Wednesday 12 September 2012

Not really a champion of self-publishing

After a long hard think, I am replying to a couple of twitter questions. Hopefully the person who asked them won't mind my repeating them here:

Do you have any thoughts on self-publishing for short stories? It seems to be a way of getting stuff out there easier.

... And without the hassle and cost of a traditional publisher. People will pay a quid for a short book, but not a fiver.

My thoughts on self-publishing short stories is that I have done it, but only for specific reasons and only in one format. I made chapbooks because I wanted to make a solid whole piece of work from start to finish. I wanted complete control over the work and wanted to physically make the books myself. I was working on the idea, as I've mentioned on this blog before, of making the equivalent of a self-released music EP. Something that I could show, like a card or a sample of my work, but also something I could easily show at readings and events. Selling the chapbooks was only ever going to be a bonus. I never intended to make a fortune (which is lucky, because at the most, I have made enough to buy the paper to print them on). 

My thoughts on it being easy are that it is not. 'Getting stuff out there' is very very hard before anyone has heard of you. It is particularly hard if you have never read at an event or been seen by anyone (in my limited experience). It is not quick and it is time consuming and it isn't really very cheap. I did work out how much it cost me to make each book and I can just about cover the cost of the materials, but not the time. And in fact, I have given away more than I have sold. And I haven't sold that many. If you want people to read your self-published books you need to give some away - speculate to accumulate. My other job is working for a small business and I have learned a lot about the value of sending free samples. If you want people to notice you, you have to make them notice you. You can't expect people to buy your work unless they've heard of you or read a sample of your writing.

I don't know what the 'hassle and cost of a traditional publisher' is, having never had a novel published, but it seems like it's a completely different kettle of fish. I can't compare. All I know is that making chapbooks or pamphlets (if you make them well and the story is good) is a labour of love. And I have loved it! 

But really the chapbooks are about the stories. The story is the bit that counts. You have to be confident that it is good.

Perhaps you are more interested in promoting your work and having people read it than in making chapbooks, so I'll address that too. I have had short stories published in various places (magazines, anthologies, online journals) and the chapbooks have come later. I am not planning to make anymore chapbooks - I spent eighteen months on them and now I am looking to work on something else. 

So my advice, such as it is, is to keep writing and to submit to magazines and competitions and to try to perform your work, or to volunteer at writing events, go to readings, and to do stuff for free. Try to write as well as you can and read loads. As I mentioned in my talk, Jon McGregor said that short stories are a great place to start for writers. Or perhaps a great way to start again and get a fresh perspective.

So, self-publishing has a place, but it has to be good (professionally edited), it has to be beautifully presented (for me) and it's not an end in itself - it won't make you money and it's really hard to publicise. But it can be very satisfying, hugely fun and a great place to start. I have written about my process in earlier posts - so feel free to have a look. This may all sound obvious to you and you may have heard it before - but it's all I've got! I don't want to discourage from self-publishing, but it is important to do it for the right reasons.

To finish - a poster about art that I have posted in my blog before. It's something to think about.


  1. I understand your points, and I suppose I have self-published for 2 reasons. 1) to have a focus for getting to the end of the project and 2) to enable the work to get out there. I would like to make money, because I think it is a good story. In fact, I have made money, already - £3.

    The next lot I will almost certainly self-publish too, but make them free, if I can. I suppose it is similar to your chapbooks, but where I can make them available electronically.

  2. Etsy is great - that's where I sell my books. But they only let you list things that are handmade or vintage (so I don't know if Lulu books would count). I tried with ebay, but it wasn't so easy - you have to renew all the time. It's worth looking at Etsy though - I bet you could contact them and ask. It's super cheap and easy and popular. Good luck!

  3. You might need to paste that link into the browser or just google etsy.