publishers versus self-publishing

People keep asking me why I use a publisher when self-publishing has become more and more possible over the last few years. Today, 38% of Amazon’s top 100 titles are self-published. Authors with a long track record in publishing, like Bob Mayer and Joe Konrath, extol the advantages of self-publishing your work rather than going through a publisher. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, authors with decades of respectable mainstream publishing behind them, make solid business cases for skipping publishers and selling directly to your audience.

These authors write fiction. How well do their arguments apply to non-fiction? Well enough, if you want to do the work or pay someone to do the work. Here’s what you must do to produce a professional-quality nonfiction book. (If you want to produce an amateur, feeble book, you can skip any or all of these.)

  • Tech review: Someone who knows the subject has to review your work. Even if you crowdsource an initial tech review, as I’ve done for my BSD books, you still need an acknowledged subject matter expert to double-check your work. Your technical reviewer will expect paying. Most publishers pay a couple grand for tech review, or offer a cut of the royalties.
  • Editing: An editor is not a proofreader. An editor helps transform your manuscript from the disjointed babblings of a subject matter expert into something that can be understood by your reader. You can expect to pay $1-2/page for a decent technical editor.
  • Copyediting/proofreader: This is your proofreader. $1-2/page, again.
  • Layout: A good book is invisible. The layout disappears from the reader’s perceptions, leaving only a stream of words flowing from the book in the reader’s brain. I have never met a technical person who really had this skill. There are people who will format your manuscript for publishing on Kindle, Smashwords, and other ebook retailers, as well as paper formats for CreateSpace or Lightning Source. This runs anywhere from $100 for a novel up to $500 or more for complicated technical documents.
  • Publicity: Different publishers offer different levels of publicity. My publisher, the inimitable No Starch Press, publicizes every book heavily, in every appropriate channel. Other publishers just put new books in the catalog and let the author hope. Publicity can cost as much as you want to spend.
  • Graphics: Most authors can’t draw, even if they think they can. Publishers usually have internal artists recreate author art. You need to make sure that your own art is adequate.
  • Management: Your book has a project manager who keeps track of all the disparate threads of producing your book. If you self-publish, that project manager is you.

    Overall, you can expect to spend a few thousand dollars self-publishing a professional-quality book, and a fair amount of extra time. Miss any step, handle any step less than perfectly, and your book will suffer.

    What do you miss out on when you self-publish?

  • Translations: Advances for foreign language rights range from $1000-$2000, plus royalties if and when the advance is earned out. You will not be able to pursue translation rights — you don’t have the contacts or the contract expertise.
  • Bookstores: You will not see your self-published book at Barnes & Noble. End of discussion.
  • Competence: Nonfiction publishers are experts at helping non-authors produce good, readable books. A good publisher will help you make your book the best it can be. If you’re not a writer, anything you self-publish will read poorly, no matter how much outside help you have. If you think you’re a writer, but you’ve never worked with a publisher, you have a lot to learn.
  • Cameraderie: You’re a team with your publisher. They will work with you. You’ll make friends. Everybody wants the book to succeed, and believes that the book can succeed. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

    Nonfiction authors have some potential advantages, however. If you have a truly unique book, with no competition, you can do well self-publishing. If you want to compete in an existing, well-established topic, however, you’ll have a much harder slog. I wouldn’t recommend self-publishing a FreeBSD book, for example.

    How do these affect me?

    I want an editor, tech editor, and copyeditor who are interested in producing the best book possible. An editor I hire is not going to tell me “Wow, this book is horrible and pointless.” An editor who works for my publisher will voice his concerns to the publisher, and the publisher will intervene as necessary. I can honestly say that none of my publishers have ever had to have this meeting with me, but I want them to have the freedom to do so.

    Publicity? I have enough trouble with the little publicity I do now. I resisted blogging, Facebook, and Twitter for years. The less I talk to people, the more people like me. (It’s not that I’m an obnoxious person, but a little bit of me goes a long way.) An outside publicity person is an excellent idea. I try to give my publisher’s publicity person everything he asks for, follow his suggestions, and get out of his way.

    Bookstores: I don’t see my books in stores in Detroit, but I know that some people buy my books in bookstores. It seems that Amazon owns my publishing career.

    Graphics: I am an author, not an artist. Producing the graphics for PGP & GPG took as long as writing the manuscript itself. I need outside help with art.

    I don’t want to do all this for my technology books. The tech publishing industry is in much better shape than the fiction industry, and I’m confident that I will be able to find a home for my nonfiction. I might self-publish my fiction some day, just to escape the submission treadmill. But I haven’t given up on that mainstream success… yet.

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  • 5 Replies to “publishers versus self-publishing”

    1. An editor costs the same as a proofreader? I’d have thought the editor would cost more. You learn something every day.

      Also, in the second to last paragraph (starting with “Graphics:”) you have “I am an author, not an author.” I suspect it would make slightly more sense as “I am an author, not an artist.” Perhaps you should have hired a proofreader for this blog post. 😉

    2. Yes, good copyeditors are as expensive as good editors. The ability to read what someone wrote, as opposed to what you know they meant to write, for several hundred pages, is rare.

      Poor copyeditors can be had on any university campus.

      And for the blog, I use the copyediting method “let other people point it out.” Works quite well, too!

    3. I think you make excellent points. JA Konrath had backlist and he made the jump very early, before practically any other established author. I’ve made the jump much later, but I’ve done it with a team. I’ve got a partner, Jen Talty, who does almost all the stuff you listed that an author needs to do outside of the writing. We’ve also even begun to outsource more of the work, because it can become overwhelming, especially copyediting and scanning. We also have other authors on our team who help cross-promote, but we focus on non-fiction authors, because you can market non-fiction. I still have to promote, every author does, but I have to remember my main job is writer. It’s a strange time in publishing and every author has to remember their own situation regarding platform, product and promotion is different. Thus everyone’s path is going to be unique.
      Thanks for the mention.

    4. Having written books for McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall, I agree with you on most of your points. However, publishers sometimes give you ridiculous deadlines that you need to meet. You also have to juggle family and work responsibilities while writing. Some people may find it easy to do; I didn’t. There are no deadlines to self-publishing and you have more creative control.

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