Should You Self-Publish or Use a Traditional Publisher?

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Several months ago, author Romeo Clayton asked:

I’d love to hear how you went about searching for a traditional publisher. I’m currently working on another book, although I may go the self-publishing route again. Is there any particular reason why you didn’t go the self-publishing route?

I’d like to share how I carefully analyzed the pros & cons of traditional publishers versus self-publishing and then designed a spreadsheet to help me work through the issues to arrive at a quantitative conclusion.

Yeah, that’s what I’d like to claim.

The reality is that I decided “Well, I can always self-publish if I can’t get a publisher.

I also wanted to get the book onto the shelves of military exchanges, which is a subject for another post.

Even today I’m perpetually debating whether to use a publisher or to self-publish, and whether to sell online (eBooks and full-length Kindle books) or hardcopy.

The short answer is “Yes.” Let me share what I’ve learned about publishing, distribution, and royalties, and then you can choose the option(s) that are best for your situation. I’ll probably switch back & forth among the formats, and so will you.

How You’re Supposed to Write a Book

Three years after I sold the manuscript, I’ve realized that I’ve done this all wrong. Non-fiction writers are not supposed to write a book, sell it to a publisher, market the book, and then go write another book.

Today you should start a blog and build an audience for 18-24 months. You’ll get guest posts on other websites, and maybe you’ll be quoted by major media outlets as an expert in your chosen field. You’ll branch out into podcasts and videos. You’ll start speaking at local events or maybe even regional conferences while earning a few bucks of affiliate income from your blogging. Maybe you’ll combine a few posts into an eBook on a niche topic or two. Blogging will be a great side-hustle income (maybe $10K per year) but not necessarily enough to quit your day job.

At some point, you’ll be ready to write a book. Maybe you’ve built up a couple hundred pages of material from your blog, or maybe you had an interesting experience along the way. You’ll read about other bloggers/speakers who have written books, and you’ll network them with questions. You’ll write an outline and a sample chapter. You’ll pick out a half-dozen publishers that you’ve heard about from other authors. You’ll research their websites and their Writer’s Market synopsis and their submission guidelines. You’ll read about marketing plans (because authors do today’s book marketing, not the publishers) and you’ll compare your book to the rest of your niche. You’ll draft a query letter and send the proposal to your chosen publishers. Maybe you’ll hire an agent or maybe you’ll solicit referrals from your network of other authors. You could put out one query letter at a time or you could shotgun a dozen of them. Eventually, you’ll get a faint flicker of interest from a publisher, and you’ll start negotiating “when” instead of “if”.

Only after “your” publisher buys the proposal do you actually write the darn book. You have a few months for research and drafts, perhaps followed by some 10-hour days to finish the manuscript on deadline. The full-blown editing cycle comes next, along with choosing the layout and cover (or at least agreeing to the editor’s proposals). You may have to resolve issues with quotes, images, and charts. Some publishers will go to the extra expense of printing a pre-publication copy, which you can send to your mentors & fellow authors for their reviews and cover endorsements. You’ll continue to build a buzz through your blog and other social media, and you’ll coordinate a marketing campaign with your publisher. This could take 6-9 months between the time you finish a manuscript and hold the actual book in your hands.

The biggest benefits of using a traditional publisher are the feedback, the education, and their resources. (In about that order.)

The editing process will refine your content and your flow, while the copy editor might reduce you to tears over grammar and syntax. You’ll get plenty of expert commentary as well as professional layout and graphic design.

You’ll learn how to integrate your marketing plan with the publisher’s production schedule, and you might get their advice on how to build up to launch day. They could even help plan contests and giveaways on your blog, and maybe a book signing. They’ll immediately tell you what works (and what doesn’t), which will avoid weeks of distractions and dead ends.

Unless you get a huge advance or a sabbatical, you can’t quit your day job to write the manuscript and finish the editing. After you publish the book you might still need your day job, because the book won’t land on the New York Times best-seller list. It’ll probably hit a niche ranking on Amazon.com for a few weeks, but then it’ll quietly fade back into the crowd of ~350,000 other books that will be published this year. And next year. And the next.

