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The Best Way to Publish Your First Book

People ask me all the time, “Is it better to try to find a traditional publisher or to self-publish?”

My answer is always, “It depends.” It depends on your goals, your resources, your book idea, the market. Many factors must be taken into account.

Nevertheless, there are several good reasons to consider self-publishing first.

1. It’s very, very difficult for a beginning author to get published these days by a legacy or traditional publisher. Ironically, part of the reason is precisely because today’s technology makes it easier to publish! There are so many books out there, bookstore shelves are overcrowded (and this mode of distribution is so flawed, but don’t get me started on that!). Publishers are increasingly reluctant to publish untested authors.

I don’t blame them. I’ve been “inside” enough of the post to sympathize with their side. It is very expensive to produce, publicize and distribute a book, especially given the very flawed distribution model of bookstores. (Oops! I couldn’t help myself.) Profit margins are often very thin. Publishers spend maybe $10,000 to $30,000 to produce a book, and they never know which books will make that money.

In fact, 85% of all books published don’t even “sell” enough to repay their advances! I’m often amazed that publishing is still an industry (especially given the very flawed business model they operate from – uh-oh, here we go again).

2. You can make more money, at least per book. When your book is published by a traditional publisher, you can get a royalty advance. It’s increasingly true, however, that advances for newbie authors are pretty paltry – not much more than $5,000. In fact, progress is diminishing. I just heard a professional publishing report that the most common advance these days is $0! Nothing.

Even if you do get an advance, remember that most books don’t even earn their advance, and it’s an advance on (future) royalties. Typical royalty: 7-10% of the net amount, ie once bookstores or other distributors have obtained their rebate (usually 45%). Let’s do the math. A book that sells for $19.95 has a base (discounted) price of $12.97 (45% off means you net 65% of the list price). On that amount, you get your 7.5% royalty (the typical paperback hardcover is almost unheard of for a new author). Now you’re down to just 97 cents per book sold. From this comes, on top, 15% for the agent (if you had one). So your net royalty per book is 82.7 cents per book.

Now, if you can produce the book for $10, and it’s something you can actually sell for $19.95, you’ll make $9.95 per book if you self-publish it and sell it yourself- even. The tricky thing, of course, is making sure your production costs won’t exceed the price you can actually sell the book for. The problem with many “publishers” such as lulu.com is that you can easily get out of the market. You have to be very careful and very realistic about what the market is used to paying for your type of book.

The other trick is to make sure you have an audience, or can build an audience, for your self-published book. If you can talk and sell it from the back of the room, it can be very effective. If you already have some kind of platform, some kind of audience, you can learn internet marketing strategies and sell them online. The web is getting better and better at promoting and selling books, which is why I’m so encouraged to post these days.

3. You get published faster. A legacy publisher can take 9-18 months to produce your book, once they receive your manuscript. It might only take you half that time to do it yourself. You reap the rewards faster if you self-publish.

What are these rewards? Publishing a book positions you as an expert like almost nothing else. According to Kevin Hogan, author of The Science of Influence, nothing builds your credibility and expertise in the minds of the public like your own printed book. A graduate degree is actually second only to publishing a book. You can build on your expertise before, during, and after writing the book, and reap the rewards of being a published author faster.

Once your book is published and you start promoting it, you will build connections that you can’t imagine now. Doors will open to you. When you are perceived as an expert, people approach you; you don’t have to work as hard to go out to find them. You can charge higher fees for your services, products, speeches, whatever medium your book is in.

Then there is the incomparable satisfaction of hearing someone say, “Your book has changed my life…”

You might as well start reaping those rewards sooner rather than later!

4. As you learn the ropes of promotion, you can attract a legacy publisher. The one who will then be willing to pay you a larger advance than before. You’ll have to learn how to promote your own books anyway, no matter how you initially publish. If you’re successful in promoting your self-published book and attracting a large audience, chances are a traditional publisher will approach you.

This is another result of the self-publishing phenomenon. Increasingly, publishers are looking for best-selling self-published books. These are just good deals. You (or perhaps a small publisher) have taken the initial risk and have proven that you know how to promote your book. The risk is much lower for them.

Your advantage to being taken over at this point by a legacy publisher is that they will give you wider distribution (i.e. in bookstores, chains and other outlets), and you may well get an advance decent. (At that point, you’ll be able to figure out if you want to sacrifice revenue for greater distribution and have them take over the hassle of producing, storing, and distributing the books. You can decide that you prefer to keep it yourself -published.)

If you get taken over by a traditional publisher, you can still sell your book and build your platform while they produce your book. You can usually continue to sell your book up to 60 or 90 days before your new book is published. Then, of course, the publisher will want to be able to sell the new edition, and you’ll have to withdraw your original edition. (Often this will include supplemental materials – beware! For more on this, see the “Know Your Copyrights” article.)

I predict that more and more traditional publishers will seek successful self-published authors. They would be stupid not to.

5. You are more likely to work hard to get your return on investment if it comes from your own pocket. Isn’t that human nature? Don’t you think you’d work harder to get $5,000 back from your book if it’s your own invested money? And that motivation may be just what you need to propel you to success.

Ultimately, it’s you who will have to promote and sell your book, no matter how you publish it. Always, always remember that. You are the best advocate in your book. Writing is only part of the picture. The real work comes later, promoting it and making sure your investment of time, energy and money pays off.

But that’s where the fun begins.

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