After releasing books both with a publisher and also independently, do you feel like one of the approaches is overall better than the other one? These days, with so many distribution platforms available, it’s easier than ever for anyone to self-release a book.
But for a first-time author do you think that it’s still valid to look for a publisher, or releasing independently is the best option even if the writer has no previous experience and audience to leverage initial sales? Thanks!
My experience self-publishing Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds was excellent and I wrote about the experience in detail here. There are many pros and cons and much depends on the author and the book.
Publishing a book, regardless of how you do it, is best thought of as a entrepreneurial experience. You have an idea for a product (in this case a book): how much of the work of making and selling the product are you comfortable doing on your own?
From this view a publisher is a business partner. They provide funding, expertise, co-ordination and guidance. They have in-house editors, designers and proofreaders who will help you. For those things you will pay them a fair share of the possible income the book generates. This is a good deal if you don’t want to find those experts on your own, or have no interest in co-ordinating the entire project yourself.
If you can find a good publisher to work with, and plan to write many books, it is absolutely valuable to work with a publisher at least once. You will learn from experts and have a safe framework to learn from, a framework you can choose to ignore if you self-publish in the future.
On other hand, if you’re someone that’s a natural self starter, loves to learn, and are good at finding and leading talented people who have expertise you don’t, self-publishing makes sense. You’ll have more control over the book and get more of the rewards. But you’ll also have significantly more work to do.
Common mistakes authors make when working with publishers:
- Believing the publisher will do all the marketing for you. Many authors assume the burden of marketing is on the publisher but that has never been true (unless you are Stephen King or J.K. Rowling). The author is always at the center of marketing and PR for books. It will be up to you to find speaking engagements, to be available for interviews, and to use your networks and connections to promote the book. Good publishers assist you, but the burden is always on the author. If your book is deemed more important than others you will get more support, but the author is always central to marketing.
- Assuming you are a rock star. It’s exciting to have a publisher make you an offer, but remember, to them you book will never be as important to them as it is to you. To them your book is #56 of 120 they will put out this year, whereas to you it might be the only book you will ever write. Publishers rightfully prioritize among all of their books each month to decide which will get more of their marketing and PR attention.
- A published book won’t magically get you a following. Earning an audience takes time and effort. The book itself only helps grow your reputation if people find out about it and read it, which requires marketing. A book helps grow a following since it gives something to talk about and share, but a book doesn’t do the marketing work itself.
- Dismissing your editor. I’d rather have a great editor at a mediocre publisher, than a mediocre editor at a great publisher. Editors lead the project that is your book. They attend meetings you can’t and and fight on your behalf for resources inside the publisher. Good editors give you tough love, feedback you need to hear that improves the book. Mediocre editors don’t do much at all. Of course your book might be a low priority project on the desk of a great editor, which is why the editor’s interest in your project is critical too.
Common mistakes with self-publishing:
- Authors are naturally arrogant and assume they know everything. When self-publishing it’s easy to assume you are right about everything since there is no one arguing with you, even when you’re dead wrong. There is deep expertise in the tasks of choosing the theme, title, outline, cover, and style of a book. At a publisher there would be a specialist in each of these roles working with you. If you fail to avail yourself of experts the quality of the book will suffer.
- It’s easy to be cheap and it will show. From the cover design, to the interior, to the index, many authors don’t understand the impact of making the cheapest choices. It shows. Books are extremely competitive. It’s a hostile and unforgiving landscape. The details matter.
- You must be your own marketer. At minimum publishers announce your book to the world through their mailing lists, websites and catalogs. If you self-publish you are entirely on your own. If you are serious about sales you need a marketing plan and a commitment to invest even more time marketing the book than you would if working with a publisher. Marketing is hard: it’s an entirely different kind of challenge than writing a book. And marketing a book starts long before the book releases.
- It’s natural to write a book only you want to read. Few authors do market research or solicit feedback from smart colleagues to define the market for the book. Writing a book proposal, something required to work with a publisher, forces authors to think long and hard about what the book is and who will buy it. Simply because you want to write it doesn’t mean anyone will want to read it. Working with a publisher ensures dozens of questions are asked about who the book is for and that the answers make sense.
There are too many variables to give a single answer. If you can find an editor and publisher you’re happy with, and they believe in the specific book you want to write and how you want to write it, all other things equal I’d say go with a publisher for your first book. It will let you focus on writing a great book, and if the first book does well you’ll have more flexibility in what you do the second time.
More than anything, my advice is this: write the book and publish it. Don’t let this decision be the one that holds you back for year after year. If you can’t decide, self publish. No one can ever stop you from self publishing. And there is always the possibility you can release the book again with a publisher later (this happens often). The real challenge is the book itself and don’t let this decision stand in it’s way.