Should you self-publish?

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Should you self-publish your own book? This is a tricky question and one you can answer only for yourself. Here are some ways to help you figure out what you need to know…

If you asked me whether I thought you should self-publish a book, my answer wouldn’t be a yes or no. That’s not my decision. The real question is, does self-publishing suit you?

Here are the questions you should ask yourself to figure out the answer:

Are you prepared to spend more time on the business of self-publishing than you did writing the book?

If you found writing or editing hard, buckle up, because packaging and marketing your book is way more work. I find this work enjoyable and interesting, but that’s me. How do you feel about:

  • Negotiating prices with suppliers such as printers and graphic artists
  • Deciding on the “look” of your cover and inside design
  • Writing copy for the outside back cover of your book
  • Installing a shopping cart on your website (or making arrangements with a site like Amazon)
  • Applying for an International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
  • Setting the price for your book

None of these tasks is hugely difficult, but they do require a basic comfort with the world of business. If that makes you want to poke out your eyes with a sharp stick, or if it makes you say, “I’m a writer; I shouldn’t have to do that sort of thing,” then maybe self-publishing isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you think, ‘yeah, I can do those jobs, no problem,’ or even better, ‘these tasks might be a nice break from writing,’ then advance to the next question.

Do you have enough money to spend on the project?

Decades ago, publishing your own book was a mysterious, challenging job. Before the internet, a typical person usually couldn’t figure out how to find editors or cover designers or page-layout artists, themselves. As a result, they had to pay a so-called “vanity” publisher  to find the talent they needed. (And, of course, the public found this arrangement suspicious — hence the name vanity press — because it suggested the author’s work would not otherwise be commercially successful.) But, even worse, vanity publishing cost huge sums of money, not just for the talent but also for the simple act of turning on the printing press. Then there was the problem of the dozens of boxes of books, which the author had to store.

These days, the picture is entirely different. You can find the talent easily, with a quick Google search. (If you do that, though, be sure to check references first!) And increased competition has caused prices to drop in all areas. As well, you can print-on-demand or in very small press runs making the cost of printing far more affordable and the book storage problem forgettable. 

Be aware that if you self-publish, you will have to put some money upfront yourself. I’d say the bare minimum is:

  • Editing and proofreading (will vary with length): several thousand dollars
  • Cover design: anywhere from $100 to $1,000 depending on your needs and standards
  • Page layout (will vary with length): several thousand dollars
  • Printing (will vary with length, size, paper quality and how many books you print at once): expect at least $5 per book

All in, I’m guessing you’re looking at a minimal budget of $5,000 to $7,000. But if you’re cash-strapped and a real DIY-person, you could learn InDesign and do the page layout yourself, saving several grand.

Do you have an effective way of regularly reaching your audience?

Sure, you may be willing to spend $7,000 for the benefit of being able to hand out your book like a business card. But most of us are going to want reasonable odds of making back the money we’ve invested, or, even better, making a profit.

Forget about getting your book into stores. That’s unlikely to happen unless you have a traditional publisher with a sales rep. Instead, you’re going to need to rely on all the marketing skill you can muster, word of mouth and whatever audiences you’ve developed through social and other media.

If you are a regular speaker (with say, at least six to ten speaking gigs a month) selling your books at the back of the room is a great strategy. If not, then you’ll need to develop another plan for how you’re going to move those books.

Here’s what I do: I blog five days a week, send out a weekly newsletter and am very active on Twitter. (I recently shut down my Facebook account,  but I felt confident enough in my other numbers to be able to make that decision.)

My strategy is expensive in terms of my time (I work long days) but it’s effective. I also do all order fulfillment myself, meaning that if you buy a book from me, I carefully wrap it in a bubble-envelope, address it and carry it to the post office. (You can pay a fulfillment house to do that for you, if you prefer.)

I would never tell you that self-publishing is easy, because it’s not. But it is fun and rewarding. And profitable, if you take all the right steps.

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Have you ever considered the idea of self-publishing? How did you make the decision? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Zip Coffelt, the winner of this month’s book prize, The Power of Full Engagement  by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz for a March 27/18  comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of Crucial Accountability by Kerry Patterson et al. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

 

Posted April 3rd, 2018 in Power Writing

  • George Mallard

    I have looked at publishing and self-publishing. One thing is I have a technical book almost finished (how many times have you heard that) but I didn’t like the fact the publisher takes all the copyrights, forever. Also there was some language in the contract that seemed to limit my ability to write on the subject matter for blogs etc.

