Should you self-publish? I’ve been writing and publishing books for about two decades. Here’s some advice on publishing options.
I was on a trail ride with a group of friends the other day. As our horses walked along the edge of a field, one friend was curious about my work, since she mostly knows me as a rider, not a writer.
I help people turn their ideas into books, then guide them through the process of either self-publishing, or approaching an agent who might help them get the attention of a traditional publisher.
My friend told me about an acquaintance who had written a cookbook, and was rejected by traditional publishers because she didn’t have enough of a platform (i.e., followers on social media, podcast listeners or blog readers, radio or TV exposure, etc.).
Platform is essential for getting a book contract. Publishers want to know that you will bring them not just a great idea and stellar writing, they want you to “show them the readers.” They expect you to have a following, a tribe who will buy (and recommend) your book, and expect you to do most of the connecting with that tribe. (Michael Hyatt’s book Platform is an excellent primer on the topic.)
Most cookbooks, for example, are written by either celebrities, cooking show hosts, or by people who have a great food blog with a ton of followers (one of my favorites is Deb Perelman’s smittenkitchen.com). They build that audience by writing consistently great content (often accompanied by great photos).
My riding buddy said her aspiring cookbook author friend looked into “buying followers” which I guess is a thing. But, she continued, they turned out to be “Russian bots.” I’m not quite sure what that meant. But long story short, buying followers is not a good strategy as you pursue publication. Trying to fool a publisher into giving you a contract? Also NOT recommended.
Say you somehow convince a publisher you have 10,000 “followers.” For the sake of argument, let’s say they agree to publish your book (I’m NOT saying a publisher would be so easily hoodwinked.) Because your followers are not actual readers, your book does not sell well at all. You’ve destroyed the relationship with that publisher. You haven’t achieved the goal you thought traditional publishing would help you reach—widespread distribution. You’ve wasted money and time, and the only thing you have to show for it is a sullied reputation.
Whether you self-publish or seek out a traditional publisher, you want actual readers to read your book. So no matter what path you take to publication, you need to find a way to connect with readers. If you dream of publishing a book, the best place to begin is to understand your options.
Want to learn more about publishing?
Self-publishing can be daunting—and it does require an investment. Seeking a traditional publisher can also be a time-consuming and challenging endeavor. I’m excited to let you know that I’m going to be teaching on publishing options, and self-publishing, at the West Coast Christian Writers conference in San Francisco, California in February.
Of course I’d love to have you join us at the conference, either in person and online. Starting today, we’ll be writing about writing on this blog every Monday.
Today, I want to share some basics on publishing options (a sneak peek at my conference content). Which is right path to publication for you? That depends on how much time, money and energy you have to invest.
Traditional publishing (aka Royalty publishing)
It’s not easy to land a book deal, but royalty publishers pay you for the right to publish your book (and of course they get a big share of the profits if the book sells.)
- In order to approach a publisher, you will need a literary agent. Finding one to represent you means sending lots of queries, and writing a strong, well-developed book proposal (we’ll talk about what that includes in upcoming posts). You’ll send this proposal to agents in hopes of convincing them to represent you.
- If an agent agrees to represent you, they will query publishers, sending your proposal and negotiating on your behalf. (Agents only get paid if you get a contract.)
- If the publisher “buys” your book, they’ll offer you an advance (sometimes) and a small cut of the book sales proceeds—also known as royalties. This is spelled out in a contract, which obligates you to write the book by a certain deadline (and return the advance if you don’t). Your agent takes 15 percent or so, and is well worth that.
- The publisher provides editing and covers the costs of production (including the cover design, typesetting, binding, printing), and distribution (getting it into bookstores and online sellers).
- The publisher has a lot of control. They’ll work with you but they must ultimately approve content, the cover, release date, marketing and more.
- The publisher will help promote it, but you can expect to be the one doing most of the marketing of your book. You have to come to a traditional publisher with a marketing plan and an audience.
There are many avenues for self-publishing. You take on all of the costs, but you get to keep more control and more of the profits.
- You write a great book. You don’t need a proposal, just a well-written manuscript. But you have complete control over the content.
- You’ll pay all of the costs of publishing: editing, design, printing, marketing, advertising and distribution. But once those expenses are paid, you’ll receive the profits from sales.
- Don’t quit your day job. The average self-published e-book sells only about 250 copies. But if you sell to the right people, the book can lead to other business opportunities, which will earn you far more than the book sales.
- You also have control of the product: you have final say on the cover, the content, the marketing plan. If your platform is not very large, that is not a barrier to publishing—but it will likely be a barrier to selling a lot of books.
- You take on the risk, but get more reward. (Royalty publishers will give you 10 to 20 percent of each sale, self-publishing typically yields a 50 to 70 percent royalty on each sale).
- You’ll be the only one marketing your book, which means an investment of time, money or both.
Notice what these lists have in common: the author does most of the marketing for their own book! I’d love to hear your questions or stories about publishing. Leave a comment below!