Publish or Self-Publish?

by Sonja Jefferson on February 29, 2012

Deciding which publishing route to go for is a big decision for any author. This article looks at the pros and cons of publishing vs. self-publishing to help you make an informed decision.

We announced last month that we are writing the Valuable Content Marketing book. Sharon and I have been lucky enough to be offered a publishing deal with UK business publishers Kogan Page. After some debate we decided to publish with them in the traditional way.

There are now many options for would-be authors. Before we arrived at this decision we debated long and hard. I thought it would be useful to lay out the pros and cons of the three different publishing routes we considered. I’ll explain the thinking behind our decision at the end.

Advantages of traditional publishing

  • Team - the publisher has the expertise and the team to make your book happen, so they can take a lot of work off your hands.
  • No upfront cost - they take the risk so you don’t have to pay for printing, design and distribution
  • A modest advance – is nice, but worth saying, it’s in no way enough to stop work while you just write.
  • Wide reach – through their sales and distribution channels and links with the book trade, nationally and internationally. They’ll get your book in the stores and assist with promotion.
  • Quality – the right publisher will guide you to write a better book than you could do alone
  • Credibility – there’s still kudos in getting a book deal. With many, many self-published books out perhaps this is still the mark of distinction?
  • A deadline – unless you are remarkably self-disciplined this helps to motivate you to get the book done.

Disadvantages of traditional publishing

  • Loss of control – you give up a fair bit with this route: control over the content but also over design, even the title.
  • Transfer of rights - really, they own them, not you: big decision here.
  • Less of the proceeds. c. 10% of net returns is typical.
  • Quality – a publisher’s job is to maximise returns which, in some cases can mean that the end-product is not as high quality as you could produce via the self-publishing route.
  • Expectation – they don’t take it all off your hands: you may need to invest in an extra editorial layer and you’ll certainly need to take on the lion’s share of marketing/promotion.
  • Speed of turnaround – once the manuscript is complete it can take around 5-6 months before the book is available.

Advantages of self-publishing

  • Total independence, flexibility and control - it’s all down to you.
  • Speed - if you have finished your manuscript turnaround is much quicker.
  • Returns – they are all yours (minus the distributors cut: Amazon takes 40-45%).

Disadvantages of self-publishing

  • Cost - if you want a quality product it will cost you. You can self-publish on a shoe string but the end product may be disappointing.
  • Team - a good book is a collaboration. You’ll need to find, manage and fund your own team to help you – editor, designer, copyeditor, proofreader, printer, marketing, distribution, storage and fulfilment.
  • Distribution and reach – Amazon is a pig to deal with as an independent author and it is difficult to get your book available in book stores or internationally; storage can be an issue. It can be a lot of work.
  • Quality - if you haven’t done this before there are a lot of steps to get you to your end goal of a high quality, accurate and professionally-produced book. It is possible to produce a high quality self-published book but there’s lots to learn.
  • Work - masses to do yourself, which can be hard if you are working and writing the book at the same time.
  • No deadline – without one, your book could take a long time.

There is a third way, best described as ‘self-publishing with help‘ or partnership publishing. This offers many of the pros of self-publishing with less of the cons. This are independent companies around now who have the insight, experience and networks to help you through the process, with a trusted team to make it all happen. This route means you avoid many of the pitfalls you could fall into by yourself but there’s a cost implication.

Why we decided to publish the traditional way

We’re busy. A deadline and a supportive and experienced team around us were the main reasons we opted for the traditional route but to be honest, for a small firm like ours cost was an issue too. With our chosen route we didn’t have to pay large sums upfront to make the book happen. We pay later by getting less of a return. For us, this is OK. Our book is a marketing tool; we don’t expect to make money from it directly. Our objective is to build our reputation and attract more clients through proving our expertise.

We’ve  had to give up some control and independence and that hurts a bit. Having helped a couple of authors to produce some beautifully designed self-published books, we know what’s possible. Valuable Content Marketing will be a great book, but we’ll have to get our creative kicks elsewhere.

Kogan Page has a far wider reach than we could aspire to if we self-published and this was important to us: we want to get the Valuable Content message out as widely as we can.

