Why I Self Publish

I'm writing this in response to a comment on my last post that sounded the familiar lament about prejudice against self published books. It struck me as particularly ironic that the comment came on my post about estate planning in which I was pointing out that my self publishing business would likely generate a couple hundred thousand dollars in net profit over the next five or so years if I drop dead tomorrow. That contrasts with the many trade authors I've known who crank out multiple books a year for advances that rarely earn out; writing books for a modest hourly wage with no significant royalties expected. Self publishing is the business you make of it. Working as a trade author is often a frustrating work-from-home job with low pay, bad hours and no benefits.

I haven't encountered any unfair practices aimed at keeping down self publishers. The most common complaints I hear from authors who went into self publishing with their eyes shut relates to reviews and bookstore stocking. Reviewers who write for newspapers and magazines are a vanishing breed, but those who remain often state in their submission guidelines that they don't review self published books. I don't blame them, because I'm guessing that whatever explanation they offer, the real reason is that they already get too many books from established trades and are desperate for ways to reduce the crush. If I worked as a book reviewer, I'd be inclined to only review books by people whose names began with "X" or "Z", but that's just a question of taste. Nobody seems bothered by the numerous blogs that exclusively review books by self publishers, and in some cases, only books published through particular companies that provide author services. "Oh," you say, "But nobody buys books that get reviewed on those blogs." Maybe not, but hardly anybody buys books based on newspaper or magazine reviews either, especially if they can't find those books on bookstore shelves.

So why won't bookstores stock your self published book? It's not your book, it's you. If they won't stock your book, it means you've failed to convince them that they'll make money by stocking the book, and perhaps you've adopted a business model (such as not accepting returns) that prevents them from doing business with you. Bookstores are in much the same position as book reviewers. Every year, more new titles are published than would fit into several Barnes&Noble superstores stacked on top of each other. An independent bookstore owner would have to own a chain of twenty or thirty stores to stock every book published each year. The reason they don't try to stock over a half million new titles every year has nothing to do with bias against self publishers. It's sound business practice to focus on stocking the books they believe they can sell. Bookstores count on a number of signals to tell them what books will sell, such as whether previous books by the publisher or author sold, how the subject fits with the local demand, how much ongoing effort they expect the publisher to make marketing the book, and of course, personal taste. If you want them to take a chance on an unknown, you better have a better reason for them than being unknown.

Self publishing does not mean independence from all outside parties unless you are printing and binding your own books and hand selling them to each customer. Three years ago for July 4th I wrote about the dependencies of an independent self publisher, and for most self publishers today, the main dependence is Amazon. That's more of a blessing than a curse, I've steered many authors into signing up with CreateSpace and publishing direct through Amazon. For authors who have no web platform or marketing plans for their books, it's hands-down the best way to self publish. But it means putting all of your eggs in Amazon's basket, something I would never advise as a plan for a business when other options are available.

You may be a great author, but if you can't sell your books, you're a failed publisher. Four years ago I wrote a short story about publishing choices, and at the risk of spoiling the ending, you don't want to end up like the author who signed the trade contract. For most authors, the main take-away from being published by an established trade publisher is the credential of being published by an name publisher. That's why some trade authors and fellow travelers trash-talk self publishing. Many trade authors have gone through extensive rejection before getting published, only to find they can't even earn a living at it, so they are jealous of the jewel they derived from the journey, the credential of "author." In some cases, the strongest critics of self publishing are writers who have yet to "break through" but have been trying for many years. They are seriously invested in the trade model, so don't blame them, they aren't hurting you any.

I came at publishing from a different direction. After an early drawer full of rejection notices and returned manuscripts of my novel (no, I didn't follow instructions and query before sending a bound copy:-), I took to Internet publishing. After I wrote a how-to book supported by my website, I received four contract offers from trades, and to my everlasting regret, took one. I wrote my next four books as a trade author, the junior partner in an uneven relationship with a multi-billion dollar company. As time went on, we argued about everything, or at least, I argued and they pointed at the contract. Eventually I decided that I wouldn't sign another contract unless I got to write it. The waves of offers (steady trickle anyway) from various publishers since then have always broken on the rocks in my head.

And that's why I self publish - because I have rocks in my head.


Ernie J. Zelinski said...


I agree with you entirely about self-publishing.

In my book Career Success Without a Real Job: The Career Book for People Too Smart to Work in Corporations, I have a topic called It's Not Creative Unless It Sells.

Here is an excerpt:
"Once you have written a book and had it published, you are about 5 percent of the way to making it a success. Whether the book is self-published or published by a major publisher, you must promote it. The best promotion for a book is not done by publishers, publicists, distributors, or bookstores; the best promotion is done by the author.

"In the academic world, it’s publish or perish. In the real world, it’s PROMOTE or perish.
Writing a good book takes creativity; effective promotion takes ten times as much creativity. Five years after I wrote The Joy of Not Working, I was still promoting the book with the same intensity as when the book was first released. Without this sustained promotion, it would never have eventually become an
international bestseller published in 17 languages with 225,000 copies sold."

Incidentally, even with success of the above book, after I completed How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free I sent the manuscript to 35 American publishers and I thought that I would have no problem getting a publisher. I was wrong. Even my publisher Ten Speed Press turned it down. But Ten Speed agreed to distribute it for me if I self-published it.

Taking the financial risk paid off big time. This book has now sold over 100,000 copies and has seven foreign publishers. Today when I typed “retirement book” into Google, the top listing overall was a link to’s webpage for How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free — out of over 22 million webpages! It won’t be long before I have realized a tidy pretax profit of $400,000 on the book.

