Why self-publishing your book rather than pursuing the traditional route can be your best bet

Posted By on May 5, 2010

I read a blog post today about why authors should pursue traditional publishing rather than try self-publishing from the start. For authors of fiction, I would probably agree that traditional publishing is definitely the more ideal model; but for authors of nonfiction, self-publishing is often the best, most profitable way for authors to see their work in print. I commented briefly at Tracy Buchanan’s blog, but I thought I would address the subject in more detail here. The original blogger’s comments are in italics; my responses are in roman type.

So you self-publish your book but then what? Just because you’ve built it, they won’t come. High street bookstores are unlikely to pick it up, and Amazon will take it for a few bucks but won’t highlight it unless it miraculously becomes a best seller. Most good journalists won’t review it (trust me, journalists don’t take self-published books seriously) and unless you’re a marketing or PR guru, it’ll be very difficult to promote it well.

Actually, if you publish traditionally, you are still going to be expected to promote your book. And in fact, you will likely not get signed on with a traditional publisher if you don’t already have a strong author platform with lots of potential buyers. When I was managing editor for a trade publisher, almost every single author we signed on was shocked to learn they were expected to promote their books. But the truth is, the bulk of our marketing was to plop the book into a catalog and send out a few news releases in hopes of getting a review or two. Anything beyond that—well, there just wasn’t a budget for it. Granted, that was a smaller press but even if you do manage to snag one of the major players, they are not likely going to spend their marketing bucks on a new author (like advances, marketing budgets continue to shrink). They’ll spend their money promoting whoever their current James Patterson is—and you will likely be lumped in with the rest of the midlist authors who enjoy little or no marketing budget.  

In addition, if you self-publish properly—start up your own imprint, purchase your own block of ISBNs, and have the book well edited and well designed—as opposed to going the subsidy route (often incorrectly called “self-publishing”), reviewers should have no idea you are self-published. Your book is simply a title from a new independent publisher. And there is no stigma there.

The next hurdle is trust. Sadly, self-published books have a bit of a grim rep. Whether it’s because people associate them with their Aunt Bettie’s History of Littlehampton book with its funny photoshopped front cover, or because they’ve read a self-pubbed book chock-a-block full of mistakes (which, sadly, most self-pubbed books have due to the lack of a decent editor and proof-reader), there’s not a great deal of respect for self-published books despite there being some decent ones out there.

See my point above about putting out a top-quality book. It should look just as sharp as any other book put out by one of the big houses. And again, done right—there is no way readers can tell if a book is self-published or not.

This is why self-published books on average sell dozens (if you’re lucky hundreds) whereas traditional publishers tend to sell in the thousands.

This is true of subsidy published books; these are often called self-published but in reality they are pay-to-publish vanity pieces. They sell few copies because they are often poorly done—and they are usually not priced competitively because authors are forced to purchase the books from the subsidy at an inflated price. In order to make any kind of profit, the books are priced too high—and they don’t sell.

Authors who self-publish in the true sense of the meaning are able to price their books competitively, and if they have a solid promotions plan, they tend to sell books in the thousands—sometimes tens of thousands.

Now if you’re one of those writers who doesn’t care about book sales and it’s all about the love of writing, then self-publishing is worth a shot.

To this I say—if book sales and profits don’t mean anything, by all means, go with the subsidy presses such as Outskirts, iUniverse, and Author House. If you want to make money—self-publish the true way.

But consider this: you’ve spent a year or so writing your book, maybe more, maybe less. So why not try to get paid for your hard work, rather then pay, as you would with self-publishing. Just give it a try, you know? For a start, most reputable traditional publishers will pay an advance (usually in the thousands if through a larger publisher). Then you’ll get royalties for every book you sell (once you make back your advance).

It’s pretty common knowledge that advances from traditional publishers have gotten smaller in recent years.  You’ll still fare much better by self-publishing and keeping all of the profits rather than just 10 percent or so since you have to promote the book anyway. Yes, there will be editing and production costs, but with print-on-demand, you won’t have to lay out a bunch of cash for printing. (And remember, you’ll want to hire a professional editor before sending your manuscript to any agent or publisher, even if you are publishing the traditional route—so that expense, along with promoting, is also a given.)

