Self-publishing, Part V: Final thoughts

Hello, readers —

Today is the last in our series on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, with our guests Jim McFarland, self-published author of DO OR DIE: THE BABY-BOOMER MAN’S GUIDE TO REGAINING HEALTH, HAPPINESS, VITALITY, AND A LONGER, FULLER LIFE, and Gary Graf, author of Ligouri’s AND GOD SAID, “PLAY BALL!”: AMUSING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE BIBLE AND BASEBALL.

Before we begin, I would like to address an excellent observation that intelligent and insightful reader Pam sent in: yes, our guest Jim did decide to go with a print-on-demand company, which is one currently common way to self-publish. So how is this different from old-fashioned self-publishing?

For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, self-publishing refers to any publishing project where the author pays the cost of producing and promoting the book. The author pays for (and often does herself) the marketing, and gets to keep all the money made. It’s a straightforward contractual arrangement, where the author takes on the financial risks personally. Even if a self-published book goes on to sell millions of copies (as with the case of Kevin Trudeau’s NATURAL CURES “THEY” DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, the most successful self-published book in history), the publisher does not make more money, except insofar as it is paid by the author to produce more copies.

In the past, a self-published author’s only option was to pay the printer to produce a print run of predetermined size. The author then lugs the books around to bookstores and other venues where he hoped to sell them. This is a great option for people with strong sales skills, and a fabulous option for people who teach seminars — the book is right there for students to buy. (My brother, for instance, self-published a couple of books and promoted them on his lecture tours.) If the sales are good, and the author wants more books to sell, he would contract for another print run. Any unsold books, though, are left on his hands.

Technological advance has made another option possible, however: print-on-demand is a popular form of self-publishing. With print-on-demand, the author contracts with a publisher who specializes in such books, who agrees to print up new copies as they are ordered. This means that the author only has to pay for the copies he actually needs (although most POD authors do have many copies printed up at first to use in promotion and to sell in the usual self-publishing manner).

Jim, our guest who has kindly offered to share his experience, went the latter route. If there’s a reader out there who has gone the pre-order self-publishing route lately, I’d love to hear from you. (My feelings about nepotism prevent me from asking my brother to do it.) How was your experience different from Jim’s?

One last note, for those new to the concepts we’ve been bandying around this week: self-publishing is often confused by laypeople with subsidy publishing, also known as going through a vanity press. Subsidy publishing is when an author pays a press to produce his work, over and above the actual printing costs; superficially, subsidy press books resemble books produced by traditional publishers, but there is no competition involved in the author getting his work published.

Subsidy publishing is generally quite a bit more expensive for the writer than self-publishing, and certainly infinitely less well regarded. Why? Well, a subsidy press makes its profits exclusively from writers’ payments, so they will generally accept any manuscript submitted (which is not always true of self-publishing presses). They tend to assume that the writer has not done much comparative research, and charge a premium. That, and vanity presses often produce very nice volumes, tooled leather and such.

My hope is that this week’s posts will help clarify what is at stake in the decision about how to publish one’s work. Each of us has to take a good, hard look at her own abilities, desires, and work, and decide what method is best for us.

Okay, on to our guests. Gentlemen, any final thoughts on the differences between self-publishing and traditional publishing?

Jim: Self-publishing and traditional publishing are both very hard work. In my opinion, the biggest and most profound differences are:

The level of experienced support you receive from a traditional publishing house is substantial as compared to a self-publisher. Why? Because their primary interests are very different.

First, the self-publisher wants to get your book printed, while the traditional publisher wants to get your book printed, in bricks and mortar distribution and have the initial print level sold through at retail. Remember, the self-publisher makes money off printing your book. The traditional publisher makes money off selling your book through at retail.

Second, the self-publishing experience is much like the experience you have at a buffet, while the traditional publishing experience is more like having a waitperson help you through a five-course meal. The self-publisher lets you choose services and you pay as you go, while the traditional publisher works with you all the way through the process with a full complement of services.

Gary: Looking back, I realize that I did some things incorrectly, just as I did things well. My first and biggest mistake was to treat the submission process as lightly as I did. Given that anyone from agents to publishers on the manuscript side, and bookstores on the book side, receive thousands of properties vying for attention, an author has only one chance, and a brief one at that, to make a good first impression.

The difference between my first submission proposal and my second was akin to that of a little leaguer and a major leaguer.

Learning from this mistake, I was able to craft a much stronger submission proposal, lessons I also applied to any query letter to book reviewer, radio programmer or parish administrator. Though slow on the uptake, I finally took heed of one of my advertising profession’s basic creeds: know your audience. Thus, while sports radio stations showed no interest whatsoever in my interview proposals, syndicated Christian stations did.

Having gone through this experience once, I now realize that there are three parts to being an author. First, you must write your book. Next, you must sell your book. Finally, you must market your book.

Obvious, you say. True, but when writing the book, I was only concerned with that aspect, not what it would take to sell and, if sold, market the work. Each of these components requires discipline and an ability to learn from mistakes or failure, whether its comments from a developmental editor, a letter of refusal from an agent or publisher, or disinterest on a marketing proposal. Take a lesson from baseball. Only by going to bat time after time can you ever get a hit. Don’t forget, that in baseball, hitters who are considered the best in the game fail seven out of ten times at bat!

Anne: Thanks, Jim and Gary, for sharing your experiences with us. I hope both of your books continue to sell well!

I cannot stress this enough, readers, either in the context of this discussion or others about the traditional publishing industry: it is very, very helpful to know before you get embroiled in the process that the deeper you get into it, the less control you as the writer tend to have. It’s just the nature of the beast — as Jim pointed out, it’s in the publishing house’s interest to get your work to sell in the retail market. However, the author’s view of the best means of accomplishing that and the publisher’s often do not coincide, and in traditional publishing circles, it is rare that the author’s view triumphs in such a conflict.

The same holds true for working with an agent, to a lesser degree. The agent has a stake in selling her authors’ works to the publishing house she believes will do the best job promoting it. To that end, most agents will ask their clients to modify their work to meet what they perceive to be the up-to-the-minute needs of the market. The artistic or self-expressive reasons that the author wrote the book in the first place tend not to trump market interests in these discussed changes, alas.

The final choice between self-publishing and traditional publishing, it seems to me, is about who has control of the book before and after it is published. There are, of course, considerable financial and marketing differences, but fundamentally, a self-published author gets to make the important decisions about what will happen to the book, and a traditionally published author does not. There are compensations for giving up control, but make no mistake, when you sell a book to a publisher, giving up control is what you are doing. All of us need to figure out for ourselves how we feel about that, and choose accordingly.

Have a lovely weekend, everybody, and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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