Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Once again, folks: do not self-publish your science-fiction novel

by Rob - January 28th, 2010.
Filed under: Publishing.

An email I received today:

I wondered if I could pick your brain. Firstly, I am about to self-publish a book I have written and wondered what format I should choose, size, paper weight, etc. for a Science Fiction book. I have read about them being about 100,000 words and 288 pages in a 8-1/2″ x 5-1/2 or 5-1/4 size however, my first is closer to 150,000 words. I also plan to launch it as an e-book once I have figured out what to do about cover art. Do you have some suggestions or have you always used publishers?

I think I need to publish my first on my own and if the publishers come knocking after that, I will take a look. Because I am retired, I cannot put out feelers to publishers for the next ten years hoping to get something off the ground. I am a later in life writer when it comes to books and I have some fifteen in different genres to launch so I have to get things started.

Any input you would be kind enough to give me would be greatly appreciated.

My reply:

My advice: DO NOT self-publish, full-stop. Self-publishing does NOT work for science-fiction novels. You would be throwing your money away.

Seriously: if you want advice on the questions you’re asking, find someone who has successfully gone the self-publishing route with an SF novel, and ask him or her. The point is: no such person exists, and so you won’t be able to find him or her.

Don’t do this.

Update: And, of course, my post above generated the usual round of idiocy, to which I have replied thus:

I never said this would “never” work in the future, Charlie Jane Anders. You are wrong to say that I did. I said that the person thinking RIGHT NOW of self-publishing a science-fiction novel should point to the actual current successful examples of others doing that before he opens his or her checkbook. For Pete’s sake, I was talking in print about the “post-publisher economy” back in 1998.

As for Anne Gilbert, EVERYONE knows that publishing is in a fluctuating state. The question was whether self-publishing a science-fiction novel right now was likely to succeed. It isn’t.

You know, you guys who say “Oh, go ahead and do it — spend your money that way; it’s a GOOD idea!” never seem to be around when the poor sap ends up heartbroken at the end with a book that no one has read.

Another Update: The very savvy Kirstin Morrell, former small-press managing editor, has posted a wise rebuttal to Anne Gilbert, which I’m reprinting here:

First, be careful. Don’t conflate “self-publishing” with “e-publishing” and “independent publishing” (or the one you didn’t mention, “small-press publishing”). Sawyer is a huge proponent of the e-book revolution. He’s the one who introduced me to e-books and he owns literally hundreds of bought and paid for e-books.

And he’s been a tireless supporter of the small press. Ask the people of Edge Press or Red Deer Press or Bundoran Press.

And actually, he does not say that you can’t find an SF writer who has self-published, just that you can’t find an SF author who has self-published and was successful.

Now, let’s define success. To me, it would be someone who makes a full-time living from writing SF novels, novellas, and/or short stories, without living below the poverty line. That’s success as I would define it. And I don’t know one SF author who self-publishes who would meet my criteria for success.

Maybe if you were to set your sights sufficiently low, you might be able to be “successful” by going that route. Just lower the bar until you can get over it. But is that really success?

He doesn’t say that this might not be a valid way of going in the future. He said what he said, which is that a successful, self-published SF writer does not exist.

Yes, Mr. Sawyer is completely aware of all the arguments you’ve made. He mentors many beginning writers and many of his students have gone on to real, money-in-the-bank publishing experiences.

Sawyer’s not going to end up with a red face. His statements, as he made them, are all factually true. You act as if you don’t know that he’s part of the push to make e-book publishing mainstream. If you don’t, read his site or his blog a bit more.

So it’s almost like you’re boxing with shadows. You’re refuting arguments he never made by characterizing his argument as something that it is not, then saying he’ll be embarrassed when what he never said becomes untrue. Very strange.

So let’s talk about his actual argument. Let’s talk about successful, self-published SF authors, people who actually make a living from their self-published books. Name a few and let’s talk about them.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

1 Response to Once again, folks: do not self-publish your science-fiction novel

  1. Thank you, this was really helpful.

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