DIY publishing or self publishing means more than you might think. But you still could probably use some professional help.
Remember when Home Depot first opened a store near you? In northern New Jersey in the mid-1990s, one of their home improvement superstores sprung up near me, and I remember a friend talking about the new store as if it was a paradise, a modern marvel, spoken about in hushed tones. I couldn’t argue with him. My own experience of the place was a sense of possibility for what I could now do on my own, with my own drive and ingenuity, and with the money I could save in not having to hire professionals to do all the things that I could dream about with the small, worn down but oh so loved home my wife and I first purchased.
If you’re not the home improvement type, just think of the first JoAnn Fabrics or even Michael’s stores. The era of superstores, now so ubiquitous, had met up with the era of “do it yourself.” Retail maturity, to put it simply, made its connection to good old fashioned human perseverance and perhaps American individualism and self-determination. The DIY movement was born.
For me, I must admit I became a bit driven, always looking for that weekend project and a way to improve things. I got a lot done. But there were those bigger, costlier, and more expert projects that never got done, or the projects that didn’t turn out so great or didn’t hold up. It really came down to a question of balance between the real, actual improvements of my DIY efforts and the real, actual improvements by professionals.
Something similar is happening in book publishing and with books. The technology and maturity of book publishing is creating a movement of DIY publishing. With Amazon KDP and IngramSpark, for example, all you need to do is follow a detailed list of instructions, work at things for a while, and in a matter of weeks you can transform a manuscript into a printed book. What’s more, if you can sell a lot of those books, you can make a lot more money, especially on Amazon, than if you publish with what many consider to be a conventional publisher. That difference in publishing today is phenomenal, and in my experience with authors, I don’t think most of them fully appreciate the new power they have to really control the rights to and the income from their own books.
What changed so much in publishing is quite simple and like so much else: digital technology. In the book business, it happens in two key ways. First, because of the Internet we can easily research and find new books that we love. Second, because publishing technology is completely digitized to the extent that anyone can publish a book, you don’t need a publisher or a retail bookstore. As I’ve said before, this change has removed much of the gatekeeping function of publishers and booksellers.
But just like my home improvement success rate, DIY publishing efforts can meet with mixed results. There are literally truckloads of individual books being published every year that will never sell more than a few hundred copies (though there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that). The biggest reasons these books often don’t sell: 1) it’s human nature to think the book you’re writing is well-written and interesting to people outside of your own circle, and it’s hard to figure out if your book is well-written and widely interesting without the help of a publishing professional; 2) you don’t have or can’t find the hours in the day, week, or month to let people know about your book over months and years. It’s both a question of know-how and a commitment of time. Just like anything else.
In general, empowering yourself takes work. It takes an investment of learning, money, and it takes perseverance. That said, most anyone who has been able to do the work has found positive results, even if not marked financial and professional success. You can indeed get a lot done yourself, and it does indeed start with you.
I talk to a lot of people who want to publish a book, and I often hear the notion that if they can land a real publisher, in other words a well-known conventional publisher, then so many of the obstacles between them and their success as an author have been removed. There are a lot of good reasons people put trust in a book deal with a known publisher that I won’t go into now, but the one I’d stress the most is that publishers are still thought to have a certain power you can’t possibly possess as an author. We think they hold all or most of the cards to create, market, and distribute books.
But publishers just don’t have that power the way they used to. One of the main reasons is that, except for boutique retail stores and some big box stores that only carry bestsellers, they no longer have a robust bookstore marketplace. Related to that, they rely highly on author platforms, especially author digital platforms. And finally, publishers now also don’t hold an exclusive ownership for book making.
So in books, as in life, authors have reached a new time when they can find real benefit in empowering themselves. It takes time, effort, and money, and you do need to balance the real gains you create on your own (perhaps especially with a higher royalty rate) with the real gains of working with a publishing professional or a publisher (a publisher that hopefully rewards you well). But authors no longer need to be beholden. They have choices. They can empower themselves.
Write that book. Build that website. Reach out to people through email and social media. Get some speaking gigs. And find that sense of awe and wonder about the possibilities.