Do you want to self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?

One of the questions I get asked a lot is “Should I self-publish or go with a traditional publisher?” A good friend asked me this today and I decided it was time for an article on the blog.

There are lots of good reasons to self-publish… and just as many to go with a traditional publisher. My answer is always “It depends on what you want to accomplish.”

Take the following simple test. Rank your desires for doing a book by numbering in order your reasons for doing a book:

  • Making money
  • Being famous for what you’ve written
  • The thrill of having a book to your name
  • Having someone else do all the layout/editing/printing/publishing/distribution
  • Having a product to sell as part of presentations or through one’s website

All done? Good. Okay, here’s how these things tend to work out.

Making money is a key question. If you have any market at all (and a way of reaching that market), you’ll make more money by self-publishing. For example, if your book is selling for $39.95 and you go with a traditional publisher, you’ll get between 10-15% royalty on the publisher’s net receipts on sales (generally about 50% of the cover price). This works out to about $2 to $3 a copy for you.

On the other hand, if you’ve printed the book yourself, you keep all the money for yourself. If you go the full route and print the books yourself, you can get 1000 books printed in China for $3 each, delivered to the US. Selling them at $39.95 means you get to keep $36.95 as gross revenue. You’d need to sell only 100 copies of that first 1000 to be in the black for your physical costs. Sell all 1000 copies of the book and you’ll have grossed maybe $35-37K, 12-18x as much money as through a traditional publisher. And that’s without distribution through Amazon. Self-publishing is all about the money.

You might not have space for 1000 books in your house or apartment or want to invest the $3K up front to print them. If so, you can go with print-on-demand (POD), where a POD vendor has a PDF of your book and the cover art and does onesie-twosie printing each time they get an order. This has the advantage of you not having to buy books up front nor store them. The POD vendor also handles the order fulfillment, which can be a pestiferous job in its own right. The POD vendor takes more money for all of this (maybe $9-$15 depending), but you’re still making oodles of money more than if you have a traditional publisher.

You may also want to write a book because you want to get your ideas out there. It always seems a little foreign to me, who likes the money, but there are people who want to write a book because they feel like they have something important to say. (I do, too, but it’s frequently a variation on the theme of “I’ve written something so cool that you just have to give me money for it!”) For people who just want their book out there, a traditional publisher is likely to be a better way to go. The traditional publisher has better publicity and distribution in place and they’ll get economies of scale that individual authors can’t manage.

A related reason for writing books is the thrill of having a book to your name. This can either be personal branding, where you’re publishing the book to establish your personal brand, or a “publish or perish” situation, where it looks good to have a book on your resume. Both are good reasons for writing a book. This one’s a gimme: you can publish a book either way and accomplish this goal, but it’ll get down to cases if this is your prime motivation.

You might want to go with a traditional publisher because you just like writing the stuff! I’ve had this feeling on several books. I just wanted to write it and not worry about anything else. If you don’t want to do all the work associated with producing a book, that’s just fine. But you may want to consider learning more about the process so you could do it if you wanted to; look at the potential for money if you do. You might split the difference and self-publish, find someone who can help you package the book. You hand them your ms. and they do all the rest of the work for a few. There are many companies that do that for people. Shoot, I do that for people. Talk to me. We can both make money.

An increasingly popular reason for doing a book is to have something to sell through your website and/or as part of presentations or courses that you offer. This is closely related to personal branding, but it’s more about the product aspect… and in this case, you definitely want to do this yourself! If you’re selling a book as a product, then you’re looking to make the most money you can.

What’s the right choice for you?

The big advantage of self-publishing is money. You can easily make 10x as much self-publishing as with the same book through a traditional publisher. The disadvantage of self-publishing is the amount of work you have to do on your own. Anything that needs to get done, you either have to do yourself or hire someone to do it for you.

The big advantages of a traditional publisher are exposure and simplicity. The traditional publisher will likely have a wider reach for marketing and distribution. The publisher also handles everything that’s not part of the writing… and if you’re mostly interested in just writing the book and not having to do anything else, that’s the way to go. The disadvantage of a traditional publisher is that you don’t make nearly as much money. If you’re in this to make money, it’s not as fast or as profitable.

Deciding what’s right for you is a function of your desires and your circumstances. FWIW, my last 26 books have been published with traditional publishers. The book I’m working on right now is going to be self-published (and I’ll be saying more about that as time rolls on). There’s no reason you can’t self-publish some books and go with a traditional publisher for others.

If you’ve got a niche market and a built-in clientele and mailing lists or lots of web traffic, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you don’t want the trouble and you don’t care about the money, talk to a traditional publisher.

Note: Okay, you may decide that you’re happy with a traditional publisher doing your book. Unfortunately for you, the traditional publishers may not feel the same way. This frequently happens if your book doesn’t have a big enough target market. A niche book that’s never going to sell more than 4000-5000 copies will get passed over by a traditional publisher, but that’d be a fortune for you if you self-publish. If that’s the case, embrace the opportunity to make a lot of money and learn more about the publishing process. And if you don’t want to do anything but write and are willing to pay someone else to handle the rest of the publishing process, for goodness sake, call me!

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