Recently Ten Speed Press got sold to Random House. Random House immediately cancelled the distribution Agreement but agreed to take over my self-published books under a normal publisher/author arrangement. I told Random House to take a hike, simply because I would make only a third of the money I make by self-publishing. I had no problem finding another distributor (National Book Network) - in fact, I had 4 distributors I could have gone with because of my track record with self-publishing. What some people fail to realize is that over 95 percent of books published, including those of major publishers, will sell less than 5,000 copies in their lifetime. But if you bring out 15 books, most self-published, and have had 14 of them sell at least 5,000 copies, you won't have a difficult time getting an American distributor and getting your books into bookstores.

Some people will think that I have rocks in my head to turn down Random House for a regular author/publisher Agreement, because of the status that Random House can give an author. But I know that in the long run I will do much better.

Incidentally, How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free has now been out for over 5 years and I intend to keep promoting it for another 5 years. My promotion efforts are why when you type "retirement" into's search engine, my book comes in the number 1 spot - out of over 200,000 retirement-related books Amazon claims to have.

Ernie Zelinski
Author, Innovator, and World's #1 Corporate Escape Artist

Morris Rosenthal said...


I give you credit on the relentless promotion front, so I approved the comment:-)

I don't believe I've ever done a promotional blog comment for a book, but I'm sure I've commented on blogs for the sake of inrtoducing a web page of my own to the discussion.

I'm strictly a passive promoter myself at this stage. People visit my website because of the content, and they either buy the books or not. If I spent more time promoting, I would sell more books, pay more taxes, and have less time for reading.


Elisa said...

Thanks for an excellent post.

Can you elaborate more on persuading "brick and mortar" stores to stock self-published books? Are you referring to independents, or chain booksellers, or both? And how does one persuade a bookseller that his/her book will sell?

Morris Rosenthal said...


Persuading brick and mortar bookstores to stock books isn't part of my own business model. For one thing, it would involve changing my discount structure to 55% into distribution so that those bookstores could get a 40% discount. The way I've worked the math, I wouldn't sell a suffient multiple of books (it would need to be more than 2X) to justify the change. I would also have to publish my books differently, investing more in cover designs, bulking the page count for the sake of having a larger footprint on the shelf, basically giving up on my Internet centric model.

That said, I did have one book stocked in Barnes&Noble stores for a couple years, without ever contacting them directly. They simply started ordering through distribution due to walk-in demand, despite the short discount and thin spine, but the book was returnable, and when they stopped stocking it after a couple years, I got a good number back:-)

Barnes&Noble has a program for small publishers to work with them directly. You'll need to jump through all their hoops, have a sharp looking book, and convince them that you have a solid marketing program in place. No stores are interested in stocking your books just to see if they work, they all want to be convinced that they'll make a profit.

The only way a new publisher can convince stores that they are serious about marketing is to prove it. That may involve spending big dollars on promotional materials sent to stores for free, it may involve hundreds of hours on the phone getting through to managers who will speak to you, it may involve showing up at shows that will cost you thousands of dollars and perhaps help you sell a couple hundred dollars of books - on consignment.

There are dozens of books about marketing books, if I've read any of them I don't remember what they were about, but I assume that each one may have one or two facts that may be useful for some publishers. It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Many book marketing gurus start by being famous at something and leverage that, if you aren't famous already, their plans aren't going to help you. And many people teaching marketing for any product are doing so because they either couldn't sell their own product, or because they lucked into a single hit, and after failing to repeat it, found that writing about their one hit was the most profitable thing they could do.

I know a lot of self publishers think it's unfair that bookstores aren't bending over backwards to give them a chance, but you're competing for shelf space with publishing businesses that have been at it a long time, have established a history with the bookstore, etc. There's no simple way around that. Unless you catch a random break based on the right title at the right time, it's a long hard slog.


Anonymous said...

Bookstores are increasingly irrelevant. I can't remember the last time I bought something there. They do cater to the older crowd that doesn't use the internet, but that crowd is, well, dwindling. I have a printed 20 page catalog that I send to people who aren't internet savvy. I care less and less about Barnes and Noble and one day that company may very well go the way of Tower Records.

I sell a ton of books through health food stores - much more targeted for my books. I had to cold call the stores but after years of grueling, I now have my book with one of the main health store distributors (just spent $600 on a full page ad in their catalog) and I have about 200 direct accounts which I personally call twice a year and restock them with about 500 books each time (500 sell to the 200 accounts, not 500 to each account).

My best assets in self publishing have been: 1) having a good business head and 2) finding good mentors (probably able to sniff them out due to #1).

If you don't have those, you aren't a publisher. Some great writers shouldn't be publishers, they will just shoot themselves in the foot. Publishing is about business, not content. Publishing and writing are so different, they are like comparing a dog to a turtle.


PS - if you found Morris' blog, you at least accomplished #2. :-) Read the archives and spend a lot of time thinking about and researching what he says.

Morris Rosenthal said...

Oh great, now I'm going to get hate mail from dogs and turtles.


Anonymous said...

I self published and I really have no desire to get an agent. I have enjoyed the experience and my next book will be out sometime this fall. I want to control my own destiny. I worked to hard on my novel, I wanted it my way, not someone elses.
ML Lacy

Anonymous said...

Here, here!

I have finally wound myself around to the point of self-publishing and am very excited. I haven't received that many rejections, and am in fact waiting to hear back from an editor who asked for the full manuscript.

While I pat myself on the back for that small accomplishment, after what I've learned about self pub vs. trade, a small part of me wants to be rejected so I won't have to say, um, think I'll do it myself, but thanks anyway.