We all have read about the huge successes of self published authors:

Most writers seem to quietly slave away at their manuscripts hoping to hone their skills to create the next blockbuster or Pulitzer. I do wonder about the quality of most self-published works I have read but frankly, I have also read a lot of drivel published by reputable agencies:

One blog by a reputable journalist succinctly sums up the entire mood: Probably the single most readily identifiable, potentially crippling difficulty the entire self-publishing community has faced is the fact that much of its output — not all but a lot — is rife with poor quality.
Self-Publishing And ‘The Quality Question’: It’s Called Rigor

My question is: Is an author's time best spent on revising drafts and studying the trade to improve their skills or simply say 'good enough' and risk the stigma of self-publishing?

  • 2
    Here's a better question: is your ultimate goal to have anyone read your book, which you sell yourself and keep whatever profits you make, or is your ultimate goal to get a publishing contract? Because the answer will depend on which one of those you want to accomplish. Feb 10, 2017 at 15:30
  • My personal goal is to reach as many people as possible to teach actual epidemiology using an action/adventure format. I hope to inform the public of what to expect when an inevitable quarantine is initiated. Instead of panic I prefer the public to accept highly skilled scientists and doctors will have society's best interest in mind. Last thing they need is a repeat of this stupid nurses actions: cnn.com/2014/10/29/health/us-ebola Feb 10, 2017 at 15:41
  • Oh, that's right, that's this book. You want an actual publisher, then. So you'll need at the very least an editor and an agent. Feb 10, 2017 at 16:44
  • So this just came up on the front page from being edited, so when I read the comments I assumed it was recent(!). @RichardStanzak I assume your wisdom never made it to the general public :( Apr 30, 2021 at 20:05

4 Answers 4


Publishers are in the book marketing business. Their job is to figure out which books will sell and how to sell them.

There are three reasons why a publisher may reject a book:

  • It is not good enough to sell
  • There is not a big enough market to sell it to
  • They don't have the knowledge/channel to sell it to its target market

Before the Web, the only way to make money selling books was to make reasonably high sales to a reasonably well defined market in a reasonably short period of time. Otherwise warehousing and distribution costs would exceed any reasonable expectation of profits.

The Web changed that equation by reducing warehousing and distribution costs to near zero. This has given rise to a phenomenon known as the long tail. There have been several studies looking at how the long tail has affected Amazon's business model. The long tail is the vast collection of goods which individually sell only a few copies a year, but collectively add up to a huge amount of business. Apparently the long tail accounts for half of Amazon's business (but don't quote me on that).

The long tail can't exist in the bricks and mortar world because of carrying costs. It tends not to work for traditional publishers and record companies either because of the high fixed costs of publication. But it has revolutionized independent music, allowing thousands of bands to build small followings. Not enough to make them stars, but maybe enough to live on, or at least generate a decent amount of mad money.

Self publishing today, therefore, is not the same as self publishing in the age of paper. It is about getting access to the long tail for niche works -- works that will sell slowly to a specialized audience that a traditional publisher would not know how to reach or could not afford to address due to low volumes.

If you are writing a long tail work, and if you write it well, and if you have a platform to promote it, you can probably make some change with self publishing.

But that is not what the vast bulk of self published work is. The vast bulk of self published work is work that is entirely mainstream in its intent that the writer either could not make good enough to sell to a mainstream publisher, or just happened to be in an oversubscribed genre that is not selling well at the moment. The wide sargasso sea of this stuff is not making anybody but Amazon any money.

Occasionally, of course, some work that the traditional publishing world did not think would sell, breaks out of the long tail and becomes a big success. It is very very rare, but it happens.

There may also be a few in the wide sargasso sea that are eeking out some cash through sheer volume and grit, but unless you can match their energy and gall, that is not a road you can easily go down.

To address your question, therefore, the right approach it to find the right market for your work based on its intended audience. If that market is the market served by traditional publishers, then that is the right route to take and you need to keep working on it until it is good enough to sell (or until some event occurs that increased demand for work in that genre).

If it is addressed to a long tail kind of audience, either find an appropriate niche publisher or go the self publishing route because a traditional publisher is not going to publish it no matter how brilliant it is. But don't go this route as a way to stop short of making the book the best it can be. A book has to be better to sell in the long tail market because it does not have the imprimatur of a major publishing house to recommend it.

