset her enough that she walked out of the interview. He told her that he was a salesman not a writer and that if she wanted to sell her book that she should become a salesman too. Too many writers think their material will sell itself but it simply isn't true Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 19:18
  • @user2859458 I speak from sad experience. I self-published a book and it sold briskly --as long as I was actively working to sell it. Unfortunately, I hate sales. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 19:34

Personally, I would not regard self publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing but as a market for work that does not fit in the traditional publishing sphere.

Publishing is book marketing. Marketing is about knowing a particular part of the market and figuring out how to sell to it. Each traditional publisher has figured out how to sell to one or more segments of the market. In some really lucrative markets there are multiple publishers competing. In smaller markets there is often only one or two publishers competing. In some niche markets there may only be one.

And then there are all the markets that are too small or too obscure or too difficult to understand for it to make business sense for a traditional publisher to serve that market. This is where self publishing makes sense, providing you understand that market. Since no traditional publisher will attempt to address that market, the only way to get to it is to self publish. Web based self-publishing platforms make it vastly easier to reach such markets now, so self publishing becomes a much more viable vehicle for reaching that market.

Of course, those misunderstood markets sometimes turn out to be huge, and produce the odd self publishing success story (which always ends with traditional publishing once the traditional publishers figure out the market). There are also a few (very few!) cases of mainstream works being self published and breaking out -- but those inevitably lead to traditional publishing, which is where the belonged all along.

If you go the self publishing route with a work that is in the market currently served by traditional publishers then you are competing with them and your chances of success are slim. Plus you cut yourself off from the discipline of refining your work to meet the demands of the market.

In short, a mainstream work should go to a mainstream publisher; a work intended for an unserved market has no choice but to go the self publishing route.

  • Thanks for that perspective. Publishing traditionally (with an established publisher) seems all but impossible, if I understand what I'm reading online correctly. It seems the only choice for someone such as myself (someone who's trying this for the first time), is to self-publish. Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 15:49
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    @horsehair, not at all. Writing a book that is good enough to sell is difficult. If you have written a book that is good enough to sell, however, getting it published is not difficult. The best way is to get an agent and the best way to get an agent is to go to a writers conference and pitch to the agents in attendance. If there were no demand for salable books, the agents would not be there. But they are there, constantly looking for new authors and new books. The reason why so many people online complain that it is hard to get published is that they have not written a salable book.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 15:57
  • That sounds like a strange thing - a thin plot might make a great book if the writer's style is "right".... right? And a good idea might make for a terrible book, if the writer sucks? Does the sell really hinge on the elevator pitch? Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 18:55
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    @horsehair All sales begin with an elevator pitch. An agent's living depends on them finding good writers so they know a thing or two about figuring out if the person in front of them is worth asking for a few sample pages. The sale proceeds in steps. A good pitch leads to a request for samples. Good sample lead to a request for the whole MS. You do have to learn how the business works, but the heart of the matter is still to write a good book. Do that, and you can learn how to make the sale. The writing is the hard part, not the selling.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 19:12

KB Spangler self published as did Lee and Miller. Let's look at what they did and why it worked. KB Spangler had a web comic This was her primary source of advertising for her books. Her books are a little odd (although not as odd as her comic), but very good. She scared mainline publishers. She had a source of fans. I believe she has published her fourth book.

Lee and Miller have their own publishing company (SRM). They started it because their regular publisher wasn't very good and or did not want to publish some of the stuff they wrote. Now they are with Baen and from what I can tell sales are up.

You are probably better off following What's advice.


It is a business like any other and obviously the more contacts you have and publicity and financial backing the further you will go regardless of self published or not.

Go into a few bookstores and look at the sheer volume of works pumped out every month and then look online, there are just so many thousands of titles being marketed constantly so in the scheme of things your book no matter how good it is will only have its 5 minutes of fame, if that. Even then it very easily may not because you are not special, there are just too many books out there. If you are someone famous or already well read you may do alright or you could be an unknown and get lucky. Overall like in the movie industry, there are millions of out of work actors, thousands of working poor actors and a select few good or bad actors monopolizing the profit in an industry that has many middlemen.

Publisher compensation is different depending on POD or offset printing and then type of distribution. If you set yourself up as your own publisher and go down the route of POD expect no more than 2.00 per title unit. If you go offset expect to buy in bulk and be able to offload those books to stores with big discounts and returns. Once you understand the business side coupled with the volume turn over in industry the rose coloured glasses will soon be replaced by the hard nosed adopted principles of a working publisher.

Recently I had a highly respected publisher offer to publish my book only if I paid for layout and printing, so times are tough. They had closed their books to any new authors because of lack of money and yet they are a well established independent publisher. The owner told me it makes no difference whether you are your own publisher or not regarding getting reviews or sales. Distribution and marketing is the main thing and from my limited but now quite reasonable introduction to the industry, I'd have to agree.

  • Thanks for the information. Is your answer, then, to self-publish? Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 9:11
  • Yes, go for it.
    – cea
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 23:41
  • There are no highly respected publishers who ask authors to pay for layout and printing. None. Zero. Zip. It is the sine qua none of respectable publishing that the publisher pays the costs of publication, just as it is the sine qua none of respectable representation that an agent does not charge reading fees.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 19:29
  • Is POD short for "print on demand" ?
    – elrobis
    Commented Mar 7, 2017 at 20:04

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