What do the books Fifty Shades of Grey, Diary of a Mad Fat Girl, A Time to Kill and Still Alice have in common? Aside from each of these books being featured on the New York Times Bestseller list, each book was also self-published.

Now, what do the books Leaves of Grass, A Room of One’s OwnHuckelberry Finn, Spartacus and Ulysses have in common, aside from being assigned reading for high school students?

Give up?

They too were all self-published.

Many folks view self-publishing as the last refuge of mediocre authors whose works no respectable literary agent or publisher will touch. Self-publishing is also often considered akin to vanity publishing presses such as the National Library of Poetry.

However, self-publishing has not only been around since the dawn of the printing press (or even the pen), it is actually gaining in popularity. A survey conducted by Bowker (a provider of bibliographic information and resources to publishers) found that 148,424 books were self-published in 2011; these books constitute 43% of all the traditional print output for that year.

Why would someone (like yourself) choose to self-publish a book instead of working with an established publisher like Random House or Simon & Schuster?

The Top 3 Reasons You Want to Self-Publish

1. More money.

When a traditional publisher signs on a new author, that publisher typically requires that the author sign away her rights to the book for X years. In exchange, the author receives an average book advance of about $5K and a roughly 5-8% royalty on all retail sales of her book.

Now, that would be a good trade-off if the publisher made great strides to market the book and send the author on book tours, bookstore promotions, etc. However, most publishers nowadays are asking would-be authors how they actually plan to market their book and what kind of audience/fan base they bring with them. Many more authors are being asked to hire PR agents if they wish to make their book successful.

If you’ve ever worked with a marketing firm, you know that marketing ain’t cheap. The average PR campaign runs $10K; generating even a small promotional video costs anywhere from $100-$1,000/minute. Thus, for the supposedly “free” printing of your book by the publisher, you are now shelling out thousands of dollars on marketing in order to make your book successful and not have that publisher lose interest in you. Whatever money you received from your book advance is now long gone, and that piddly royalty of 5-8% hardly seems worthwhile when you think of all the money you are spending just to sell a few books.

In contrast, an author who self-publishes pays for the printing costs up-front; however, these costs are fairly low because as few as one book can be printed at a time. Some self-publishers don’t even bother with printing, offering print-on-demand (POD) services instead as each book copy is sold online. Depending on the publisher you select, you may pay as little as a few bucks for each printed book (and far less for an ebook). This allows you to price your book fairly and to keep more money for yourself.

2. Publishing rights.

Remember when I mentioned that a traditional publisher typically has an author sign away his rights to a book for a certain number of years? In most cases, this may entail you having no rights to your own book for five years; however, some authors have unknowingly signed away all rights to their book(s) for the span of their entire lifetimes- and then some!

What happens when you sign away your rights? Well, let’s say your publisher starts charging $20 for a hardcover version of your novel that no one ends up buying because it’s too expensive. You find out that similarly-themed novels are faring rather well in terms of Kindle sales, but for some reason your publisher has no interest in formatting an ebook. Now you’re stuck with a high-priced and unsaleable hardcover until the timeline of your contract runs out.

Even worse, let’s say you write a sci-fi book and get it published with a traditional publisher that’s not sci-fi genre savvy. Your book sells rather well anyway and you consider writing a trilogy of books on the same theme. After discussing this book trilogy with a publishing company specializing in sci-fi, you’re ready to leave your current publisher for the more sci-fi capable publisher.

Except that you can’t. Thanks to an overlooked contract clause, you have given your current publisher the future rights to any books you write based on the theme of your first book. So, unless you abandon all hope of expanding your current book, you’re stuck.

In the world of self-publishing, you have no such clauses to worry about. The publishing house that you work with charges you primarily for printing costs. Your contract specifies page and cover design charges, not book rights. If you publish your book as a print copy initially and then decide to take it to the Nook or the Kindle, no one can stop you. And if you later decide to make an audio version of your book, you are more than welcome to do that.

3. Marketing control.

You may not have a lot of money to market your book when you are first published, but you can work around this issue by slowly building your audience via your website, blog and social media platforms. You might also wish to work with your audience during your book release; for example, you could have fans review your book on Amazon in exchange for getting it for free. Having lots of book reviews is great for pushing your book title to the top of a paid search engine like Amazon. It’s also great for generating book sales.

Giving away your book for free is an initiative you’d never have the chance to explore if you were working with a traditional publisher. Because your publisher needs to make money now, not later, he is not going to allow you to just give away his (yes, his) product for free.

As your book sales grow, you might also want to raise the price of your product in order to make some profit and to generate a short surge of demand. For example, you might email your blog subscribers with the message that, until the end of the month, your book is priced at only $2.99; however, next month, it will return to its regular price of $5.99. This is also a useful tactic for selling a lot of copies of a freshly-released book (and hopefully gaining the notice of some search engines).

Again, no traditional publisher is going to agree to making a book more expensive with time. Publishers and bookstores are used to discounting older merchandise, not raising prices. But being the intrepid self-publishing genius that you are, you can do as you please with your book marketing until you find a method that works.

How do you self-publish?

There are several decent self-publishing houses including Aventine, Dog Ear Publishing and BookLocker, which I discuss in my post titled “How to Self-Publish Your Next Book Without Getting Hosed.”

A few points to keep in mind are the following: When analyzing self-publishers, always look at how much the author is paid in terms of royalties versus the publisher per book sale. Also, analyze the total printing costs and compare these costs between publishers.

Keep in mind that printing markups can be 100% or higher. Higher printing costs will force you to price your book higher- and if you price it higher than the market will support, no one will buy your book, no matter how good it is.

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Join the Discussion

  • James Wilson
    James Wilson

    Thanks for the advice, especially about an author’s rights.And I never knew that “Shades of Gray” was self published!!!

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