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    wow, fascinating. I have never heard of long tail, it reminds me a bit of back listing academic books. My book is back listed and primarily makes money through library sales, so I guess that is its specialty niche. You will starve trying to make a living from academic books. It is why i decided to try writing fact based fiction. My story is more of an experiment than it is a traditional novel. I have to determine if I am skilled enough to turn dry science into an adventure novel worth reading. It doesn't matter if it requires 12 drafts as long as the end product is publishable and interesting. Feb 10, 2017 at 15:54
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    And watch for trends. IIRC your work is about epidemiology. The next time we have a SARS crisis, a thriller with an epidemiology theme is going to be much much easier to sell. But the window is going to be short. If you can call up a New York agent and say, "CNN has been running epidemic coverage non-stop for the last three days. I have a finished, polished, ready to go epidemiology thriller, and I have XYZ qualifications in the field, are you interested?" The answer will probably be "Yes. Send the whole thing right now."
    – user16226
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:20
  • The unsettling implication of your answer is that works in an "oversubscribed genre" regardless of quality can't sell. Perhaps from the publisher's perspective, this seems true. But I think it boils down more to author branding than which genre happens to be oversubscribed. Feb 10, 2017 at 17:01
  • It is pretty much true of all fields of commerce that it is hard to sell a new product into an oversubscribed field. This would not be the right time to launch a new Android tablet, for instance. As good as is not going to cut it in that market. Better than is probably not going to do it either. Startlingly, game-changingly better than is probably the minimal you need to break in. If that is unsettling, it should be. If you are great, you can get away with thinking like an artist, because true artists are always in short supply. If you are merely good, your need to think like a marketer.
    – user16226
    Feb 10, 2017 at 17:13
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    It's allowed. It's a free country. But this is cold calling and the number one skill of a cold caller is getting past the receptionist. How good a cold caller are you? But the thing is, you don't want to call the publisher, you want to call an agent. An agent will get you to the right editor faster and will get you a better deal. They are also far more likely to take your phone call.
    – user16226
    Feb 11, 2017 at 12:33

Disclaimer: I don't have any personal experience with self-publication.

From what I read around the internet, self-published authors describe their job as 10% writer and 90% publicist.

To be successful at self-publication, prepare to spend a lot of your time and effort in getting your work noticed. This means tours, giveaways, promotions and heavy use of social media.

That doesn't leave a whole lot of time left for writing your actual products, let alone spending time researching, experimenting or otherwise honing your craft.

As an aside, this line really stuck out to me:

say 'good enough' and risk the stigma of self-publishing?

Arguably, this is a major contributing factor for self-publishing having a relatively poor reputation. In my opinion, no author should ever say "it's good enough for self-publishing".

As an author, your reputation is the key to your survival. It takes a huge amount of effort and time to earn a good reputation and a loyal customer base, why risk it all by throwing out a book that's simply "good enough"?

  • excellent comments and no way do I want to be a promoter, that is why we try to write proficiently enough to snag an agents interest. Yeah, I will continue my reading, pecking and researching ad infinitum. Hopefully my skills will improve over time. Feb 10, 2017 at 15:59

I've done both traditional publishing and self-publishing. Your question doesn't have a single, definitive answer, because it depends on your own goals. If your goal is to become a better writer, then yes --self-publishing can be a distraction away from that, because it requires you mastering a number of jobs that have little or nothing to do with being a good writer.

If your goal is to sell a lot of books, or to make a living as a writer, then self-publishing CAN be an avenue to that, but only if you're a terrific salesperson, marketer, self-promoter and networker. Self-publishing success is more about those skills than about the quality of your writing.

The key thing you gain as a traditionally published author is a entire, experienced company full of people who now have at least a small vested interest in the success of your book (and who have taken that on because a decision maker at that company putatively believes in the quality of your writing). But again, there's no necessary magic in it. Plenty of bad writers are traditionally published, plenty of good writers are not. The only thing that improves writing is actually writing.


I say yes and no.

I decided to self-publish my first novel. I spent a couple of months on trying to promote my book. Only then I realized how big of a job is to sell a book.

I don't know why but beforehand I kind of imagined writing a story and distributing it amongst the readers is the same job. But it isn't, it is as different as the things can be. If you decide to self-publish it's not like you earn more for little extra work. Actually you pick up several positions. Ask yourself is this what you actually want.

But in the end I don't regret it, even though loosing considerable money. Why so? My novel went into to market as raw as possible. I'm sure this wouldn't be the case if it was released by a well known publisher. It would be targeted to the specific audience and reviewed by people being friends with the publisher. All my flaws would be edited without me realizing they exist. I would stay as arrogant as I was in the first place.

But instead of that my writing got a feedback that was straightforward and sometimes quite cruel. It was harsh but helped me stretch in a way it wouldn't be possible any other way. I learnt what qualities of the book help to sell it and what are certain red flags. I learnt what my potential is and that no matter how talented am I, I must play the game following the same rules as everyone else. I learnt that I must decide what I focus on and that writing is actually what I love. Therefore there is no point in investing my time in anything else.

To sum up - my answer is: self-publishing is not worth it. But it's valuable to learn why.

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