It All Depends on You!
by Kate Willoughby and Angela Eschler
You just wrote “The End” on that last page and you’re ready to heave a well-deserved sigh of relief. But just as you’re ready to fill your lungs with the sweet breath of accomplishment, you’re sucker punched with the ragged reality that this isn’t the end. No, my friend, it’s just the beginning … now you have to figure out what to do with your masterpiece.
Before you consider how to publish and sell your book, remember one proven truth: The number-one way to sell a book is to write a good book—one that people need and want, one they can’t put down, one they’ll tell all their friends about. If you’re not sure if that describes your book just yet, maybe it’s time to go back to work or get confirmation from legitimate sources. But if it does, read on—it’s time to look at your publishing options.
Never before in the history of publishing have such a staggering range of options been available to authors. But after all is said and done, the decision comes down to one basic choice: should you tie your fortunes to a traditional publisher, or are you ready to brave it on your own by self-publishing? There are many blogs, articles, and claims out there that the publishing industry is (or should be) going in one direction or another—and there’s a new one lighting up the Internet almost weekly. But if you think they’re clearly illuminating the situation, think again. In truth, countless issues factor in to the decision, including your genre, category, writing skill, platform, budget, goals, and time limitations. And those represent just the tip of the iceberg.
To complicate matters, nothing here is black and white. One isn’t the clear winner across the board. As with pretty much everything else in life, there are pros and cons to each option, and finding the one that works best for you takes some deep introspection. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at just some of the pros and cons on each side.
Self-Publishing (also called “going indie” today)
Let’s start with the pros, since those are the ones you most often hear about:
- You have all the control. You determine when the book is published, how it looks, how much the book sells for, and where it is marketed. In other words, you make all the decisions. A side benefit: it’s quick and easy to make changes down the road.
- You earn more than a traditional royalty and get paid more frequently—once a month for online sales and almost immediately for the stuff you sell out of the trunk of your car. Most traditional publishers, on the other hand, issue royalty checks two times a year.
- Your book is automatically “accepted”—no slogging through rejection letters, then getting an agent just to wait around again while the agent shops it to publishers; and there’s no holding your breath while publishers fret and stew over a decision.
Sound good so far? Now let’s take a look at “the rest of the story”:
- There’s a price to be paid for all that freedom and control. You pay all the costs a traditional publisher usually covers—content editing, line editing, copyediting, typesetting, proofreading, cover design, jacket copy, printing, binding, shipping, distribution, e-book creation, sales, book trailers, videos, and other promotional efforts. Not to mention all the time and legwork that goes into successfully moving through those steps. Unless you’re doing print-on-demand, you also pay to store the books or fill your garage with the financial risk of thousands of printed books.
- Outside of doing e-book only, you also have to do all the legwork to get your book into brick-and-mortar stores (very difficult to do for many self-published authors who lack established sales records) and to get it online on all the best sites. Increasingly more stores and sites are resistant to books that don’t come through an established distributor (which, of course, costs more money).
- Self-publishing, as a rule, isn’t the cash cow some make it out to be. Most self-published authors sell very few books because they don’t understand what goes into successful self-publishing and what increases their sales—and learning that takes a significant amount of time and requires a steep learning curve.
This method of publishing books has been around a long time and has some well-established pros:
- There’s a “gatekeeping” process that comes along with traditional publishing. While that may seem like a con, it’s a pro from another perspective. Agents and editors don’t take your book unless they think they can help make it really successful. That means a pairs of eyes other than yours will go over every word of your manuscript, and someone in the know will help you make it the best it can be before hitting bookstore shelves.
- The publisher pays all the costs of production; many publishers also pay for author websites, endorsements, and book trailers/videos.
- The publisher has marketing capabilities and funds along with distribution connections that are hard for self-published authors to replicate: automatic listing in catalogs from which bookstores, wholesalers, and libraries choose their product; salespeople who hit the road to sell your book; press releases and media connections to radio, television, and print venues; promotional events; incentives for bookstores to feature or hand-sell your book; and the ability to maneuver your book title onto bestseller lists (including the coveted New York Times list). Keep this in mind: the hours you spend marketing a self-published book are hours you can’t spend writing your next one. (While authors need to promote no matter how their book is produced, traditional publishing offers a leg up that can save the author a lot of time and get the word out in ways the author can’t.)
Those might sound like some pretty compelling points, but don’t forget to look at the cons:
- If you’re one of those folks who likes immediate gratification (and who doesn’t?), you’re not likely to get it with a traditional publisher. It can take a long time to get your book accepted—and once you do, it generally takes six to eighteen months (and often longer) before your book is actually in print.
- You give up much of the control over your book. Editors make changes, the cover design is out of your hands, you don’t have any say in how much of the publisher’s marketing dollars or time are devoted to your book, and you’re generally not involved in many of the decisions regarding your book.