    If you do the publisher route, you are doing all the work to illustrate and secure rights to publish photographs. About all they will do in this area is produce the cover.
    You do have a better chance at selling the book, publishers are a marketing machine.

    One more note on the illustrations, be sure you are clear on their mechanical requirements and referencing schemes. You could be put in a position of virtually reworking all your artwork if you don’t have a clear understanding of publisher’s standards before you start.

    • Yes, there are many jobs/responsibilities that traditional publishers leave up to the authors: getting permission for and covering the cost of artwork is a big one. So is preparing the index. You are wise to read the contract carefully, George. Anything that limits your ability to write on your subject matter for blogs (etc) should cause you to walk away.

  • Christine

    I am considering self publishing on Amazon. My work is not yet complete, but nothing is set in stone.

    • Self-publishing with Amazon is only a SMALL part of the equation, Christine. That will take care of your printing and order fulfillment (ie: mailing) but it won’t drive readers/buyers to your book. Don’t spend money on self-publishing until you’ve figured out point #3, above: How are you going to reach your audience?

  • C Hope Clark

    I’ve done vanity (10+ ago and I pulled that book in hope it disappears forever), self-publishing, and traditional. Hands down I prefer traditional. Sure, you make less on sales; however, you have professionals tending things you don’t want to learn and you have more time to write. They also come up with marketing ideas I don’t, and if I have an idea they listen and often split the cost. And I’ve sold more traditional books than my self-pubbed books. I think you have to decide how much of your time you want to spend on self-publishing, because it is uber time consuming.

    • Yes, it can be time-consuming for sure. And it requires a certain mindset. If you don’t like doing that kind of work, then stay away from self-publishing! I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you, Hope, and that you’ve found a traditional publisher. That’s no small accomplishment these days!

  • Ted Everett, CFA

    The post omits discussion of the ebook option, or rather the pros/cons if you are only going ebook route. Once you’ve published in ebook form and gauged the audience for the book, it would seem you could revisit the self/traditional choice again for a hard copy version. Thoughts?

    • Hmm, my thought is that e-books and print books are quite separate markets and that success (or failure) in the former category would not indicate much useful info about success/failure in the latter category. Also, be aware that traditional publishing does not involve much of a “choice” as it’s very difficult to secure a traditional publisher.

  • LJ

    Thank you for the realistic points Daphne. I’d also be curious to hear more about e-books.
    I also know of writers who pay self-publishing consultants to handle all of the tasks—several thousand, I think.

    • Ebooks are less expensive to produce (no printing bills!) but harder to sell, unless you have a large and well-established audience. As for paying a self-publishing consultant, I know a number of people do that. It’s always struck me as a bit of a waste of money, though, because it’s not hard to self-publish. It just requires the determination and the planning I outlined above.

  • Fred

    Thanks for this timely topic, Daphne. In the research on the topic I’ve done, there seem to be so many different routes these days. Or maybe so many different branches off the standard model of traditional vs. self-publishing. At the recent San Francisco Writers Conference, I heard that the Big Five traditional publishers now look for books that will sell at least 10,000 copies in order to justify their costs. Another variant on traditional publishing, it to look at smaller or university presses, who do not need huge sales for each book and who will keep a book on their Current list for longer.

    I also heard about many different flavors of “hybrid” publishing, where different groups will split the work of publishing with an author different ways. For example, one group, is pretty much like a traditional publisher, selecting, editing, and proofing books, but then offers several different levels of printing and marketing packages to their authors.

    Ted, I also heard several examples cited where a successful e-book was later picked up and published traditionally. And, Charles Duhigg’s excellent and successful book, The Power of Habit, was originally self-published and then picked up by a traditional publisher.

    You point, Daphne, about needing to learn more about the business of writing has never been truer.

    • You make some really good points here, Fred. Yes, there are more options than ever before. (The positive way of looking at it.) Or more ways to screw up! (The negative view.) I’m not a big fan of so-called “hybrid” publishing because it strikes me as a way for people who have a little bit of info to make a lot of money off people who have slightly less info. Self-publishing is NOT complicated! It just takes work, and planning. As for Charles Duhigg, be aware that, percentage-wise, the number of self-publishers who ultimately get a traditional publishing deal is very, very small.

