Why I Don’t Self-Publish My Stories

Every now and then, when I write about the vast number of story rejections I’ve collected over the years, I get asked why I don’t self-publish some of the stories that I haven’t sold elsewhere. The short answer is that self-publishing is not for me. To be clear I am speaking only about me and my goals as a writer. Different writers have different goals and different reasons for writing.

I grew up reading science fiction stories and I admired the writers who wrote them. I wanted to be just like them. Most of these writers didn’t self-publish. They went through a process of submission and rejection, until they ultimately started selling stories. Later some of them transitioned to novels. Each of them had to overcome some kind of editorial bar. While this editorial bar is an arbitrary judgement of quality, it nonetheless means something to me. I think of it like trying out for a baseball team. No one just starts in the majors. You play ball in Little League, and work your way up to the older leagues. Then there is junior varsity and varsity ball. Maybe college ball and if you are really talented and lucky, the pros. But who judges that talent? That bar that is set to get the pros is set high for a reason. This doesn’t mean you can’t settle into an adult softball league and have a blast. It also doesn’t mean that settling into such a league implies a lack of talent. It’s just a different path.

When I started out writing, I did so with the intent of being just like those writers I admired so much, and that meant, as much as possible, following in their literary footsteps. I always tried to keep the bar high for me. It wasn’t just about getting my stories in front of as many eyes as possible. It was about honing my craft so that the stories I wrote were good stories, worthy of a position in the same magazines as my heroes’ stories appeared. It meant that I rarely submitted stories to magazines which were not considered “pro” markets until after I made my first “pro” sale.

Then, too, I might like a story I write. I might love it, but I am probably the worst judge of my own stories. Who might be qualified to tell me if the story is any good? It seems to me that a professional editor at one of the major magazines is just that person. They are extensively read within the genre. They know what sells and what does not. Sure, their opinions are their own, but it is the same yardstick that applied to my heroes, so why not to me as well?

Another point: I don’t want to spend my time deep in the mechanics of publishing. I want to spend my time writing more stories. Setting the outliers aside, my experience with self-publishing is that you spend at least as much time in post-production and marketing as you do writing the story. When I sell to a magazine, I don’t have to worry about any of that post-production. And the marketing is usually as simple as a blog post announcing I have a new story coming out.

Then, too, I make more money when I sell stories to a magazine than I do self-publishing. I did an experiment a few years back. The rights to my first published story had reverted to me, so I decided to make it available on Amazon as a self-published story for $0.99. When I sold the story to the magazine, I was paid $500 on acceptance–meaning I had the check in hand months before the story appeared in the magazine. In the two years or so since I “self-published” that story on Amazon, I haven’t made $5 from it. And yet the time it took me to format the document, get it online and monitor its sales far exceeded the $5 I’ve earned from it.

Well, what about the stories that I haven’t sold? Couldn’t I self-publish those? I wouldn’t want to. They’ve been rejected all around, and I’ve worked with enough editors now to trust their aggregate opinions. I could self-publish my rejected stories, but my fear is that they would embarrass me, that I’d be fawning off a lesser story on people and expecting them to pay for it and that’s not what I want to do. So instead, I take what lessons I can from these stories and try to write a better one the next time.

I like the challenge of writing stories and submitting them to the magazines. It’s the same road my idols took and it’s the road that I want to take. The truth is, self-publishing a story simply wouldn’t satisfy me, even in the unlikely event that it turned to out earn me a lot of money. No, I want to do it the hard way, take away (potentially) less financial rewards, but far, far, greater satisfaction in my work.

31 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Self-Publish My Stories

  1. A big problem with self-publishing is the lack of honest feedback for budding writers. Companies that offer self-publishing services make their money regardless of whether your book is successful, so it is in their interests to take on as many clients as possible. The same is true for Amazon: the costs it incurs publishing each book are so minimal that they’re happy to publish anything. You can see it in the current proliferation of courses, blogs and adverts all designed to assure us that anyone can do it, and that the traditional publishing industry doesn’t know what it’s talking about. I just hope there’s a shakeout soon.

  2. “Who might be qualified to tell me if the story is any good? It seems to me that a professional editor at one of the major magazines is just that person.”

    Nope. Your ultimate target, readers, are the ones whose opinion matters. Editors make mistakes. Readers don’t. They know what they want to read.

    1. A traditional publishing house is only going to make money if your book sells, so they have a vested interest in choosing books that they honestly think will sell. All the self-publishing companies I’ve talked to take a flat fee for their services, which means they really don’t care whether your book sells or not – indeed they have a vested interest in persuading you that your book will sell, even if it’s drivel.

      1. You’ve talked to the wrong companies then – there is no need to be paying any company to self-publish you. I pay an editor and cover designer – but I do my own publishing direct via KDP (for Amazon ebooks), Createspace (for paperbacks) and Writing life (for Kobo ebook) and Smashwords for a number of other ebook stores including Apple. Not one of these companies charge be to publish with them. They take a percentage of any sales, and a helluva lot less of a percentage than a publisher.

