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A bookseller's view of self-publishing

Steph Moriarty (Clarion South attendee and long-time industry employee) gives her thoughts on self-publishing, particularly with regards to print publishing.


A boy I used to date once asked me, “What do you think of South African accents?”

To which my response was, “What kind of question is that?”

“It’s not a rascist thing. It’s just personal experience. Every South African person I’ve encountered at work has treated me like crap. Now whenever I hear the accent, I cringe. It’s like a Pavlovian response.”

As a bookseller, my Pavlovian response to self-publishing is somewhat analogous. I don’t hate self-published writers on principle, but in my experience, most of them have been awful to deal with.

The thing is – and this may sound obvious, but bear with me – when you self-publish, you’re taking on the role and duties and responsibilities that would traditionally belong to your publisher. The impression I get is that too many writers, not just the ones who self-publish, don’t understand and don’t take the time to try to understand, what exactly publishers do. Publishing companies are not hungry monsters who eat Word documents and spit out bound and finished books. They’re not just there to make sure all the words are in the right order and slap a pretty cover on the front. They also do complex and mundane things like sales research and find markets and organise publicity and marketing campaigns and, perhaps most difficult and mundane of all, fatten up (metaphorically speaking) the sales team with reasons your book is great but, more importantly, reasons people might by your book, and then send them off to clash with the retail buyers. These are the parts that self-published writers don’t tend to do as well, partly because they don’t know they have to do them, or don’t know how to do them, or are not qualified to do them, and partly because it’s hard to do a company’s work when you’re just one person. Which is not to say it can’t be done. But it is not easy to do well.

When publishers take on a book, they do so because they think it will sell. They may also think it’s a work of literary and creative genius, but the tipping point will always be if it has selling potential. When writers self-publish, the motivation should be the same: they should believe that they can sell it – and by “believe” I mean, have years’ worth of business and industry knowledge, preferably with the figures to back it up, to be able to make a rational, unbiased and qualified assertion that this venture is going to turn profit. Or, at least, you need to be able to talk convincingly about why people might want to buy the book. One writer I encountered in the bookselling trenches of not that long ago came to the shop unsolicited to hawk his expose on freemasons because, in his words, “Father’s Day is coming up”. Presumably his book contained new insights into contemporary freemason society, but not only were we not that kind of bookstore (we specialised in cooking, lifestyle and kids books), I remained doubtful as to whether I could imagine myself giving that book away to someone, let alone buying it myself. It also had an awful (though thankfully minimalist) amateur cover, which did not help. This is another aspect of self-publishing that people tend to think is easy to get right. Good book design is expensive, because good designers who know what they’re doing and who know their genres, and who have the time and good will to read books and come up with ideas, and absorb other people’s ideas, are in demand. Mainstream publishing does not always get covers right by any means, and they may very well not give your book the cover that you had in mind, but they will give you something that many people have looked at and worked on and thought hard about. It is, after all, not in any publisher’s interest to see your book not sell (unless you have been rude to them). Obviously. They want it to do well as much, if not more, than you do, because they are as invested – if not more – as you.

I’m going to try to keep the sales and marketing rant short because it’s pretty common knowledge that every writer these days should be doing at least some self-promotion if they want to see success. Marketing is hard, but fun. Sales is harder. Retail buyers are the gatekeepers of bookshop inventory, and they can be mean, lean and, more relevantly, on an annual budget that is both. Understand that no bookshop can stock every book or every kind of book. Understand that the buyers love books as much as you (hopefully) do, but that the first rule of poker is “leave emotion at the door”. Be prepared to leave a reading copy, at the very least, and don’t expect to get it back. Ever. This does not mean that the longer you leave it with them, the likelier it is you’ll get it back. The inverse is true. The longer you leave a thing in a bookshop – whether on the shop floor or in the back room – the less likely it will ever be found again.

Don’t try to guilt buyers or booksellers into taking your book. It’s this kind of behaviour that makes them hard-hearted. Don’t ring every few days to see how sales are doing and to offer to replenish stock. It’s annoying, and booksellers are busy, and they’ll think you’re desperate. If they need more copies, they’ll contact you. And DON’T rearrange shelves to put your book in a more prominent position. If you think it’s a reasonable request – ie. the bookseller has taken a significant number of copies – ask an assistant. Always be courteous. Whether you get the outcome you want or not, be professional and thank them for your time. This goes for all authors, not just self-published ones. And even if you do get your book on shelves, don’t expect them to miraculously fly off on your own.

Thought your job was done when you wrote the damn thing? You wish.

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