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!

Clutter and writing

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and you didn’t gain more than a pound or two.

I’m starting work on book #27 at the moment. (There’s not a lot I can say for the moment, as it’s for something not yet announced.) I’m going to be discovering a lot about the self-publishing process and many other things as the months wear merrily on, but I wanted to say a few things about clutter.

Clutter is anything that gets in the way. Clutter is not stuff that’s by definition “bad,” but it is definitely misplaced. Right now, my office is more cluttered than I’m comfortable with, but having racked up my left knee very badly a week ago Thursday, it’s very hard to reach down and pick stuff off the floor or lift a box or much of anything. Clutter has accumulated as a result, much of it in the form of junk mail to be sifted and thrown into the shredding box.

Writing with too much clutter–of any kind–is hard for me and it’s probably hard for you. Clutter sneaks into your field of vision. You see it constantly in the corners of your eyes and it’s distracting. Very, very annoying stuff!

If you’ve got clutter in your office or your life, you need to get rid of it. The best book I’ve ever run into for decluttering is Clutter’s Last Stand by Don Aslett. Don’s a fascinating guy who writes fun, approachable books about cleaning, decluttering, and organizing. His central theme is that if you can’t do the thing you want to do because it’s blocked by clutter, then clutter is robbing you of time, which is your life. Don’s written a number of books since Clutter’s Last Stand on decluttering, but the first on the subject is probably the best.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a few more things off my desk and then get back to work on this section on concepts.

What to do when you’re running out of money–summary

And finally, above all else:

Tip #18. Don’t panic!

When you’re feeling desperate, breathe deeply and remind yourself that right now at this minute, everything is fine: no-one is hitting you with sticks, the lights and heat are on and there’s food in the fridge. There are things to be concerned about, but take a moment to be in the present where you’re safe. Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.

Running out of money isn’t fun, but it’s possible to deal with it. Be very cautious about gambling on short-term gains that could work out to be long-term losses, such as living off cash advances on your credit cards. Be creative and persistent in your search for work. There is always more money on the money tree; it just may take a while longer to find it right now.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #16 and #17)

Tip #16. Read Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon.

Everyone should read this. It’ll tell you in clear, simple English how to build up your savings. (Every time you find yourself saying “Yeah, but…” when you’re reading this, just put a sock in it. You’re wrong, he’s right, that’s how it goes.) If you have a year’s expenses saved, you’re going to feel a lot less desperate and will be in a better position to ride things out. And start putting a little in savings now. You’re in this pickle in part because you don’t have enough money stashed away, so start taking action to prevent this happening again. This works. I’ve done it. It’s fun.

This book should be available in the library, assuming that you can get on the waiting list. Clason wrote the original in 1926 and it’s been in constant print ever since.

Tip #17. Read Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

This is another book that everyone should read. Martin Seligman has identified the patterns related to being a pessimist and being an optimist. Being an optimist isn’t just wandering around smiling all the time. It’s a lot more about asking the right question to get what you want. Being an optimist lets you see ways in which you can work around obstacles. This subject is worthy of its own article. Or even a book: go buy Seligman’s and read it.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #14 and #15)

Tip #14. Do what you can to maintain your health insurance and your disability insurance.

Unexpected health expenses can sink you faster than anything else you’re likely to run into. Even if you can’t afford general health care, consider an inexpensive high-deductible catastrophic coverage policy for things like auto accidents. Also have some kind of disability insurance if you can: 30-50% of all home foreclosures are the direct result of an underinsured disability.

Tip #15. Exercise!

You can’t really avoid stress when you’re looking for work, but nothing busts stress like exercise. Even walking half an hour a day will do wonders for your health. And getting off your butt will provide a mental break from staring fixedly at the computer all day.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #12 and #13)

With your job search in full swing, keep on keeping on.

Tip #12. Don’t panic!

The bulk of marriages dissolve over money issues. If the job search is hard for you, it may be doubly hard for your significant other, who is stuck in the same boat but probably unable to contribute anything to your process. When you’re running out of money, all your other problems become more intense, too. Be gentle with each other: talk a lot and give each other a lot of hugs. Try not to snipe at each other.

Tip #13. Keep in touch with friends.

