Should you self publish your first book?

From Monday’s question pile reader Gutenberg Neto, who has one of the best names ever for questions about publishing, asked:

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 details here.

I don’t have a single answer. It depends on the author and the book.

Publishing a book no matter 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:

  • 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. 
  • 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. Rowlings). 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.
  • 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.

Related:

17 Responses to “Should you self publish your first book?”

  1. Phil Simon

    Great post, Scott. Chock full of wisdom. The marketing aspect is a huge myth. All publishing is self-publishing.

    Here’s a link with more on publishing options for first-timers.

    http://motionpub.com/publishing/writing-and-publishing-options-for-first-time-authors/

    You’re completely right; it’s never been easier to get something out there one way or another. Unfortunately, though, that makes it all the more difficult to sell the damn thing.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Hey – I knew you had a writeup somewhere but couldn’t find it on philsimon.com – thanks for the link (and the comment).

      Reply
  2. Gutenberg Neto

    Thanks for the answer, Scott!

    Interesting what you say about publishers and marketing. I think it’s easy for people that have no experience with publishers to think that, once you sign a contract and release the book, they’ll do all the grunt work to find an audience and sell as many copies as possible. In the end, whether the book is self published or not, it seems like the worst mistake an author can make is to think that the work is done after the book is released when, in truth, it should be only the beginning.

    Reply
    • Scott

      You’re welcome.

      Part of the problem is most authors don’t know any other authors. The authors they’ve read or heard of are most likely the most famous ones, who seem to have a great deal of PR and marketing done on their behalf.

      The other challenge is by the time a first time author finishes a book, they’re exhausted. The don’t have the energy or interest to put in even more time on the same project.

      Reply
    • Phil Simon

      All good figures. Yes, you can go cheaper with the iUnivererses and Lulus of the world. Doing it right, though, isn’t cheap.

      Reply
      • Scott

        Some of their costs seem high, but it depends so heavily on what expertise you have and what kind of book it is.

        Reply
  3. Michelle Louring

    Great post with a lot of great points. Then I read through various author forums, I see the attitude you describe constantly(and I’m sure I made all the same mistakes back when I first decided to publish).
    It would be a great help to them if all new authors spent some time reading posts like these.

    Reply
  4. Patrick

    Hello, So I’ve working on a book for a little while now… and have been pondering self publishing. I’m trying to get an idea of cost involved. I don’t have a whole lot of funds to being with, but wondering if anyone has tried a KickStarter and how much realistically would be needed? What would be a reasonable amount to ask for?

    Reply
  5. Josh

    Very interesting read. I myself am a first-time author. I think the point that really hit home was about writing a book that I would like to read. My first and only book is of a Sci-Fi sub genre, which gives it limited scope in reality. The whole time I wrote the book I had no guidance or restrictions on what to write. This was both a good thing and a bad thing.

    I loved the writing process and learnt a lot from getting in there and just doing it. I feel now that I should stop trying so hard to sell this first book and move on to the next one so I can grow as a writer.

    Hugh Howey gave me some great advice in person that in this industry it’s not until you have written 5 or more books that your writing may be worth publishing. Some great advice I think.

    Cheers

    Reply
  6. Stephen

    Thanks for the information. I just self-published my first book and I’d like to both share some of my experiences and ask some questions. First off, I knew that I wasn’t exactly artistically inclined, so before I even published I got a hold of a professional artist and had them make me a cover. It cost me around $200, but it’s nearly paid itself off. I also had a few friends read the manuscript before sending it in, but I made sure to have a poor man’s copyright on the manuscript before giving it to them to read, just in case they lost it. None of them, however, were editors. I made the mistake of having it published without an editor overlooking the thing and, upon further inspection, found a lot of mistakes inside.

    I found someone to edit my book later, but it took months and I’m almost certain that it affected sales. As my way of marketing, I went around in my college (I’m

    Reply
  7. Stephen

    Thanks for the information. I just self-published my first book and I’d like to both share some of my experiences and ask some questions. First off, I knew that I wasn’t exactly artistically inclined, so before I even published I got a hold of a professional artist and had them make me a cover. It cost me around $200, but it’s nearly paid itself off. I also had a few friends read the manuscript before sending it in, but I made sure to have a poor man’s copyright on the manuscript before giving it to them to read, just in case they lost it. None of them, however, were editors. I made the mistake of having it published without an editor overlooking the thing and, upon further inspection, found a lot of mistakes inside.

    I found someone to edit my book later, but it took months and I’m almost certain that it affected sales. As my way of marketing, I went around in my college (I’m a college student) and passed around some proof copies since those were cheaper for me to purchase and hand out for free. Since this is the beginning of a long series, I figured getting them hooked on the first one would only help my cause in the long run.

    My first question is: was that a good idea, handing them out like that? My second question is: what other ways are there for a guy like me to market my book?

    Reply
    • Scott

      All serious authors given away dozens if not hundreds of copies of their books. Any book reviewer at any newspaper, magazine or even a popular blog gets sent piles of free books every week, begging them to review them.

      Free samples are par for the course in most products and books are no different.

      Reply
  8. Reneé @ mummytries.com

    Thanks for this fab article. I am gearing up to get my first book published and this great advice :-) I’m currently thinking I’ll self-pub, but if I also find an agent then bonus…

    Reply

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