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Self-Publishing: Think Before You Ink

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You’re smart. You’ve got amazing experience. You’ve got a year of your life to kill. You should totally write a book!


When you decide to take this step, you will have to decide whether to self-publish or pursue a traditional publisher. I chose to self-publish my new book for three important reasons:

  1. I wanted to own my material.
  2. It yields much better margins.
  3. No one else offered to publish it.

I did make half an effort to sell my manuscript to a traditional publisher. I sent queries (including sample chapters) to about 20 agents and editors. I heard back from maybe half. The feedback was polite but clear -- you’re all right, but we’re going to pass.

With this feedback, I figured I might be able to sell it, but the process would take several months and consume hundreds of hours that I could otherwise spend -- the thing I wanted to be doing in the first place.

So I went solo.

The book came out last month, and while it’s not a best seller, I’m pleased with the results so far. I have learned a lot in the process, and I highly recommend spending some time thinking through the decision before you rush off down one road or the other.

Related: The World's Best Marketing Tool: Writing a Book

Pros of traditional publishers.

They know what they’re doing. You don’t. Sure, you will pick a lot of it up eventually, but -- especially with your first book -- it makes good sense to ally yourself with people who have been there.

They are a one-stop shop that will handle editing, design, printing and distribution. You give up some control, but it saves monumental amounts of time dealing with details and logistics that are outside of your core competence (and interest).

Distribution. Anyone can get a book onto Amazon, but if you crave entry into Barnes & Noble or those pretty airport bookstores, traditional publishers can get you there.

MoneyThey pay you an advance on royalties and cover the cost of printing. You take no financial risk other than the profound opportunity cost of writing the damn thing.

CachetIt’s just cooler to say, “I’m on the same imprint as Michael Lewis” than “I’m on Createspace” (Amazon’s print-on-demand service, which has actually done great things for independent authors).

Related: How to Get Famous Fast: Real Life Hack for Entrepreneurs

Cons of traditional publishers:

UncertaintyIt takes a long time to get a publisher. First, you have to get an agent. Well, you don’t have to, but it helps a lot. The agent takes your manuscript out to the publishers. Maybe they like it; maybe they don’t. It could take years to sell, if it sells at all.

Speed to marketIf you need to publish quickly, go it alone. Traditional publishers will fit you in according to their calendar and the long ordering lead times bookstores require. On the other hand, you can upload a pdf to Createspace today and have a book back within a week.

Loss of controlIn most cases, you will not have the right of final approval. If you don’t like the cover or other specs, tough turkey -- it isn't yours anymore.

Money. If the book sells like hot cakes, you have very limited upside. Plus, agents take 10-15percent of your earnings.

If you decide to self-publish, take this tips to heart.

Hire a great book coach to lead you through the process, edit thoughtfully and design a great-looking product. Online publishers like Blurb or Lulu can help you find the all the resources you need. There are also 360-degree services like Book in a Box that will take your idea, actually write it, then provide or source everything from distribution to publicity.

Budget your time to record an audiobook and to get your foot in the ebook door. I can’t believe how many people have told me they only listen to audiobooks. There’s a real market there.

Think hard before you try to sell the book yourself. Even efficient ecommerce plugins for your website can be difficult to set up. And fulfillment is a bear. Amazon knows what it’s doing, so consider running everything through them and sacrificing a little profit for sake of your fragile sanity.

Understand your marketing limitations. The great news -- there are unlimited ways to market your book! The bad news -- there are unlimited ways to market your book! To the extent you can, outsource to an expert.

Related: How Self-Publishing Can Establish You as an Expert

Here’s the most important thing I learned: you should only write a book if you can’t not write a book. The process is maddening, stressful and comes with a significantly negative expected financial return. 

So after the torture of writing, making and marketing your debut effort, you’ll be shocked when you can’t not write your second one. 

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