People often ask me whether they should self-publish a book or go the “traditional” route of finding an agent and submitting a book proposal to a mainstream publisher. I have been published both ways, and at this point in my writing career, I’ve opted for publishing books myself. I’m not alone either. One of my favorite clients, Paul Sheriff who has written traditionally published books said this in a recent email announcing the first book he self-published:
“I am so fed up with publishers, and not making any money on a book, and not being allowed to put my marketing material into the book. This is a way that I can control the whole process.”
Although self-publishing works for me and Paul, it is definitely not for everyone. If you want to write a book, you should weigh the pros and cons. Self-publishing requires a lot of effort, a lot of money, or both. If you get a book contract from a traditional publisher, they take care of the mechanics of producing the book. You’ll have an editor assigned to your project, they’ll set up deadlines, and someone will do the layout and design of the book itself. You don’t have to be involved in any of the technical aspects of producing the book. All you have to do is write it.
With self-publishing, you need to hire editors, layout artists, and find a printer, unless you happen to have experience in these areas. In my case, I have a background in design, so I can publish books far less expensively than some people. But I still hired an editor and obviously have to pay for printing as well.
However getting published by a traditional publisher has some drawbacks too. For one thing, as Paul intimated, unless you happen to write a massive best-seller, you won’t make much money. The publishing world runs on incredibly thin margins because of the distribution model that is in place. By the time everyone gets a cut, the author usually makes less than $1 per book in royalties. And often you make a lot less, like 25 cents.
Of course you may say, “I’ll get an advance!” Okay, maybe you will. But if you are a first time author, it may not be much. Most books also never earn money beyond the advance. I wrote a book for a major computer book publisher about PowerPoint, for example. PowerPoint is the most popular presentation program out there. The book was four-color, beautifully laid out, and distributed in bookstores like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon and so forth. It was everywhere; I even saw it at a bookstore here in little old Sandpoint, Idaho. And yet the book never earned back my advance.
With self-publishing, you can produce a book and have no inventory thanks to the magic of print-on-demand printing. This approach lowers the problem of endless waste in the book industry where bookstores “remainder” thousands of books for pennies on the dollar. It’s disgusting. With print-on-demand, books are only produced when someone actually buys one. Although your unit cost is higher than with traditional printing, you still can easily make $10 per book. That beats .25 by a long shot. Another advantage is that you can use pages in the back for things like order forms or promotions for other higher-priced products. Paul Sheriff includes links to downloads from his Web site in his book. Readers love the bonus, and Paul gets the opportunity to reach potential new customers.
Self-publishing is a particularly attractive option if you write non-fiction and have an audience that already knows you. Promoting a fiction book is hard work, and even the big publishing houses often don’t have much luck. But with non-fiction, you can position yourself as an expert and enhance your credibility by publishing a book. In the process of promoting your book, you’ll meet new people and have new opportunities, simply because you are a book author.