Monday, July 07, 2014

Guest Post: “‘You’re doing what?’ – Why I Decided to Self-Publish My Next Series” by Rachel Aaron

RachelBach-authorphotoWhenever a New York published author decides to self-publish, there’s always the implicit assumption that Something Happened. Why else, after all, would an author who was presumably happily settled in a nice, big publishing house suddenly strike out on her own, like a child running away from home? Clearly, something terrible must have occurred. Was there a fight? A hot tempered editorial phone call where bridges were burned like kindling? Or perhaps it was the book itself? Maybe the story failed to meet the publisher’s expectations, and now the slighted author is unloading drek onto her fans for a quick buck?

Whatever imagined tragedy you prefer, they all start with the same opening: Something Happened. Something fundamental went horribly wrong in the publishing relationship. There’s simply no other plausible explanation why an author who’d already “made it,” who’d cleared the slush pile, gotten the agent and the book deal and gone on to write multiple series would give it all up and go it alone in self-publishing, the last refuge of the desperate and rejected.

I don’t blame anyone for assuming such things. I used to think them, too, and with good reason. Ever since I decided to get serious about my writing in 2004, I have been reading and researching and educating myself on the American publishing industry. If you’re going to be trying to make a living from something, it’s only common sense to figure out how it works. This education has been an ongoing process over all the years of my career, and for many of those, self-publishing was exactly what I described above: the place you went once everyone else had rejected you, a final long shot riddled with fraudsters eager to cash in on authors still desperately clinging to their great dream of being published.

For years, this was how publishing operated, but then, things started to change (as things are wont to do). I won’t rehash the rise of eBooks, but I don't think even the most fanatic print devotee could deny that electronic publishing, particularly Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), has fundamentally changed the landscape of how modern books are produced and sold.

For readers, this shift appeared as a simple switch in medium – dead trees for digital, much like trading records for CDs, and then MP3s. But for those of us on the sausage making side of things, the sheer enormity of the industry-wide upheaval caused by digital publishing is impossible to articulate, and this is coming from someone who articulates for a living. I’m not even talking about how low cost, high margin eBooks are changing the way publishers make money, which is a whole ’nother post in and of itself. I’m talking about the huge swaths of independent authors you’ve probably never heard of who are quietly making a decent living selling eBooks directly to readers with zero publisher interaction what-so-ever.

Aaron-1-TheSpiritThiefIf you’ve never tried to get a book published, it might be hard to grasp just how amazing and impossible the previous sentence sounds. Take my own road to publication. My debut novel, The Spirit Thief, was actually the second novel I finished. My first book, an epic YA fantasy, was rejected by every agent in NY, and I’m one of the lucky ones who got in on her second try. Back in the mid-2000s when I was first trying to get published, it wasn’t uncommon to hear authors talk about writing five books, or ten books, before finally getting a publisher’s attention, and those are only the ones who actually made it. We’ll never know how many authors wrote five books, got rejected on all of them, and gave up.

I’m not telling you all this to make you feel sorry for these people – writing might be life, but publishing is voluntary, no one puts a gun to our heads and makes us get book deals – I’m just trying to illustrate how amazingly difficult getting your book to readers used to be so you can understand just how revolutionary modern self-publishing feels to an author like myself, who started her career before the self-publishing boom. What’s more, I’m relatively new to publishing. I can’t imagine how upside down the world must look for an author who’s been publishing the same way for multiple decades.

All of the above is a very long-winded way of saying that the business of authorship is vastly and fundamentally different from how it used to be. The old ways of thinking – that big publishers with massive print distribution are the only paths to success, that self-publishing is the final grasp of the desperate and deluded, that authors are delicate artists who should be kept separate from the numbers part of the publishing business – are no longer valid. Some claim they never were, but that doesn’t even matter. What’s important is what's happening now, and now is a very exciting time.


Every author under the sun has different dreams for their careers, and I would never attempt to tell anyone how to publish. That said, given the myriad of previously impossible things indie authors are doing right now, I think that any author who doesn’t at least consider giving self-publishing a try is being very foolish. That is why I decided to self-publish my newest novel, Nice Dragons Finish Last. Not because of any drama at my publisher, with whom I am very happy and still on good terms, or because of any fault in the book (I never even showed Nice Dragons to my agent or editor, because I’d already decided to try self-publishing and it would have been cruel to show them a book only to turn around and say “you can’t have it”), but because the world of publishing is fundamentally different. Some authors are trying to ignore that fact, but you can’t stop the signal, Mal. Change is already on us, and if we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that those who do not adapt get left behind.