        1. That may be so – although I also want to get my book into print which involves more than simply editing and cover design. However my point is that, regardless, these companies see self-publishing as a business opportunity and the result is a massive increase in published works that risks swamping the market with poor-quality drivel.

    2. Lexi, I should have qualified my remark better. A professional editor at one of the major science fiction magazines is the right person to tell me if my story is any good to publish. The readers, of course, will either agree or disagree with him.

  3. I think many self-publishing writers face the concerns and frustrations you describe. One effective (for many people) response is to think of indie publishing not as going it alone — i.e., the writer is responsible for everything, from judging quality to polishing the cover art — but as a process of establishing “networks” of indie providers who, collectively, end up covering the roles a traditional publisher covers, but at reduced cost. For instance, many indies who’ve been at it a while have a trusted critique group that plays the Sorry,-just-not-good-enough role of a traditional editor. Many of us contract out all or part of the production side of things — editing, proofing, ebook and paperback formatting, cover design — to indie providers of those services. It’s true that there’s no escape from marketing, but I think traditionally published authors are expected to do a lot of that stuff as well, alas.

    At any rate, I’m glad to hear you’ve found a way to bring your books to readers that works for you.

  4. Self publishing takes a lot more work and knowledge. It’s not for people who assume that by publishing one book for 99cent they are going to sale like crazy. I’m a marketer, freelancer and a book writer — I love self publishing.

  5. Sorry – but I couldn’t help myself – took 5secs to find your short story on Amazon – I’m talking about “When I Kissed An Astronomer”. So let’s start with the obvious: your book cover screams spam PLR don’t read followed by no reviews after 5 years! Come on you must have reviews – put some in the editorial section of authorcentral – ask your readers to do you favour and add one after reading the story for free here!

    1. Lissie, that gets to my point: I don’t want to do all of that. I want to write my stories, send them out, and move on to the next one. I don’t want to worry about cover art, hiring editors, etc. I want the market to which I sell to handle all of that for me. And I have a particular horror of begging for reviews from readers. If a reader loves or hates the story, and is so motivated, they’ll review without my hounding them.

  6. Were you not allowed to use the cover and blurb shown/linked on your sidebar? Both those things would increase the chance of your story selling. Having the picture link go to Amazon instead of the blurb so your fans could easily buy the story would help also. As Lissie suggest ask a few fans to review it. Not sure how long changing the cover would take but the blurb, link change, and asking fans to review if they’ve read it should take under an hour. Will you instantly make tons more sales? No, but over time it will make a difference especially if you are putting up more of your work after the rights revert to you. Even a white (or black, any color really) cover with title and your name would be better than the current one. Set that up as a template and all you have to do for each story is change the text. Not as ideal as having a professional cover but better. It’s sales over time. The more you have available looking clean, full blurbs, with an easy way for fans to find and buy your work the better chance you have of making a good additional living for a couple hours work. Pay someone to do the cover and formatting for anthologies of 5 & 10 stories and you might be surprised.

    1. With permissions and payment to the artist, I probably could have used those, but the point is I am more interested in spending my limited time writing stories, not doing all of the other stuff like worrying about art, hiring editors, or bugging readers for reviews. (The last is a particular peeve of mine. I go in with the assumption that readers who love or hate the story will review it–bothering them by asking them to review stories only seems to antagonize them.)

      1. I was specifically talking about stories that were already published so there should be no need to hire an editor.

        Mentioning on your blog you’ve posted a story and that reviews are always welcome is not begging readers to review your books IMHO. Many readers don’t think to write a review. It did not occur to me to do so until I got involved with publishing. it is an occasional blog post so not really any extra time/work than you probably spend blogging so this step does not cut into your writing time.

        Yes a cover, formatting, and uploading a book cuts into your time and cost you a little money upfront. But with links on your website to your online stories/collections you are looking at long-term income to supplement your current income with a product that has gone through the approval process already.

        I guess I’m puzzled as to why spending 1-3 hours on a story where rights have reverted to you seems like so much work and not worth anything. It’s like you see your stories as throwaways – only good once. After all the work you went through to write, submit, and update your website to get into magazines and anthologies and promote it (which is what you do with links to magazines and anthologies on your sidebar) why not give the story a little extra love & attention by republishing it.

        1. Tasha, gotcha, and I suppose in the instance of stories in which the rights have reverted, you are probably right and I am just lazy. But the truth is, with a full time job and a couple of little kids, I have a very limited supply of time for writing and I’d rather spend those 1-3 hours writing new stories for the magazines. I don’t really look at those stories as throw-aways. They served their purpose. Maybe at some point in the future, I’d look into collecting them, but I have a long way to go before doing that, I think.

          1. I don’t know the age of your kids but 10+ might love a challenge of learning to do formatting, uploading, and possibly even tackling graphics. It’s a great way to get them involved, have them learn new skills, make a little money from you, keep them busy, out of trouble, and if they get good at it they might have a great job doing this for others. Another future idea if your kids are too young.