And finally, we really like and trust our contact at Kogan Page. She’s been unfailingly enthusiastic about our project, encouraging and insightful too. It will be a better book with her involvement and we’re grateful to have her onboard.

This is our experience but how about you? What’s your view on the publish vs. self-publish debate? We’d be fascinated by your view.

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Sonja Jefferson

Sonja Jefferson is a consultant, writer and founder of Valuable Content. She helps good businesses to create and share great content so they win the business they deserve.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Lee Duncan March 1, 2012 at 10:10 am

Hi Sonja,

Great question.

My immediate thoughts:

Publisher Advantages

1. The standards are more exacting, from getting your proposal through right up to editing and cover copy. Discussed this with Robert (my editor) and the standards demanded by the publisher will be higher than most self-published works. As a result, you produce your best work and present a stronger finished product. In my case, my ebook on buying a franchise was really rough and ready compared to Double Your Business, which was edited by both Robert and then FT Publishing.
2. You get the chance to be promoted through their big channel partners, which can give a real boost to the book’s performance.
3. You’re under a fixed deadline to finish and so you have to get it done. You can’t put off your writing for another year.
4. I’d say there’s a credibility that comes from having a publisher’s name stamped on your book that isn’t there on a self-published one.

On the other hand, there are some big advantages to self-publishing too:
1. You’ll never make any real money on a business book through a publisher because they take the lion’s share of the proceeds. If you can promote it well yourself, you’ll make more money by self-publishing.
2. You can be much more niche and specialised because the publisher wants maximum market exposure – as a self-publisher you can target a very specific niche and build huge credibility with that niche.
3. You gain a lot more freedom over how you can use material from your book.
4. You’ve got complete control over the format, design and printing of your book.
5. You will be able to buy copies of the book to publicise yourself far more cheaply than a publisher will let you have them.

There, a few quick points in favour of each.

Lee

avatar Bryony Thomas March 1, 2012 at 10:48 am

Great summary Sonja, thanks. I decided to go for the middle ground. I’m publishing my book ‘Watertight Marketing’ with Ecademy Press, who describe themselves as coooperative publishers. I did initially pursue the traditional route, but when asked a number of times to amend my title I had to question whether the lack of control was worth the name of a publisher on the cover. I asked around and someone challenged me to name the publisher of some business books I respect. I couldn’t. This helped me to see that their badge doesn’t add as much credibility as I’d thought. Since making this decision, I’ve spoken to a number of authors going down the traditional route to find that they have appointed their own external editors and undertaken much of their book promotions themselves (at their own cost) – so, again, a benefit I assumed came with the traditional route just doesn’t seem to be there. For me, it came down to asking myself what I’m trying to achieve, and what was the most effective way of doing this. I’m looking to use my book as a platform for speaking opportunities, and for a new business venture that I have in the pipeline – not for the book itself to return an income. With Ecademy taking the heartache out of dealing with Amazon, sorting ISBN numbers, dealing with the nitty gritty of production and kick-starting my PR, it was the perfect balance of control and support for my authoring aspirations.

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 1, 2012 at 10:55 am

Thanks Lee. Very good points.

Self-publishing doesn’t have to be less exacting though – if you get the right help ;) it can be just as thorough as the published route. They key is to get some expert help though – very, very hard to do by yourself.

It’s all down to your business objectives in the end. Sounds as if yours were similar to mine and Sharon but others will be different.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Lee’s book is out very soon by the way: Double Your Business, How to Break Through the Barriers to Higher Growth, Turnover and Profit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Double-Your-Business-Barriers-Financial/dp/0273759493. Very exciting.

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 1, 2012 at 11:03 am

Hi Bryony.

Thanks very much for the comment and that’s an interesting view on ‘the third way’. It certainly takes a lot of the pain out of the process of self-publishing. Sounds as if you have found a good option.

Let’s keep comparing notes on the two different routes. And the best of luck with your Watertight Marketing book. Can’t wait to read it: http://www.bryonythomas.com/writer/marketing-books/watertight-marketing/

avatar Heather Townsend March 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Interesting dilemma and it’s one where I think many first time authors wonder which way to go.