I don’t know if my experiment in self-publishing will be a success. Nice Dragons may very well bomb out, but then, so can any book. I’m also not saying that I’m done with New York. Despite the many legitimate criticisms leveled against commercial publishing, the system still has a lot to offer authors, particularly when it comes to fame (traditionally published authors still have an easier time getting guest spots at conventions over independent authors, even if the self-pubber is outselling them two to one). Good thing, then, that we’re not living in an either/or, self-pub/trad-pub world anymore. More and more authors who debuted at big publishing houses are going hybrid and trying self-publishing in addition to their traditional careers for exactly the same reasons I am: not because Something Happened with our publishers or our books, but because the wave of change has gotten so big, we can no longer afford not to give it a go.

For my money, though, all these changes are excellent developments. Not only did I have a really great time getting my new book exactly as I wanted it with a professional cover and three rounds of editing, but you can buy it for half the normal price and I still make more money than I did before. That’s a win-win for everyone so far as I’m concerned. So if you have any prejudices against self-pub, I hope you’ll put them aside and give my new book a go. Other than how I decided to put it out, I promise it’s no different in quality from my other titles. You can even go here to try the first chapters free and see for yourself. And if you don’t care how a book is published and just want to read... how on earth did you get through this giant blog post?!

In all seriousness, thank you for reading. I hope I’ve shed some light on the subject, and I very much hope you'll try my first step into the exciting new world of self-publishing, Nice Dragons Finish Last!


Author Bio: Rachel Aaron is the author of nine novels, including her newest, Nice Dragons Finish Last (published July 15th), a near future Urban Fantasy about modern dragons, mages, and mass-produced magic. Rachel is also the author of the action packed Science Fiction Romance, Fortune’s Pawn under the name Rachel Bach. Her bestselling nonfiction writing book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love, has helped thousands of authors double their daily word counts.

When she’s not holed up in her writing cave, Rachel lives a nerdy, bookish life in Athens, GA, with her perpetual motion son, long suffering husband, and obese wiener dog. You can find out more about Rachel and read samples of all her books at her website.


Also on CR: Interview with Rachel Aaron, Review of The Spirit Thief and Fortune’s Pawn


The Legend of Eli Monpress (The Spirit Thief, The Sprit Rebellion, and The Spirit Eater);
The Revenge of Eli Monpress (The Spirit War and Spirit’s End)


Rachel Bach’s Paradox Trilogy (Orbit Books US & UK)


  1. .....very very nice guest post.....nailed most of the points.....hope your little venture into self-publishing turns out to be a great success.....

  2. How much of this is driven by your output? There's no way New York can really keep up with you.

  3. @Rakib thank you! Fingers crossed!

    @Justin that was definitely a factor. NY simply can't absorb books as fast as I write them. Self pub felt like the natural answer.

  4. How did you find your editor and cover artist? What are you doing about publicity and marketing for the book? I have one more round of editing (my wife) and I'm ready to publish my first book. I'm VERY interested in this path.

  5. Well said! This an exciting time to be an author. Things have changed so much that I decided not to submit to agents at all, at least for my current work-- a complete change from what I planned just a few years ago. Self-publishing is definitely not just for rejects. :)

    Best of luck with your new release, Rachel. I look forward to reading it!

  6. @Alan I found my artist through DeviantArt and my editor through a referral from a friend. If you're looking for editors/cover artists, though, I'd highly reccomend checking out the kboards yellow pages,123703.0.html

    And thank you to disregardtheprologue! I hope you enjoy Nice Dragons!

  7. Where will Nice Dragons be available to buy? I just finished reading the sample chapters and can't wait to read the rest!

