One of the first discussions I have with any author I work with is: what next? Not as in, what is the next book, although I often do go on to do more than one book with individual authors. But what next, how will they publish the book? This is invariably the cue for me to explain the pros and cons of traditional versus self publishing.
In the early days of my ghosting career, credibility was the focus of the ensuing discussion. Traditional publishing was deemed to be the seal of approval that this was a ‘proper book’. That smart little penguin, or crest, or publisher’s initials, stamped on the base of a book spine spoke volumes about the quality of the content within. Today, this view mainly applies to specific genres, such as literary fiction, where traditional publishers do still play a recognised gatekeeping role. If (and it is a big ‘if’) such a book is picked up by a mainstream publisher, it gives it a certain validation in the eyes of a reader. This is not the case in most non fiction categories, such as business books, or ‘how to’ guides which are now more frequently self published. Exceptions here might include textbooks destined for the classroom, or universities.
So, to weigh up the options for non fiction authors, let’s start with money. If you get a traditional publishing contract, they pay you, as opposed to self publishing where you will be paying for editing, design, printing and marketing. There’ll be an advance, payment on receipt of a manuscript and royalties. Hurrah. Except, forget about any JK Rowling-style, six figure advances. Traditional publishing advances are usually fairly small. In fact, these days they frequently seem to be so small as to have almost disappeared. As for royalties, I am still waiting for royalties from some (high selling) books I wrote a decade ago. Self publishing can be pretty tough financially too. There are stories of people making a decent living from self publishing, but these are the JK Rowlings of the self publishing world. The exception rather than the rule. You will make more money per book sold than via traditional means, but to really make big money out of self publishing you need to publish a series of books. A series creates a better chance to sell because if one book inspires a reader, they’ll automatically pick up the next one.
Timelines are one of the aspects of the debate that strikes a chord with business and entrepreneurial authors in particular. This is because these are invariably busy people, who are used to creating strategies and seeing them happen. When I explain that traditional publishers can often take up to a year to get a book onto the bookshelf once the manuscript has been completed, I often hear a groan. Many businesspeople pen their book as part of a wider marketing strategy, to reinforce their position as the expert on sales/leadership/strategy/entrepreneurialism. They want the book out now, reinforcing and building upon that message. A year feels like a very long time. A self published book, on the other hand, can be out in a few short months. Another variation on a similar theme is perception of the lack of control. Traditional publishers have the power to change the date of publication, the cover blurb and request re-writes and sometimes the author will have little say in the matter. The flip side of this is that established publishers are the experts in their field and tend to know what sells. A bit of guidance and advice can go a long way in the very crowded book market.
If the audience for your book is quite specific, say for example you are the world’s expert on child sleep disorders, or have pioneered a new exercise craze, there may be little sense in partnering with a traditional publisher. You will have a substantial existing audience that you will be able to reach easily and thoroughly on your own via your website, blog, events or whatever else brings you in contact with your fanbase. These are all your book buyers. It makes commercial sense to deal with them direct.
None of this is to say that self publishing is the easy option. Far from it. The growth in popularity of self publishing means more and more books are being published. There is no point doing the exercise if no one reads your book, so you need to market it and market it hard. Without the might of a traditional publisher’s experienced marketing and PR department behind you, it is all entirely in your hands from the start. In a business environment, this might mean hitting the conference and speaking circuit. Authors need to use their entrepreneurial skills to the full to sell their books and keep on selling them. If you don’t have a ready-made platform, you will have to become a social media guru. It can practically become a full-time job if you want to make the book really fly. Some people just don’t have the time, inclination or personality for this. It is worth adding here, that even when authors work with traditional publishers, they are also expected to put the time in on promotion. In fact, if they want a book to continue selling long after their publisher’s marketeers have packed up their banners, they need to stay active, marketing-wise.
Of course, the trump card that a traditional publisher can play is distribution. They have access to all the main bricks and mortar bookstores. If an author craves seeing their work on the shelves of Waterstones, this is by far their greatest chance. There are no guarantees, but the odds are much better. However, when it comes to online, your book can be sold via Amazon whatever its provenance.
Ultimately, the success rate for self publishing is not hugely different from traditional publishing. There will be self publishing superstars, just as there are traditional publishing ones. Lined up behind them will be a lot of authors who don’t sell nearly as many books as they wanted to. There is an element of luck and circumstance involved, but in both cases a lot will come down to marketing and promotion. Whatever medium authors choose, they will need to commit to putting in the work long after the manuscript is finished.
Teena Lyons also publishes regular blogs on www.professionalghost.com