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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Self Publishing Versus Finding an Agent

Q: I've sent my fiction manuscript to ten agents. I got one nibble from an agent who looked at the whole manuscript and then rejected it. I’m still waiting for two agents to respond. Should I proceed with sending it out to the next batch of agents, or should I consider a print-on-demand company, like iUniverse?

A: I have seen your manuscript through its many drafts, and I believe it has merit, too. I wish I were an agent; I'd handle it, but I find it unethical—or at least misleading—to be both. To be both would imply I would be an agent to every manuscript I edit, and such would not be the case. Editing leaves me little time for much else, so it would be unfair to clients.

That said, before you move in the direction of self-publishing, please examine the pros and cons of self-publishing. I'm about to be very frank about reality, even my personal reality, and you must make up your mind about what's right for you.

Self-published nonfiction rarely sells well, unless the author is willing to make the book his entire life. Self-published fiction has an even worse track record. I do not recommend self-publishing fiction unless you intend to put your full time into promoting it, and even then, the sales figures may be disappointing.

To be a financially successful self-publisher, the author must not only make an investment in money, but also a major investment in time. He must tirelessly promote the book and find ways to get it mentioned, reviewed and distributed, as well as making sure that orders get filled and shipped, and those tasks are not easy. It's more than a financial investment; it's a major undertaking and still often results in disappointing sales. I have heard that overall, self-published books average 100 copies sold. That figure is dismal, considering that the few self-published books that have done well are figured into the equation, which means a typical (rather than average) number of sales could be considerably less than 100.

I have nothing against self-publishing nonfiction, because if you have information people need, they will buy it, if they know about it. I self-publish several reference books for writers, and I promote them on my Web site and other Web sites, and I sell them wherever I speak. I consider those sales a trickle of income that pays for a lunch or dinner here and there, while it helps writers get information they need, so it’s a win for everyone.

I do not rely on book income, though, especially from my self-published books, as a significant source of income. My publisher has sold many more copies of my book, "Write In Style," than I have sold of my self-published books, because the publisher has Simon & Schuster as a distributor, and the book is available at bookstores across America and Australia and through major bookselling Web sites around the world.

Here's another catch: Most competitions do not include self-published books, and because "Write In Style" is published by a traditional publisher, I've been able to win awards for it, which got it more publicity and translated into more sales. Still, what do I get for all those sales? For each "Write In Style" book sold, I make less than one dollar. The publisher made the investment and took the risk, so I get considerably less than the publisher does. The publisher must sell many more "Write In Style" books for my royalties to equal the income I make from my self-published books, but for my self-published books, I made the investment and took the risk. It’s a tossup.

Also before you self-publish, look at all the companies that provide self-publishing services and what they offer. When you use a print-on-demand publisher such as the one you mention, you get a slightly different product than if you choose a true printer. Your cost per book is higher with POD, so your return on investment is lower, but your total investment can be lower, too. Then again, the quality of your finished book could be lower, too.

You must learn the ins and outs of the self-publishing business. Companies like iUniverse charge for services you might be able to get elsewhere for less—things like cover art and internal design—but they do know what they are doing, and they usually list your book on their Web sites, which simplifies your sales. Know what you are getting for your dollar.

Order my free report #110 on the pros and cons of self-publishing. It covers print on demand (like iUniverse) as opposed to regular printing and much more information. Only you can decide which pros and cons you can live with. It's not an easy decision.

Ten submissions is a spit in the bucket, when hundreds of agents are out there. I have seen and edited your fiction manuscript, and if I were in your shoes, I would first exhaust all chances of finding an agent. If unable to get an agent in your corner, I would next turn to submitting the manuscript to the smaller publishers who take fiction directly from authors. Only after I had exhausted all my options for selling to a traditional publisher would I turn to self-publishing fiction.

—Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas will answer your questions, too. Get direct answers by sending your questions to Bobbie's Web site with even more questions and answers is

Note from SPAWN President, Patricia Fry: "Great response Bobbie, as usual. I just want to interject for our beginning authors that there is a difference in process and, usually, in sales, between fee-based publishing services (such as IUniverse) and true self-publishing. Self-publishing means that you establish your own publishing company, you arrange for the book design, you hire the printer, you get the ISBN, etc. and you reap all of the profits. Sales through author-owned publishing companies are generally higher. Of course, as Bobbi says, you still have to commit to promoting your book."



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