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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