Gary was recently interviewed by a reporter from his hometown newspaper. He got a ton of website traffic from the feature they subsequently ran on him, and he was contacted by old friends he hadn't heard from in 20 years, and that's all good.

However, the staffer who interviewed him -- a reporter who is not an intern, and who has written dozens of features for the paper -- asked a truly jaw-dropping question: "So your books are self-published?"

This was the second question she gave him; she asked it in the same tone as the first, which was to ask if he was from Newark. In other words, it wasn't really a question, but more a statement of perceived fact she was double-checking.

This question floored us because:

  1. It showed she hadn't done basic preparation for the interview and taken two minutes to do a Google search and find out that he's professionally published 20 books, etc.
  2. It showed she profoundly misunderstood the process of becoming a professional fiction writer.

Gary, being the nice guy he is, gently told her that pro fiction writers don't self-publish and explained why. And he thought that would be the end of it, until he saw the feature in the paper and read this line:

"The author has never self-published because a lot of book stores will not carry self-published authors and it also can be expensive."

The reporter was likely on a strict word limit, so her including that line struck us as strange and unnecessary. In subsequent discussion, our friend Mehitobel made a comment that I think nailed it on the head:

"See, that's just a weird-ass line. I can see someone ignorant of publishing, or even so jaded with local author profiles that they expect a local author to have self-published, asking about it in an interview. But the line quoted above from the article suggests to me that the reporter may actually view self-published books as the norm, better, or more ambitious. It's like she has it backwards."

It's possible the reporter had been listening starry-eyed to some life coach who told her he'd sold a ton of self-published books and that self-publishing is the right and proper thing for an entrepreneurial spirit to do. If you are a self-help guru, evangelist, TV star or some other celebrity, sure, you can self-publish a book as an adjunct to your public speaking engagements and do very well. And independent comics artists have long been admired for DIY books. But if you're a non-celebrity trying to become a pro fiction writer, self-publishing is more likely to hurt than help.

I don't consider self-publishing to be synonymous with vanity publishing. Vanity presses are scam artists preying on the hopes and dreams of the naïve; however there are places like Lulu.com that are straightforward, useful POD services. I don't consider writers who choose to self-publish their work to be "cheating" or lacking in intelligence or moral fiber or anything like that. Want to make a book of love poems as a Christmas gift for your sweetie? Planning to put together a calendar or anthology to support a charity? Have you written an RPG rulebook or other game supplement you want to get into peoples' hands? After you've done your homework, does Lulu.com or a competitor seem to be the most economical way to get your project into print? Go for it. But if you've got a novel or even a short story collection and you aspire to a larger audience than your circle of friends, you really ought to reconsider.

I know several people who've self-published poetry and fiction books. They're nice people. Most of them did it because they were frustrated by the long, tedious process of submitting their work to and being rejected by traditional publishers. I can certainly sympathize with their frustration.

But 99.99% of the time, if your goal is to establish yourself as a legitimate author and put yourself on a track to a career as a writer, self-publishing is going to be a costly mistake. The only time it's not a mistake is if you're an experienced publishing professional and you know you have the resources to produce, promote, and distribute a good book that can adequately compete with the 400 other books that are published every day.

But people who write pro-quality books almost never have to turn to self-publishing; they generally only do it if they have very specific, well-considered publishing plans in mind and want complete control of their projects. If a pro has a book that the big houses deem unmarketable, he or she can usually find a small press willing to get the manuscript into print.

The average advance for a novel is $5K or thereabouts. It might take you months or even years to finish your first book. It could also take you years to squirrel away that much money if you work an entry-level job. So let's think of finishing a publishable novel as the equivalent of having slaved away to save up $5,000.

If you told me you were taking your $5,000 and going to Las Vegas, I'd probably ask if you were going to splurge on a fun vacation.

If you replied, "No, I need more money; my bank doesn't pay enough interest, and the stock market's too darned complicated. I'm gonna hit the casinos and turn this five grand into fifty grand!", I'd think it was a phenomenally bad idea and try to talk you out of it. Yes, you could get lucky at the slot machines and come home with a fat roll of cash, but the odds are you'd come home hung over and broke.

If on the other hand I knew you were a statistics prodigy with an eidetic memory who'd been consistently winning regional poker games, I'd think you had a real chance. If you then told me how you were sure you could keep the casinos from figuring out you could count cards, but knew you might be wrong and detailed a plan to escape quickly and safely with your winnings, I'd think it was a daring scheme and congratulate you.

The notion of being a rebel writer self-publishing your way to grand authorial success is as bright and shiny as Vegas. But unless you're very talented or very lucky, it's just not going to pay off in a career.

I realize I'm probably preaching to the choir here. But based on the reporter's questions, some people might need to read this.

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