Should You Self-Publish Your Book?

ape-guy-kawasakiHere’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

So self-publishing is an exercise in futility and obscurity. Of course, there are the stories of the writers who self-publish and magic happens and they sell millions of books, but those are the rare exceptions. How rare? Well, on the order of 1 or 2 per million.

If you like those odds, go for it. If you don’t, and you still have a book in you, then please, please read Guy Kawasaki’s book APE: How to Publish a Book, co-written with Shawn Welch. It will save you from yourself and that obscurity.

I can give an unqualified rave for the book – if you’ve already decided to self-publish. If not, then you need to think about the only serious quibble I have with APE first. And that is that for most people, the task of developing what the publishing world calls a ‘platform’ is simply too time-consuming and too difficult if you don’t have one already. Guy’s naturally optimistic about creating a platform, because he has an incredibly strong one that he’s developed over a number of years and a number of successful ventures. But if you’re starting from scratch, it’s a different story. Sure, celebrities and CEOs have a huge leg up, but I’m talking about most of us.

What is a platform? It’s getting enough people to care about you and your book, through social media, traditional media, word of mouth, bake sales – anyway you can. It’s creating a community of people with a genuine interest in the idea you’re putting forward. It’s the way in which you create a strong brand around you and the book and get the world to pay attention.

Yes, the good news is that you can create a platform with social media, and that it is virtually free except in terms of your time.

But the bad news is that in a world that is completely oversaturated with traditional media, information, news, hype, marketing, books, other platforms, social media, blogs, magazines, online magazines, advertising everywhere, television, and so on, it’s incredibly difficult to stand out.

To do so, you have to craft an extraordinarily compelling message and story, create a clever platform around it that makes sense for what it is and who you are, and then have the patience to do what it takes to develop that platform through the social media and traditional media you’ve chosen. It can take years.

Do you have the stomach for it? If so, then Guy’s book is your bible. This wonderful book will help you avoid all the pitfalls that await the unwary and inexperienced self-publisher. And those pitfalls are legion. Don’t even think of getting started until you’ve devoured APE. (Which, by the way, stands for “Author – Publisher – Entrepreneur” — all the things you need to be to self-publish.)

Good luck.

Comments

  1. says

    Nick, you paint a realistic picture of the work required to become a “successful” self-published author if you’re defining success purely in terms of book sales. But I think there are other perspectives to consider.

    My first book, about participant-driven and participation-rich conferences, was published three years ago. I have only sold a few thousand copies (though sales are continuing to rise) and the money I’ve made from book sales translates into a few cents an hour for the four part-time years I took to write the book. Not successful by your terms, right?

    But during those three years I’ve moved from complete obscurity to become a fairly well-known authority in the field of innovative event design. My blog had 2.25 million page views in 2012, I’m routinely presenting at industry conferences around the world (off to Denmark on Friday!), and a typical consulting gig brings income that’s equivalent to selling five hundred books.

    If you are writing non-fiction for a niche market and you have something important to say, your book can provide wonderful exposure and authority that may (no guarantees!) translate into significant income.

    I considered going the traditional publishing route and I’m glad I didn’t for several reasons:

    1) Traditional publishing typically adds another year before your book is published.

    2) I had complete control over the look and content of my book. I hired the same professionals—editor, proofreader, book designer, cover designer—that publishers use (they are often freelancers these days) and could work directly with them without the publisher as an intermediary.

    3) Although as I said above you’re very unlikely to make significant money from book sales, you receive significantly more money on each copy of the book.

    4) I have been able to build relationships with many of my book buyers. Although the paperback version of my book is available everywhere, I sell the ebook myself. A majority of my overall sales comes directly from my website, perhaps because I offer 30 minutes free consulting to anyone who buys the book from me. This allows me to connect one-to-one with my readers, which translates into additional consulting/facilitation/presenting work while building up a list of people who are likely be interested in my next book, due to be published later this year.

    I hope my experience and thoughts are helpful and perhaps encouraging for some who have been considering self-publishing.

    • says

      Hi, Adrian — thanks very much for the thoughtful comment. My point was simply to warn self-publishers of the mountain they have to climb if they want to achieve the kind of recognition most authors secretly (or not so secretly) crave. And you’re right, of course; your definition of success may vary. If you want to publish a book for marketing purposes, or to drive a successful consulting business, then book sales alone is not the important measure. There are many good reasons to self-publish a book, in the end, and authors who depend on traditional publishers to market their books for them, as I’ve said in other blogs.

  2. Angelo John Lewis says

    I strongly disagree with this. Your answer might have been valid 40 years ago, but it makes no sense now. Fact is, most of the people who read this will not be able ato find a publisher for their book. And, even if they do, their publisher is not likely to spend sufficient time to publicize their book. A better introductory question is “Are you prepared to do what’s necessary to pbliicize your book?” If the answer is affirmative, investigate Print on Demand technology, self-publish, and self-promote. There are good alternatives, such as Amazon’s CreateSpace. If one has a particular niche, one can learn to promote one’s book to one’s niche. The quantity sold is not as important as selling the book to the appropriate niche, and using the book to establish yourself as an authority in your field. Traditional publishing, like its counterpart in the music industry, is going the way of the dinosaur for a host of reasons.

