When Self-Publishing Is More Useful As a Marketing Tool

Broken pencil

The turning point of my long-term publishing plans came when I realized I have very little in common with author Joanna Penn. Have you heard of her?

I started following Joanna on Twitter because she always shared great writing links, but I also began to follow her self-publishing story. She wrote a novel, released it as a 99-cent download, and reached 10,000 downloads after a few months.

Joanna blogged through the whole process and shared all of the details from editing to marketing. She worked really hard to pull it off, and as I added self-publishing to my own long-term publishing plans—plans that included books also published through large traditional publishers—I had no qualms about working hard.

For my self-publishing projects I marked up several drafts, lined up cover designers, sent out review copies, booked blog tours, and worked through spreadsheets listing everything else I had to do. The book received praise from experts, and my brother-in-law, a designer by trade, put together a sharp cover.

For all that fell into place, I dreaded opening those spreadsheets listing everything I had to do. You’d have thought I was being forced to slap a kitten each day.

I’ve always loved writing. Releasing my first commercially published book was a highlight of my life. Why did I hate self-publishing?

After processing my reaction to both self-publishing projects, I read Joanna Penn’s About Page one day. The light flickered on for me: Joanna had a business consulting background. She wasn’t just creative and dedicated to writing; she had the skills you need to run a successful business, which is a huge part of the self-publishing process.

Even the smallest publishing house provides more support than you’ll receive when self-publishing.

Self-publishing means that authors become small publishing companies. They aren’t just writing and editing. They need to manage a complex and draining process. There is layout, design, development editing, proofreading, retail planning, and marketing.

Doing all of these things well enough to sell more than fifty copies to my friends calls for a set of skills that many creative writers like myself simply don’t possess. Even if I had $5,000 on hand to hire designers, editors, and publicists, I’d turn myself into a publisher. Having published through large publishers, small publishers, and now independently, I’d much rather surrender a chunk of my royalties to an experienced publisher—heck, almost any publisher—so that I can pursue my creative calling.

Not sure about my take here? Read what Catherine Howard has to say:

We’ve seen time and time again that the self-publishers who enjoy consistent success are those who treat self-publishing like a business they’ve started up. They act like entrepreneurs, and make like their book is their first product—which it is.

I’m releasing my next book with a relatively small publisher that focuses on my niche, and the experience has been far better for me than self-publishing. They couldn’t pay out an advance, but I’m guaranteed a standard royalty. In return, they have edited the book, designed a cover, written marketing copy, developed a marketing plan, sought out endorsers, and reached out to retailers.

I could lament the non-existent advance, or I could focus on this: they’ve heavily invested in publishing my book after I paid them zip.

Best yet, I wrote the book and have been very involved in the design and marketing process, but they have managed the whole thing. Knowing that someone else is keeping the publishing process on track removes a tremendous burden from my mind and makes it far easier to develop creative marketing ideas.

I used to think of self-publishing as the only alternative to publishing with a large house. Now I’m committed to working with both large and small publishers. In addition, there are some strong subsidy publishers that provide excellent support to authors who have the means to pay for their services.

Now for my caveat: I haven’t ruled out self-publishing completely.

I’ll still create e-books that readers can download for free if they subscribe to my e-newsletter. E-books are also a great promotional tool. Even just selling a 10,000 word e-book on Amazon for 99 cents is a simple way to introduce readers to my work. It’s like I’m getting paid to advertise, but I have no illusions about building my career on these self-published books.

For example, each April 1, I release a prank e-book that my readers can download for 99 cents on Amazon (this year and last year). These e-books, which lovingly poke fun at the Christian subculture and my own quirks, are not a way to make money. They’re simply a way to introduce readers to my writing—even if I lose a few subscribers each year who miss the prank and think I’ve lost my mind.

Self-publishing is a great tool to keep in your publishing plans, but for creative writers such as myself, it is far more useful as a marketing tool. I don’t plan on writing another e-book until next April 1 because I don’t have the chops or desire to run my own small publishing company. When I hammer out 3,000 words in a morning, I hit a high that leaves me chattering about all of my ideas to my wife. When I run my own publishing company, she hears sobbing noises from my office.

I’m grateful that there’s a Joanna Penn in the world. I’ve learned a lot from her about publishing. The greatest lesson she taught me is that I’m not like her and that large and small publishing companies exist because there are authors like me who just want to write.

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