Do You Self-Publish or Go the Traditional Route?

Here’s what you’ll discover:  The pros and cons of choosing to self-publish over relying on the traditional process that involves the big name commercial publishers.

The other day I pulled one of my books on employee engagement off my shelf, with the intention of selecting a few chapters to recommend to a client. He was on his way to Hawaii for a vacation, and wanted to take one of my books along. Could I recommend some chapters for him to dip into in short bursts of focus?  “Sure. Gimmee a sec, and I’ll send you a list.”

I opened the book and was appalled by what I saw: Paper so thin and translucent that you could see the type on the other side of the page. Which was actually pretty remarkable because the type itself is light gray, sans serif, so fragile that you could barely read the side that it was printed on. Reading it was like trying to hear the tv in a room full of whisperers. I flipped to the front of the book – did I accidentally pull down one of the editions published in a country that traditionally publishes all its books with paper best used for printing Bibles? (I’m big in those countries, they care about employee engagement too.) Nope. This was the U.S. edition.

Then I remembered:  This book was published during some pinchy economic times by a major, global, publishing house that decided to use drastic cost-cutting measures as a way to stay afloat. When the book concept was first pitched to me by the editor, she painted the picture of a lavishly designed, high-concept, high-quality product that would feel good in the hand, look spectacular, and carve a distinctive niche in an increasingly crowded field. By the time the book came out, though, the physical product was little better than toilet paper bound together in a book for your convenience.

While I had been busy beavering away at the writing of the book, putting other aspects of my life on hold to hit a deadline, decision-makers at headquarters reversed course on their vision for the product itself. And they decided to go a different way when the time came to press the big green button on the manufacturing process.

Quality control: Another point in favor of going in the direction of self-publishing, I thought as I was preparing the suggested chapter list of my client.

It’s great to have the big names on the spines of your book. Simon & Schuster; FT Press; Wiley; Amazom. I get that. I’ve got ‘em. And, yes, they do give you the feeling of having finally arrived when an acquisitions editor says that of all the book proposals towering on his or her desk, yours is the one that gets the offer. But after that initial rush of ego gratification, the advantages run out extremely quickly.

The alternative, of course, is self-publishing. If you’re tempted to turn your nose up at the self-publishing model, here’s a set of arguments in its favor that you might want to freshly consider as you plot your next steps:

Speed to market; speed to money
When you self-publish, you can start making money on your content even before the book comes out. When you go the traditional route, it can take upwards of two years between the day you sign the publisher’s contract and the day you hold book in hand. Chances are you didn’t get much of an advance, you burned through that months ago at Starbucks, and now you have to sell hundreds of copies to start seeing royalty checks. Which won’t amount to much.

Quality control
It’s natural to assume that when your book is in the seasoned hands of the New York publishing world, you’re going to get the best editors who know how to craft a manuscript, fashion a marketing campaign, design an amazing book cover, get you on the cover of Atlantic Monthly, and then throw an amazing book-launch cocktail party in a dimly lit, book-lined room full of smart people who are over the moon to meet you.

In truth, unless you’re a politician or a big-boobed hip-hop, Hollywood crossover with a half-framed thought in her head, your manuscript will be passed on to a post-collegiate editorial assistant who can’t really focus on your words because she’s starving. And she’s staring at 50 other manuscripts on her desk. And, frankly, your topic bores her. And there’s that cocktail party tonight where she might be able to score some nutrition at the buffet table.

Promotional support
You’re actually expected to bring that with you when you submit your proposal to agents and publishers. Your book proposal is actually a business proposal; it has to be about more than a great idea and scintillating writing. You have to be able to show that it’s a product that will be in demand by a sufficient number of readers to make going into business with you a good bet for the publisher. You’re expected to have a robust list of fans and followers who are hopping from one foot to the other, with their credit card ready to deploy. This is strictly a DIY scenario. Why not send your fans to your self-published book page on Amazon and keep almost all the proceeds of the sale?

Bookstore availability
Being published by a traditional publisher doesn’t guarantee you a piece of linear real estate. That’s up to how effective your publisher’s sales reps are in transferring your vision to the corporate book buyer. And they have 50 to 100 other books to talk about the same season your book comes out. If your book makes it to the shelves, it has a month max to demonstrate that it can perform before it’s yanked off, sent back, and a refund check is cut.

Amazon is where book buyers go anyway. So it stands to reason, it’s where you need to be as a book seller. Bookshelf space doesn’t even factor into the scenario when you’re selling kindle editions, or even paperback books that are printed on demand.

Self-publishing doesn’t cut you out of traditional publishing opportunities
If your self-published book does really well, a traditional publisher may want a piece of that action. And they will pay you handsomely for it. It’s a proven entity in the marketplace, it has momentum, you’ve shown that you are committed to spreading its message. You’re building up your own brand. All those elements add value to your book, and the business plan behind your book. You may be hearing from a publisher after all. And then you can negotiate a better deal.

On your own terms.

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