There are several good reasons a novelist chooses to self-publish:
1. Because of repeated rejection. This is, no doubt, a common reason. And, yes, it leads to the publication of more than a few bad novels.
2. To get the book to market more quickly. Submitting a novel to a publisher—or an agent—is often a long and frustrating process. Few publishers accept a manuscript for consideration without the assurance that no other publisher is simultaneously considering it: publishers do not want to invest in evaluating a potential book only to discover that another company has beaten them to the offer. So the author must wait the three or four months it typically takes for each publisher to come to a decision. Years can pass.
3. To have more control over the process. Many are the authors who complain about some aspect of their treatment by publishers. They especially resent their lack of input into cover design. Fewer and fewer are the in-house editors with the skill to edit a serious novel properly. Standards of copyediting and proofreading are steadily declining as publishers seek ways to cut costs. The self—published author can directly hire top professionals for each aspect of the book-generating process. Of course, the money for this will have to come out of the author’s own pocket.
4. To receive a larger share of the book’s earnings. The author of a conventionally published book typically receives 10 percent of the list price or less, although on conventionally published e-books, whose selling price is much lower, that author would be entitled to 25 percent of the net price. For a self-published author, the earnings per book sold are higher—as much as 70 percent of the selling price with an e-book. For a POD book produced via Amazon’s CreateSpace, for example, the author’s take runs as high as 60 percent of the selling price, but this is after paying the upfront cost of the publishing “package” comprising preparatory costs such as editing, typesetting, design and e-book formatting. (The minimum selling price is generally set at roughly four times the unit production cost of the book.) If the author handles all the prep work and deals directly with a printer such as Lightning Source, the cost per book is lower and the potential earnings are higher.
5. To attract the attention of a major publisher. Indie websites and blogs are awash with stories of the self-published book that made a big enough splash on its own that it was picked up by a mainstream publisher and made into an even bigger success. A recent example of a literary novel to make this leap is A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, which was picked up by the University of Chicago Press. It is difficult to imagine this 678-page doorstopper the Globe and Mail reviewer called an “absurdist romp through the [American] justice system” finding a proper publisher any other way.
The main challenge of self-publishing is getting the book widely known among potential readers. The author must become his or her own publicity and marketing department. It is difficult, but not impossible, to place your book with the Indigo chain, which now accounts for as much as 50 percent of Canadian retail sales of physical books. Magazines and newspapers will not review your book and it will not be eligible for the grants and awards available to conventional publishers. But it seems to be relatively easy to gain access to the major online booksellers such as Amazon.com and, in Canada, Chapters.Indigo.ca, where it can be available as POD and in e-book format.
As it happens, mainstream publishers now expect all but their best-selling fiction writers to do most of their marketing themselves. Once the publication date rolls around they offer little or nothing beyond sending out copies for review and giving the book space in the catalogue. Authors are expected to maintain a website, write a regular blog and social-network themselves silly. Many authors are so disappointed by the lack of support from their publisher that they hire professional publicists to supplement the in-house effort. And still the average conventionally published novel in Canada is lucky to sell 2,000 copies—and that is assuming it makes it into Chapters/Indigo as well as most independent bookstores.
As Peter Mayer, former CEO of Viking/Penguin, recently acknowledged, “publishers clearly need to newly prove to readers and authors the value that publishers add.”