I’m glad that I had the luxury for my first book of it being published by Financial Times Publishing. It meant that I had a level of support and assistance to get my book out there, which I would have never had had if I had gone via the self-published route.

I’m also getting my next book published by Kogan Page. However, I am increasingly realising that my marketing activities are the main reason that the FT Guide to Business Networking is selling so well (4000+ copies in 8 months), rather than by any big initiative or marketing plan being executed by the publisher. Therefore, I am dipping my toe in the water and self publishing a book in 2012. If I am able to produce a book to the same high level of quality via the self publishing route, and generate a similar level of sales, but then get to keep 50% of all book sales, then it’s a no brainer for me to carry on with the self publish in route.

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Thanks Heather. Let us know how the experiment goes.

Have you seen this? ‘Do we still need publishers?’ by Anthony Horowitz in the Guardian this weekend – http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/feb/27/anthony-horowitz-do-we-still-need-publishers.

Some fascinating points on the debate. Do publishers provide a level of quality control?

avatar Mindy Gibbins-Klein March 2, 2012 at 8:59 am

Great discussion and I agree with everything that has been said. Incredible.

I am the founder and CEO of Ecademy Press, as many people may know. My original co-founder Andy Coote and I founded the company because there were very few options available to business and self-help authors who wanted a publisher to do most of the work, hold you to deadlines, take care of distribution and launch BUT not take away control, rights and the opportunity to make a good profit from your book.

We are not perfect (no publisher or solution is) but we care deeply about our authors and the success of their books. We are just about to launch book #150 and I am very grateful to all the open-minded and ambitious people who have been involved in the journey.

To anyone undecided about how to publish, re-read Sharon’s post, the comments and any other information you can get your hands on. Speak to lots of people, who have published in all three ways. Then, sit in a quiet place and ask yourself what would be best for YOU and YOUR BOOK. Best of luck to all!

P.S. We will have a lot of launch specials going on for Watertight Marketing so do follow Bryony and Ecademy Press to be amongst the first to hear!

avatar Sue Richardson March 2, 2012 at 9:54 am

A very interesting article Sonja, and congratulations on your book deal!

What emerges for me here, from both your article and the comments, is just how important it is that authors spend time looking at all the options and choosing the right route for them.

For some, speed is of the essence, for others it is a matter of control over content and even cover design that leads them to look at a more independent option. And for others the kudos of being published by a big publisher is the most important thing.

I worked with one author last year whose book was rejected by a publishing house, only for them to turn around and offer her a deal to write a different book entirely. As a first-time author who is transitioning from a highly successful corporate career into the world of entrepreneurship, thought leadership, speaking and writing, being published by a ‘name’ will work really well for her. What’s more, nothing is stopping her from publishing the initial book under her own steam as she hasn’t had to part with publishing rights on it.

I think the main thing to remember is the importance of publishing the right book – for you, for your business objectives and for your audience. There are sometimes issues of quality around independently published books, but this is by no means a given. Creating a book is a collaborative adventure – one that publishers understand very well. A publisher knows the right people to put in the team so that you end up with a professional product (usually!) As Horowitz points out in his speech, despite his momentary questioning of the value of the author/publisher relationship (35 proofing errors in one book did not impress him one bit!) – in the end he really couldn’t have done it without the wonderful editors he has worked with.

There won’t be a home for every book in a traditional publishing house – there are simply too few opportunities for a start. And for many, the independent route will be more appropriate for any number of reasons. Where we can be sure not to go down a vanity route and instead work with professionals to imitate the best practices of the traditional publishing industry we can be sure that independent publishing will serve us well.

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Thanks Mindy and Sue. Useful advice there from the partnership publishing community. You are both so right – choosing your publishing route needs careful thought. Hopefully this fantastic comment stream will help! Thanks for all the great comments so far. Sonja

avatar Andrea P. Howe (@AndreaPHowe) March 2, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Sonja, you’ve done a fabulous job of articulating the pros and cons of each option–crisply and cleanly. I have self-published a book called Hear Us Roar! 28 Stories of Everyday Women Leading Extraordinary Lives (using createspace) and recently traditionally published, with co-author Charlie Green, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley & Sons). Both have been generally good experiences, albeit different.

