So You Want to Self-Publish: 6 Questions to Ask Yourself First

Today’s guest post is contributed by Laekan Zea Kemp, self-published author of The Things They Didn’t Bury, Orphans of Paradise, and Breathing Ghosts. [Julie’s note: I have personally read and absolutely LOVED Breathing Ghosts. More on that and Laekan’s experience writing it here.]

Despite the fact that every person and their dog thinks that they can write a book, living the life of a writer is not for the faint of heart. And whether you choose to publish through a traditional route or independently, the road to success isn’t an easy one.

There’s a misconception about self-publishing that it’s somehow easier. And the draw for a lot of people is this ignorant idea that going indie means you get to skip all of the hard parts. But I’m here to tell you that, not only do you still have to suffer through all of the revisions and rejections and self-doubt, but you have to go through these things alone.

This is the cost of the indie writer’s dream. You want total control? You want freedom? You want to be 100% in charge of your own destiny? Then have at it. You might end up finding that it’s the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done or you might end up with fifty one-star reviews and a permanent hangover. Like I said, not for the faint of heart.

But if you are considering self-publishing, it’s not all doom and gloom and talking to yourself in your dark apartment because the electricity’s been turned off. Those amazing things you’ve heard about going indie—the freedom, the ability to genre hop, setting your own deadlines, having total control over pricing and cover design, writing for you—those things are true. And if you think those things are worth pursuing in lieu of a traditional deal that might place more importance on financial gain than your creative freedom, I’ve created a self-publishing checklist to help you see if you really are ready to take the plunge.

1.  Are you chasing someone else’s dream?

A lot of people want to be writers. They romanticize what we do. They think it seems so glamorous and exciting and a lot of other adjectives that it just isn’t. Because what most people see is just the end result. They see the book signings and the accolades and the money and the fame. But they don’t see the late nights spent hunched over a laptop or the eye strain or the callouses or the hand cramps or the gray hairs or the self-loathing or the guilt or the years of not making a goddamn cent or the sacrifices or the health problems that come with stress and sitting at a desk all day because we have bills to pay and if we could do anything else in the world to pay those bills we would. We would abandon writing in a second if it wasn’t the only thing we could do well. And we’d be glad.

They don’t see the struggle. And the truth is they probably don’t want to. And even though writing and living a creative life is incredibly rewarding, the end reward isn’t why writers write. Writers write because they have to. So if you’re chasing a dream that isn’t yours, the dream of becoming a writer, let go. Do it now and save yourself the heartache and leave the writing to the people who love every second of the suffering just as much as they love the end result.

2.  What are your intentions?

There are two types of self-publishers—those that self-publish for family and friends and those that self-publish to make money. Among those that self-publish to make money there are also two types—the self-publishers trying to get rich quick off of a one hit wonder and the self-publishers who want to be career authors and make a living (any living) as a writer. I only want to speak to this last sub-group.

If building a career is truly your intention, don’t rush into self-publishing. And more importantly don’t rush your story for the sake of putting it on sale as fast as possible.

Do your research. Find out if self-publishing really is the best option for you. If you’re a prolific writer who has a distinct vision for the kind of writing legacy you want to leave behind and therefore would prefer to have total creative control over every decision, self-publishing might be for you. But if all you want to do is write and you’d prefer to leave all of the promotional and technical responsibilities to someone else, you might be happier going the traditional route.

If you’re still set on self-publishing there are quite a few things you’ll need to get in order. Which brings me to number…

3.  Do you have the stamina?

If you’ve only written one book in your entire life, you’re not ready to self-publish. Now, remember, this is just my opinion and I’m only speaking to self-publishers looking to become career authors, BUT knowing that you have the will-power and the desire to FINISH is extremely important. And when I say finish, I don’t mean one book. I mean finish what you start, each and every time. I didn’t self-publish my first book until I was halfway through the first draft of my third. Why? Because I wanted to be strategic about when I published and I wanted to prove to my readers that I was in this for the long haul. Careers aren’t built on just one book (and don’t give me some one in a million example of an author who did just that *cough* Harper Lee *cough*) they’re built on hard work and consistency. So before you even think about self-publishing, focus on building a backlist that will prove to you and readers out there that you’ve got what it takes to be a career author.

