Self-Publish or Mainstream: What’s the Right Choice for You?

The answer must be self-publish! If that doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, then go after a larger, mainstream publishing house. But that’s not exactly how it works anymore.

Here’s your answer: If you believe you can sell 10,000 units—either online or out of your garage—then by all means, self-publish. That kind of number can’t help but get an editor’s attention, and there’s a good chance that you’ll soon be signing a book deal.

However, if you DO NOT believe you can move 10,000 books on your own, I suggest you reconsider.

For a signed first-time author, as a rule, the publisher will go with an initial 5,000 unit print-run in order to test the waters. That allows them to just break-even. Depending on if it sold poorly, sold out quickly, the number of backorders, and the amount of returns to the distributor, the publisher may try another print-run of an additional 5,000 units. If those sell, they’ve hit that magic number of 10,000, which can telegraph the author’s market size and audience appeal.

One of the first things an editor will ask you after reading your book proposal is has it already been self-published? If it has, then comes the inevitable question, what were the sales figures? The answer they’re hoping for is, “I’ve sold thousands upon thousands of this book through Amazon, my own website, and social media channels.” But if you have no other response than “I’ve sold 500 books in the last 12 months,” then your chance of landing that publishing deal has vanished. I know that sounds harsh, but let me explain.

These days, authors are expected to market themselves via all the usual outlets—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Tumblr, YouTube, etc. If your book material is already out in the big wide world and gotten lost in the firmament of titles on Amazon.com, then there is little to motivate a publisher to spend a lot of money on the production of a book that has seen the light of day yet found little success, i.e. audience.

Unfortunately, those of you who thought that simply being a good writer was enough to get you noticed will need to re-strategize. Having an original story, unique voice, creative characters, dynamic dialogue, intriguing plot points, and a moral or redemptive quality used to be enough. But a cruel day has dawned on a planet where anyone with access to WiFi can get read by millions of people and thus call themselves a writer.

How about a happy story? The Shack was first rejected by all the “big boys” which prompted the author William Young and his pastor to create their own self-publishing company for the sole purpose of releasing Young’s book. Within one year it sold over a million copies and hit the top of The New York Times Best Seller list and stayed there for nearly three years. This was after partnering with Hachette/FaithWords. Yes, the publishers finally had to sit up and take notice. You know the rest of the story… it went on to sell tens of millions of copies (in several languages) and eventually became a movie. Auh, the perfect ending!

Lesson to be learned? Go after the big guns first. Just keep in mind that they’re looking for authors who have an established social media following. If you’re still building your platform, wait until you can prove you have a sizeable target audience—the broader, the better—that is expectantly awaiting your book’s publication. If the mainstream publishers take a pass, you can always self-publish with a variety of options.

On a positive note, it’s good that there has been a transfer of the power to the author. But it’s debatable now how level the playing field is where quality is relative and money can buy “friends.” Before you submit your book proposal and sample chapter(s) to an agent or publisher, polish and perfect your manuscript with the help of a freelance editor. You only get one shot at this—make sure you are noticed for all the right reasons.

Cliché Controversy

Just because they’re used all time—in movies especially—doesn’t mean that clichés should be legal. At the risk of sounding bitter, any writer producing manuscripts laced with offensively common, cringe-worthy clichés should get out of town a little more. Take a day-trip somewhere, visit an art gallery, or go see a play. Read Spurgeon, Dickens, and Thoreau. Study the greats. That should begin to antagonize those comfortable clichés and engage the sensational storyteller within you.

One of my favorite communicators is a 19th century Scottish preacher by the name of George Matheson whose unique perspective came from an acute limitation—his blindness. I’m convinced that due to his inability to see the world around him, he had the rare opportunity to envision life and express what he saw in a way no one with sight could. He also wasn’t reading material that had been repeated again and again, which is where I believe contemporary writers get the majority of their overworked phrases.

After years reviewing incoming manuscripts for a mid-level publishing house, I can tell you that one of the most damaging practices of an inexperienced writer is the oblivious, relentless use of clichés. I’ll give you an example, but first read the following sentence written by Theodore Parker that, while is perhaps too long by today’s standards, is simply a work of art.

“But ere long the lightning had gone by, the thunder was spent and silent, the rain was over, the western wind came up with its sweet breath, the clouds were chased away, and the retreating storm threw a scarf of rainbows over her fair shoulders and resplendent neck, and looked back and smiled, and so withdrew and passed out of sight.”

Right? I know… crazy good. Now, read my collection of clichés taken from submissions by newbies clueless of their painful yet prevalent habit.

Debbie bit down on her lower lip as she swallowed the lump in her throat. Her brows furrowed and a chill ran up her spine as she read her boyfriend’s breakup letter again. She clenched her teethe then let out a heavy sigh. She felt cheated. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, she thought. But who was she kidding? “No, I’ll do the right thing.” She would forgive and forget. After all, it was water under the bridge, and time to turn over a new leaf. She clucked her tongue and chirped aloud, “No use crying over spilled milk!”

Need I say more?

Before you type the first thing that drops into your head from the inner recording device that’s been on since birth, stop the minute you realize it and remember this word: Elevate. Ask yourself how you can elevate the word, sentence, paragraph, story, and everything else you share with your audience. Push the boundaries, paint in bold colors, shout, whisper, confide, proclaim! Your offerings are entirely yours, so why should they sound like everybody else? Don’t spatter the fresh and original with the old and mundane. Wash the work clean of contrived clutter. Heat the tepid phrase; quench the thirsty sentence that wilts one into another. Words are meant to provoke anger, stir emotions, incite laughter, and ignite the imagination. You write to nurture the soul not lull it to sleep.

If you’re feeling like you might be an unwilling offender of this seemingly harmless misdemeanor, remember that words can live long and inspire millions—or not. Let yours speak a new and lovely language composed by the intimacy of individuality. Let them say what no one else has said, and in a way only you can say it. Clichés have no place in the gallery of your life. Consistently creating originality will reflect the best you.