In this series we will address one of the biggest questions facing authors today: how will I publish my book? As little as ten or fifteen years ago, this answer would have been simple: get an agent, who will then pitch the book to major publishers on your behalf. Now, with the wide variety of options available, it can be hard to decide what route to take. This is why, one post at a time, we’ll dissect each of the options in an effort to help authors better answer that question.
In our last post, we talked about how traditional publishers work. Today we will discuss the burgeoning business of self-publishing. Self-publishing (not to be confused with vanity publishing, which we’ll discuss next time) is basically the process of contracting with a variety of professionals to create a book. That might include editors, graphic designers, book compositors, printers, and distributors. So, for example, if you have a complete manuscript, you’ll have to find and pay an editor to work on the content; then a compositor to do the interior layout; then a cover designer to create the cover, back cover, spine, and flaps; and so on. You can also hire book shepherds or packagers, who have a stable of contractors and who will coordinate the work on your book.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Well, there are some good reasons to do it yourself, and we’ll share some of the downsides as well.
Ownership. Since you created the book, you own the publication rights to all versions of the book (ebooks, foreign editions, film adaptations, etc.)—unless you sell them to a traditional publisher. Retaining your rights is especially useful if your brand or business is tied to the book and if you’ll want to incorporate parts of the content from the book into your website, seminars, materials, and the like. When you self-publish, you pay the upfront cost, but you also keep a much larger percentage of the profits (to the tune of 35 to 45 percent of the retail price versus 2 to 10 percent with traditional publishers).
Creative control. Since you’re calling the shots, you get to decide exactly how you want your book to look. You have final say on everything—from how the editor approaches the content, to what colors the designer uses in the cover, to the printing specifications and technology.
Speed to market. Having control of the project also gives you the ability to get your content to the market faster than a traditional publisher would be able to. If you have something timely you want out in six to twelve months rather than two or three years, self-publishing is the way to go.
Quality. Even when working with purported “experts” you should always be wary of the experience an editor or designer brings to your project. There are plenty of contractors out there with little experience creating a commercially viable book, and it can be a hard pill to swallow if you get stuck paying for low-quality work. Additionally, a self-published book can lack the unity of having one team working on it, as well as the polish a seasoned publisher can provide. Even if you’re working with highly skilled professionals, unless they are receiving the kind of feedback from national retail buyers that major publishers are getting, they will never have the same insight and therefore won’t be able to provide the same level of quality. Many self-published books unfortunately possess a few major missteps that keep them off the shelves of major retailer.
Distribution. Since anyone can self-publish a book, there is no guarantee of quality and self-published books are often viewed poorly by the media and retailers. And because self-publishers generally do not receive feedback from retail, they lack the ability to adapt to the market the same way publishers can. Since retailers can be squeamish about self-published books, getting into retail channels, even with the help of a distributor, can be difficult.
Distinction. For the reasons we’ve discussed (quality control, lack of retail feedback) self-published books can sometimes carry a stigma. Since they generally lack solid retail distribution, their sales histories are usually weak, which makes them a riskier bet for retail buyers. For buyers, it’s a question of choosing something untested with no track record (a self-published book) over a product that has a record of excellence (a traditionally published book).
So what now? There is a wide variety of resources and articles out there for self-publishers (like this one from Nathan Bransford on self-published millionaires). Here are a few websites and books to check out:
- Dan Poynter’s website on publishing, complete with everything from writing and editing advice to information on how to typeset your book and find a printer. Poynter also has quite a few books out on self-publishing.
- John Kremer’s site focuses on book marketing and also offers all kinds of resources for self-publishers.
- Self-Publishing for Dummies by Jason Rich: This book is a simple introduction to the business of self-publishing, complete with the traditional For Dummies graphics.
- The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Tom and Marilyn Ross: This book surveys the entire process from writing to printing to promoting.
If your goals as an author are aligned with the pros above and the cons are something you can stomach, it’s probably a good idea to dig a little deeper into self-publishing as an option for your book. Once you’ve done your research, the next step is identifying vendors. The resources above should point you in the right direction and help you find qualified professionals who can provide the services you need to create your book.