The book is “just” another product designed to help your public-speaking career or your core business. It’s one facet of your brand that also includes your blog, your podcasts, and your videos. The book is a great calling card to hand out at conferences and other events, and it’s a concrete accomplishment to enhance your credibility.

It might even make a little money.

Yes: I know people who have done this. I’ve traded e-mails and shared beverages with a half-dozen authors who make their living this way, along with public speaking. They offer “career advice” or life coaching or motivational speaking. They’re perpetually communicating with their audience, and they’re persistently writing. Every 2-3 years they produce another book, but the real money comes from their career, their public speaking, and blogging revenue. The book is a marketing tool for their career, not their main source of income.

How I Wrote a Book

My book idea came from all of our discussions on Early-Retirement.org, and I drafted it with the help of over 50 posters who are servicemembers or veterans. I didn’t have a publisher yet, so I had the luxury of working on the manuscript as much or as little as I wanted. I did lots of leisurely reading and research and I spent hours on forums. (Most of that was productive.) I developed an outline and tried a couple of drafts before I settled into the actual writing. I networked with other writers and even went to a writing workshop. Other readers discussed how to publish the book and recommended publishers and self-publishing companies. I really enjoyed the writing process because I had no deadlines and plenty of opportunities to dig into all the details. I’m not a starving author, so I didn’t have to make writing decisions based on what sells.

After I finally finished the manuscript, I started writing query letters to publishers. This is an exercise in frustration and persistence, but I also got some valuable mentoring. “Acquisition editors” asked questions that forced me to refine my marketing plan. One publisher even had another author read the entire manuscript and forward a critique (which was later shared with me) to their editorial board. (That publisher also wasted over six months dithering on the decision, but the feedback was very helpful.) After a half-dozen rejections, my search came to Impact Publications. By this time I’d heard of authors who’d collected nearly a hundred rejections, so I’d already settled into a marathon pace.

When the publisher read my query letter, he immediately knew that the book would fit his business model. The paperback would not only add to his catalog of “military transition” titles, but it covered retirement and lifestyle as well. He also specializes in printing 4″x5″ 64-page “pocket guide” versions of Impact’s books. They sell for a couple bucks and they’re popular with military commands and military family support centers. He knew that he’d be able to sell them to state veteran’s organizations and hand them out at job fairs. My proposal was such a good fit that he phoned me within 24 hours of receiving my query letter, and he sent the contract the following day.

This happened in August, and publishers usually ship new titles in April or October. If I had only written a query letter and an outline instead of an entire manuscript, he would have had to slide the schedule to next year’s October. He was cautiously optimistic when I claimed to have a manuscript ready for editing, but when he sent the contract he still asked when I thought that I’d really have it ready. He seemed pleasantly shocked that I e-mailed the entire document the next day. Of course, he quickly recovered and suggested that I get hot on the pocket guide.

What I Learned About Writing and Publishing

My most important lesson from my first manuscript was that one book won’t pay the bills. Writing is a career that you have to save up for, and even the best-selling authors labor in obscurity for months before they can quit their day jobs. I suspect that the majority of America’s royalty revenue goes to 1% of the authors.

If I was writing a book as a side hustle then I’d start with a query letter, not a manuscript. It’s the most time-effective way to refine your topic and your marketing plan. As a financially independent retiree, I place a high value on my flexibility, so I’ll continue to write manuscripts before query letters. I don’t like deadlines, especially when the surf is up.

The second-most important lesson I learned was to shotgun query letters instead of writing them serially. I wasted weeks waiting for publisher feedback (or, in one case, months) before sending the next one. Of course, the next query letter got better after the last rejection, but the publisher you want to work with can see the potential even if your query letter is marginal. A killer query letter will attract more interest but practice is the only way to write one. You still have to tailor each query to the publisher’s submission guidelines, and I could have done the next letter (or five) while I was waiting on the first response.

I received plenty of feedback and education from Impact Publications. They knew the manuscript had been reviewed by 50+ readers so they only had a few questions about the facts and the conclusions. They graciously pretended that my writing was good enough (thanks to the draft readers!) to only need light editing. The publisher immediately deleted my rock & roll chapter quotes so that he wouldn’t have to obtain permission to use them.

