Self-Publishing as a Business - You are the Acquisitions Editor

Anybody can write a book and anybody often does. All it takes is the discipline to pile up enough words that the average Joe looking at it in bound form would say, "Yep, that's a book you got there." To succeed in self-publishing, you have to be your own acquisitions editor. If the big trade publishers used bulk as the sole measure to choose the books they published, they'd be putting out millions of new titles a year, instead of tens of thousands, but the publishing business places a number of hurdles before the potential author. While not universally recognized, I'll give the three primary hurdles here in order of importance.

1) Is the author famous?

2) Is there an existing market for the book?

3) Is the book any good?

The first hurdle is simply the acknowledgement by publishers that selling books is hard work, so they'd rather have an author who can do all of the heavy lifting. This is called a "platform" in the industry, and the best platform to have is your own television show - think O'Reilly Factor or Tom Brokaw promoting "The Greatest Generation" every night on the news. You don't have your own TV show. If you do, you're wasting your time reading my advice. So, if you're interested in self-publishing your book as a business, the first question you should ask yourself is "Am I famous?" If you answer "Yes," try to draw up a mental list of who knows who you are. If you are thinking in terms of individuals rather than groups, and if the list starts with "Mom," you aren't famous. That doesn't mean you don't have a platform. It's possible that you have a big website, publish a newsletter or have push cart in front of Penn Station that delivers thousands of eyeballs a day, but try to be realistic.

The second hurdle is whether or not anybody will buy your self-published book if you do a reasonable job letting them know it exists. If your book is a memoir, the answer is almost certainly no. It doesn't mean you shouldn't publish the book or pay a subsidy to get it into print, it just means it's not a promising business model. The classic way of determining whether or not a potential title has a market is to check if and how comparable titles are selling. If there are no comparable titles, it doesn't mean you shouldn't publish, but it does mean you'll be flying blind. The publishing business isn't profitable enough to engage in true market research, unless you're talking about launching a whole new line of branded books, so you have to use practical measures to estimate the demand. If every argument you come up with starts with "I think..." or "It seems to me..." then you're in trouble.

The last hurdle is whether or not the book is any good, and you're just not in a position to be the judge of that. Neither is your mother, your father, your extended family or friends. The only true measure is to get strangers to read the manuscript and give you feedback, ideally strangers you don't deal with on a face-to-face basis. If you can't get strangers to read your manuscript for free, you're going to have a heck of a time convincing them to buy your book. The Internet is ideal for this, and I push every writer I know to have their own website or blog and start posting their writings. It will serve as both a mechanism for current feedback and a platform for future sales.

If you're going to be successful in your self-publishing business, you have to be the gatekeeper who keeps you from publishing unsaleable books. I've authored and published books that sell well, I've published one that bombed, and I've written a book (and large chunks of others) that I'll never publish because I'm conscious of the three hurdles to publication. Keep in mind that having a platform in veterinary medicine won't necessarily help you sell your novel about a certified public accountant who solves murder mysteries in Boston. If you don't want to write non-fiction about veterinary medicine, at least make your amateur sleuth a veterinarian, and maybe you'll build a base with your customers or at those wild conventions you hold in Las Vegas:-)

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