- The pay is less frequent and lower than with self-publishing: royalty checks are issued twice a year, and generally range from 6 to 20 percent of sales. Some publishers even base the royalty on the wholesale, not retail, price of your book.
Wait! There Are Lots of Other Pros and Cons!
Yes. There are. As a matter of fact, the consultants at Eschler Editing have pages and pages of pros and cons for their clients, not to mention more than an hour of Q&As on what’s best for your individual situation. So why don’t I list it all here? Obviously, that would turn this blog into a book! But more importantly, context is critical. I could list something like you get to design your own cover as a pro of self-publishing, but that’s only a “pro” if you understand the power of a cover as a marketing tool, you know how to make the cover fulfill that purpose, you have a firm grasp of current trends and competition, and you’ve got professional training in cover design—all of which require years of training and experience. If you lack any of that, designing your own cover could actually be a “con” in your case. A con that turns off your ideal reader and eliminates potential promotion opportunities.
Here’s another example: I might list not having to sign a contract as a “pro” of self-publishing. That would be irresponsible without the context: sign a contract, and you generally have a publisher who works diligently to build your name, establish your brand, and give you a platform—because they have a vested interest in making sure you have good sales numbers so stores and distributors will be interested in carrying all your titles to readers. While contracts might be constrictive in some ways (which is why you should always consider them with your literary-contracts lawyer or agent standing by), they can also help you get advances, foreign translations, and ensure that a publisher is interested in looking at your next book. I could go on … but I hope this helps explain the shortness of my lists.
Reasons You Should or Should Not Self-Publish
This may not be the place to give you an exhaustive pro-and-con list for each type of publishing, but I can give you some basic reasons why self-publishing would or wouldn’t work for you:
Reasons Not to Self-Publish
- Don’t automatically jump to self-publishing because your first attempt at an agent or traditional publisher wasn’t successful. Maybe the competition is too intense, readership is down, your writing lacks finesse, the scope of your book is too broad, or you’re chasing a trend that’s already on its way out. Get plenty of professional feedback on why your book isn’t having success before you try to self-publish.
- Don’t self-publish to impress a traditional publisher. Few will choose to reprint a book that’s already been self-published (if it’s not a rare and astounding success), especially if your sales have saturated a niche market. And few, if any, will be impressed if your sales numbers are bleak.
- Don’t self-publish just because you’re impatient and want your work out there. This can be among several more thoughtful reasons to put your work out there, but it needs to be coupled with a professionally produced work and some idea of how to successfully market. There is the rare chance a story will just take off without intelligent marketing strategy, but generally that way is paved by a fresh, compelling, well-written story and a lot of luck. Don’t let emotions alone drive your choices—and don’t count on chance as your marketing plan.
- Don’t self-publish because you can’t handle rejection. If you’re insecure, the last thing you need is bad reviews or abysmal sales, both of which are common with self-published authors who haven’t had professional training or help.
Reasons to Consider Self-Publishing
- If you’ve been rejected by traditional publishers or agents for reasons unrelated to quality and if professional feedback indicates you have a good shot at reaching a sizable audience, consider self-publishing. (For example, you’ve been rejected because the publisher may have just published a similar book, or your project doesn’t fit the traditional publisher’s format, or you’re writing a romance in the wrong era, in terms of what’s selling to publishers at the time.)
- Time is of the essence. For example, you might have a pressing media situation coming up where getting coverage now will be critical to sales. Or you might have terminal cancer and want to leave a memoir for your family or the world.
- This is a one-time shot. You have no intention of a serious career in writing and you don’t want to spend the time and energy trying to get an agent or traditional publisher. Publishers will want you to write multiple books because they are investing in your “brand.” If you don’t want that hassle, self-publishing is for you.
- There is a specific demand for your book. Maybe your blog audience is begging for it, or your speaking/coaching (entrepreneurial) career would benefit if you had a book with which to spread your message.
Your Goals Are the Driver
The major factor in your decision is your unique goals. It’s time to ask yourself some critical questions:
- Why do you want to publish? If you want to start a long-term writing career and have the largest sales reach possible, considering a traditional publisher as part of that plan is probably best. If you want to leave a legacy of your thoughts and advice for loved ones, you need to consider your age, health, or time limitations and consider whether you can wait years for the traditional publishing route.
- What genre/category does your book fall into? How hard is it to get published in that genre? What are new-author royalties typically like for that genre? What is the size of your buying audience? (If it’s a niche market of only several thousand people, a publisher likely won’t be interested, but you could still make money there.) In fiction, genre novels (especially romance) and some scifi and fantasy typically do better in self-publishing scenarios (children’s literature and literary works, not so much). Nonfiction books, especially business and self-help/personal development, are more successful self-published books because it’s easier to target a specific market for them.