With the Fieldbook (traditional), I’d underscore and amplify what you said about having a deadline: if we hadn’t had that contract and that manuscript deadline I don’t think the book would have ever gotten done, period. Not because we weren’t motivated, or because we didn’t have plenty of content, or because we lacked the right intentions. Stuff just got in the way (mountains of it, mostly unexpectedly) and I’m quite certain we would have quit without the very serious accountability we had to our publisher. We also invested a lot of our own time and money (and continue to) in marketing, as you say to expect. Probably the toughest pill to swallow for me with this route, oddly, is that we have to buy the copies we use for promotional purposes on Amazon like everyone else (beyond the 50 or so the publisher gave us for free). You can imagine the financial investment we made in buying several hundred copies to send to clients and colleagues … and continue to make as we share the book with people. In some ways, a $16 US item is a cheap promotional tool. In other ways, it really adds up.

With Roar! (self), I had zero problems with Amazon (sounds like that’s not the case for you)–since createspace is a division of Amazon, the book was available on Amazon with a week or two of being finalized, and it all seems to work pretty seamlessly. And the whole process of designing and uploading and all the rest was actually pretty easy. Plus, I had the advantage of being able to buy a copy of the book at the wholesale rate of $2.53 US per copy (it’s a small book), which made it super easy to give away. And I’m a believer in giving stuff away as a primary promotion strategy.

In the end, I think both are viable options and it comes down to which thing on which list is the primary deal-breaker (or motivator) for any given person.

Thanks again for such a thoughtful look at an important topic for business people today.

avatar Charles H. Green March 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm

This is a great discussion, a valuable service to would-be authors. I have tweeted and Google-+’d for others.

For myself, I am co-author with Andrea Howe of the above-mentioned Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, published by Wiley. Previously I co-authored The Trusted Advisor, through Free Press Simon and Schuster; and Trust-based Selling, through McGraw-Hill. In other words, three books through the traditional publishers route.

The self-publishing route is extremely attractive for all the reasons you identified. In my case, there were two reasons for preferring publishers in the first two books: first, the self-publishing route simply had not evolved as much at that time. Second, there was, and still is, a bit of a cachet with name publishers, at least among certain circles of readers.

Maybe those readers are snobs, but I have to confess that I also tend to look at a publisher and make a small but significant initial judgment about the book on that basis. Small, but often enough to choose to buy or not buy, since all our time is limited, and the supply of books is overwhelming.

Reading through the discussion, however, I think you’re very right to emphasize the importance of other issues like self-discipline, deadlines, and the difficulty of playing general contractor in the publishing game. I think the idea of partnership publishing that you describe will be a very attractive and involving solution for many authors in the future.

Thanks again for a terrific resource.

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 4, 2012 at 11:11 am

Thanks Charlie and Andrea. Great to hear your views.

Interesting note about the cost of books to hand out to your clients and customers Andrea – that’s a very good point and one that potential authors need to take into consideration.

Charlie – I agree. A certain amount of kudos still comes with the traditional publishing route – this remains true for now but maybe not forever.

Christopher Butler of US web development firm Newfangled has an interesting view on the debate which I’m sure he won’t mind me publishing here. Like you Andrea his firm has published both ways. He says:

“Generally, I’d advise against self-publishing unless you have already published books and have a devoted following. Taking a Field of Dreams approach (“If I write it, they will read”) to your first book is probably not going to work. They won’t read your book, because they already have plenty to read written by people they have heard of. But if you do have a devoted following—whether from books, web publishing, or public speaking—you may have the leverage to cut out the middle-man and do it on your terms (plenty of well-known people have done this recently). Of course, if that’s you, you’re probably not reading this article, so the rest of you: Go a different route.” (see his article http://www.newfangled.com/the_four_stages_of_content_marketing)

avatar Heather Townsend March 5, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Good discussion. I do think that many people think I have an infinite store of books to give away to anyone who wants to write a review about my book (or recommend it in their book). Up until very recently, the cheapest place I could buy my book was on amazon just like everyone else. One of the reasons I am attracted to the self-publishing route is that I will be able to buy my book-sized business cards at nearer to £2-3 rather than £10…

avatar Liz Gooster March 7, 2012 at 10:19 am

Great post Sonja and I also really enjoyed the various comments. I work for a traditional publisher (Kogan Page) and so of course I think this is a good route to go – I still believe we add value. That said, I agree with the commetns above that individual authors need to make a decision about what’s the best choice for each book they write. As others have mentioned, the ‘right’ decision depends on a lot of factors. I’d include:

* Your objectives in getting the book out there. Think long and hard about what you want to achieve, what success looks like for your book. It may be that having the imprint of a publisher will impress your potential clients and customers; it may be more important to address, in your own way, a niche topic where you’re a sought-after expert but there isn’t a mass market.
* The potential market. If you’re aiming at a specialist audience, you personally may have as many, if not more, channels to market than a publisher and they will be less interested if there is relatively limited market appeal. If your topic is of broader interest, a publisher can access many more channels to market.
* Your level of experience in writing and publishing. If you’re an experienced author looking to experiment, self-publishing and partnership publishing are both increasingly credible options. If you don’t know how the publishing process works (and why should you?) and don’t have an appetite in investing lots of time in finding out, a traditional publisher may have more appeal.
* How great your need to do or control everything yourself. If these are high, you may struggle with collaborating with a publisher, who will want to take control over things like title, design, how your book is positioned in the market. If you need a specific title to increase your impact on the speaker circuit or to maximise your book’s impact on your business, you may want to spend more time considering the self-publishing or partnership publishing options.

So as a traditional publisher, I see the three different paths to publishing your book as complementary rather than necessarily competitive. Some authors (like Heather above) may choose different routes depending on the book, and big name authors like Seth Godin have been very innovative in trying out different ways of getting their writing out there, so there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution.

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 7, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Thanks very much Liz. That’s a very balanced and informative response from the publishing world. What a great comment stream this has become – nuggets of gold here for anyone considering how to make their book happen. Thanks again for your contribution.

avatar Marianne Cantwell March 7, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Adding to the praise a great piece Sonja. I’m publishing via Kogan Page as well thanks to the wonderful Liz (above) and am in the final stages of writing now. I struggled with this descision as well. When you have a good email list and partnership opportunities, as Liz says you can actually reach a niche more effectively than a publisher and I went into it knowing that.

My reasons for choosing the publication route were
1. Recognition. Not from my client base but from other content providers such as newspapers (most of whom still have a policy of only quoting published authors with a recognized imprint) and magazines. A book makes it easier to get press.
2. Quality and deadline. I agree on these points. Without a dead ing this would have got put to the side more than once. The added layer of input and editing is also a huge page of the appeal.
3. Wider reach. Had I published it would have been on kindle so not so much with the physical sales!

Finally another point I agree with: as a lifelong control freak, compromises on branding have been a personal challenge for me and again as you say Sonja that is a reason why it’s so important to work with the right publisher for you. Luckily I think we are on the same page on that one!

avatar Sonja Jefferson March 8, 2012 at 8:58 am

Thanks Marianne. It sounds as if you considered carefully and found the right route for your book. Really good luck with it and thank you for the comment. Sonja

avatar Griselda March 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Hi Sonja, thanks for this valuable content. I’ve found the blog and comments very informative. I’ve recently found a passion for business writing and have written a few ebooks. I’m now looking to get properly published preferrably by a traditional publisher – I’ve tried self publishing and found it to be too time consuming and expensive. I’ll be reading more of your blogs for tips on how to attract publishers. Thanks again.

avatar Sonja Jefferson June 9, 2012 at 9:17 am

Thanks Griselda – I’m really glad you’ve found this useful. You might like this article on What Publisher’s Want – http://www.valuablecontent.co.uk/what-publishers-want/. Some inside advice for you there from the publishing community. Good luck with finding the right publisher for your book.

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