I learned that graphic artists do much better cover designs and layouts than I ever will. (Of course, now I also know how to copy their example.) Maybe I would have failed mightily on my own, or maybe one of my readers would have tackled the job.

The publisher also helped me network with a couple of other authors in the military personal finance niche, and they’ve been a big help. It would have taken me months to find similar contacts.

I verified that marketing is up to the author, and even book tours & signings. By the time you’ve put together a great query letter, you’ll figure out a great marketing plan. Again the publisher was a wonderful resource for expanding my contacts (no false starts), and I would have flailed for several more months without their advice.

Finally, I learned that I’m extremely frustrated by semi-annual royalty checks. I’d prefer sales data at least monthly (if not weekly or even daily), and I’d like to see breakdowns by geography and type of buyer

Is Self-Publishing Better?

I think it’s hard for self-publishing to be worse than traditional publishing. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of new authors agree with me. However, self-publishing largely cuts you free from the publishing support network, so you’ll have to build your own network. Again, today there are thousands of self-published authors ready to help.

A self-published book might be printed in hardcopy on demand or by a service that will convert it to various electronic formats, but you have to know what you want. The online printer won’t help with editing, layout, or graphic design– unless you want to hire them for that as well. (They’ll probably use a subcontractor anyway.) You also might not get much feedback. You’ll have to stick with their standard format(s) or take the risk that you know what you’re doing.

A big advantage of a traditional publisher is no upselling. They know how they want to handle your manuscript. They’ll make more money from sales than they will from asking you to pay for things, so they’ll default to their highly efficient process. If you do stumble across a traditional publisher who wants your money to publish your book, then you can run away fast and find a better publisher.

Online publishers are starting with a different (and very competitive) business model. Even if you ask them to just print your file, they’ll still offer a wide range of services and conveniences and advice. Instead of limiting the number of authors who they’ll publish, they scale to as many authors as they can handle– and upsell them.

Once you’ve learned about the publishing and marketing processes, self-publishing is definitely faster. You don’t need to find a traditional publisher who wants to work with you– you just select an online publisher and tell them what you want to do. You have more control over the process and the pricing, although you’ll still be sharing some of your revenue. However, you will lose access to the distribution network of the traditional publisher. This is no problem if you’re selling only eBooks but if you’re selling hardcopy as well then you’ll have to bear the printing & shipping costs.

I think the biggest advantage of self-publishing is more frequent & detailed sales data. Maybe a traditional publisher can provide the same information, but online publishers are much better at it.

“Traditional publisher” or “self-publishing” is not an irrevocable decision. You can use a traditional publisher for your first book, self-publish your second book, and switch back to a traditional publisher for your third one. It depends on which you think is more appropriate for your book and whether you think your buyers are primarily in bookstores or online. Popular author Scott Berkun moves comfortably between both worlds.

By the way, the most important reason that I used a traditional publisher was to be able to sell books at military exchanges. I already knew that self-published authors couldn’t get their books into the exchanges, so I decided to depend on a publisher’s distribution network. That turned out to be second-millennium thinking, but I’ll dig into those details in the next post on publishing

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

4 Comments
  1. The choices are few, but the process to become an author is daunting. Realistically the self-published authors do not get many sales when compared to authors who get help with publishing. (Unless you have built a massive network)

    • Thanks for the comment, EL. I think sales from both types of publishing are now square on the shoulders of the author’s marketing efforts. I agree that a publisher can help make a weaker author stronger, but I also think that self-publishing tools can now do the same thing.

  2. On a somewhat related note, Barry Eisler blogged about the new publishing paradigms. http://www.barryeisler.com/writers.php
    He passed up a decent advance to publish directly (Kindle). It’s spy fiction, but he talks about the lack of agility in the traditional publishing model.
    I don’t agree with all his politics, and I haven’t read all his books, but his blog is interesting for what I see as a unique perspective.
    http://barryeisler.blogspot.com/
    You might get a kick out of the martial arts in his books, primarily judo.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?