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Debunking the Myth of the Self-Publishing Lottery

Self-publishing is often touted as a ticket to a good living, perhaps even stardom. Indeed, some self-published authors have become extremely successful, going on to earn lucrative book deals with large publishing houses.

A notable example in Canada is Mary-Ann Kirkby, who in 2007, having been rejected by numerous publishers, self-published her book I Am Hutterite: The Fascinating True Story of a Young Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Heritage. By 2008 she had sold 15,000 copies. By 2010 she had signed a worldwide publishing deal. By 2011 she had sold 75,000 copies. (Trust me: These are big numbers in book publishing, no matter what anyone tells you.)

But if you’re an aspiring writer, how should you view success stories like this one? Is it simply a matter, once you have completed your manuscript, of buying a ticket and waiting to win the self-publishing lottery?

Some self-publishing companies would have you believe that. They sometimes imply that to win fame and glory, all you’ve got to do is part with a few dollars, upload a file to a server, choose a layout and front cover from a selection of templates, and sit tight.

It’s fair to say that I don’t agree with this “self-publishing lottery”approach.

So what’s wrong with it?

Many people are happy to acknowledge that the best-selling self-published author is one in a million. But it seems that most of them fail to understand why the best-selling self-published author is one in a million. It’s not because huge numbers of well-written books are ignored. Rather it’s because there are very few well-written and well-marketed books, whether they are self-published or “other-published.” To hit the big time, you need much more than luck. You need a book with genuine merit and a way to get it to market (i.e., into people’s hands). Achieving both of these tasks is the real challenge.


LET ME REPLACE the lottery analogy with what I believe is a more helpful, and more accurate, one.

An Olympic gold medalist might be one in a million, but that doesn’t mean she has won some kind of lottery. A lot more than luck is involved. To be successful, she must have an exhaustive knowledge of her event, and she must study other essentials, such as what successful athletes have done in the past, what Olympic athletes eat, and how they train. And then do all of these things.

However, even though Olympic athletes are knowledgeable about what they’re doing, they still enlist expert help — a personal trainer or coach to motivate them, to observe and refine their technique, and to find a diet and training regimen to fit them and their goals.

These people didn’t just get lucky. They didn’t just submit an application to compete on their way into the stadium. And they didn’t achieve what they’ve achieved alone.

The years of learning and training and thousands of hours of preparation that made victory possible include a partnership with a coach and mentor.

The same applies to writing good books.

When you read about the Mary-Ann Kirkbys of this world, know that they didn’t just strike it lucky. Before she hit the big time with her self-published book I Am Hutterite, Kirkby worked as a journalist. She honed her craft by reading, writing, and rewriting for years. And, as with Olympic athletes, she also had a coach, in her case, Arvel Gray.

Kirkby credits Gray in her book as the book’s “spiritual guardian.” She acknowledges that Gray “spent hours weeding, watering, and nurturing [the] manuscript,” and that she skillfully “knit the story together.” At the publishing conference of the Manitoba Editors’ Association in May 2010, Kirkby offered some valuable insight on the importance of an editor: “I am very fond of editors. They are under-appreciated and under‐lauded … Editors are midwives; they nurture a story, and give writers hope. They let writers use their own voice.”

Kirkby also offered these words of wisdom: “Do not send your manuscript to the publisher when it’s really an editor you need.”

I’m all for innovation, and am fully aware that publishing is opening up and becoming more of a bottom-up affair, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Self-publishing need not mean publishing with no input from skilled, professional editors. The work of professional editors remains an essential part of the publishing process as authors and the publishing industry move forward.


MY COOPERATIVE APPROACH to publishing, through BPS Books, allows authors to enjoy many of the benefits of publishing outside a traditional publishing house, while retaining perhaps the most important benefit of traditional publishing — working with a professional editor. It’s important, in a climate in which publishers are increasingly being seen as little more than greedy industry gatekeepers, to note that publishers do, in fact, add a significant amount of value to a book. It is a timeless truth that every book, no matter how well written, needs a good editor.

Writers like Mary-Ann Kirkby understand how publishing is changing — in fact, they’re playing a significant role in facilitating that change. But they also understand exactly what hasn’t changed — that writing and publishing require an editor. Kirkby might be one in a million, but she’s no lottery winner.


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