Self-Publishing: The Dirty Truth

Harper_LouBy Lou Harper

Self-publishing is the latest gold rush. There’s news of riches to be made but the reality is far grittier. During actual gold rushes the most reliable road to prosperity wasn’t finding gold, but selling food, equipment, and sex to the prospectors. According to Galleycat almost 80% of self-published authors make less than $1,000.- a year, and only 5% make more than $20,000.- a year. Those are sobering numbers.

So who should self-publish? It offers the best profit-to-risk ratio to established authors with a large fan base. However, for the majority of first time authors it’s far more beneficial to go with a reputable publisher, but there are always exceptions. Between those two extremes there are a lot of authors for whom self-publishing can prove beneficial, possibly alongside the traditional route.

There are pros and cons both to going with a publisher and the alternative of publishing your book yourself. A reputable publisher will provide you with editing, cover, and at least some promo. They can also do many other things for you, like taking print copies of your book to trade shows, or making sure that your book is featured prominently on the home page of an online retailer. On the other hand, self-publishing gives you higher royalty rates and control over all aspects of your book, but it also means you’re responsible for everything.

Even if you don’t care if you make money on your books or not, you’re putting your book out there to reach readers, and your chances are far better with a professional quality book. There’s a very good reason why self-publishing has such a terrible reputation, and why so many readers refuse to touch self-published books. Before jumping into this endeavor, you need to know what’s involved in producing your own book. Nowadays anyone with a word processor can upload an ebook to Amazon—it doesn’t make you an author. That title demands commitment and professionalism.

There are four main stages in turning your finished manuscript into a book: editing, copy editing/proof reading, cover design, and formatting. They are all necessary and they all cost money. You might be able to do some of them yourself, but nobody can do them all.


There are many reasons to self-publish, and not all of them good. Possibly the worst one is: “I don’t need an editor to tell me how to write.” There are two things with this statement. Firstly, that’s not what editors do. Secondly, we all need help. Writing is a mostly solitary endeavor, but once that first or second draft is done, it’s time to solicit some feedback.

Beta readers and critique partners go a long way to improve your book, assuming you listen to them. The good thing about them is that they are free. You can collect them from the ranks of your fans and fellow writers. A good beta reader is on a similar wavelength as you, understands what you’re trying to get across, and thus can tell you if you come short. They are not always right but you should consider every comment carefully. As Neil Gaiman said: “…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Content editors are professionals, going on far more than gut reactions, and thus cost money. Their job is to make sure your story doesn’t have giant plot holes, character inconsistencies, awkward dialogue, and a bunch of other things affecting the story as a whole. Yes, the process is often painful, but in the end it can mean the difference between a good-enough and an as-good-as-it-gets story. Finding a good editor is like finding that vein of gold.

These days many content editors also do copy editing, i.e. making sure everything is factually correct, checking that foreign words are spelled right and mean what you think they mean, ensuring you don’t include anything that could get you in legal trouble, etc.

Proof reading

A proof reader, aka a line editor, checks the manuscript for grammar, spelling, typos, punctuation, homonyms, etc. Skipping this step is one of the worst mistakes a self-published author can make, yet it happens all the time. Readers will forgive the occasional typo, they occur even in novels from mainstream reputable publishers. However, too many errors will throw most readers out of the story, ruining their experience.

It’s easy to think that with all those content editing eyes on it, the manuscript must be flawless by this point, but it never is. The recurring story is: Author has checked the manuscript umpteen times and is convinced it’s perfect. Author publishes book, and soon reviews start flowing in with complaints about the errors. Author finally sends the book to a proof reader, and it comes back full of red ink. Author makes corrections and uploads the new version but unfortunately the damage is already done.

Cover design

Unless you have a background in graphic arts, don’t make your own cover. Professional designers have spent years learning things like composition, color theory, typography, etc. Picking up a couple of Photoshop tricks won’t get you the same results. Yes, you’ll think your design is beautiful, but it probably isn’t, and the friends you’re asking for their opinion on it won’t tell you the truth either.


This is probably the easiest thing you can do yourself, assuming you’re at least a little bit technically inclined. Formatting might be as involved as making multiple ebook formats for multiple vendors, or as simple as making one format and uploading it to a single aggregator, like Smashwords and Lightsource. Both options have their pros and cons. If you like having maximum control, the former is better. If you want the least amount of work, the latter will fit you best.

However, if looking at the formatting palette in MS Word gives you a headache, you should hire a professional. There are many internet companies offering formatting services for a reasonable fee.

In conclusion, if you decide to go the self-publishing route, you should do it right, but doing it right will costs you time and money. Look at it as an investment in your writing career.

Coming Next: A Practical Guide to Self-Publishing

Lou Harper is an author with numerous m/m titles and A Rainbow Award under her belt. She has published several books with Samhain Publishing, but also puts out a few books on her own, and she intends to keep on doing both. Visit Lou’s website.

1 thought on “Self-Publishing: The Dirty Truth

  1. Pingback: Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity from the depths of frozen winter despair

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