Thursday, October 14th, 2010

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish
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Ever have that feeling that somewhere inside you is a great book, just waiting to happen? Well, this is one of those “good news, bad news” situations. On the good end of things, it has never been easier to publish; on the bad side, you might be foolish enough to go it on your own.

Yes, You Can Write a Book

I share the following suggestions with you, for whatever they’re worth, while recognizing that my approach to this process is likely different from than the one you’ll take. From the number of requests I’ve had for such information though, I am left with the feeling that this may prove helpful.

After writing a book, I’ve come to feel that doing so is somewhat like running a marathon, and that it maintains a special kind of status in our society. Part of this may relate to how arduous a task it seems, while remaining entirely attainable.

That, in my mind, is the entire challenge with a book. Many have told me that they have a book in them. And yes, you probably have one in you too, but, no, you probably won’t ever write one. This isn’t because you don’t have a good story to tell, or a great writing style. Yours may be one of the best. The entire issue comes down to whether you have the diligence to peck away at a typewriter while episodes of Mad Men and Weeds beckon from the television in the adjacent room.

In spite of such observations (which are probably quite accurate) many still want to give it a whirl. I don’t blame them. Writing a book does come with a great many benefits: you can use such a tool to help connect with your customers, fortify your position as a professional, and even (possibly) generate a little dough. Greater than all of that is the distinct pleasure that comes from holding your own book in your hands.

About 35 Blog Posts (not)

I always expected that there was a trick to writing a book: some spark of magic, a bolt of inspiration, or, a moment of great insight. From what I can surmise, little of this is the case. To me, writing a book eventually started to feel like any other kind of work. Actually, once I started to picture the project in this fashion, it became a more manageable undertaking.

At the beginning of writing Speak Human, I looked upon it like writing approximately 35 blog articles (simple math: most of my posts weigh in at around 3,000 words). This wasn’t an illogical way to look at the task at hand, but it did prove inaccurate: word count is one thing, but determining the pacing and structure of a book is quite a bit more involved, requiring significantly more time to resolve.

I did start with a rough outline of the book, but had a hard time settling upon it as definitively as I should have. This proved to cost me a lot of extra time later in the process. For my next book, I’ll refine the topic and structure well in advance of stitching together even a single sentence. The sheer volume of a book demands such discipline from the outset.

Additionally, I feel that I suffered from trying to pack more into my book than I should have. In retrospect, my inability to really focus left me with what feels like three volumes all mushed into one. This isn’t altogether bad, as I had envisioned it as a book for those needing to market small businesses, and I think this structure is likely quite useful to them. Given the foresight to reign it in a little more, I believe its thesis could have been more powerful and persuasive.

Some other brief tips to aspiring authors: Figure out what you want from your book, in terms of returns (be they awareness, financial gain, or what have you) and then lower your expectations. Following that, I encourage you to work out how long you expect it will take you to get all of your thoughts down. My suggestion is that you multiply this figure by 10, and double it to afford sufficient time for editing.

Why I Wrote and Self-Published My Book

I had wanted to write a book for an awfully long time, and the experience I had gained by posting on ideasonideas left me with the feeling that I could probably make it happen. Similarly, I reasoned that those who enjoyed the blog might feel inclined to drop 20 dollars to give the book a spin.

I didn’t work with a traditional publisher because I was impatient. Although one had been in touch with an offer to publish, I felt that the lead time they required (about 2 years) to get to bookshelves was longer than I could wait. Sure, I could have pitched my book idea to others, but I lacked some confidence, given that I didn’t have much credibility as a writer. This may sound a little pathetic, but I didn’t know anyone in the book business. The notion of finding an agent, publisher, and all the rest just, seemed more daunting than simply writing.

I reasoned that a book was really a number of blog articles printed on paper. Given that I had already written many, many blog articles—not to mention my experience in designing printed documents, I couldn’t really see what would impede me from connecting the dots. Meanwhile, self-publishing resonated with my “control freak” tendencies. I could select the topic, timeline, format, marketing, cover design, and so on. I also was excited to gain first-hand experience in publishing a book from start to finish.

All of this came together a few hours after breaking my pinky toe. The injury compromised my mobility, making the trip to the office seem arduous. So, I hobbled to a coffee shop, where I proceeded to write bits and pieces of my yet untitled book. Although I don’t suggest this as a way to start a book, it did turn out to be quite effective.

Why Self-Publishing is Awesome

Over the past years we’ve heard an awful lot about a changing of the guard in publishing. This came with the promise of a future in which the spoils would be distributed to the creators of the content, instead of those pesky middlemen. I’ve certainly made this argument before, and in ways it’s not entirely unsound. Thinking that it’s a well-rounded take on the situation would be a mistake, though.

For what it’s worth, self-publishing does have its (not unsubstantial) advantages. First of all, you really can control it: change the book when you want, augment the price as you wish, and select the delivery device. Better yet, the rights to the content remain yours, regardless of who you choose to have output the materials for you. None of these points are trifle, and I think we all need to be very aware of that. Self-publishing is in many respects very good for artists.

Should you choose to self-publish, you’ll likely appreciate how easy it is to maintain your own voice (as you’re probably the main person working on it). With that said, you’d be wise to enlist an editor who can give you solid feedback and help refine what you’ve put down. The nice part with self-publishing is that you can determine who this will be.

Given how screwy the actual publisher/book-seller business model is, self-publishing can also be much better for the environment. This is most notable if you’re using a print-on-demand service, as they only run as many of copies of your book as are actually ordered. (Contrast this with the old way of doing things, in which a surplus is printed, with the bulk eventually being shredded.)

All of this is secondary to why so many self-publish, though. Most just look at the numbers and realize how much greater of a cut of the profit they receive by self-publishing. It’s hard to not be swayed by this math.

What You Probably Haven’t Anticipated

The unfortunate part of this math is that it’s largely incomplete. Yes, your margins are much higher if you self-publish, but your costs will be too. While a traditional publisher will take on editing, printing, and marketing costs, as well as the many hours involved in administering all of these things, the self-publisher bears the brunt of such expenses alone. This may sound inconsequential, but just consider the cost of shipping out review copies. We’ve worked out that the cost per review copy of Speak Human (factoring in time for making contact, following up, writing notes, as well as postage and the wholesale cost of the book) is somewhere around $40/unit.

I can’t say this definitively, but I’m quite confident in guessing that most self-published books have no profit. Or, for those few dollars that do come in, they’re quickly gobbled up by all these other expenses that are so difficult to imagine until faced first-hand.

The hard costs in self-publishing aren’t really that big of a deal. Yes, they can be substantial, but they’re nothing compared to the time required to launch, market, and support a new book. You’ll need to ask for reviews—and wait for these reviews to come in. You’ll need to print proofs—and wait for CreateSpace to send yours to 5 other addresses before they actually get yours right. You’ll (possibly) need to get an ISBN in a couple of countries and fill out all of the associated paperwork. You’ll have to deal with Amazon, and other online outlets in order to get your title listed—and just forget about ever seeing your work on bookstore shelves. It may go without saying, but these sorts of tasks do start to eat through days.

A few will reason that marketing their book will be easy, as they already maintain a blog with high readership or have a great number of Twitter followers. While both of these can prove valuable, it’s important to understand that blog readers don’t have a 1-to-1 conversion into book buyers. Sadly, it’s more like 100-to-1. While a blog article can be read over coffee, a book requires a real commitment. Fewer people are willing to make that commitment than you probably think. (Want evidence of this? Look at your bookshelf and consider how many books you have, versus how many you have actually taken the time to read.)

It Isn’t All Equal

I’m a great admirer of Seth Godin, both for how clearly he conveys complex ideas, and how forthcoming and generous he’s been to me. So, when he made his proclamation about bypassing publishers, I had mixed feelings. Most times when Seth writes, he very deliberately avoids writing about himself (a brilliant strategy), and instead wraps the topic around his reader. In this case he (likely inadvertently) lost track of that and wrote more about his experience.

This isn’t altogether bad, as his was a personal recollection; it’s just that he’s in a different place than you and me. Seth can say “no” to the publishing industry and do it on his own successfully. This is because he’s a better marketer than the rest of us, and he has amassed an immense body of work. After so many books, coupled with his speaking history and blog following, he can go his own way—much like Metallica could self-publish their music if they wanted to. You, though… you aren’t Seth (or Lars).

While Seth has amassed all of this influence and depth—none-to-mention experience in publishing, you and me are left to slug though it alone. Along the way, you will get to experience a great deal of “suckage.” You will learn that creating an eBook actually requires knowledge and research, and that at times it kind of sucks. You will need to determine whether you’ll use MLA or Chicago Style, and this too can suck a little. In the event that you are brave enough to create an index, you will soon learn that doing so also sucks.

No matter how many times you, or others, proofread your book, the errors will never seem to end, which will suck. There’s also the possibility that you use CreateSpace to publish your book. Should you do so, you will soon realize that they suck so greatly, they should be in the vacuum business.

I’m Not Shilling for Publishers

In going over that last part, I realize I’m painting a dismal picture of the self-publishing process. (For what it’s worth, HarperCollins isn’t paying me to spread such notions.) In spite of how this post may read, I remain a fan of self-publishing. It’s a wonderful tool, and I believe it’s a good thing, even for traditional publishers.

At the same time, I do feel that we need to consider this method carefully, and avoid falling into some kind of a fantasy of “easy riches.” Just like the advent of desktop publishing didn’t render designers irrelevant, the rise of self-publishing will not compromise the publishing industry at large. Sure, there will be a little upset and a bit of a shakedown, but this, in my opinion, will pass quite quickly. In time, we will see that there is plenty of room for both of these means.

Next Time, I’ll Probably Go “Old School”

I learned a great deal from my experience self-publishing Speak Human and feel that the exercise has so far been relatively successful. With my next book (which I’m already mulling over) I do think I’ll look to enlist the support of a publisher. In light of all that I have experienced, there are a few advantages to the traditional route that I just can’t look past at this stage in my career.

Many look upon traditionally published books with a little more respect than titles that are self-published. A publisher’s label can be perceived as a vote of confidence for those who aren’t familiar with an author’s writing. Plus, publishers afford nice benefits like dedicated marketing departments (for those of us who don’t feel like pitching our own books all day long), and those handy folks called “editors” who make books… ummm… worth reading.

Writing a book is awfully addictive. Upon completing the first one, I immediately found myself stumbling upon potential topics for follow-up efforts. Additionally, a book can prove a useful method of securing new speaking gigs, solidifying your thinking on a topic, and forcing a substantial amount of directed research.

I want to have all of those wonderful experiences again. The other thing I want is access to store shelves. (Something that’s made much easier with the support of one of them old fashioned publishers.)

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. I have been meaning to write a post about my difficulties (and successes) in writing, publishing, and marketing my 2010 book, Brand Zeitgeist.

    Your post echos many of the thoughts I have been considering for my post:
    -Blog readers, twitter followers, etc do not equal book buyers.
    -POD books are treated as red-headed stepchildren (who have the plague) by traditional bricks-n-mortar bookstores.
    -I also thought Seth's announcement was possible only by someone with the credentials and experience of Seth.

    Potential authors should be aware of the sweeping suck of time and energy that goes into writing and promoting a book. I'm glad, with the economy, that my marketing speaking and consulting clients decreased slightly in 2010 because I don't know how I would have had time to do the book and take care of the business. There's also the issue that you get tired of pitching yourself.

    That said, I'm glad I wrote the book. But the next one (it is addictive) will be written through the traditional route.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Interesting to hear about your experiences, and that there are some common points that we both experienced. :-)

    Mine is, of course, a rather incomplete assessment of which route is best. I feel that this post really needs an update once I’ve tried the other way. I haven’t experienced that method, so, who knows? Perhaps the challenges faced with a traditional publisher will be equally daunting.

    A friend of mine recently went the traditional route, and found that his publisher really hung him out to dry when it came to support. It does seem that the experience varies greatly, depending upon who you’re working on.

    Nice to hear that you too are "addicted"—sort of surprising how it grabs hold, isn’t it?

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  4. Armin Vit says:

    > "I can’t say this definitively, but I’m quite confident in guessing that most self-published books have no profit. "

    The following is in no way an attempt to brag, or rub it in anyone's face, and it's something I go in-depth in my talks, so it's no big secret. With our self-published book, Flaunt, on how to design print portfolios to get jobs, we have made a profit of over $35,000 in seven months. We spent about $15,000 upfront to print 2,000 copies and to ship actual portfolios into our office for photographing. We sell it as a book ($25) and as a PDF ($15); everything goes through us, we don't do Amazon or any other downloading service. Yes, it's a pain in the ass to go to the post office every other day, but we don't have to pay anyone any fees.

    Again, this is just to give a counter-point to Eric's experience. Our sales probably pale in comparison to Godin, or Tufte, or 37signals' Getting Real, but for us, they are awesome.

  5. Hi Armin,

    Glad to hear that you were that successful with Flaunt—then, of course, I sort of expected that from you!

    For numbers, I think Speak Human has probably seen a similar number of units sold. Per unit profits, however, have been quite a bit lower for us, due to the cut that Amazon, CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and all the rest take.

    Part of my math on this relates to time invested on all of those things like trips to the post office. Clearly, we just need to buy a machine to use in office for expediting this. That being said, I do often fall into the trap of discounting my time as not being worth much, and then handling such tasks personally. (This is sort of bonkers, when I consider our billable rates.)

    In my mind, the important part about what you bring up here relates to audience and focus. It strikes me that the “UnderConsideration family” is perhaps the best known design network. As such, your audience is very well defined and, therefore, the book was a very good fit for your readers.

    We tend to meander a little more at smashLAB (not something that’s always in one’s best interest). So, while the audience for ideasonideas is largely comprised of designers, Speak Human was really written for small business owners. There’s some overlap between these groups, but it’s not really a tight fit.

    If I were in your spot, self-publishing would be a no-brainer. In order to connect with a somewhat less familiar audience, however, I’d now treat access to bookstore shelves with a lot more weight than I initially had. Part of this relates to the number of people who’ve said to me, “I tried to get it at my bookstore, but they have to special order it.”

    Plus, I personally like to buy books on impulse. So, while I’m glad that everyone who ordered my book made a deliberate decision to do so, I’d be happy to hear that others bought it on a whim, just because they were a little curious about it.

    Part of this relates to expectations as well. I’ve come to feel that I’m less interested in profit on a book, and much more compelled by reaching as many people as I can. (But, profit is still nice.)

  6. Courtney says:

    I enjoyed your article. I have written a book, fiction, and am looking at self publishing through a publisher. I know it sounds a bit wonky, but there you have it. You are the most passionate about your book, and therefore you are the best person to market it. I'm going to go through PublishNext's Evoke Press, who will do all of the indexing, ISBNing, print on demanding for me. It's my job to market, as it would have been if I published through a traditional publisher.

  7. I agree Courtney. Even if going the traditional route, author involvement in the marketing is very important!

  8. Tony Wanless says:

    Good Post, and I understand your (and Chris') antipathy to self-publishing. However, I don't think you should view the traditional route with rose-colored glasses either.

    As a ghostwriter, editor, or producer of 10 books, I've worked both sides of this street and I can tell you that traditional publishing has changed, and is even more brutal in many ways.

    First, it's very hard to get picked up by a traditional publisher. If you don't have a large constituency already, i.e. a very popular column or blog, or a big name, or an organization that will probably buy an expected amount of copies, a trad publisher won't even look at you. You may have the greatest idea on earth, but they don't care: They calculate how many of your books they can sell.

    Second, there is the long time period involved. Two years is being generous. And you can bet your advance -- if you get one -- will be pathetic. These guys don't give money away.

    Third, don't kid yourself. Except for some initial advertising (if you're lucky), or a few bucks for a launch party, you'll still have to take care of your own marketing, etc.

    Fourth, your royalty on a book is poverty level, like a dollar or two a book. Again, unless you're a star.

    Lastly, both you and Chris are right in that bookstores won't accept self-published books (although Amazon will). But then they don't accept every book from a traditional publisher either. And even if they do accept your book, they'll probably pick up one or two copies and bury them somewhere on the back shelves. If you want to be up front where people can see you, you'll have to pay for the privilege.

    Publishers today are really just factories. They'll produce a book for you, but they'll also force you to take on most of the work they used to do but now avoid because it's too costly.

    That's why so many people have gone the self-publishing route.

    BTW: Judging from the almost weekly calls I get regarding helping people write books, you're right on the button with this advice.

  9. Thanks Tony--very nice to have your perspective on this too! Part of why I wrote this post was to start a bit of a discussion on pros and cons on either end of the spectrum. I appreciate you sharing some of your observations!

  10. Miguel says:

    Great article Eric!
    I actually saw you speaking at the Y-13 conferece in San Diego a couple of years ago (I did all the intros for the conference) and really enjoyed your talk, keep it up!


  11. Thanks Miguel--I really enjoyed that conference. Your design community and chapter of the AIGA seems particularly vital and committed. Would love to come down there again someday!

  12. Very interesting article.

    I too recently wrote, designed and self published my first book. I did the online (amazon/barns) via lightning source path. Here are some thoughts/what I learned:

    Make no mistake, self publishing is not a singular task ... you are starting a business. Most businesses don't make a profit right away, so the best way to sell a book (build your self publishing business) is to do another book. Mmmm more work, great.

    Personally I like doing the POD route because I don't have to self mail or deal with stocking hundreds of books. But guess what, those people who do all that make more money ... to each their own right.

    Also, if you go through a big publisher you most likely will not own the rights to the creative content. But the trade off is, there is a greater chance more people will see your book because the publisher will have connections with books stores, libraries and marketing streams. So what's better, owning your own content with no one really seeing it (unless you already have a large audience), or someone owning it and allowing them to share it with a bigger audience. Kind of like if a book falls in a forest and there is no one to read it, is it a book or just a tree cut up in a bond format?

    Thank you for listening to my lame attempts to be witty.


  13. Well said James--thanks for sharing your experiences here!

  14. Jerry Johns says:

    Really enjoyed the post. I recently start putting my blog entries and work into published format, online.

    With the way the internet is, it's nice being able to publish your own work immediately, and get paid for it!

    I don't personally think I'm a good enough writer to go to a 'real' publisher, but for $49 I can publish my stuff on Clickbank, and people will pay to read it. :) That's just nutty to me.

  15. David Airey says:

    As a first-time author, I had an excellent experience working with Peachpit (and it's New Riders publishing arm). The editing support was fantastic — better than I imagined — but what surprised me the most was how after less than a year in print, my book's now available in Polish, German, and Chinese, with Czech, Korean, and Portuguese scheduled for 2011.

    I'm fairly confident that had I attempted to launch translations, I'd be looking back on a botch-job.

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  19. Melissa Milazzo says:

    Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful article. I think this is the most balanced meditation I've read on the topic of self-publishing. You are certainly one of the first I've seen to include pre and post production costs in the (potential) profit margin for a book. I am an editor for a major publishing house and I can assure you that proofreading, typesetting, ISBN assignment, marketing costs and sales costs are a big part of our budget for any given book! The thought of trying to cover those costs and do as good of a job as a team of professional marketers, editors and salesfolk would keep me from trying to self publish my own work.

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  21. Beth Barany says:

    Eric, Thanks for your frank comments about your experience. I've published 4 books, 3 for print and 1 digitally for myself and my clients, and i have to say that I'm addicted to it! All print books were using Lightning Source, and I find they don't suck.

    My upfront costs are low, and my royalties trickle in monthly. Sweet!

    Getting my book in bookstores, like you, not so easy. The best I've been able to manage is getting them in local indie bookstores.

    To the point of bookstores...

    You write:"The other thing I want is access to store shelves. (Something that’s made much easier with the support of one of them old fashioned publishers.)"

    According to Mike Shatzkin over at Idea Logical Blog, bookstores are on their way out, and publishers need to learn to sell direct to consumers:

    My point is: you have done and are doing what the big traditional publishers are just learning to do -- communicate directly with your readers.

    Lastly, just wondering why you priced your book so high in compared to similar books?

    Thanks for all you're doing from a newbie to your blog! (I followed a tweet and found your post!)

    Beth Barany

  22. Hi Beth,

    Thanks for all of your notes and the link. Nice to have you share them here. :-)

    The price of the book was largely determined by looking at what comparable texts were going for in bookstores.



  23. Beth,

    Good point about B2C compared to B2B (publisher selling to bookstores). I t0o used Lightning Source (spelled correctly) ... unlike createspace and lulu you have to be a business to work with LS. Great thing is LS connects you directly with and Also, the brick a mortar stores can order the books at any time if some one walks in an orders them. They most likely won't order the book unless the book is returnable and they get a solid discount.

    Eric summed it up in so many words, it depends on what you want? I think we are still at the point where a publisher can put your book in more people's eyes sooner than the self publish route (unless you are famous). But I always come back to ownership ... if you do all that work and they publish it, they most likely own it (for a while atleast).

    To each their own,
    James Pannafino

  24. Joshua Dance says:

    Thanks for the open and interesting look at self publishing vs. traditional.

    I especially like the part about when you likend writing a book to running a marathon. It is incredible accessible, yet most people hold it in certain regard and it holds a special place in our society.

  25. Thanks Joshua--glad you found it helpful!

  26. Alan says:

    Excellent article. By the way, there is an erratum: "about him experience."

  27. Thanks for noticing--updated. :-)

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  29. Alex says:

    Been thinking about doing this myself, thanks for the advice...

  30. Hi,
    Thanks for the article.
    I made it ever harder on myself by designing/writing a text based baby board book titled "HTML for Babies". I had to go through a pretty big printer to be able to do the board book binding.
    I went from thinking it was no sweat to sell 2000 to thinking I was a fool to ever imagine I could sell 10, and back again.
    During this roller coaster ride of emotions I am learning take it one thing at a time and try to build it. For me it’s been important to still believe in the original idea or I would be miserable.
    You mentioned 1-100 blog readers to book buyers. That is one lesson I have learned you need many many eyeballs on your book to even get one moved.

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