  8. Athens, eh? Greetings from about 3 hours away (Dawsonville). Welcome to the dark side! Have a cookie. ;-)

    I never bothered trying to get an agent, let alone a publisher. I played with numbers on a napkin or something, decided that I'd be better off self-publishing, and went for it. A retired pro editor fell into my lap (actually, she was sitting next to me in the church choir) and I took a chance with an artistically-inclined acquaintance online for the cover art. I'm pretty good at formatting eBooks, and would hang out a shingle if my dayjob dried up, but I'm finding something to improve with every new book.

    Quick question: I've heard that most book contracts require you to give your publisher first crack at any new work. How did you dodge that bullet, or did I hear wrong?

  9. @Sarah Nice Dragons comes out July 15 and will be available in ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBookstore if everything goes smoothly. We're planning a print version for later if sales support it. If you want an email the day it comes out to remind you, you can sign up for my mailing list ( or you can follow me on Twitter ( Either way, I guarantee I'll let you know! Thank you for reading!!

    @Larry I did have that clause, and I actually sent them an entirely different book partially to satisfy this requirement but mostly because I thought Orbit would like it. Sadly, they'd just signed another series that was almost exactly like the one I'd pitched them, so it was a no. That would normally be sad, but it worked out well for me in the end so I have no complaints!

  10. Thanks for sharing so much about this decision! I've been reading and thinking quite a bit about self-pub vs trad-pub recently, since Brian McClellan wrote a very interesting blog post on how much self-pubbing costs if you're doing it "right". ( Because of this, I have some nosy questions which I will obviously understand if you'd prefer not to answer, Rachel!

    To what extend do you feel your capacity to self-pub this book now is making use of the reputation you've built with readers through your traditionally published books? (I'm not saying "they like me because I'm trad-pubbed", I'm saying, "they like me because I write kick-ass fun books, which they found more easily because the books were trad-pubbed".) Would you make this decision now, with this book, if it were your first book? What would you do differently and/or what would take a lot more effort?

    Also, I note that you've mentioned "professional cover and three rounds of editing", which was the magic formula that Brian used as well for doing-a-book-right. His post was talking about how much that actually cost, and has prompted some quite heated debate in his post comments of the "you can do it for less!"/"you don't need that quality!" camp versus editing and art professionals noting that they deserve to earn a living wage as well, and as someone who's worked as an editor and hopes to be a published write, I'm finding the discussion fascinating. At the risk of being super-nosy, could you share a ballpark of how much Nice Dragons has cost to produce?

  11. Dee thank you for pointing me to Brian's blog post. Obviously, he and I have many differences of opinion on this (though we're both Orbit authors and YAY ORBIT YOU PUT OUT GOOD STUFF!). Again, though, this is one of those "every author has their own way" sort of things.

    Brian is right that to produce a product exactly like what Orbit did for his book, with the custom photo cover, two pass substantive editing by super awesome pros (seriously, Orbit has the best editorial team ever), multiple copy editors, and print editions in both tradepaper and hardback would be prohibitively expensive. But the point I believe he is missing, and the place where our opinions diverge, is that a book does not have to have all of that to be a success for you, the author.

    My book, for example, cost me $3000. This broke down to $1100 for the cover (which I had illustrated by a lady I love), $1200 for one round of substantive edits with an excellently referenced editor (where the editor reads your book and says things likes "this character doesn't make sense" or "this plot twist is too predictable") , and $700 for two rounds of copy edits (editors who check for grammar, misspelled words, typos, etc).

    My goal in all of this was to produce an ebook product that my readers would find indistinguishable from my New York books, and I feel that I got that for my $3000. The book is well edited, and while I can't guarantee there won't be typos, all of my Orbit books have had typos, too. Typos happen, they're just part of publishing. All you can do is hire good people and try your best to weed them out.

    That said, I know plenty of people who got ebooks they were very happy with and that went on to sell very well for far less than I paid. It really comes down to what you are personally comfortable with as an author. For example, can get your whole cover with typography from a quality premade store (like this one for less than $200, which saves you $800 right there. Your biggest single cost is going to be editing, but I would not not not advise you skimp on that. Take the time to find an editor who really gets what you're trying to do and pay them what they're worth.

    All of that said, when you consider your book as a business, the $3000 I spent is nothing. Even $5000 to really go all out with a print designer and layout for a print edition and two rounds of editing would still be nothing compared with the time you have already investing writing this book. And on the other side, I know a lot of people who spend $300 per book and do just fine. It really depends on you, your audience, and what kind of book you're trying to put out.

