Many people choose to self-publish a book because they are unable to find a commercial publisher. Often, this is because a book is tightly focused toward a specific niche market, so that it doesn't have sufficient audience to attract a commercial publisher.
Others choose self-publishing because it provides them more control of the finished product. A commercial publisher may require revisions, editing changes, cuts to a manuscript, etc., that the writer prefers not to make. A writer also has little control over a book's design or cover, or in the promotion process (e.g., making sure that the book is reviewed or advertised in publications that target its most likely readers).
If a book is particularly "timely", a writer may choose self-publishing because it provides a means of getting the book on the market immediately. Commercial print publishers may take as long as two years (or longer) to bring a book to market after it has been accepted, while a self-publisher could get that same book to the marketplace in a few weeks.
Bad Reasons to Self-Publish
What Is Involved in Self-Publishing?
Self-publishing involves an extensive list of tasks. Before you embark on a self-publishing project, be sure that you're willing to take on the following:
Do I Have to Do This All Myself?
The good news is that you don't have to do everything yourself -- and you probably shouldn't. One key to running a successful business is knowing what you can do effectively yourself -- and what you should delegate to others. Many writers, for example, are not skilled at graphic design or artwork. Many prefer to hire an editor or proofreader for the final stages of manuscript development. You can also hire a fulfillment service to warehouse and ship your books (and, in some cases, accept credit card orders). You may be able to hire an 800-number service to accept telephone orders. And since self-publishing involves some complex bookkeeping tasks, using an accountant to prepare your taxes is always a good idea.
The bad news is that professional help increases your costs. When you calculate the per-book cost of printing a book, be sure to include any costs incurred in hiring a graphic designer, illustrator, or cover artist. Even though these services add to your costs, however, they also add to the overall quality of your product -- making it much more marketable. Otherwise, you may save money but end up with a book that no one wants to buy.
Will I Have to Get a Business License?
If you plan to self-publish your book in print form, the answer is usually "yes." You are entering the business of selling a tangible product -- and that makes you a retailer. (If you are selling your book electronically, and issuing it only via downloads rather than in disk form, you may be able to bypass some of these requirements.) "Doing business" as a publisher generally means:
Can I Self-Publish My Book and Then Sell it to a Commercial Publisher?
Many writers believe that by self-publishing a book, they make it more attractive to a commercial publisher than a mere manuscript. I suspect this is because they believe that a publisher will be impressed by the sight of an actual, published book.
The sad fact is that this is not the case. Publishers are not in the business of buying books. They are in the business of creating books from previously unpublished manuscripts. They are not impressed by a book simply because it "looks" like a book (rather than like a manuscript). They want to be the first in the market with a title, not second or last. So if you wish to self-publish primarily in hopes that a commercial publisher will want to pick up your title, you'll do much better trying to market your manuscript in the traditional fashion instead.
However, as in all things, there are exceptions. If you can demonstrate that there is (a) a significant market for your book, and (b) that you have been successful in reaching that market, you may find that you can interest a publisher in taking over the title. The key lies in proving that the book can sell. If, as a self-publisher, you're able to sell two or three thousand copies, you will have demonstrated that the book has a market. In other words, before you can sell your self-published book to a commercial publisher, you still have to become a successful self-publisher!
Before you race to seek a commercial publisher, however, you may want to determine whether, in fact, that publisher will be able to sell more books (or even as many) as you can. When I self-published my first book, "Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet," I sold an average of several hundred copies per year; over a period of ten years, I sold nearly 5000 copies. When I sold it to a commercial publisher, sales dropped to fewer than 200 copies per year -- and after the first year, the title was "backlisted" and relegated to a tiny blurb at the back of the publisher's catalog. Keep in mind that you will always have a greater vested interest in marketing and selling your book than most publishers.
Which Is Better, Print or Electronic Self-Publishing?
The answer to this question is "it depends." Each format has advantages and disadvantages.
The primary advantage of print publication is the simple fact that print books have a much wider audience than electronic books, regardless of the topic or genre. Statistics [at time of writing] indicate that only 14% of all books sold in the U.S. are sold through electronic channels, and e-books constitute only a tiny fraction of that amount. This means that the vast majority of the book-buying public (and your potential market) still prefers physical books and buys them through non-electronic channels.
My own experience supports this conclusion. I currently have two books available in both print and electronic editions -- the print editions through commercial publishers, the electronic editions listed through my own websites. I provide the same amount of promotion for each edition of each book, and the electronic editions are less expensive than the print editions. Yet for each book, print copies outsell electronic copies by 10 to 1. In terms of profits, therefore, I'm still making more money from the limited royalties of the print editions than from the much higher royalties of the electronic editions.
It is also much easier to have print books reviewed (either by major publications or by special-interest magazines), accepted by libraries, and (occasionally) carried in bookstores. While it's difficult for self-publishers to persuade bookstores to carry their print titles, it's almost impossible to persuade them to carry e-books. Finally, you're more likely to find opportunities for "quantity sales" of a print book -- e.g., sales to professional organizations, groups, classes, etc.
The downside of print publishing is the cost. Your initial investment to produce the book is high, and you will have higher ongoing marketing costs. Selling a print book also means becoming a retailer (getting a business license, collecting sales tax, etc.). Self-publishing a print book means a greater investment of time, effort, and funds -- and these factors should be considered carefully before you make a decision.
The primary advantage of electronic books is the low cost (or, indeed, near absence of cost) to produce them. Even if you choose to pay for professional cover design (a good idea), your cost per book will be extremely low. An e-book may exist as nothing more than a computer file that can be e-mailed to the customer, or downloaded from a website. Even if you choose to distribute the book on disk or CD-ROM, your production costs are far less than for a print book (as are your shipping costs). You will also tend to sell more books at retail, as there are few avenues for "quantity sales" of e-books (which could also be considered a disadvantage!).
So, again, the answer is "it depends" -- on what you are willing to invest and what you hope to gain from that investment. It also depends on the market -- some markets may be well-suited to electronic books, while others may contain a larger percentage of "traditional" readers who are less likely to buy an e-book. To answer this question, therefore, you'll need to conduct your own market research to determine where your readers are -- and which format will be most likely to appeal to that readership.
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen