Ten years ago, self-publishing was a last resort. It was expensive and complicated, and the end product usually ended up looking inferior to the output from a ‘proper’, professional publisher. You could end up short of several thousand pounds and with boxes of not very pro-looking books gathering dust in your garage.
Now it’s different. I recently made a visit to Lightning Source’s printing press in Milton Keynes, and the sight of modern self-publishing at work was mind-blowing. Paper was flying through presses so fast that you couldn’t see any content – just a blur – but this wasn’t a ‘print run’, but a string of different books, some just one-offs, being printed at stunning speed. Covers were added almost as fast. This was revolution, not evolution. Costs have plummeted, print runs can be as short as you like, and you can have total control over your printed work.
This, of course, means that you have to put more work in. The old ‘vanity publishers’ at least typeset your work and designed covers, albeit often not very good ones. However, it is now possible to outsource some of that work. There are freelancers out there for all aspects of book creation, such as editing, layout and cover design. If you want to go down the ‘vanity’ route, this business has cleaned its act up, too, and there are some very good ones about. But please don’t plunge into this world without advice!
The greatest advantage of self-publishing is control. You don’t have to sign any ‘non-compete’ clauses. You can use the material in any way you like. This can be of enormous value.
There is speed. Traditional publishing still proceeds at a pace that would bore most snails. You won’t have total control over the speed of your self-publishing project if you outsource bits of it – but you’ll still have a lot more than the conventionally published author.
There is flexibility. If you opt to do most of the work yourself, you can amend your self-published book relatively quickly and easily. This is not the case with formally published books.
You can also buy the books at cost and use them as promotional materials. A good book is the best brochure you will ever have.
You will also get a bigger share of royalty on any books sold, but this advantage is grossly oversold by self-publishing enthusiasts. Most self-published books lose money as products. The authors’ gain comes from using them to build personal or corporate brands.
So I’m a big fan of modern self-publishing, as long as you don’t think it will make you a ‘successful author’.
Having said this, there are still advantages to being published by a big publisher. Experts I work with have been published by Pearson, Macmillan and Routledge, and this has made a difference to their careers. A ‘name’ publisher commands respect in a way that no self-publisher (even the best ones) can. It has access to outlets like business schools, colleges and libraries, as well as to bookshops. It also provides editing, layout, design, some marketing (though budgets here are often tight). Experienced writers all have horror stories of ‘big’ publishers failing dismally in certain areas on certain projects, but by and large they do a good job.
You should also get an advance payment on royalties, though these seem to be dwindling outside the popular end of the market.
So, which route to choose?
If you are trying to establish yourself as a ‘thought leader’ in a particular area, then my preference remains for the traditional route where possible. It looks and sounds better. However, self-publishing is now a reputable Plan B, as long as you don’t cut corners: the book must look pro quality.
Personal memoirs for the family, company histories, how-to books to give away for brand-building? Do these yourself and enjoy the fruits of the self-pub revolution!
How can a ghost help you make this decision and then make the book actually happen? Some of us at UG will help you create a book; others prefer to simply produce great text and let you deal with getting it out there. All of us have huge experience of the world of books and publishing, and will give informal (and very good) advice.
A final reminder… I work in non-fiction, and a particular area of non-fiction, business and psychology. This article has been about how the market works for this area. Other types of book – such as fiction, poetry, celebrity memoirs or intensely dramatic / unusual memoirs – operate by different rules. Someone at UG will know about these, however.