  7. I also took a look at your story on Amazon. The cover, title, and blurb aren’t at all attractive. You have no reviews and no Shelfari extras to attract readers.

    Self publishing requires great effort beyond just writing the story. There is a business side to it that requires persistance and social interaction, not generally the strengths of writers. I definitely understand not wanting to go through all of that.

    Personally, I’ve enjoyed self publishing my books. It’s hard work, but immensely satisfying and profitable. :)

    All my best,

    John H. Carroll

    1. John, you hit the nail right on the head: “self publishing required great effort beyond just writing the story.” I want to spend my effort writing. Selling stories to Analog and other professional science fiction markets, I can do that and they do virtually everything else for me–and they pay me in advance for the story.

  8. I think you’ve stated your reasons why you don’t want to self-publish very well and I don’t think anyone takes issue with you for that. But what some of us are pointing out is that you didn’t give self-publishing a real test. You under-published and under-promoted one short story. Self-publishing authors find that there’s synergy between works over time and that marketing efforts made for one book inevitably build platform and help other books. If you aren’t interested that’s okay but the idea that you’ve run a meaningful test–that’s not okay. One more thing. You could have been paid for each short story’s first serial rights and then self-published them separately or in collections. In fact, you still could. You could also contract someone to do that for you (and you would know that a magazine editor had already confirmed each story as having value).
    Good luck to you. I appreciated that you were clear about your reasons for not wanting to self-publish.

    1. Lexi, that is an interesting article and some good points are made for people who write books or novels. But I don’t. I write short fiction. I don’t have the talent (at this point) or desire (at this point) to write novels. I’m not sure the same arguments hold up for short fiction. Production schedules for short fiction are not always the same, and even when they are pretty long (say, 9 month lead time) I’m still paid in advance. I don’t need an agent for short fiction so I don’t have to deal with those kind of interruptions. With few exceptions, royalty statements are not involved, since I’m paid for specific rights up-front, not by volume sales. The magazines handle editing, artwork and some publicity. I can handle the rest, which usually amounts to a blog post and a few scheduled tweets. The magazine also handles distribution.

      If I was strictly trying to make money as a novelist, perhaps some of this would make sense. But as a short fiction writer, trying to follow the same path my heroes did, I’m satisfied doing it the way I do it.

      My post wasn’t intended to say one way was better than the other, and I hope it didn’t come across that way. I was just trying to answer that frequent question I get: “Why don’t you self-publish?”

  9. That’s the exciting thing about publishing today. There are so many ways to reach readers. But when it comes down to it, we each get to make our minds up about what works best for our particular type of writing. My book is traditionally published, however – for other kinds of writing, I am considering self-publishing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! ~Karen

  10. Well considered and well written post, thank you.

    Of course, I agree with you completely and add that as an author, I have never been self-published, including my novels and doubt I ever will (although never say never). I know this may create cries of “you’re a fool” from some self-published authors but I prefer my writing to be vetted through a publisher’s objective eyes before publication. Those short stories I’ve not been able to place, I’ve rewritten until I sold. I’ve been fortunate that my novels have sold to small independent publishers. I’ve also been very pleased with the support of my titles from those publishers.

    Whether to self-publish or not is a personal decision of course and some self-published works (some nonfiction and erotica, for example) do very well. I also believe that there is so much self-publishing going on now that it may be impossible for a writer to stand out.

  11. Just a thought… The time you’ve spent on this post and answering responses is probably the amount of time it would have taken to spruce up your Amazon presence… Your lack of time excuse is hereby invalidated. On a side note- I’m not going to take the time to look it up as others have done because you are specifically not interested in selling through those channels, and I shall respect your wishes. The whole post is a little Weeblyesque.

  12. Jamie- I agree completely with you. Not only does self-publishing take the challenge out of it, anyone can do it so it means nothing. But I do say- let people self publish! It’s going to diminish the drivel in the slush piles and get rid of the worst that comes in front of the editors. That can only be a good thing for the rest of us. At least it won’t be driving the editors crazy like I have heard drivel tends to do. And- anyone who is impatient enough to self-publish the first story they ever wrote without honing their writing craft first is not going to be very good. I think that overall, the types of people who are drawn to self-publishing are impatient and therefore there’s no way they will have put in the time and effort to become good at writing. For example, only a few months ago I went to a writer’s group and instead of serious writers everyone was talking about self-publishing. Then when I heard their stories during critique they were awful. Later those same people were talking about how good writing never gets published at traditional publishers and the key to it all is getting self-published and then focusing on really marketing your work. Uhm, no, the key to it all is good writing. Yes sometimes good work won’t get published for whatever reason (maybe the editor’s eyes are so blurry from reading too much drivel) but I’d be willing to bet if you have 5-10 GOOD pieces, at least one, (if not all, eventually) will get picked up.

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