Ask D.I.: Should you self-publish?

Should you self-publish?
Should you self-publish?

Should you self-publish? In a previous post, I briefly discussed self-publishing as a potential option for writers who would like to publish and distribute their work. However, how do you know if self-publishing is right for you?

Below is an excerpt from a question sent via email:

Do you have any ideas about traditional vs. self-publishing? I wrote a book a year ago that has been collecting dust on my computer. I’m thinking about publishing it myself…thoughts?

For some writers, self-publishing is a last resort. In this view, self-publishing is the “second choice” option, the back-up plan for when forays into traditional publishing don’t pan out. However, many other writers celebrate self-publishing as a way to maintain their independence and creative control.

So should you self-publish? Here is a list of factors to consider when considering whether or not you should self-publish.

          1) Cost

Typically, the only upfront cost an author faces when pursuing the traditional publishing route is the cost of postage for their query letters and manuscript submissions. (And now that querying has gone mostly digital, even those costs have gone down.) Should your work be accepted, publishing houses foot the bill for getting your work ready for distribution.

If you want to self-publish, realize that you’re now going to have to cover these expenses yourself. These costs include:

Developmental editing.  I strongly discourage independent authors from relying on their ability to self-edit. For your first book, it might be helpful to hire a developmental (or structural) editor.  It’s this person’s job to go through your work and find plot inconsistencies, pacing issues, poor characterization, and other artistic problems that might be hurting your book.

Copy editing. Even if you feel that your work won’t benefit the developmental style of professional editing, you will still likely need a copy editor, who will proofread your book for any grammatical errors. Remember: you’re a professional. A book that’s full of grammatical and syntactical errors gives the wrong impression to your readers.

Distribution. E-book distribution via online vendors like Amazon doesn’t have to cost you anything out of pocket, though they will take a share of your book sales. (This article from Publisher’s Weekly provides a solid rundown on the various distribution services available.) Want paper copies of your work? Services like CreateSpace will print your books in exchange for a percentage of sales.

Estimates for the total cost of self-publishing vary: The Guardian placed the cost at a whopping $6,000, though there are some entrepreneurial authors who have self-published for less. Admittedly, these steep expenses can look daunting to any would-be self-published authors.

There is, however, an upside: self-publishing usually pays out higher royalties than traditional publishing does. Publishing houses usually pay authors about 15% of total sales. Your agent will then take another 15% from what you’re paid, leaving you with 12.75% of total sales. To put it differently: say your book’s sales are worth $10,000. The publishing house will take $8,500, your agent will take $225, and you will be left with $1,275. In exchange for these low royalty rates, the publisher takes on all of the risk. If your book flops, you don’t end up getting hurt financially; the publisher does.

The aforementioned indie print and e-book distributors? They usually pay authors between 50% and 80% of sales. So if your book’s sales are worth $10,000, you’ll get between $5,000 and $8,000.

Should you self-publish?
Some writers see traditional publishing as a threat to their creative freedom.

          2) Control

Traditional publishing is a fundamentally collaborative process. Your agent will help you edit your work before they submit it to publishers. Your chosen publishing house will then appoint an in-house editor, who will help you revise your work further. This is great in terms of helping you create a work that is the best that it can possibly be.

However, there are some things—your cover design, your title, your marketing plan—that, in traditional publishing, you don’t have ultimate control over.

Self-publishing gives you more agency in terms what your book looks like, where it should be sold, how much it should cost, etc. Having that freedom of choice can be a very liberating thing. It can also be overwhelming, so make sure that you adequately prepare yourself for the amount of work involved. Planning is key.

The final verdict?

There are many upsides and downsides to self-publishing versus traditional publishing. What method you ultimately prefer comes down to your own priorities. Do you want less financial risk and a broader reach? Traditional publishing is your way to go. Do you want more creative control and higher royalties? Self-publishing might be for you.

What do you think? Which do you prefer: self-publishing or traditional publishing?

Do you have a question that you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

2 thoughts on “Ask D.I.: Should you self-publish?

  1. Thanks for breaking down some of the numbers on the royalties. It makes the decision a little easier. Basically I’m thinking, if I believe I can independently generate $1,500-2,000 in sales for every $10,000 that a traditional publisher can generate, then going indie starts to make good financial sense.

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