Your friends not only provide support and a place to vent outside your primary relationship, they’re a likely source of job information. We’re all in this together.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #10 and #11)

Tip #10. Don’t spend every waking minute looking for work; you’ll burn out.

Job hunting is exhausting, particularly if you’re feeling a lot of pressure to do so. Take breaks from the process during the day and the week. If you’re totally unemployed at the moment, use the off-time to do something constructive. Want to get the garage cleaned out at last? Break ground for a garden? Pick a project and set goals. (Have a structure to your time or it’ll all trickle through your fingers. I’m not kidding.)

Tip #11. Volunteer.

One of the things you should do while you’re out of work is volunteer. There are a lot of good reasons to volunteer. First, it’s going to get you out of the house. This alone may be something worthwhile, because you’re less likely to curl up in a depressive ball in front of the TV. Second, you’re going to meet new people, which is always a good idea when you’re looking for work. Third, and most importantly, you have a chance to do something for a cause you feel connected to. You can work to end world hunger, help out in a homeless shelter, donate time at your church, whatever you like. All of these add to the overall communitas. It primes the pump in the community, peoples’ lives are improved a little because of this… and it frequently leads to new jobs and job opportunities.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #8 and #9)

Tip #8. Market yourself heavily.

Go to STC and other professional meetings. (Bring your updated resume and your portfolio; you never know.) Sign up with several of the networking websites. My favorite is (check out my profile if you like) but there are many others. Think outside the box, too: come up with non-traditional, off-the-beaten-path places to market yourself.

Tip #9. Use job websites.

Register on as many of the free job websites as you can. Post your resume and then update it slightly every couple of weeks: when you update your resume, it shows up again in the “new/updated resume” listings and you’ll repeatedly bring yourself to the attention of companies and recruiters. (Hint: An “updated” resume can be one that has an extra space after the end of a sentence.)

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #6 and #7)

Tips #1 through #5 were all about identifying just how bad things may be. As Magid’s Law says, “It doesn’t matter how you get there if you don’t know where you’re going.” Armed with the information about how much money you really need, you’re ready to start looking for ways to get it.

Tip #6. Don’t panic!

Panic leads to desperation, which can be the kiss of death to an otherwise successful job search.

Tip #7. Update your resume.

Whether you’re freelance or captive, looking for a little work on the side or a whole new job, your resume should always be updated so you can give it out at a moment’s notice to anyone. If you’re not good at resume writing, enlist the help of colleagues who are. (For all you writer types, the Society for Technical Communication is a great place for people who can help you do this. Also put together a portfolio if you don’t have one. A portfolio is a powerful tool for selling you as a candidate to an employer. The STC‘s a good place for that, too.)

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #3, #4, and #5)

Tip #3. Plan your finances.

Lay out your monthly finances in a spreadsheet. Put down everything even if it’s only once a year (property taxes) or once in a lifetime (wisdom teeth removal). You need to see the whole picture before you can figure out what you can cut or reduce and how much money you need every month. The website has a number of tools and resources for this part of the process, but just googling “planning your personal finances” or “personal finance budgeting” will give you lots of resources to play with.

Tip #4. Cut down on the expenses!

Tips #2 & #3 will have given you information on where your money’s going… and chances are there are a lot of things you don’t truly need or that you can be more frugal about. Eliminate unnecessary and luxury expenses and be more efficient about shopping for necessities. If you can’t reduce your monthly expenses by 10%, you’re probably not trying hard enough. (Remember, I said this wasn’t going to be fun.) Reducing expenses is a good policy in general: go check out The Millionaire Next Door from the library for a lot of good ideas on things you can do.

Tip #5. Identify how much money you need to be bringing in.

Once you’ve got your finances laid out and have reduced your expenses, figure out how much money–or how much more money–you need to bring in every month to survive. Things might even be not as bleak as they first seemed: when you put a number down, it can make your goal more concrete and less daunting. For example, you may discover that you only need to find an extra $300 a month in net income, which may mean taking one extra shift a week, writing a couple extra articles a month, or finding one additional short-term contract assignment a year. Seeing the difference down on paper may help you identify a way to cut your expenses that much more to survive on what you’re bringing in.