    I would say that if you want a book that doesn't look home made, you should invest in a good cover and good editing. That is key.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Argh, I'll get it right this time. Realized I didn't answer the second half of your question.

    I do feel that my traditional pub career has helped enormously with my self pub work, and I intend to stay trad pub as long as they'll have me :3. There are parts of being traditionally published, such as the amazing work done by Orbit's PR Wizard Ellen Wright, that you simply can not do on your own. If this was my very first book, I'd probably still go traditional first just because I know how enormously my writing was helped by my agent and editors in the traditional venue. Lots of self published authors claim that publishers don't grow authors anymore, but that was simply not true with me. I wouldn't be the author I am now without the help I got from traditional publishing. That said, I'm still my own person. I don't see myself as beholden to anyone but my readers. I think authors should be free to decide what path is best for them. For me, that was starting with trad. For you, maybe not.

    Going back to that $3000 number for Nice Dragons (which, by the way, does not include my time. If we added that in, the cost of this book would be in tens of thousands!), I'm pricing the book at $4.99, which is on the upper end of indie pricing but still half the cost of my other books. Of this $4.99, I will make $3.49, which means I only need to sell 859 copies to break even. After that, everything else is money in my pocket forever. This is a substantially higher earning per book for me at a much lower cost to my reader, and that is not something to be discounted.

    So I hope that answers your question. If you don't mind, I'd like to take part of this comment for blog post material later ;D Sorry to Stefan for posting double walls'o'text in your comments!!

    - R

  14. Thanks so much for the detailed response, Rachel. It's great to hear your experience (especially because I have a frame of reference for your work - and its quality! - to put it all in context).

    In Brian's defense, his Orbit-style numbers were to illustrate what Orbit invests in the book/author-as-product. When I look at his numbers towards the end for doing a novel like he did his self-pubbed add-on e-novellas, they look a lot like yours (he includes slightly more for editing, and includes audiobooks).

    And I rush to add that I didn't mean to suggest you were beholden to anyone, and obviously whatever choices an author feels serve their purposes best are the right ones (and the more choices available, the better). I just meant that having established an audience through your already-published (by whatever means) books, you have a "ready made market" (as it were) for self-publishing. I feel like if I were to self-pub, my ready made market is my facebook circle (yikes). Just as a reader, there are too many books and not enough me; it's daunting to consider trying to get a toehold in that from the other side. There's a lot to be said for a big publisher (and their quality assurance) behind a new name and product.

    And I very much look forward to reading further blog posts on this and related topics. :)

  15. The first 895 books cover the out of pocket costs. The following books are the return for the time spent. Since you are a full-time author, that time has a significant opportunity cost.

    The trade-off of all independent ventures. After reading the first three chapters of Nice Dragons, I'd say it's a pretty safe trade-off! Can't wait until July 15th!

  16. @Dee you're welcome! Feeling a bit sheepish over running on so long! You're right about the difficulty of finding an audience on your own. The trad pub marketing machine definitely helps with that. But you can't underestimate the power of a good cover, catchy title, and killer blurb either. Writers get discovered all the time!

    @Anonymous You're absolutely right about opportunity cost. It's something most writers, established and new, don't think about, but you have to understand it to properly value your work. Thank you for the good wishes and kind words :D

  17. I am so incredibly excited for you Rachel. I think this is brilliant. I've read quite a few posts on Chuck Wendig's site about diversifying your publishing options and how you really should branch out and it's smart if an author who's made it to one of the big houses who then has a reader base to try pubbing one of their own books because then you already have people who are willing to take that chance on you.

    I know that I personally stopped buying self published books a few years ago. I had only bought a few during my first year of blogging and received more for review and after awhile I ended up thinking YES it was mostly all garbage because those self published authors dont' HAVE to go through all the rounds of edits, copy edits and they can just spit some ugly cover out of photoshop (or not even photoshop) smack it on the top and say "done now buy it" and yuck.

    I hope this works out wonderfully for you and helps get you a better income that you can live on. I know authors make such a pittance compared to all of the hard work they put in and you deserve to reap more of the rewards for your book.