Self-Publishing: Art or Business?
Self-publishing educators tell you how to sell your book, but very few bother to ask if that’s a worthwhile pursuit. Tacking marketing on as the de facto second phase of writing a book places many worthy artists’ resources in jeopardy. How much time, money and energy should you put into marketing your book? The answer is found in an honest evaluation of where your work lies on the spectrum between art and business.
John is a landscape painter. He has painted for decades, cultivating the skills to complement his talent. He works as a restaurant manager but he’s passionate about his art and maintains a studio in his garage. He has sold several paintings, had some gallery shows, and dreams of gaining enough stature as an artist to quit the food service business and devote himself to painting. After all, he paints at least as well as famous artists who make good money.
Wilma runs a vinyl sign shop out of her own garage. She creates graphics on a computer, exports the files to her vinyl cutter and applies them to shop windows and hanging banners. She studied design and takes her typography seriously, choosing appropriate typefaces and kerning the letters more carefully than her competitors do. Sometimes, she gets tired of doing commercial work; she wishes she could spend more time painting for fun but she’s grateful not to be working in a cubicle.
John is a fine artist. Wilma is a commercial artist. For our purposes, they represent the fiction and the nonfiction writer respectively.
The fiction writer is interested in self-expression. This writer has a story to tell or a point to make and a desire to share it. Like John’s paintings, the fiction writer’s stories may inspire, enlighten, provoke, transport, entertain and transform their reader. That’s powerful and important stuff, but it’s art. It’s natural and proper for the artist to see his art as valuable and his “regular job” as a sacrifice that must be made to sustain his art, but the accompanying, vague business plan is usually to “hustle as hard as you can.” People go to art galleries to window-shop, hoping something will inspire them, but rarely do they look for a painting of Bryce Canyon or a bowl of apples. Even less frequently will they type “painting of apples for sale” into a Google search. Like soul mates, art and those who give it wall space must find each other almost magically. The same is true for indie novels and fiction readers.
The nonfiction writer must be a capable artist and craftsman, but she positions herself deliberately to serve the needs of a specific clientele. People need signs. Why not create good ones and get paid for it? Clients will easily find you in the yellow pages or online—easy. Perhaps they’ll see the sign on your truck? People want information about finances, codependency, politics, Lady Gaga and self-publishing. Why not write a book? People will search for topics and answers on Google and Amazon—easy. Our sign maker may not have oil paint all over her apron every day, but she’s found a way to directly market her talent, training and aesthetic sense to people who need it.
The fiction writer often says, “I’ve written a book. How do I sell it?” The nonfiction writer says, “I have an idea for a book that will sell. How do I write it?”
If it sounds like I’m discouraging fiction writers, I’m not; I’m finishing novel #3. But with the caveat that there are always a few notable exceptions (and nothing prevents you from being one of them), most successful fiction has big money behind its promotion. Write your novel, produce it and print it, but aim simply to do the best work possible before you set your sights on the bestseller list or run 5000 copies to “save money on printing.”
A quandary for artists is that most of them are more passionate about making art than marketing it. Time is limited; would you rather spend it writing or selling your work? Too many self-publishers don’t answer that question honestly. A year later, they’re jaded—and they haven’t written anything new. Write your story, print your story, use the available channels to distribute your story and encourage reviews. With perseverance, you’ll sell a few books and reach some readers, but be honest about how much marketing time you’re willing to steal from your limited writing time and be realistic about potential returns.
A great book is not necessarily a great product: a great product is not necessarily a great book. Smart publishers temper their expectations for commercial success with an honest appraisal of a work’s marketability. There are many ways to make money in independent publishing; retailing books is low on that list. To succeed as a publisher, you can try selling your books, but you can also use them to sell services or establish credibility as a speaker or consultant. To succeed as a writer, write well. To succeed at both, understand the difference between art and business.
This article was originally posted in September, 2010. I updated it after speaking about book marketing at a writers’ conference. — Dave Bricker
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