Should You Self-Publish or Commercially Publish Your Book?

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Many entrepreneurs recognize that publishing a book can help drive business. But the decision about whether to publish on your own or try to get a deal with a mainstream publishing house depends on your business goals.

Here are the questions to ask that will enable you to make the decision that’s right for you. (If you’re interested in working with a publisher, please also see my recent post on The Secrets to Landing a Literary Agent.)

Related: 5 Tips for Publishing Your Own Book

Do you need the prestige of a commercial publisher? One of the best reasons to try to win a contract with a publishing house is the prestige that their brand confers upon you. This is less important if you’re talking about a tiny press that others may not have heard of. But being signed by a major New York house or a top-ranked academic publisher lends an imprimatur to your work that self-publishing can’t compete with. The stigma of self-publishing has almost entirely evaporated, but there are still positive branding benefits associated with having a well-known publisher select your work and put it forward.

How big is your potential audience? If you’re writing a book that many people might be interested in – a new take on weight loss for women, or an expert guide to stock picking – then a mainstream publisher may well be interested. Like venture capitalists, they’re looking for books that have the potential to be homeruns and generate massive returns (that can help make up for all their other misses). But if you want to write a book that has an inherently limited audience – health tips for people with a rare disease, for instance – then self-publishing is probably a better way to go.

Is your book time-sensitive? One big disadvantage of working with a mainstream publisher is the very long timeframe (at least, long for the Internet era). It took me two years from signing the deal with for my first book to publication. If you’re writing about a time-sensitive topic or really want to get the word out fast, you can self-publish almost immediately after completing your manuscript.

Related: Want to Write a Book? Consider These 3 Self-Publishing Options.

Do you require an advance? Mainstream publishers typically pay an advance to their authors (i.e., money paid upfront which is an advance on future book revenues). Unless you’re already a big name, it’s unlikely you’d get a big one, but it can nonetheless be helpful. If you really need the money upfront, that’s an additional reason to try for a commercial publishing contract. If it doesn’t matter, self-publishing is far more lucrative on the back end, because you’ll receive a much greater revenue share when people do purchase your book.

Are you willing to handle the technical details? Self-publishing a book has never been easier, thanks to the tools and services that Amazon provides, such as CreateSpace. But when you self-publish, it’s important to recognize that you’ll either have to pay someone to handle the technical details (such as creating cover art, formatting the book and copyediting), or learn how to do it yourself. If you’re willing to take it on, great; if not, that’s another reason to pursue commercial publishing, where all that’s handled for you.

Some people think – erroneously – that the real advantage of working with a mainstream publisher is that they’ll sell your book for you. They may be helpful in getting it into bookstores (though not always), and they may be able to land you some additional media exposure (major newspapers, for instance, often won’t review self-published books). But whether you’re working with a publisher or doing it on your own, recognize that you’re in charge of marketing your book. Others may help, but no one will do it for you completely, and you’ll still need to be enterprising about leveraging your connections and getting the word out.

By asking these questions, you can make a good decision upfront about whether you want to self-publish or make the effort to pursue a contract with a publisher. 

Related: 10 Truths About Self-Publishing for Entrepreneurs With a Book Idea