4.  Do you have the money?

Here’s another misnomer about self-publishing—that it’s cheap. The truth is, it’s not if you do it right.

So before you think about self-publishing make sure and research the costs because there are a lot of products and services out there that claim to be absolutely necessary even though they usually aren’t.

Two things I wouldn’t skimp on—editing and cover art. Don’t even concern yourself with marketing at this point because there are so many opportunities to do that for free. The editing and cover art on the other hand are absolutely crucial and they must be up to par. If you’re lucky, you might come across an opportunity to snag these things for free as well, but don’t count on it. For just these two things, which is honestly all you need, budget for triple digits and be wary of anything that costs more. Although self-publishing can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be outrageous. After all, you’re the one trying to make money here.

5.  Do you have the talent?

I probably should have started with this one but “talent” is incredibly subjective and who’s really going to answer that question with a no.

I guess what I’m really trying to get at here is that we are all born with specific gifts and talents and if writing is not one of your gifts or talents, don’t bother. This might seem like common sense but remember what I said about people who glamorize the writing profession? There might be some of you reading this right now who believe you’ve passed every one of the items on this checklist with flying colors and therefore are ready to self-publish. There’s probably some of you who have actually finished a book. Maybe even more than one. But regardless of how closely you’ve followed all of the rules, if you’re not meant to be a writer you’re just not meant to be a writer. And that’s okay. Because writing a book is hard but writing a good book is even harder. And it truly is something that not many people can do.

Of course you can take classes or attend workshops or buy craft books and try to make yourself a better writer but when it comes down to it, if this is not your destiny it’s just…not. You can still love writing and you can still write but it’s also important for each of us to respect those with skills and talents that we just don’t have. And by respect, I mean respect the huge amount of work that goes into writing good books and don’t look at self-publishing as a means to make a childhood dream come true even though it was never your dream to begin with.

6.  Do you have the drive?

If you feel like I’ve just punched you in the gut, I’m very sorry. But if you feel like I’ve just punched you in the gut and you still believe writing is your destiny and you’re prepared to do anything to make it happen, then congratulations. You have drive. It’s that little voice inside you, directing every move you make, encouraging you, promising you that all of the hard work will pay off. And if that voice is louder than all of the others then you just might succeed.

It’s especially important for indie authors to recognize their own voice above all of the questioning and self-doubt because we don’t have the luxury of an agent and a publicist and an entire team of people reassuring us that we are actually talented. We must become masters of the pep talk and we must believe in ourselves no matter what. Because that’s really all it takes, an unwavering will to make your dreams come true, and then they will.

If, after all of this, you still make the choice to go indie be warned that there will be no cheerleaders glancing over your shoulder, no team of PR people behind you doing the grunt work or telling you it’ll all be worth it. You’ll spend months refreshing your sales page or Goodreads reviews with nothing new to show for it. You won’t make a dime and you’ll second-guess all of the money you spent on copy-editing and cover art and marketing that could have gone to something else like groceries or gas. You’ll feel discouraged and like you made a huge mistake. And you’ll want to give up.

But if you really want to be a writer you won’t quit. Because even though there’s no one in your corner, reassuring you or stroking your ego or cutting you a check, you should still believe in yourself. You have to. That’s what separates the successful career indie authors from the failures and one hit wonders. To make it, there is just one secret. One rule. You have to know your own voice and even more than that you have to trust it. Absolutely.

So when that voice says to you, I am a writer, believe it. Follow it. Do whatever you have to do to live out that purpose even if that means self-publishing because you couldn’t get a traditional deal. Even if that means going it alone with no support from friends or family. Because when you’re called to be a writer it’s not a dream, it’s a responsibility.

25 thoughts on “So You Want to Self-Publish: 6 Questions to Ask Yourself First

  1. Some very solid cautionary notes on an often misunderstood topic. After pursuing the traditional route, I have been led to self-publish and the greatest blessing for me has been assembling a team of partners (including a devoted editor and quality graphic artist). It is definitely a long-term investment with little prospect for a lucrative pay-off financially. But it can be a tremendous way to grow as a writer and as a person.

