(To read this in a black-on-white format, click here.)


BY ROBERT DAVID MACNEIL – I’m not a newbie at writing.  I’ve been writing books for 20 years—two through a major publishing house and three self-published.  All have sold well.

For my first book I went through the traditional publication process, partly because I thought that was what you were supposed to do, but largely because I believed the “myth.”

That myth, propagated through the media, pictures an author’s life like this… you sit at your computer, composing your latest book, occasionally taking a break to go to the mailbox and pick up your next royalty check.  The myth says once you’ve published a book, life will be easy.  You will be rich and famous.  You can live anywhere and have lots of free time.  All your problems will be solved once you get that publishing contract.  WAIT!  What’s that sound?  Oh NO!  It’s the alarm clock!  …It’s time to WAKE UP!

Let’s look at the harsh realities of the “writing life.”  I’m not a psychic, but I CAN PREDICT YOUR FUTURE if you go the route of traditional publishing:

AGENTING – You may spend a year or more finding an agent.  I’ve talked to some who have spent several years, sending query after query, and still no agent.  Rejection slips pile up.  Some agents don’t even send rejection slips any more.  If they’re not interested, you never hear back from them.  You wait… and wait… and wait…

EDITING – Once you have an agent, your book will be edited, and the agent will ask you to make changes in your manuscript.

FINDING A PUBLISHER – Your agent will then begin the process of trying to sell your book to a publisher.  That also can take time.

RE-WRITES & PUBLICATION – You find a publisher.  The publisher may also ask you to do re-writes of your book.  Then comes the actual printing and distribution.  The typical timeframe from a query to seeing your book published can be 2 ½ to 3 years.

EUPHORIA – You have a brief period of euphoria.  You are now a published author!  You hold your new book in your trembling hands.  Your name is on the cover.  IT WAS WORTH IT ALL!

Then come more harsh realities…

NO PROMOTION – Your publisher will do little or nothing to promote your book.  (You didn’t know that was part of YOUR job?)  Without promotion, no one outside of your close circle of friends even knows your book exists!

LITTLE DISTRIBUTION – Your book may or may not make it to your local bookstore.  If a bookstore carries your book at all, it will usually be only two copies.  Two spines on the shelf, among thousands of books by better known authors.  Chances are very good your book will not sell.

FAILURE – The typical shelf-life of a first-time author’s book:  3-6  months.  If it hasn’t become a best seller in that time, it’s usually taken off the shelf and returned to the publisher.  No time to develop a fan base.  No time for word of mouth.  Your book has failed.

According to statistics, the failure rate of first time authors is 90%.  You’ve poured your life into your book; you’ve gone through the agony of seeking an agent and the long process of publication.  And in 3-6 months, it’s all over.  Your book, if not sent back to the publisher, will be put on the clearance table.  Your dream has been shattered.  You’ve not made much money.  Few people have read your book.  Many first-time writers are so discouraged by the process they never write another book.  That’s the experience of the majority of first-time authors!

The truth is, the traditional publishing model has always been a bad deal for writers.  The problem is, until recently, it’s been the only option.  (Traditional self-publishing was even a worse deal for writers.)

But in the last 5 years a major earthquake has struck the publishing world.  Things like the rise of Amazon.com, print on demand, and most of all, the E-book revolution!   The whole paradigm has changed.

The key to success used to be having your book prominently displayed in brick-and-mortar bookstores.  Let me tell you a secret:  That’s not even an issue anymore!   We’ve entered an era when a smaller and smaller percentage of books are sold in bookstores.  Think of it like this:  When was the last time you went down to a record store and bought a vinyl LP so you could listen to your favorite music?   See the point?  The same thing is now happening with books.

The whole publishing game has changed drastically!  If you read the trade publications, bookstores and publishers are frightened.  They’re desperately trying to find a way to survive in this new reality.

And in this new reality, the traditional route of getting an agent and a dead-tree publishing company is no longer the default option.  In fact, unless you are a celebrity, or you’re already a bestselling author, that route is probably not your best option!

In part two of this post, I will give six reasons WHY I believe self-publishing is a much better deal for a first-time author.  In fact, I believe, for almost any author, it’s foolish NOT to self-publish.


Most of us have assumed that traditional publishing is the only route to success for a writer.  That may have been true at one time, but it’s no longer true.  In the first part of this post, I tried to “burst the bubble” on the myths associated with publishing.

In recent years, a number of authors have achieved success by doing an end-run around the publishing industry.  A good example is the Christian novel, The Shack by William P. Young.  Young submitted The Shack to 26 publishing houses, both Christian and secular.  It was rejected by every single one.  The Shack was too “different.”  It didn’t fit any of the standard categories.  So together with three friends, he formed his own publishing company for the sole purpose of publishing his book.  (Essentially, they self-published.)  The Shack went unnoticed for over a year, but suddenly became popular in the summer of 2008.  By May of 2010, The Shack had over 10 million copies in print, and was number 1 on the New York Times best seller list for 70 weeks.  According to Wikipedia, The Shack achieved its success via word-of-mouth and a $300.00 website!

Yet The Shack was written before the E-Book revolution!  Now the whole publishing industry has changed.  Just as MP3 players and music downloads have made “record stores” obsolete, now E-readers and downloadable books are putting brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business.  (I’m not saying that’s good. It’s just reality.)

When I wrote Iona Portal, I assumed the best way to publish fiction was to seek an agent and a publisher.  I even queried one agent.  But in the process I began to research the publishing industry.  As I read the trade journals I discovered that publishers are frightened.  They see the traditional model in decline, and are struggling to find a way to survive in the new paradigm.

But while the new paradigm might bring hard times for publishers, it offers unprecedented opportunities to you, the author.  Here are 6 reasons why I believe self-publishing is now a better route for most authors…


Many aspiring authors spend years seeking an agent.  They send query after query and get rejection after rejection.  Why do they have such a hard time finding an agent?  Maybe the book is no good.  Maybe the book is great, but the author writes poor query letters.  Maybe the book doesn’t fit easily into one of the agent’s categories.   As The Shack proved, the success of your query doesn’t say much about the salability of your book.

Of course, the agony of the query process would be worth it IF getting an agent would guarantee success.  But as we’ve seen, having an agent does not mean your book will sell.  90% of first-time authors—most of whom have agents—still fail.


In traditional publishing, you yield control of your book to the publisher, who may ask you to make major changes.  In my first two books, I was lucky and few changes were requested.  But on my third book, the publisher asked me to make major changes, which I was unwilling to do.  That’s when I switched to self-publishing.  Interestingly, that self-published book (WITHOUT the publisher’s requested changes) has sold better than either of my traditionally published books!


The average time from query to publication is 2 ½ years.  Combined with the year or two you spent finding an agent, that means you’ll have to wait a long time to see your book in print!

With self-publishing, you can have your book published on major e-book platforms in less than a month!  You can spend those extra years marketing your book and building a following instead of trying to get your book published.

4. You get better DISTRIBUTION

When my first book was published, I assumed the publisher would distribute it widely.  My naive dream was to go into bookstores and see my book prominently displayed.  It never happened.  Three times I found my book on a bookstore shelf.  I actually had people write me asking where they could get my book.  They’d seen a friend’s copy and wanted to buy one, but could not find it in a bookstore.  That kind of availability is not a formula for success.

But with e-publishing… in a single weekend, you can have your e-book for sale in the biggest online bookstores in the world, available to anyone who wants to purchase it, no matter where they live.


The royalty rates for self-pub e-books are WAY ahead of anything traditional publishers offer.  So even though your e-book costs less to buy than a dead-tree book, you will make more money on each book sold.  That’s a better deal for the reader, and a better deal for you.


When my first book was published, I assumed the publisher would market it…  that they would invest time and money to “get the word out” so people would buy it.   Wrong again!  The publisher did almost nothing to market my book.  That’s pretty much the norm.

FEAR OF MARKETING – One of the biggest reasons people give for NOT self publishing is the fear that they’ll have to market their own book.  The truth is, if you are not a celebrity, you WILL have to market your own book, no matter how you publish it.  (But you CAN learn to do that!  Other people do  it, and you can too!  There’s tons of material on the web to help.)

THE SELF-PUBLISHING ADVANTAGE – Self-publishing gives you one major advantage in marketing:  TIME.  With dead-tree publishing, you have a 3-month window to make your book a best-seller.  If it’s not a success in 3 months, bookstores begin pulling it from the shelf.  (Every book you’ve seen on a book clearance table represents some author’s crushed dream.)

There’s no time for word-of-mouth.  There’s no time to build a following.  You must “hit it” in a 3-month window.  Some books are overnight sensations.  But others take time.  It took a year before people began to notice The Shack.  But then it went viral.

Self-pub e-books give you all the time you need.  Your e-book will be available to everyone, in the biggest online bookstores in the world, for as long as you want.  You still have to market it.  But you have time!

That’s why I decided to self-publish Iona Portal.  And that’s why I believe, for the majority of first-time writers, it’s foolish not to self-publish!




  1. I have heard this opinion before . I agree that e-booking is the only way to go these days.
    Great article! Thanks for passing the information along. Hopefully some time soon I will have an e-book too!

  2. I agree with everything you said. I also *loved* The Shack, didn’t even realize it was self published. One caution for Indie newbies is that we need to be aware going in that we will be wearing all the hats – or paying to hire heads to wear the hats that don’t fit us. Editing and cover design are two most commonly hired out because these are critical areas where sloppiness will insure failure. But, being the creative and innovative creatures that Indie Authors are, we can find alternatives for accomplishing this even if strapped for cash.

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  4. Robert, I’ve just published the first two books in my Copyright Wars series (non-fiction). In the run up to publishing them I was talking to a friend who has a fantasy novel ready to publish. I told him he should publish it himself.

    He told me that he’s risk averse, and that traditional publishing has less risk. I told him if he was risk averse, he should be avoiding traditional publishing.

    He told me that he isn’t as confident as I am. I told him that I’m not confident. I’m just pushy.

    It has been an interesting conversation. Even though he has been told many times, by a lot of people, that the publishers won’t spend any money on advertising, he is certain that they will. When he was told that he will be expected to spend his entire advance on PR, he didn’t believe it.

    I’m afraid he is going to get one hell of a nasty surprise.


  5. I have been reminding people lately that eBooks are not the future – they’re here now. I believe, as Allen touched on, that the future of publishing will come down to a writer, an editor and a cover designer. Good (no, great) editors and graphic designers will be high on the hog in this new paradigm.

    I’m a writer, so that’s what I focus on. But, if I were not, I’d be seriously considering freelancing as an editor or graphics person. Authors today need great ones to make their books stand out in the sea of eBooks.

    Great post – I shared it via Twitter and Facebook.

    • Thanks for your comment, Heather! I fully agree. Seeking agents and publishers will be replaced by seeking great editors and cover designers. Another field I suspect will be big is marketing… people who will market a book for a fee, or in some cases, for a percentage of the profits.

    • Actually, I agree. I chose to put Iona Portal on Kindle first, to make it available to the most readers. (I’m also working on Smashwords for Nook, etc.) But some people still prefer a real book. So I’m planning on releasing a paperback on CreateSpace by the end of the year.

  6. I’m going to toss a dead fish onto the table. I don’t think you need a “Great Cover Designer” or a “Great Editor”.

    I think you need a “Competent Cover Designer” and a “Competent Editor”.

    The rest is up to you. How well you will do is down to you, not the Cover Designer or the Editor. The Cover Designer or the Editor is just an assistant to you. That makes me just an assistant on the book I’m editing right now for the Poet Laureate of Temiskaming, but I’m fine with that.

    Remember. The writer is the star.


    • Wayne,
      Indeed – I was assuming the author is already fabulous, has a solid enough platform, and the ability to promote and sell books…the editor and graphic designers are the paint on the house. But, with more and more people writing and self publishing, quality is what will separate them from the masses, and that quality will include a gripping cover and top editing. If I see one more “your” that should be “you’re” I’m going to scream…and I live in a valley where it is sure to echo. 🙂

  7. I am starting to think this just might be the way to go. I have been following Kristen Lamb and some of the books that #MyWana promotes have done quite well because of word of mouth. Now I just have to finish my WIP, make it the best I can and get it out there. Thank you.

  8. Fantastic blog!
    I recently e-pubbed my first book and I’ve been loving the experience. Like many, it took me awhile to give up the ‘dream’ of traditional publishing and come to the conclusion that e publishing is not only the way of the future, but the right now as well. I believe there are many routes to success and the traditional route of publishing may work for a few (a very few) but it’s foolish not to consider the other avenues available.
    I considered them and I’m glad I did. In only two months, my sales are steady which means people are READING my book. And that’s why I write them.
    Thank you for stating the arguments so clearly. I’m going to bookmark this post so I can reference to it over at the http://www.wordbitches.com

  9. This was a great read that reaffirmed things I had been thinking. I finished my first manuscript about two months ago and am trying to edit and polish it some myself while I work on building a platform. Once it’s ready and I have the money I plan on trying out the self-publishing route. I may send out query letters simultaneously just to see what happens, but if no one bites it’s no biggie because I can self-pub. Anyway, thanks for outlining all the arguments for this so nicely!

    • Thanks for the comment! The good news is, you can now self-publish at no cost. I’d suggest self publishing on Kindle and the B&N Nook, and doing paperback through Amazon Create Space. Check out their websites for details. I would suggest paying to have your book professionally edited, unless you have some friends who can edit. No one can catch their own mistakes! But an edited manuscript would be a benefit if you try for an agent also. Best wishes on your book!

      • Oh yes, an editor is a must and a large part of what I am trying to save up for. I think my book is pretty good (what would be the point in trying if I didn’t), but I am not naive enough to think it doesn’t need professional help to make it the best it can be. Thanks for the tips and advice!

  10. No comment on the premise of the article, but you’ve set up a couple of false dichotomies. Both #4 and #6 are only true if your traditional publisher doesn’t produce your book in an ebook format, which they’re all doing, no matter how badly they handle anything else. So yes, there are lots of good points here and I enjoyed the article, but it’s not either/or when it comes to the distribution and shelf life of your ebook when comparing self-pub and traditional.

    • Thank you for the comment. It made me think! You are right that most publishers are publishing their books as e-books also, which in theory helps distribution and shelf-life issues. The problem is that publishers tend to price these e-books at the rate of their paperbacks or higher, which is WAY above the market rate for an e-book by a first time author. (The going rate for a high-quality e-book by a first-time author is $2.99. But publishers price their e-books at 9.99 or higher, effectively pricing them out of the market.) So while these books are available, they are unlikely to sell.
      What’s sadder is that even though the publisher’s e-book prices are much higher, their authors will probably get a smaller royalty on each book that sells.
      So the self-published e-book author still has the advantage.

    • You missed another point. Ebooks published by traditional publishers give the writer less than 10% of the cover price in royalties. A $9.99 ebook will pay the writer less than a $1.00.

      A self published $2.99 ebook pays the writer 70% royalties, or $2.10 per sale.

      Here is where it gets fun. Industrial Economics show that price effects sales. The higher the price, the lower the number of units sold. It is impossible to be 100% certain of the difference in units sold, however tests have indicated that a $2.99 EBook should sell ten to fifteen times as many books as a $9.99 EBook.

      So assume that it sells 10 times the number of copies.

      $9.99 EBook – 1 copy sold – $1.00 royalties to writer (rounded up)

      $2.99 EBook – 10 copies sold – $21.00 royalties to writer

      Why would a writer sell a book through a traditional publisher?


      • Good points, both. It’s true, all things being equal, self-pub is far more lucrative simply because you cut out the middleman.

        It’s still not equal, though it’s made great strides, in the areas of editing, cover design, etc of the team approach of trad pub vs. all being at the discretion/ability of the author. I see more and more authors taking that part seriously though, which makes a huge difference.

        It’ll be interesting to watch the expanding industry of complimentary services like freelance cover design and the sort of cover/editing packages I’ve heard of.

      • I agree totally! A self-published author need to do his homework, and part of that means he needs to know what he can do himself, and what he needs to get help with. Cover design and editing are two big ones. I also think many authors would do well to find professional help in formatting their books for e-readers. And then there’s marketing….
        So I loved your phrase, “It’ll be interesting to watch the expanding industry of complimentary services”
        I think there is tremendous opportunity for those who can identify the needs of self-pub authors and meet those needs in a cost-effective way.

      • Wanted to jump in here quickly to comment on the percentage above. Ebooks through traditional pub houses are generally a 25% royalty, not under 10%. That percentage is more in line with paperbacks.

        Also, while I agree with the growing popularity and success of self publishing, some of the points in the original post were a little slanted. The agent doesn’t definitively change your book. She works with the author if there is something that needs to change, and the two decide together. Personally, my agent changed nothing in either of my books. Neither did my editor. Only editing I had to do was copyedits (punctuation, etc.) If the book is written well, that isn’t a worry. As far as rejections…I know that well. I was rejected for nearly ten years before I sold. And rightly so. I learned and learned and learned and got better. I can look back now and thank God those mss didn’t sell. They weren’t good enough. But they taught me how to write, and taught me how to have a tougher skin, which you need in this business. And promo—yes, that part was correct. A new author has the brunt of that, but not all of it. The sales and PR dept put it in the major trade mags for reviews, it goes in the house catalogs that go out to every major bookstore. They handle booksignings, get the extra books to the store. They do everything they can to back you, as long as you are doing the same. With each book, it gets a little better. Like getting credit before you have credit…it’s a challenge. And the books are in all the major bookstores and online, so it covers all types of readers.