- How much money can you afford to invest in publishing without putting your family at financial risk? A traditional publisher charges you nothing. On the other hand, professional-level self-publishing can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $35,000, depending on the genre and size of your book, how much editorial help it needs, how many copies you want to print, whether you need to hire professionals in publicity, promotion, or to negotiate foreign rights, and so on. The average book for a business platform costs $5,000 to $10,000 to produce and print. And good promotion help will add to that.
- What are your highest priorities and concerns? You might want to go for self-publishing if your priorities are your potential up-front financial gain, the ability to make all your own decisions, the adventure of starting your own small business (which is what self-publishing really is if you do it right), or the sheer delight in learning a craft. You might want to stick with (or plan to include) traditional publishing if your concerns include your personal time, a primary focus on just the writing, avoiding financial risk, the quality of work you present to the world, and your long-term career potential.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Either/Or
You’ve probably noticed that it’s not just newbies and midlist authors who are turning to self-publishing. You can be a hybrid author, which means you make use of both paths, depending on the situation.* Successful traditionally published authors are supplementing their income with self-publishing, and the reverse is also true—self-published icons are accepting traditional book deals. There are reasons for the crossover despite these authors’ initial successes: each market offers something different and opens new possibilities to expand your readership. The best ways to take advantage of both opportunities? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- Experiment with a pen name in self-publishing so you don’t ruin your potential long-term traditional career if sales don’t go well. Or be prepared to take down a book that ended up with poor reviews, or wasn’t your best work afterall, if you intend to later court a traditional publisher (just know that sometimes you can’t actually remove a title from Amazon; look into those policies before you decide how to approach an indie career if you still intend to pitch to traditional publishers).
- Self-publish in formats not generally produced in print by traditional publishers—novellas, short stories, contributions to anthologies, or installments—while building your traditional career with books that are selling to publishers.
- Take a Plan A/Plan B approach. Write a good book, shop it around to agents/publishers while you write the next, then repeat, and repeat again. If you don’t get satisfying results on the traditional path and you know your books are compelling and professionally competitive, then give up on the waiting game and self-publish—knowing that you have more than one offering ready if you develop a fan base. Think synergistically and strategically when planning your career goals, from the production of your works to the marketing.
- Self-publish past or hard-to-sell works. If you have/had a traditional career with a few out-of-print books (your backlist) on the shelf, consider buying back your rights and re-releasing them as e-books with new covers or self-publish a couple of your good but hard-to-sell books.
Do This Now
- Add some breadth/depth to your perspective. There are two sides to all the sensational, breaking news on the publishing industry. The devil is always in the details. (Read some of the excellent articles linked above for examples.)
- Decide whether you want writing to be a serious, long-term career or whether you’re looking at it as a hobby or one-time thing.
- Do your research! Find out how much money, time, and effort are required for traditional publishing versus self-publishing in your genre. What’s the potential return on investment (of your time or money)? Look at the factors that are the same across the board (such as good-quality writing) and the ones that are different (such as the amount of promotion you have to do yourself). In essence, build your own personal pro-and-con list. Talk through these details with someone who knows the industry or has experience doing what you’re considering.
- Decide what your goals are. Prioritize them. Winnow them down from the top 10 to the top 5 to the top 3. Force yourself to be realistic about what’s most important to you long-term and right now, and assess what resources (in time or money) you have available to pursue different routes.
- Compare your in-depth research to your goals. If you’ve done your research and clearly defined your goals, you should be able to choose the best option for you and then map out a plan with a realistic time frame for each step. Whichever route you go, it all begins with that first step!
*A hybrid author is different from a hybrid publisher. A hybrid publisher is a traditional publisher whose owners realized they could make additional money on all the systems, networks, and team members they already have at their disposal for their traditional imprints. So you pay them to publish your book (like the old vanity presses), except they keep an eye on your book’s sales. If it starts doing well, they may offer you a contract with one of their traditional imprints, as well. This type of publisher is not to be confused with a boutique publisher, which is generally a team of professionals who can help you self-publish professionally, but they generally won’t take any (or much, depeding on the publisher) of your royalties once the book is out. And they don’t have a traditional imprint outside of the services they offer to authors. They just save you the hassle and time of learning the ropes of self-publishing, and can often consult you on the industry and market.
If this article has you scribbling notes related to your goals, contact us today for a free strategy consult; we can help you outline the plan most geared toward your genre, platform, and long-term success.
Start your strategy consult today.
And now we want to hear from you, dear reader. Have you tried self-publishing? Let us know about your experience—what you loved as well as what you hope never to repeat! Or, what have you found to be the most critical factors for success with either venue? Speak up below.
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Kate Willoughby has worked in the traditional publishing industry for forty years and has also served as an editor and consultant for clients who have successfully gone the self-publishing route.
Angela Eschler is the founder of Eschler Editing and has worked in publishing for fourteen years, both in house and as a freelance editor for several publishers, as well as with individual authors (both traditionally published and self-published) and businesses and academic organizations.