I get queries from potential clients who want to write books all the time and the first question they often ask is, “should I self-publish or try for one of the traditional publishing houses?”
It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Let’s sketch out the main outlines of the current picture.
First of all, the view is very different if you are a fiction writer or thinking about non-fiction. I occasionally help out fiction writers, but most of my clients are interested in non-fiction.
For fiction writers, the answer is increasingly pretty simple: self-publishing is the way to go. That’s because you can keep 70 or 80% of your book sales revenue, as compare to 20% under the traditional model. Simple decision, right?
Actually, the math is the simple part. The rest is more complicated. Here goes: all books, fiction or non, need to be marketed heavily in order to stand out in a field of something like a million books published every year in the United States alone. While many authors assume that getting a traditional publisher means that publisher will take care of the marketing chores, the truth is that a traditional publisher will only put real marketing muscle behind the one or two books per year that it truly believes has a shot at becoming a bestseller. If a publisher brings out a hundred books per year, it’s expecting that one of those will outsell the other 99 – combined.
So, unless you’re lucky enough to be that one book, you’re essentially on your own. Your choice at this point is two-fold – you can either be happy to sell 3 copies of your masterpiece, or you can start a new small business: marketing your work of genius.
Failure to be honest with oneself about this set of facts – secretly believing, for example, that your book will be one of those one-in-a-million bestsellers – is the single biggest cause of depression among writers, after writing itself.
Since, in short, your traditional publisher isn’t likely to market your book, you need to. In fact, if you’re a non-fiction-author-wannabe, most traditional publishers won’t take you on just because you’ve got a great idea. They want a great idea and a platform, their word for a way to sell lots of books. Perhaps you belong to a sect that supports its fellow members, or you’re an academic who can order up the book in your incredibly popular courses, thus selling thousands of books per year. Or perhaps you’re a public speaker with audiences around the world lining up to buy your book after hearing you give that incredible speech that has them jumping to their feet to give you the standing O and then mobbing the stage.
Both fiction and non-fiction writers typically need to be prepared to market their own books, but fiction writers seem to get the idea more readily than non-fiction writers. And –ironically, because everything about writing in the 21st Century is ironic – non-fiction writers typically seem to have more ways to market their books.
To sum up our story thus far: fiction writers should probably self-publish, since they’re going to have to market themselves anyway, but don’t mind doing so too much, on average. So self-publish and start marketing yourself and your fiction pronto.
Non-fiction writers, on the other hand, may be better off attempting the traditional route, if – and this is a big if – their primary goal is to use the book as a calling card to do something else.
Why is that? If you’re a consultant who wants to do a book to (subtly) establish your expertise and thus sell your consulting services better, then the traditional route is still advantageous because the imprimatur of the traditional house brings your book more authority and respect. You’re going to make most of your money in consulting anyway.
If you’re a speaker, and want to get the increased speaking gigs a book can bring you, then it’s even more important to publish through a traditional publishing company. Speaker bureaus and meeting planners look for traditionally published books to establish expertise. They don’t yet accept, for the most part, the self-published book. There are exceptions, but you’re not best advised to start out trying to be the exception.
And again, you’re going to make most of your money through your speaking.
If you’re now thinking you should publish with a traditional house, you should know the other pitfalls besides the money split. First of all, it’s hard to crack the world of traditional publishing. You need an agent, because only an amateur goes directly to a traditional publisher, and you won’t get the respect you need, or the attention, if you go that way.
Sadly, agents are almost as hard to get to know as publishers.
Second, where the entire process of self-publishing can take as little as 30 minutes (but I don’t recommend it), with a traditional publisher you’re looking at 18 months to 2 years, typically.
And third, after that two years, you’re still in the predicament of the self-publisher – you have to market the book.
If all this seems ridiculously hard, then try actually writing the book.
Maybe this is why we still respect authors of any stripe.