Having self-published three books, and worked with a number of independent authors on their own self-publishing journey, I was delighted when Nick Lewis asked me to share my experiences on his blog in a three-part series on the subject. Certainly there’s no one true way to self-publish, but my intention with the series is to share the lessons I’ve learned about navigating the process with minimal stress and professional results, using tools that most of us already have on our desk tops.
Today’s post addresses the benefits and challenges of self-publishing as compared with the traditional publishing/agency model. Part I focused on the mechanics of e-publishing for Kindle and Smashwords while Part II looked at the mechanics of self-publishing in print, and why, in the digital age, having a print version of your book is still a great idea if you want to maximize sales.
Summary of benefits
- You control everything
- The mechanics are not difficult
- You hold onto a bigger percentage of any income earned
- If your self-published project is related to an aspect of your core business, you’re adding accessible value to your brand
Summary of challenges
- You control everything
- The mechanics take time and need careful attention
- You have to source the relevant providers and cover any costs
First steps – take advantage of others’ experience
The good news is that there’s plenty of free and valuable information around to help the newbie independent author navigate the world of self-publishing. I’ve compiled some of the best of it in my free ebooklet, Guidelines for New Authors. You can download the PDF directly from my website or upload it to your preferred e-reader via Smashwords. It won’t cost you a bean!
The booklet includes brief guidance on realistic financial appraisal, marketing assessment, e-book formatting tools, employing the appropriate editorial service provider (beta reader; ghost writer; professional reviewer; structural, substantive or developmental editor; copy-editor; or proofreader), a selection of distribution channels, taxation issues with some distribution channels, and further useful resources (links to books, articles, blogs and knowledge centres for the independent author).
In the meantime, let’s look in more detail at the benefits and challenges of self-publishing.
Benefit 1: You control everything
Publishing has been truly democratized by the ability to self-publish. With the traditional publisher/agency model, the writer is restricted to some degree. If the trade publishing world is focused on commissioning fantasy, crime and erotic fiction, and your work is in a different genre, it may be more difficult to find a house that is a good match. Or if, like me, you’ve created niche non-fiction books (two of mine are related to the business aspects of editorial freelancing), a mainstream publisher will probably not consider the market large enough to warrant investment.
That’s where self-publishing really comes into its own. No longer is the writer restricted by fads, fashions, shareholders’ concerns over a publisher’s bottom line, or small market size. If we have something to publish, and are prepared to take the time to do it well, we can publish.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that just because something can be published it should be published. More on this below, but it’s still worth recognizing right now that, as self-publishers, we need to think like traditional publishers – we need to be cognizant of our customers’ desire for high-quality content – for example, a well-written and engaging piece of fiction with good pacing, characterization and plot structure; or a reference book that’s factually correct, relevant, informative, logical in flow and digestible to the reader.
So, yes, we control the content, the design, the channels we choose to publish through, the income we retain, the costs we incur, the assistance we procure, and the visibility we provide for our books. All great stuff and all doable, providing we are prepared to put in the effort.
Benefit 2: The mechanics are not difficult
As the previous two posts in this series outlined, the mechanics of self-publishing for e-delivery and print are not difficult and are perfectly affordable. We can use software that’s already on our desktops to create professional-looking books for our target markets. If we take the time to attend to the necessaries, we we don’t have to be graphic artists or professional typesetters with expensive specialist software to achieve a professional finish for our books.
Benefit 3: Income retention
Publisher royalties vary from house to house, author to author, and genre to genre. A publisher’s assessment of a book’s sales potential and marketability will impact on the advance. The publisher gets the majority cut – and so it should. It covers the production, accounting, distribution, legal, marketing and warehousing costs, none of which comes cheap. What this means for you, the author, is that unless you’re the next Stephen King, Salman Rushie or James Patterson, you won’t see much income from your writing.
On the other hand, the self-publisher, by the very fact that he or she is the publisher, holds onto a much larger chunk of any income earned.
Depending on which option you choose with KDP, you can retain 35% or 70% of Amazon ebook sales; Smashwords Direct gives you 85% (though your cut is lower on sales through distribution partners) (‘Self-publishing Platforms Compared’: BWMBooks). CreateSpace uses a formula based on the size of the printed book, the sales channel and a fixed charge (for more information see ‘Understanding Royalties’: CreateSpace). Few publishers that I know of would come near even the lowest of those numbers cited above.
Benefit 4: Adding value
Especially in the field of non-fiction, you may be able to add value to your core business by self-publishing books related to your day job. This adds value to your business, enhances your professional reputation and makes your brand more visible and your business more discoverable.
Challenge 1: You control everything
Above, I said: ‘So, yes, we control the content, the design, the channels we choose to publish through, the income we retain, the costs we incur, the assistance we procure, and the visibility we provide for our books. All great stuff and all doable, providing we are prepared to put in the effort.’ The effort is key because we must not forget that when we self-publish we’re no longer writers. We’re publishers.