Don’t forget too that once you sign that contract with a traditional publisher, you lose a certain amount of control. They may change the title. They may edit drastically. They may come up with a cover you hate. They may delay your publication date. But you’re probably stuck with their decision.

Even Kevin Weiss, CEO of a huge self-publishing company in the US (Author Solutions), admits 80 per cent of their authors fail to break even whereas traditionally published authors always do as they never had to fork out in the first place.

Author Solutions is a subsidy publisher—you can’t have someone else “self” publish for you—but I agree that those are some pretty grim sales statistics. Sadly, they are all too true.

And then there’s being able to tell people you’re a published author. Most savvy people will not accept you are one if you’ve paid to have your book published because, as I’ve said before, anyone anyone anyone can self-publish.

Yes, anyone can self-publish, but what you are talking about here is subsidy publishing, or vanity publishing. True self-publishing is a complicated process, and if it’s done well, it generally garners nothing but respect for those who have been through it.

As for the idea that your amazingly successful self-pubbed book will garner the attention of traditional publishers, this does happen but not often. Your chances of getting an agent and then publisher are higher.

I would have to disagree with this point as well—unless you’ve already got a well established platform and a large following, your chances of getting an agent and then a publisher are very small. Very small. You are much better off self-publishing (doing it well) and establishing a track record of sales with which to approach a traditional publisher. That, of course, is if you want to at that point. You’ll likely make more money if you keep it as a self-published title.

So what I’m saying is, give traditional publishing a chance first. Don’t let people tell you traditional publishing is a pipe dream; that getting an agent is impossible; that self-publishing is the first and best option. It isn’t. The fact is, if you write a damn good book, someone will take notice and maybe you’ll get published and maybe you’ll make money.

I agree with this—only when it comes to fiction. As far as nonfiction titles, however, self-publishing is often the best and fastest route to publication. By the time authors wait around for umpteen rejection letters from traditional publishers, self-publishers could have been reaping the rewards of their published books for months…even years. This doesn’t mean self-publishing is right for everyone; but it is most certainly a viable option for those who want to maintain control and keep all of the profits.

About The Author

As a writing coach and publishing consultant, I have worked with hundreds of authors, helping them write, edit, and publish hundreds of books. My book The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing is slated for publication by Writer’s Digest in March 2010. I currently own Self-Publishing Resources; we provide book writing, book packaging, and book marketing services for self-publishers and small presses.


15 Responses to “Why self-publishing your book rather than pursuing the traditional route can be your best bet”

  1. Great advice, Sue.

    If you write nonfiction, and you don’t have a platform, you won’t get published by the traditional route. Self-publishing your first book can help you *build* a platform. Your book is like a calling card. You bring a few copies to speaking engagements and sell them to attendees at a discount. You publicize the book on your website or blog. It becomes one more way to enhance relationships and establish yourself as an expert.

    Your goal with your first book should not be to make money. It should be to break even and build a following. It’s the beginning of a process, not the end of one.

  2. If you write nonfiction, and you don’t have a platform, you won’t get published by the traditional route.

    This is so true, Andrea. And I think it’s something would-be authors don’t always consider. It goes along with the fact that trad houses do not do much to market books; it’s really up to the author.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. Informative blog with good useful information.

  4. Hey, I really enjoy your site. I found it in Google yesterday and I’ve been browsing through your posts, but this is my first comment :)

  5. Hey, I’ve been reading your blog a lot, and I’m leaving my first comment. I don’t have much to say besides I enjoy reading all of your posts and have bookmarked your site :)

  6. Sue-

    Great post.

    Actually, if you publish traditionally, you are still going to be expected to promote your book.

    Truer words were never written. I’d add the adverb “exclusively” to the end of your sentence.

  7. You are so right, Phil! I constantly see authors citing the fact that they won’t have to market their books as one of the “pros” of publishing traditionally. Notsomuch.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Nice post! Here’s one for ya… In a hierarchical organization, the higher the level, the greater the confusion.

