What Are The Risks?

I sat in on a presentation by a fairly successful self-publisher this weekend and he was encouraging everyone to take their trunked short stories or novels and throw them up on Amazon.

As he put it, “What are the risks?”

Now, this was an author who had five (?) trade published books at the time he chose to self-publish, so for him, maybe there was no risk.

He already knew he could write at a level that the market would pay for.  He also had a book to publish that had been professionally edited.  And he’d shopped the book around and hadn’t found any interest with the traditional route.

For him, there probably wasn’t a lot of risk to self-pubbing.

But if you’re not this guy, what are your risks?

Well, you may not be ready.  Your writing may not be at a level that is acceptable to the average reader.

(Let me digress for a moment here to say that I think that’s a different standard than the pro publication standard.  I think you can write a book that an average reader can read and be satisfied with and that that same book can generate little to no interest from the trade publishers.  It doesn’t mean the trade publishers are wrong in saying no.  It just means that the decision to invest in a title/author is different from the conclusion that a book was a decent read.)

And if you’re not ready there could be negative consequences if you self-publish.

A lot of newer authors like to use their real name when they publish their first stories or novels.  Which means that if they publish too early, that bad work will always be tied to them.

Even if they pull the book, there are still traces of that book and those reviews out there.  Under the author’s real name.  Even if they use a pen name later, chances are that if they find a reasonable level of success the pen name will just be a polite fiction.  Someone will connect the pen name to their real name.

(Whereas if you start with a pen name and don’t find success, it’s much less likely that someone will later connect the pen name to your real name.)

So, there’s that.  The tarnish of really crappy writing when you’ve finally figured out how to write.

It’s one thing for agents and editors to know that you shopped around an absolutely atrocious manuscript before you wrote the good one.  It’s another for that manuscript to actually be out there somewhere.

The next issue is that maybe the story should not under any circumstances see the light of day.

Maybe the author’s political or personal views are a little too outside the norm and the novel is downright offensive to the majority of living, breathing human beings.

Or maybe the author doesn’t realize that they wrote a racist or misogynist work, but anybody else with half a brain thinks they did.

(Look up the Weird Tales scandal from a year or two ago if you want to see what I mean.)

This is worse than just being a bad writer who published too soon.  Because, chances are, if the book was offensive enough, the author acquired a few enemies.  People who will say nasty things every time the author’s name comes up in conversation.  People who may actively try to derail their future career.

The first two issues can be mitigated (not entirely prevented) by using good beta readers or a good editor.  Hopefully, one of these people will say, “Uh, you know, maybe you shouldn’t publish that story…it’s just a little, you know….”

(Don’t expect anyone to call you a racist to your face.  Keep an eye out for the awkwardly phrased comment instead.)

The third issue is this whole issue of rights.  Granted, things are changing.  But I would say that if you’re going to choose to self-publish a short story or novel, assume that it’s just going to be self-published.

Sure, you might be the next Hugh Howey or Bella Andre, but you’re really not.  None of us are.  So, if you self-publish something, assume you’ve burned the value of the rights associated with that book.

On Amazon you pretty much publish all over the world, so first publication rights are gone.  For every market.  You know those lucrative foreign rights trade published authors like to mention?  Gone.

(Now.  Like I said.  If you’re a Hugh Howey you can still sell those rights.  His agent was able to sell his rights, at auction, in thirty different countries.  BUT THAT IS NOT THE NORM.)

I know there are some who advise self-publishing and shopping a novel to agents/editors at the same time.  They claim that agents and editors are so interested in any good writing that they won’t care if you’ve already self-pubbed the work.

Yeah, not so much.

Unless someone says they are specifically open to previously published works, assume they have no interest in putting lipstick on a pig.  You self-publish, you close the door on the agent/editor route.

(Until you sell hundreds of thousands of copies at which point you question any trade publishing deal a helluva lot more than you would’ve before.)

So, even if you wrote a good book and it wasn’t something that generates lots of hate mail, you’ve still likely closed the door on trade publishing for that book.

(And if you trade publish a book you’ve likely closed the door on self-publishing it later.  That window where authors were able to get rights back on their backlist?  Closing or closed.  Don’t expect it to be open for you.)

Finally, there are all the issues of balancing your self-publishing and your trade publishing if you want to be a hybrid author.

What happens if you get a trade contract on Series A but are also self-pubbing Series B?

Well, let’s see.

You have the issue of cannibalizing your own sales by putting out too many books over too short a period of time.  (I heard an editor for a romance line say about six books per year is the max.)

You also have the issue of confusing your readership if you’re using the same name for all of your books or if your readership knows about your multiple pen names.

You have the issue of contract obligations.  If you focus on Series B instead of finishing book two of Series A and you miss your trade pubbing deadline then you’re likely in breach of contract and may have to give money back to the publisher.

You have the problem of coordinating your promotional efforts between your trade and self-publishing.

I’m sure there are other risks that I’m not thinking of right now.

I’m not saying not to try self-publishing.  I’m just saying that it is not some risk-free activity.  There can be negative consequences and anyone who wants to self-publish should do so only after considering the pros AND the cons.


About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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