5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Self Publishing

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Self Publishing

Episode 399: The one where Sarina wrestles with the question of whether self-pub is the way to go.

As a hybrid author with a long history of both self-publishing and traditional contracts, I’m often asked about this choice. How I decided to self-publish, and is it still a good idea?

This is question for the ages! Or, well, since 2007. 

The answer is that it’s complicated. My own feelings about self-pub have surely evolved over the years. This March I celebrated my ten-year anniversary as a self published author. I had a great return on my efforts right out of the gate, so I’ve always been a fan. Unfortunately, though, self-publishing ate my life. It’s a lot of work, so I’m not quite as gung-ho as I used to be. But that doesn’t mean it’s a terrible idea.

To help you decide, I’ve identified several questions you can ask yourself to help figure out if self-publishing is for you. 

#1 Does this book have an easily defined “shelf” in publishing land? 

  • Self publishing is not for every book. It works well when the genre has a built-in readership who already knows what it wants. For example, mystery lovers know how to shop for a mystery. They know how to spot one, and they usually don’t need an NPR interview with the author to entice them. 

  • If your book can fit comfortably and familiarly beside its cousins in the genre, give yourself ten points in favor of self publishing. 

#2 Do I have a built-in readership I can reach via email or social media? 

  • If your book does not have an obvious, built-in readership, but you have a built-in following, then self-publishing might make sense for you. 

  • For example, if agents and publishers are telling you that your topic is too niche for them, but you already know how to reach the exact reader you need, then maybe you should trust your gut. Perhaps you’re the leading expert in crafting origami holiday decorations, with an instagram following of a hundred thousand people. Or maybe you travel the nation speaking on a particular topic. Or you’re part of a well-defined group—like education influencers, or architecture nerds. There are certainly some instances of an author knowing better than the publisher whether a book will sell. 

#3 Do I have the patience to learn how publishing platforms fit together?

  • I’m convinced that anyone can learn the ropes of self publishing. But you have to want to learn them. I enjoyed learning how to self publish. Then again, I also used to enjoy doing my own taxes. So maybe I’m a special breed of nerd. 

  • Before you start, figure out which bank account you’re going to provide for payment information, and get ready to provide your tax ID number. You’ll need to set up at least one platform, like KDP or D2D (Draft 2 Digital.) 

  • If you hate business, math and admin work, make sure to be honest with yourself about all the red tape you’re going to have to cut as a self-published author. And to those who say “I can just hire this stuff out,” I’m not sure that’s a great idea. Yes, there are hybrid-style publishers who will take your money and fill out the forms on your behalf. But many of them overcharge and overpromise. Self publishing is, by its very nature, a DIY effort. 

#4 Can I source the editorial and design help that I need to get this right? 

  • Hiring freelancers is often a fun part of this job, but it’s great to have a plan. 

  • Editorial work can vary vastly in quality, and the problem is that you won’t be able to tell who’s competent just from a website or an email exchange. That’s why the first question I ask editors is: are you willing to do a two page sample edit? And I don’t hire anyone who says no. It’s not that I expect anyone to work for free, but two pages is just a few minutes time. And finding an editor who jives with your style is hard. 

  • Furthermore, you need to be very clear about what you expect the editor to do. Is this a developmental edit? Will she be advising you on pacing and plot holes? Or is this a copyedit—meant to find errors, awkward phrasings and repetitions, and basic inconsistencies? Or is this a final proofread? Each of these services will be priced differently. 

  • Cover design, unlike editorial work, is easier to evaluate from a portfolio online. Note that cover designers tend to be very genre specific. So you need to find someone who has designed covers close in nature to the one you need. Before you even get started, make a Pinterest board of covers in your genre that you admire. 

  • It’s also worth noting that not all competent writers are born with the right vocabulary for discussing cover design. If you feel this is a weakness of yours, try to find a designer who seems willing to give you the time and attention you need.

#5 Am I ready to bear the full responsibility for launching my book into the world? 

  • The best thing about self-publishing is that the author has complete control. But that’s also the worst thing about it! If you fall in love with a cover, but it’s not a good fit for the genre, there’s no one to play devil’s advocate. Or, rather, you will have to work hard to find collaborators you trust to help you make the big decisions. And you’ll have to course-correct all by yourself when you realize you’ve gone astray.  

Conclusion: with great power comes great responsibility. So be ready! Self-publishing can be life-changing, but it’s best if you go in with open eyes and an open heart. 


Entertaining, actionable advice on craft, productivity and creativity for writers and journalists in all genres, with hosts Jessica Lahey, KJ Dell'Antonia and Sarina Bowen.