  9. Terrific article, Sue. I stress to authors that there is no “best” way to publish. The best course for any particular author depends on several factors, including their goals, the type of book, the commercial potential of the book, and the skills and financial resources and time constraints of the author. There are pros and cons to each publishing path, and it’s so important for aspiring authors to invest some time in learning about the publishing business before diving in.
    Dana Lynn Smith
    The Savvy Book Marketer

  10. Thanks so much for the comments, Dana! I agree…the goals of the author are so important–and it’s one of the first things I ask of potential clients…and something we discuss at length before I advise them on what approach might be optimal. The “best” route to being published is most certainly not cut and dried–regardless of what some bloggers would have folks believe!!

    Appreciate you stopping by! Come again! =)

  11. Hi Sue, SO sorry for not responding to this sooner but your comment wasn’t sent into my in-box. So I only just saw it as I was checking my blog comments in my CMS!

    I think you make some great points. As I made clear in my blog post, I was addressing this to fiction writers, and my beef is with people who tell fiction writers to first try self-publishing, something I’ve been hearing a lot lately. But you’re right, when self-publishing is done well, it rocks :-) But please, let’s not trick new fiction writers into thinking self-publishing should be their first and only option (I know you don’t but have seen others have).

    The point I have to disagree with is: “unless you’ve already got a well established platform and a large following, your chances of getting an agent and then a publisher are very small.” I had absolutely no platform or following when I got my agent and publishing deal in Germany with a big publisher for a decent advance (still waiting to hear from UK and US publishers). Several talented people I know have got great agents quickly, and subsequently, publishing deals without a platform. I went into this thinking there was no way I’d get an agent or publisher with my first book but I did. Dreams can come true. Sure, if Book 1 doesn’t get me an English deal, I may well self-publish it. But I tried the traditional route first and it got me a brilliant European deal in the first 4 weeks of it being sent out. This is why I say “Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.” You always gotta aim big, right? And you have a better chance of being ‘big’ if you go via traditional publishing.

    I agree that “establishing a track record of sales with which to approach a traditional publisher” would be useful but a publisher / agent is very very unlikely to take on an already self-published book unless the sales are through the roof: see these blog post for an interesting insight – http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/search/label/self-publishing. However, if you failed to get a traditional publisher with a book then self-published it successfully and are now trying to pitch Book 2 to an agent / publisher then yes, why not? Though a lot of agents / publishers expect sales in the thousand for them to even care.

    Thanks for responding to my post, Sue! :-)

  12. I guess it’s down to what’s best for the author… I’m hoping to find an agent and then traditional publisher for my first novel and if that doesn’t work out, self-publishing may be an appealing option over binning off 100,000 words and a fair chunk of my time. That said, my experience of reading self-published books shouts out to me the importance of proof-reading and editing The last self-pubbed book I read, Single White Failure, boasted a great concept and some average but passable writing. What let it down was the host of spelling and grammatical errors and contradictions in the story. If self-publishing fiction means bypassing proof readers and editors then people need to really consider how good their work is. Maybe I was being over critical because I knew the book was self-published? Even so, I was pretty disappointed.

  13. Hi Tracy–Thanks for stopping by! And congrats on your publishing deal! Note that I said one’s chances of getting a deal are “very small”–not impossible. =) As far as a trad publisher being reluctant to take on a previously self-published book…well, our The Complete Guide to Self Publishing started as a self-published book before it was picked up by Writer’s Digest. Sales were good, but would probably not fall into the “through the roof” category.

    I completely agree that fiction writers should not necessarily go immediately to self-publishing. There are some, though, who feel so strongly about maintaining total control over their work, it is absolutely their best route. All options for getting into print have pros and cons…I just want to make sure authors understand just what each entails.

    Thanks again for stopping by and commenting, Tracy!!

  14. It’s such a shame when self-published authors don’t spend enough time, money, and effort on editing. It can really bring down what otherwise might have been a terrific book. I firmly believe that self-publishing–fiction or nonfiction–does not give authors an excuse to bypass editors and proofreaders. It’s something I really emphasize with our authors. I actually started my career in publishing 25 years ago as an editor, so this is an area of publising that is quite near and dear to me.

    Thanks so much for coming by and leaving your comments, Robyn!

  15. Thanks!

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