There’s a simple reason why traditional publishers are still here, despite the fact that we now have the means to publish without them: They’re very, very good at it.
Visit any publishing house and you’ll soon realize that, with the exception of the smaller outfits, it comprises a small army of specialists doing (or organizing the doing of) publishing ‘stuff’: accountants, IT managers, commissioning editors, marketing managers, production editors, digital formatters, warehouse staff, sales executives. Then there are the freelance specialists hired on a project-by-project basis: indexers, translators, proofreaders, copy-editors, project managers, jacket designers.
Each person in this army wears one hat and knows how to wear that hat responsibly, efficiently and expertly. When we self-publish we have to wear all of them. Ouch!
If you’re not patient, careful, creative, aware of your strengths and limitations, and prepared to invest time and effort into your self-publishing venture, the end result will be sloppy and unprofessional. Recall Benefit 4: Adding value. High-quality books can add value, make your brand more visible and your business more discoverable. Now have a think about what ‘sloppy and unprofessional’ will do for your brand’s visibility and your business reputation.
Challenge 2: The mechanics need care
The mechanics of formatting for self-publishing are not difficult, but they do need careful attention. Being ‘not difficult’ isn’t the same thing as ‘doing it quickly’. We still need to attend to conventional norms that will ensure our readers focus on our content rather than being distracted by poor layout, sloppy grammar, punctuation and spelling, poorly constructed sentences, and inconsistent design. By taking the time to follow expert advice (recall in particular Coker’s guidelines for e-formatting and Friedlander’s guidance for print publishing), we can overcome this challenge and generate positive reader engagement rather than negative distraction.
Challenge 3: Sourcing the right assistance
Writing your book is just the start. Writing and publishing are different things. Recall Challenge 1: You control everything. Even if you’re a speedy writer, your first draft is unlikely to be your final draft. Even if you’re a great writer, you’re so close to the work that it may not be structured as well as you think it is. And even if you’re a great self-editor/self-proofreader, you won’t spot all the mistakes. Honestly, you won’t.
I hired independent professional editors/proofreaders to work on my books, despite the fact that those people do the same daytime job as me. And they were worth the money because they found things that I’d missed. I read what I thought I’d written; they read what I actually wrote.
In reality, effective self-publishing invariably means not doing everything oneself because some things just really do need doing by someone else. However, if that professional assistance reduces the chance of reader disengagement, then it’s a good investment.
Professional assistance – do I really need it?
Even if you feel comfortable writing the text, designing it and formatting it for print, and formatting it so that it’s ready for e-publication, you’ll be unlikely to self-edit or self-proofread to a professional standard – not because your grammar isn’t up to scratch but because very few people can self-edit well. The professional suppliers I hired for my books picked up errors. They also improved the quality of my writing, sharpened my arguments and polished the flow of information.
This resulted in books written to a professional standard. It resulted in books that were readable, accessible and digestible for my reader. It resulted in books that better communicated my ideas and experience to my target audience. Hiring professional assistance reduced the chance of reader disengagement and improved the chance of my books enhancing my business reputation and making my brand sparkle. That’s good marketing in my opinion, and while I’m not an advocate of prescriptive pedantry when it comes to language, I am an advocate of good marketing when it comes to business.
If you want your readers to wrap your content around themselves and lose themselves in the world you’re creating (fiction) or the knowledge you’re sharing (non-fiction) then hire a professional editor; if you want them to stumble their way through your work, trying to ignore the punctuation, grammar, spelling and consistency errors you swore you’d dealt with, by all means do it yourself. Take it from me, though – the results won’t be as good.
Remember: the primary goal of any writer is to engage their reader positively – to get the reader’s focus embedded in the message. Throw too many obstacles in the way – misplaced apostrophes, dangling modifiers, incorrect punctuation, poor spelling, sloppy formatting, omissions, lack of flow, inconsistency – and the reader becomes irritated.
At that point they’re no longer focusing on what you’ve done well; instead they’re focusing on what you’ve done wrong. A distracted reader is no longer the fan who’ll write a glowing review or spread the word about your book. They’re a potentially harsh critic who can focus other potential readers on the problems before you’ve even had a chance to pitch to the audience!
There’s help for everyone, everywhere. To locate an editorial professional from your region, visit this list of international editorial societies.
One final thought …
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts. The journey from writer to publisher is an exciting one, but it can raise many questions for the novice. Independent authors can spend a lot of time thinking about how the book looks, how it reads, whether to invest in external support, which channels to publish with, and so on. If you’re struggling with questions of your own, let me leave you with one final thought: Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. If you do that regularly throughout your self-publishing journey, the answers will come more readily.