For everything there is a time and a place. I have self-published twice and I have been trade-published twice. I also e-published a book. Here is what I’ve learned.
If you can sell as many books as you desire on your own, then self-publish and keep all of the profit. This was the case with my first book, a textbook on job search skills. I sold a copy for each person who attended my seminars (thousands… with no individual sales effort). I also was able to sell hundreds more as required reading for graduate students at my university. Why share the profit if it’s not necessary?
All such bets are off if you are a novice writer. You will not improve your author platform with self-publishing or vanity publishing unless the book is a smashing success; and you can count best selling self-published writers on your fingers, especially for fiction. In this case, being published by a small independent press will enhance your platform, making it increasingly easier to be trade-published again in the future. In a few years, when you have a large fan base, you can move them along to self-publishing and keep more of the net profit. Meanwhile, take advantage of the perception of quality associated with having a real (not vanity) publisher.
How can a trade-publisher help you? Let me count the ways. A trade-publisher (i.e. small independent publishing company) has a team of experts for editing, graphic design, distribution and marketing. They will represent your book at key international book fairs, conventions and conferences and they will promote your book with e-mail and fax blasts, through catalog distribution and with a web site landing page. A trade-publisher will distribute your book on each continent, as well as warehouse, stock and restock retailers. Such publishers also have deep inroads with the most compelling review sources in your genre – reviewers that typically refuse a SP author’s request. And THEY CHARGE YOU NOTHING! In fact, they pay a nice royalty for each book sold.
Almost half of all books sold still come from a shelf in a brick and mortar store. If you think that bookstores have become dinasaurs, think again. Retailers like Target and Wal-Mart can’t stock books fast enough for demand. Even the iconic Barnes & Noble is still in the black. If you self-publish, the chance of having your book sold in one of these stores is between slim and none. You might be able to convince your local neighborhood bookstore owner to sell it, if it’s returnable. But unless you know the Walton family or the owners of Target, don’t even ask to have your self-published book stocked in their stores. If you self-publish, you are willingly disavowing yourself from that half of the market. Why hedge your bets by only selling via the Internet or through your home address? Wouldn’t you prefer to have your books sold on the Internet AND in stores?
No, it’s not easy to be trade-published. You need talent, a marketable book, a winning publishing proposal and enough determination to contact hundreds of publishers, if that’s what it takes to be trade-published.
Publishers have a vested interest in making your book successful. They pay on average several thousand dollars to develop, edit, print, arrange cover design, distribute, market and warehouse your book. The only way such a publisher can earn their investment back and make a profit is to make sure that your book is sold successfully anywhere and everywhere.
I am not against self-publishing. In fact, I’ve done it twice and I will probably do it again in the future. But I learned how to create a winning publishing proposal (read more about publishing proposals later in this blog) and I was determined enough to contact about a hundred small independent publishers for my debut novel. That process generated four solid contract offers, excluding vanity publishers. My best offer came in last. Patience is indeed a virtue.
I am far from God’s gift to the writing world. If I could find a way to attract publishers, so can other novice authors. But along with that winning proposal, you’ll need a heaping dose of determination, plenty of time to devote to the effort and unending persistence. If you believe that readers will gladly pay to have your books and you are a novice author, then start at the beginning. Find a real publisher. No, it won’t be HarperCollins. The big publishing houses ignore us hackers in favor of books submitted through trusted literary agents. We all must start small. Eventually, after several small trade-publishing successes, you can gain the rapt attention of mainstream literary agents and well-known publishing houses.
Becoming a successful author, especially for fiction, requires that you build upon several small successful trade-publishing ventures. If you expect to be the next Amanda Hocking by self-publishing your book, go ahead and try. But here’s what you’re up against. In 2008, the average self-published book cost the author several hundred to several thousand dollars to produce. Those self-published books sold, on average, a few dozen copies. Thus, the typical self-published author not only fails to earn a profit, he or she does not recoup expenses. On the other hand, the average trade-published author sold several hundred copies and COST the author NOTHING.
Is this picture becoming more clear yet? If you can’t sell hundreds or thousands of copies on your own, think twice about self-publishing. This is even more critical if you write fiction and if you hope to be published again. Take advantage of having a publisher who will pay every single one of your bills, who will promote your book at key international book fairs and who will do everything possible to sell your book in physical stores, electronically and who will obtain the very best reviews possible in your genre.