Four Reasons Not To Self-Publish a Novel

Four Reasons Not To Self-Publish a Novel

Is self-publishing a short-cut to fame . . . or a short-circuit?

Here’s a bit of tough love for novelists. I’ll give you four good reasons not to self-publish your novel. Instead, stick it in a drawer! Better things might happen to you if you do.

First, I’m not a big fan of self-publishing as a great option for most writers. When you hear success stories . . . remember: your actual results may vary!

But writers are hopeful and by their nature persistent. Novel writers, especially so. After a zillion hours slaving at a keyboard, what if your novel sits unpublished, on a shelf or forlorn inside your computer?

Self-publish! many will say. But below are some counter-arguments, why deciding not to publish a novel may lead to more positive outcomes.

Yes, it’s nice to be able to tell friends that you are a “published author.” If this is what you desire most, then certainly you may put up your own money to publish your own book.

Yes, others have self-published; a few have even achieved fame and fortune. But it is also the source of a tremendous amount of sub-par writing – work that is poorly edited, meandering, overblown, inconsistent.

Frankly, because of the quality problems in the self-publishing world, most book buyers (individuals or stores) are not going to look for their next purchase in the ranks of POD novels. There may be lovely, shining needles in those literary haystacks; your novel may be one of them. But if someone wants a needle, let’s be honest, there are easier ways to find one than searching through gigantic mounds of moldy hay. Most readers will look elsewhere.

So even if your novel is well-written, self-publishing it will likely throw disappointment in your face. You may sell only a few dozen copies, plus those you give to friends and relatives.

To complicate the matter, there are those who gain from encouraging you to publish to “fulfill your dream.” Magazines and the Internet abound with ads, rich with tales of writers who have succeeded in this way. The advertised services have a vested interest in encouraging you to print your work, whether this is best for your career or not. So their ads suggest grand things ahead if you are bold and ambitious. Take advantage of the wonders of POD! It’s cool, it’s modern, it gives you control. Publish your work, and it is “available worldwide!”

But let’s think a bit more deeply about your choices and likely outcomes. Take a moment to look at some positives . . . if you set it aside. Consider how you might benefit by deciding to stick an unpublished novel in a drawer.

1. You can give it a long rest. A sojourn from endless tinkering can offer a fresh perspective later, an insight to fix a fatal flaw. Too often, beginning writers undermine their work by reworking it too often; such manuscripts might have been saved if set aside, then returned to later . . . much later, when your skills have advanced!

2. You can recycle pieces. If a work is unpublished, you can freely recycle major elements: characters, plot twists, dialogue, anything. If you’ve gone ahead and published it, you can’t. Many beginning authors write first novels with lots of good pieces. But overall, the work just doesn’t form a compelling whole. But certain elements – an engaging character, a plot twist, a wonderful scene – can invigorate a next new work. (A good bit of your first novel might even become a secondary plot within your next novel.)

3. You can pitch it later. If you write new work that’s accepted for publication, you have a great opportunity to pitch earlier works to your editor. Why? He or she now has a relationship with you, an investment in your name. Naturally, that editor might be receptive to earlier works. Even if those works are flawed, a supportive editor might suggest useful changes. Of course, you have improved tremendously as a writer and now can see ways to fix that earlier work!

4. You can keep the fire in your belly alive. Consider how most successful writers achieved their greatness. Rarely did they get their first work published! Instead, they wrote and wrote . . . and agonized when those first attempts didn’t get published. But they persisted to write new material that carried them to fame. If they had published that first, likely inferior work, it might have proved a detriment, even a blight on their career. Worst of all, it might have dissipated their drive to write something better.

Instead, push yourself to improve. Many unpublished writers are very good writers, but just need to learn to craft a better story – with a more appealing hook, richer characters, a tighter plot.

Don’t get stuck. Start a second work. Keep multiple projects underway; it’s a professional practice that will pay off. Work hard on manuscripts, but understand the difference between persistence and obsession.

Desire to write a new and better work. Create new characters, dramatic scenes, compelling premises. Interweave more small stories and sub-plots. Let your writing skills mature.

This article doesn’t tell you when to stick a novel in a drawer and move on to the next work. But don’t self-publish work if it doesn’t live up to the reasonably high demands of the outside world. Avoid a petulant stubbornness to prove the world wrong . . . by publishing it yourself.

Consider that decision in light of your overall career path. What’s best for you if you want to become a successful writer?

Writing a first work that remains unpublished – a beloved first manuscript reluctantly put aside to begin your next exciting project – is a real and meaningful rite of passage.

[For more articles on related topics for writers, or to sign up for my free Writing Tips email newsletter, visit]


  1. Such very wise advice. Great point that mining an old novel may be much more lucrative than throwing it out into a brutal marketplace. I had a novel in a drawer and was asked to submit something to an anthology. I rewrote a chapter of the dormant novel as a short story, had it accepted, and it was that anthology that got the attention of my first publisher.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment, Anne. Great example of how putting aside a work that’s not ready can work to benefit an author.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *