Why Self-Publish — Part 1

You’ve finished your manuscript, or you’re getting very close to the end, and your mind is starting to turn to getting your work published. The hard work is almost over. Well … not quite.

I’d like to start this book on a positive note by confirming that all of the work is, in fact, behind you, but I can’t. You still have a fair bit to do. How much will depend on the path you intend to follow. Will you try to find a ‘traditional publisher’ to take your manuscript through to publication, or will you go down the self-publishing path? There is even a third path, but that is one to be avoided at all costs — more about that later.

Be clear on what your goals are and who your likely audience is

Before you even think about which of those paths to follow, you need to consider an even more fundamental question, one that will help you decide which is the best path for you to follow with your manuscript.

It’s a simple question — why did you write the manuscript you have written?

Was it because your aspiration is to be a best-selling, or at least a moderately successful, author (really aspire, that is, not just dream of such an outcome as almost every writer does at some point)? Was it simply to scratch an itch? Was it because you have some important knowledge you would like to share with a specific group of potential readers? Was it because you want to share a memoir or all that detail from your family history research with your broader circle of friends and family, or was there some other reason? Do you expect that there will be more to follow? Is this a one-off, or are you already thinking about (perhaps even working on) your next manuscript? What are your realistic hopes and expectations?

Having a good sense of the answers to these questions will help you establish who your potential audience is. This is as important a consideration as the question of why you wrote your manuscript in the first place. If your audience for your memoir or family history, for example, is your own circle of friends and relatives, you may not want to wait the one, two or even three years to find a traditional publisher and work right through their publishing process. Knowing your audience will also help you answer a number of other questions you will encounter along the way. What sort of cover will appeal to that audience, for example, what format and layout, and so on?

Knowing the answers to these questions will also help you decide which of the broad paths which lie before you you should follow.

Traditional Publishing

I’ll start with traditional publishing, that is, being published by a publishing company. Note that this does not include ‘vanity press’ or ‘subsidy publishing’ businesses, which masquerade as traditional publishing houses. That is the third path. More about that later.

Publishing with a major publishing house involves, as a first step, finding the ones that are currently accepting submissions for manuscripts in the genre you have chosen to write in. Once you have identified those publishers (this may not be a very big list), you will then need to submit a query letter or a proposal, along with your manuscript. When they receive your package, your manuscript will go into one of two piles (if you email it to them consider these ‘virtual’ piles). The priority pile will be for manuscripts from authors who have been published previously, though not necessarily by them. The second pile, which is likely to be a big one, will be for manuscripts from unpublished authors.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

As you can imagine, given the likely size of the second pile, the editor who must read those manuscripts and decide whether to offer the author a deal will probably follow a fairly ruthless decision-making process. Many manuscripts will be put aside for a rejection letter after only a few pages or, at best, no more than a chapter. Editors do not have the time to read every manuscript they receive in full and will quickly discard ones they don’t think the publisher can make a profit from.

Assuming you are one of the less than one percent who makes it through that sifting process, you may then be offered a publishing deal. Book deals typically involve the publisher purchasing all of the rights to your book from you. In return for this, you will receive royalties from any sales. In some cases, you may even receive an advance. An advance, however, is just that — an advance payment against future royalties. If you do receive an advance, you will not receive any further payments until royalties from sales exceed the amount already paid to you.

Perhaps more importantly, the publisher will take on the responsibilities and costs associated with designing, printing, distributing and marketing the book. You will be consulted on most of this, but the ultimate decision will rest with the publisher. Remember, they will have purchased the rights to your book.

The above process is usually a very slow one. Count on anywhere between 12 to 24 or more months before you either get a successful response to one of your query letters/proposals/submissions, or before you decide to give up! Dealing with rejection letters (all authors get them — J. K. Rowling received dozens before finally finding a publisher for her Harry Potter novels) can be very depressing. Many of them will give no reason for the rejection. Some may even be rude. A very few might offer some helpful advice.

Then you need to count on another 12 to 24 months to get through the publication process. Yes — it really can take that long! It is a rarity for the process to take less than 12 months.

If you can make it through all of that, as a traditionally published author, you will not have had to pay anything for your book to be published. The flipside is that the publisher will now own the rights to your book. They will pay you a royalty for every book sold. Average royalty rates are between 8% to 15%, though I’ve yet to meet anyone who got anything near 15%.

Pros of Traditional Publishing:

  • Gives you a lot of ‘street cred’ in the writer community, though the alternative, self-publishing, is fast becoming recognised as a completely acceptable way to get your book published.
  • The publisher will cover any editing, layout and cover design costs (this is one of the biggest advantages of traditional publishing).

Cons of Traditional Publishing:

  • You hand over all publishing rights to the publisher, who will then pay you royalties when the books sell. Average royalty rates are between 8% and 15%, as compared to somewhere between 35% and 70% with self-publishing — the publisher has to cover those editing, layout and book cover design costs somehow!
  • You may (this does not happen with all publishers) get paid an advance. However, this is an advance against future royalties. Once paid, you will receive no more payments until your total royalties exceed the amount of the advance already paid to you. 
  • Less than 1% of authors get accepted by a publisher.
  • Of that less than 1%, industry figures indicate that only a small percentage (best estimates are around 10%) of this number will make a profit.
  • If, after many rejections, you are accepted by a publisher (a process which itself may take up to 12  to 24 months or more), it will most likely take a further 12 to 24 months to get the book published and available in the marketplace, with the real possibility of the publisher deciding to pull out of the deal anywhere along the way (this does happen). This means that you can spend months if not years only to end up with a pile of rejection letters and a still unpublished manuscript. Even established authors cannot guarantee that their next manuscript will be accepted by a traditional publisher.
  • You will often find the publisher does a lot less in terms of marketing that you think is appropriate. They are running a business, and every decision to spend money is taken from a business perspective, not from the author’s perspective.
  • You will often find it difficult to easily access information such as up-to-date statistics on sales from the publisher.
  • You may find author copies from a traditional publisher too expensive to make them useful for you to acquire and market yourself locally or otherwise.

More about Why to Self-Publish next week!

Click on this link if you haven’t already signed up for my Mailing List but would like to do so. I will then drop you an email to let you know whenever I post a new blog.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about self-publishing, and get some easy-to-follow advice on how to do it, why not have a look at my publication: Self-Publishing: A Step-by-Step Guide.

Click on this link if you want to access a list of all of my Writing Tips posts in one place.

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