When self-publishing makes sense

Okay, maybe it sounded like I came down a bit hard on self-publication in the last post. That was about fiction, which is the kind of creative writing that everybody thinks they can do – and they can, except maybe not well.

Self-publication is good for small niche non-fiction. I mean really good, especially if it’s ebooks or print-on-demand. There are many, many small niche markets for good, solid information, markets that are too small for conventional publishers, even small presses, to consider. Those markets are perfect for self-published books.

Self-published fiction has no regulators except for the amount of time and money the author is willing to put in, and the number of sales. Quality may be good, bad or indifferent, but there are no regulators for it.

With non-fiction, however, the self-preservation factor is enormous. Suppose, to take a simpleminded example, I write a book on dog diet and state that dark chocolate is good for your dog. It might be because I’m bone-head stupid and actually believe that, or it might be because the book was badly proofread and I left out a “not” before the “good”. Either way, an error in fact can lead to lawsuits, and the self-preservation factor decrees that probably 99 44/100ths percent of the self-published non-fiction books will be at least adequately edited.

Although the best instruction books are pleasantly readable, only accuracy and clarity matter. Literary merit isn’t as vital in a non-fiction book. This makes avoiding the gatekeepers and machinery of the traditional publication industry actually feasible.

A speciality non-fiction book may have only a few hundred or a few thousand potential readers. It’s highly unlikely that a conventional publisher would consider even a brilliantly written, impeccably edited book with such a small audience. Print-on-demand and ebooks are perfect for such tiny markets. Yes, you can still go down in flames, especially if you count your time into the cost of the book, but going down in flames is a possibility in any branch of business anyway. With print-on-demand and ebooks, they’re tinier flames.

I’ve got a couple of non-fiction manuscripts myself. I’ve considered self-publication, but I was thinking of something that looked more like a conventional route and would involve a physical book. I considered that kind of self-publication analogous to building a school because you want to teach math. It’s possible that my own non-fiction would work as an ebook or a print-on-demand, and I’m considering those things now.

My alter-ego, the Writer’s Dominatrix, still thinks that grammar, spelling, punctuation and diction are non-negotiable, which means that even if I do decide to go the ebook or PoD route, there’ll be no getting out of that work. But that’s me, or possibly her. It doesn’t have to be you.

It’s taken me several years to acknowledge the use and appropriateness of self-publication. (Hey, someone has to drag their feet! It’s a dirty, thankless job.) At this point, however, I’d say keep your facts straight, express them clearly and go for it.

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4 Responses to When self-publishing makes sense

  1. I love the print-on-demand option. McNally Robinson Booksellers here has a machine in their store that will print a book right before your eyes. It is the coolest thing to watch and only costs about $100 to get it set up to take your digital information and program the machine. It does seem to make more sense for the non-fiction writers. Like you said before, though, if you’re trying to get your fiction self-published, you’d better make sure it ‘cuts the mustard’. 🙂

  2. This was helpful. Thanks.

  3. “Good, readable writing isn’t as vital in a non-fiction book.”
    Please do not say that, Elizabeth. I am your friend, but I cannot vouch for other technical writers. There is a whole class of non-fiction writing that include procedures, user guides and reference manuals, where precise writing is absolutely of the essence. Not all of this will be commissioned by an employer. Some of this will be niche writing for experts, or for hobbyists.

    So let’s take a procedure and the the command “Press PF10 to blow up the world.”
    Most users read as they go along. Imagine the above command splitting over two pages. The user has already pressed PF10. They did not want to blow up the world, they were just following the instructions without thinking. All because the writer disobeyed a cardinal rule for procedures which states that you must let the user be informed of the outcome before choosing.
    Better wording would be:
    Do you want to blow up the world?
    If NO, exit this procedure by pressing PF 3.
    If YES, press PF 10.

    But you would only get that better wording by using a technical editor.

    Some of the worst non-fiction books are e-books, rushed onto people’s websites overnight to respond to a trend. Whether the “e-book” is two pages or 20, or 50, the rush shows and to some extent affects the credibility of the author. (If they’re hacks, they may not care.)

    I think self-publishing is frequently a response to being turned down by a publisher, often because you didn’t pitch well, or did not pitch to the right publisher – but sometimes because publishers are short-sighted. Our Bodies Ourselves, and The Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emory come to mind – when they became successes, they were picked up by conventional publishers.

    • ecreith says:

      Press F10 and blow up the world? Yikes! Programmers have WAY too much power! But I take your point. What I actually meant to say was that literary merit isn’t important, and that is what I should have said. I’ll fix that.

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