Essential Reading for Those Considering Self-Publishing

Thinking about doing it yourself?
Apr | 20 | 2010

Apr | 20 | 2010

Looks like this will be Publishing Week on my blog. After my post yesterday, I seem to be on a bit of a roll. So, without further ado …

One of the questions that I often hear from people is, “What are the benefits of self-publishing?”

I should know. A little over a year ago, I self-published my first book, Why New Systems Fail (since picked up by Cengage as a revised edition). A full description of the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing is way, way beyond the scope of this post. I’ll list my top five, though.

Five Major Advantages of Self-Publishing

  • You control everything, including the cover, marketing, content, editing, bells and whistles, etc. (Note that you’ll probably have to pay extra for some of these features.)
  • You’ll probably make more money per book. Royalty rates can be 35%, give or take. This tends to be two to three times higher than books published by big firms.
  • In theory, you can get your book to market faster than with a traditional publisher.
  • You retain the rights to the content after publication. If you want to pitch the book to a proper firm, then you can. (Check the contract language just to make sure.)
  • If you have a large established audience willing to buy your book, then they probably won’t care if you are self-publishing. For example, if you’re a fan of Steven King (as I am), is the publisher even a consideration in your decision to buy his latest tome? Do you even know who publishes his books without looking it up?

Five Major Disadvantages of Self-Publishing

  • For better or worse, there’s still a stigma with self-publishing. That’s eroding but I’d be lying if I claimed that it didn’t exist in some form.
  • It can be very difficult to find competent copy editors on your subject. (Again, I should know. Invite me out for beers sometime and I’ll tell you a few stories).
  • You may not sell many copies. The average self-published book only sells something like 250 copies. Note that major publishers may not be able to sell more than that through their distribution channels.
  • The interiors may well not of the same quality as those of a book from a “proper” publisher. Call it vanity, but there’s something to be said for a very professional “feeling” book.
  • It’s very easy to inadvertently violate fair use, especially if you don’t pay for those type of services. Say what you will about big publishers, they’re very conservative and don’t want to get sued. They make sure that you cite everything.

Again, these lists weren’t meant to be comprehensive. They just reflect my priorities. Others’ opinions may vary.

For a comprehensive guide to the topic, check out Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, 16th Edition: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book. Poynter is a prolific author and I’ll bet that you have heard of at least a few of his books. In fact, in the time that it’s taken you to read this far, he’s just written another book.

I’m kidding.

If you’re hell-bent on making your book a reality through your own means, then the obvious question becomes, “With which company?” Google “self publishing companies” and you’ll return 86,000,000 results. Call a few of the companies that their sales people will no doubt tell you about why you should go with them.

What’s a prospective author to do?

The choices can be overwhelming but there’s good news. I recently came across Mark Levine’s amazing eBook on self-publishing. Let’s just say that I would have saved myself more than a few headaches if I had known about this gem 18 months ago. Levine carefully examines the major players in self-publishing, breaking down royalty rates, costs, contract language, and the like. He ultimately places the companies into categories of author-friendliness. It’s a great read and worth its weight in gold for those unsure about where to go.

Let’s just say that, if I decide to self-publish book #3, I’ll refer to Levin’s eBook exclusively throughout the selection process.

Note that Mark has graciously agreed to give away a free copy of his eBook to the best comment in this thread on this site. I’ll let Mark judge that for himself.

One more thing. Regardless of which option, it’s an amazing feeling to hold your book in your hand. Do it.

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  1. Jeff

    Found my way here via a retweet by Roger Ebert, of all people.
    Another resource for prospective authors is this book: A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write by Kenneth Atchity. Good advice for anyone worried about organizing and scheduling a writing project.

  2. Sue Collier

    Actually, if you truly self-publish–you keep 100 percent of the profits. The 35 percent royalty situation you mention is what authors get when they subsidy publish. True self-publishers start their own publishing company, obtain their own block of ISBNs, and oversee all editorial, production, and printing work on their books. The so-called “self-publishing” companies out there today are mostly vanity presses, and when authors use their ISBN and their imprint, the vanity press (also called subsidy press) is the publisher, not the author. For authors who truly self-publish, there is no stigma when they put out a well edited, well designed product because the book is not recognizable as self-published. (They also sell a lot more than 250 books if they have a solid promotions plan!) I blog about this subject regularly, and here is one post in particular that addresses this: Thanks!

  3. Tom

    Excellent points well made here, but this left me still wondering about what may be the most important issue in many authors’ decision regarding self-publishing vs. traditional publishing: Is there a significant market for the book (and can it be reached cost-effectively)? Traditional publishing houses have market research expertise to help determine whether there is a sufficient market for a book, but independent authors can seldom ascertain this (especially with fiction and niche nonfiction) on their own. In other words, the judgment of the collective many publishers (and agents) to whom one might submit a ms. may eventually determine whether the project is worth pursuing–even with self-publishing. Traditional publishers can, of course, be wrong, and often are, but an author who has heavily invested time and emotional energy in writing the book is not likely to be objective enough, or to possessive the market research savvy, to make such a determination on his or her own. Should one automatically be committed to continue to invest time (and perhaps funds) in self-publishing without some evidence of market interest? I have not yet seen Mark Levine’s book on self-publishing, but I’d be interested to see if he has covered this aspect of the issue well.

  4. philsimon

    Hi Tom

    Thanks for the comment.

    Traditional publishing houses have market research expertise to help determine whether there is a sufficient market for a book, but independent authors can seldom ascertain this (especially with fiction and niche nonfiction) on their own.

    Not to quibble, but I’d have to disagree with you here. I honestly doubt that many publishers know what will be successful, hence their 10-to-1 ratio of failures to successes–give or take.

    Check out Mark’s book because it’s great but it really doesn’t cover market interest on some absolute term, in my view.


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