  • Nancy

    Oh boy, I sure could have written your blog post. I can’t
    begin to tell you how right you are regarding the challenges of running a business, because you’re now an entrepreneur/ business owner.

    Last night I was curled up in tears from four years of busted printers, fried computers, editors that bailed and left me in the lurch, learning to set up a blog site, etc. You totally get it. The writing was a breeze. It’s everything that follows that’s the challenge. Your post will be prominently displayed above my computer. I’m guess I’m not nuts, just a
    writer trying to get published. I seriously question the cost not only financially, but emotionally as well. Your timing was providential.

    One reason I self-published with Booklocker is that after speaking to publishers’ reps at various conferences through the years, I learned the impossibility to get someone to read my book, let alone buy it. I also know as a librarian how truly awful the other options can be–we won’t buy books from these companies.

    I just returned from the Public Library Association conference in
    Philadelphia. One publisher was touting how great he was and what he could give me. I stared at him. “I wrote the book. Paid the editor. Paid to set up the web site. I’m taking all the risk. What can you offer me? As for the advance, do the royalties start after I make up the advance, or run concurrently?” He was speechless.

    Daphne, as always, you wrote a wonderful column that speaks to the realities of being a writer.

    Thanks,
    Nancy

    • So glad you found the column useful, Nancy. I like the “business” side of the job and find it an interesting diversion from writing (as long as I don’t have to do it all the time), But we’re all different. It’s important that you figure out a way of publishing that best suits YOU!

  • My experience publishing with Amazon has been much simpler, namely because I just used a word file for the layout of my coworking book.

    I did spend a bit of money in the cover, but I could have skipped it and use their cover creator.

    Editing was $1200 for a bit over 45k words.

    To market it I first run a crowdfunding campaign. I did raise enough to pay for all, but the most important thing for me was the marketing of the book, to spread the word. I did have some social media followers and contacts that helped 🙂

    For me, self publishing is a definite yes. Finding a publisher, negotiating and getting paid are out of most people’s reach, specially if you are writing for a niche market. Plus you get a much lower revenue unless you are a star.

    This was my third book, the previous two were published with McGraw Hill and Ediciones Espejo de Tinta (now defunct)

    Thanks for your newsletter!

    • Thanks, Ramon. For me, the key question is: how are your sales going? Also, I’d guess you’d have built up a good audience with yoru previous two books. Is that the case?

      • Sales are going good. I’m earning more than with the previous two books and getting paid monthly. The other two books were in two completely different fields (MacOS X and the European Constitution) so they did not help for the sales of this one. I worked hard promoting the book and trying to reach the right audience. Now it is more like a passive income gig, it demands little to no work.

        • Glad to hear it, Ramon. When you say you worked hard at promoting the book, can you tell us what you did? I think my audience would be very interested to know!

          • As an author and marketer I want to deliver value, and that is what I tried to do with the book and its marketing.

            I already had about 3000 Twitter followers and a lot of contacts in Facebook and Linkedin. I was very active in the startup community in Brussels (Belgium) which was helpful to get clients for my coworking space (Betacowork Coworking Brussels). I knew some of them were going to be helpful but my target audience was not among them, so I created the website for my coworking book and also a Twitter and Facebook account. The website has content that is extracted from the book and other resources and exclusive articles.

            When I launched the crowdfunding campaign I emailed a lot of my contacts with a very easy and big unsubscribe. My logic is that people want to hear about what I’m doing, just like I like to hear about what they are doing, not only if they could be prospects. I help out a lot, now it was time to get help.

            The website included a form to collect emails and the backers emails where also kept on the crowdfunding platform. I contacted this people without regularity when I had something worth sharing.

            I attended international coworking conferences in Europe and the USA, gave talks. Even if I was not speaking I always had a tshirt with the website on it. I shared targeted posts on Twitter with the hashtag of the event…

            I also went looking for journalists to send them the book and get reviews, but that did not work so well.

            There’s a whole lot more to it, but this covers the core of it 🙂

          • Thanks so much for sharing your working plan, Ramon. I think you have ably demonstrated the amount of work it takes to reach your audience!

  • Sandy Thibault

    I needed information/guidelines on writing my introduction and found your blog. I love your approach and straight forward approach. I live in Minneapolis and we have a very active group of 80 woman writers of all levels who encourage and support each other. I found your blog so helpful that I encouraged the group to check it out. Thank you dor your work.