        I just wanted to say that, because I have no issue with self pubbing, in fact I may be self pubbing an e-novella soon to help promote my trad pubbed books, a little something in between. But I do get frustrated with the our-way/their-way mentality sometimes. I see too many authors jump in the self pubbing pool just because the traditional way is too hard. I hate that. It’s work, it should be hard. And on the flip side, I see trad authors snub their noses at self-pubbed books before even reading them. That’s not fair either. We’re all in this business. Let’s not put unnecessary slants and negativity on either of them. Let’s just write.

      • Sharla,

        Wanted to jump in here quickly to comment on the percentage above. Ebooks through traditional pub houses are generally a 25% royalty, not under 10%. That percentage is more in line with paperbacks.

        I was given the 10% number by someone who is currently getting paid that, so that’s what I quoted. If you are getting 25%, that’s great.

        A lot of people aren’t talking about what they are getting paid. Whether this is because they are getting a fantastic deal, or because they are ashamed that their royalties are so low, I don’t know. It is hard to give people definitive answers without data.


    • You’re right Leah. It’s not equal. It’s a mile ahead. Go read this article by Kristine Kathryn Rusch called The Business Rusch: Professional Writers where Kristine goes over some of the disadvantages of publishing traditionally.

      Right now I’m in the middle of placing a short story traditionally. The only reason I’m doing so, is that I’m getting a damned good deal. If I wasn’t, I’d publish it myself, which I’ve already done with several things, and which I’m doing with my mother-in-law’s poetry.

      This is a business. It all comes down to the money. I go where the money is. Right now there is no money in most of traditional publishing, so I won’t go near it.


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  12. As a child, I watched my mother try to break into traditional publishing time after time, and wondered why one guy behind a desk somewhere had the power to choose what people read. She eventually gave up and left two novels and a series of short stories in the closet. It was heartbreaking.

    Now, thanks to the ebook revolution, I’ve talked her into placing her work for sale on the Kindle, and she’s so happy that she decided to say yes! I think, IMO, that this is the biggest advantage to self-publishing – let the readers decide what’s good and what isn’t!

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  14. This was a nicely stated post. After months of consideration and research, I have come to these conclusion as well, and recently announced to my family that the self-pub route is where I’m headed.

    Leah mentioned editing, and I have to admit that finding a top notch editor is something I consider of highest importance. This concerns me coming into publishing the first time around. I will definitely be checking into any recommendations I receive.

    There was also a comment about cover design. Yes, there are some awful self-pubbed covers out there. However, in my opinion, many traditionally published works have equally undesirable covers. When traditionally published, the author often has little or no say in this matter, and I’ve heard several folks who were helpless bystanders as the most horrendous art imaginable was plastered on the front of their work. We all know people DO judge a book by it’s cover, and this has been the kiss of death to many on both sides of this issue.

    Thanks for the post, Robert!

  15. Reblogged this on Chazz Writes and commented:
    I have a friend who is still thinking of going the traditional route, and he can still publish that way. after he self-publishes. This article elucidates the reasons why self-publishing is a good way to go.

  16. We are definitely going through a revolution in books. Primarily, it’s the authors who are taking control of the process, and because of this we are seeing more variety of stories, poetry, and non-fiction. There are some self-published books that lack grammar and spelling skills, but those authors will either learn or die on the digital bookshelf. A beginning author has time to learn and edit. This is something the 3-6 month traditional shelf life prohibits.

  17. I am heartened to read this; it has taken several years for my first book to gain a following, which would have never happened if I had been accepted for the traditional route.
    I did succeed in getting an agent who decided after trying a few of the publishers that he would dump me and refuse to answer letters or emails or phone calls. It mystified me at the time and still does why he couldn’t just say, sorry, can’t place it, goodbye and good luck.
    I do find promotion a hard graft but that said, I have had a good deal of fun and made some real fans and friends during the process. I have a friend recently accepted by one of the smaller publishers (still quite a big name) and he’s having along hard road on his promotion tour. Judging from his demeanour, I suspect the three month thing will result in remaindered books and a sense of failure. He’s worked very hard and I suspect spent a good deal of his own money on his tour.
    Thank you for setting out the advantages so succinctly.

    • Thanks so much for sharing that comment. Traditional publishing was never a good deal for authors. It’s great to live in a time when there is an alternative. Best wishes to you, and your friend, on your writing careers!

  18. Excellent article! We, too, felt at one time that traditional publishing was the way to go. We spent over a year seeking that route on our first novel. By then we had written some short story collections and decided to self-pub those. The experience was positive, so we published our 2nd novel. Interestingly, the first novel is now with a publisher. We will see how it goes!

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