    • Excellent insight. Self-publishing is still mostly foreign territory to me but I can definitely imagine the value of a rounded support team. Also, I love what you add about growing as a writer. That’s what counts in any author’s career, right?

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Tony!

  2. Excellent post! I have always believed everything you state in this post (but never put it into words). As for myself, I have everything EXCEPT maybe #6. The drive. I’ve come a long way, but pushing on and on can be really hard at times. But I AM and I DO. :-)

    • The drive! It’s grueling (I think for both self-published writers and those trying to pursue a traditional career)! But it sounds like you are indeed pushing on. Just keep at it! :)

  3. Ms. Kemp provides excellent insight, but I take issue with her comment that writers should “…budget for triple digits and be wary of anything that costs more” when it comes to editing and cover art. As a professional editor who has worked with several self-published authors, many of whom have won literary awards and been praised by reviewers, I can tell you that the time I spend editing a manuscript depends on the length of the manuscript AND the quality of the writing. A poorly written manuscript will need to go through more rounds of revisions than a well-written one, and as a result, the author of a poorly written manuscript can expect to pay more.

    I suspect that Ms. Kemp knows that good writing comes from rewriting and that not looking at one’s supposedly finished manuscript for several months and then coming back to it with fresh eyes prompts her to revise. Further, I suspect that she revises more than once. Therefore, her editor receives a terrific manuscript. However, many people who call themselves writers don’t realize the need to distance themselves from their manuscripts for several months and then rewrite before they hire an editor. Those manuscripts are likely to cost much more to edit.

    Otherwise though, I think readers will benefit from the other content in this post.

    • Ah, good point. This is something I have not yet encountered personally, but it does make sense to me that the more work a manuscript needs, the more it would cost to edit it. And my guess, having beta read for Laekan, would be that you are right: what her editor sees is probably pretty polished.

      Thank you adding your insight!

  4. I could not agree with you more. I just wish there was some sort of talent-o-meter that we could input our novel into that would light up if we had a chance and tell us to go away quietly if we didn’t. It would make things a lot easier :-).

    • For some reason I pictured one of those old quarter/50 cent machines where you put your palm on the panel and it tells you your fortune or rates your love life or something… Wouldn’t it be amusing if they had something like that for writing talent? ;)

    • There is such a thing…the real world. If you have a book idea or manuscript consider exposing it to small communities like wattpad.com or in the Self-Publishing course on skillshare.com.

      If you’re super brave and have the time, write the manuscript and submit it to createspace.com. If you fail, that’s ok. You learned a few ways to improve through the process. If you succeed, push harder. Gain more success and try another book.

      There’s nothing wrong with failing.

  5. A great post. I’m impressed that it actually mentions talent as an issue, because it seems this is a topic most people like to avoid, especially in the author community. It’s understandable, no one wants to tell someone that they’re a terrible writer and that they shouldn’t publish, but part of the reason self-publishing has a bad reputation is because of all the poorly written stories and books that are out there. That’s not to say this doesn’t happen in traditional publishing (:coughtwilightcough), but it seems to be far more problematic in self-publishing.

  6. Pingback: Linked Up: November 12, 2013 « Beth Jusino Beth Jusino

  7. Reblogged this on Savvy Writers & e-Books online and commented:
    You want total control? You want freedom? You want to be 100% in charge of your own destiny? Then go for it. You might end up finding that it’s the most fulfilling thing you have ever done or you might end up with fifty one-star reviews and a permanent hangover. Like I said, not for the faint of heart.” Read her “6 Questions You Should Ask Yourself First”

  8. Thanks for a great post, Julie, I was nodding my head all the way through. I’ve found the self-publishing route much less of a headache through being a member of the Author Collective, Triskele Books (www.triskelebooks.co.uk). We also have a blog if anyone is looking for self-publishing, or writing industry information: http://triskelebooks.blogspot.fr/

  9. Pingback: So You Want to Self-Publish? | Savvy Writers & e-Books online

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