    • says

      Angelo, thanks for your comment. But you’re missing the point. I said nowhere that traditional publishing guarantees success by any measure; in fact, other blog posts I’ve done are full of warnings for authors who go the traditional route. And I agree with you about the changing world of publishing. Indeed, a blog post I did late last year said exactly that.

      My point here was to warn people that “to do what’s necessary to publicize your book” requires considerable effort, given the glut of information sources and the huge numbers of books published every year. If you want to stand out, you have to put in a lot of work. The good news is that you can do it via social media, which is free (except insofar as your time costs you money). The bad news is that it takes patience, time, and a lot of personal sweat equity.

      We get inquiries from many authors and people thinking about becoming authors and this blog post was aimed at them, to help them understand that the road is long and the way is hard in 2013. But not that they shouldn’t do it.

  3. Susan de la Vergne says

    Arguments in favor of self-publishing:

    1. When you’re done with the finished product, you own the rights to it, exclusively and clearly. If you want to develop course materials from it, write a speech, or use text from it on your website, no problem.

    2. Self-publishing is much faster than traditional publishing. Much. We move through ideas and trends so quickly now, waiting a year or two to get a book out the door is a long time.

    3. A writer must have a robust platform before an agent or a traditional publisher will look twice at them anyway. Writers, especially in the non-fiction space, do a huge chunk of the marketing themselves, and publishers want only writers who are well-positioned to do that. No platform? No interest.

    4. There are many self-publishing alternatives available, from e-books (using services like smashwords.com) to full service printers (Bookmasters, for example) and many in between. Lots of different levels of financial commitment to a book project are available.

    5. Someone who’s really committed to producing a quality product can hire editors and book designers just as easily as a traditional publisher can. They’re on craigslist. Lots of great talent just waiting to be hired to help.

    Yes, there’s a lot of shlock out there that’s been self-published. There’s also a lot of drivel from commercial publishing.

    I haven’t read the book you mention, but a long-established, great (great!) source of how-to information about self publishing is Dan Poynter’s SELF PUBLISHING MANUAL.

    I’m afraid I agree with the first comment here. Thirty, maybe even 20 years ago, self-publishing was a bad idea. But no more.

    • says

      Hi, Susan, and thank for your comments. People are jumping to the defense of self-publishing! And that’s great, and I’ll say again that I wasn’t arguing against it, just arguing against self-publishing without knowing what you’re getting in for — and without using Guy’s book as your bible.

      Some specific responses to your points here:

      1. True, but that’s also the case with most traditional publishers as well, as long as your agreement is worded properly.
      2. True. Traditional publishers take 6 months or more from delivery of ms. Self-publishing can speed that up significantly. But see point #5.
      3. Yes, and something I’ve said in a number of blog posts. But the whole point here (and in Guy’s book) is that you need a platform either way — self or traditional publishing — if you want to get attention!
      4. True — see Guy’s book for a very complete listing.
      5. True — but I’ve seen too many self-published books and authors who try to do it on the cheap and the result is exactly what you’d expect — cheap looking.

  4. says

    I understand that your motive is to warn people thinking about self-publishing that they need to take certain steps prior to self-publishing and that it’s not something for everyone. I get that. However, with your post and so many others like it, there is never a middle ground. The average of 250 books is tossed out as the usual number (and how valid is that anymore??) and the extreme of selling a million. Everyone skips right over this vast middle ground where a self-published author can earn a decent amount of money and have the satisfaction of people reading and enjoying their books.

    I have news for you, there are hundreds if not thousands of self-published authors paying some bills with their earnings. Everything from a cellphone bill every month to a mortgage, to all household bills and with money left over. That doesn’t mean they are millionaires, but rather someone who has or is working towards the very real possibility of earning their living as a writer. We don’t all need to be millionaires to be successful. Oh, and most of us didn’t have any kind of platform before we started. If we were lucky, we had a couple of people to give us feedback on our books. Most of us are all alone when we push that publish button.

    Of course having a platform would be helpful and I would never discourage someone from building one, but I don’t think they should give up because they only have 30 blog followers. Every little bit helps.

    • says

      Hi, M. P., and thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right. We don’t all have to be millionaires, or million-sellers. Let’s hope that self-publishing leads to thousands of careers right in the middle!

  5. says

    Note : I haven’t read “APE”, and won’t.
    I came here looking for some information (in fact, the different points you make are quite adverserial and I wanted to react to them), but since it looks more like a quite disguised review of APE, I guess you won’t see any problem if I link to an other good book on the self-publishing/entrepreneur/publisher subject, right ?

    I personally found David Gaughran’s “Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should” really interesting and informative. Contrary to what the title seems to imply, it also doesn’t gloss on the difficulty subject… http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/74884?ref=DavidGaughran (also available on other platforms.)

    • says

      Great, thanks for the book recommendation. There was nothing disguised about the review, BTW; that’s exactly what the blog was, a book review of APE that made a point about the importance of platform to self-publishers. The strong tone of the blog has apparently caused a stir!

      • says

        I’m afraid I have to disagree. It does not come across as a thinly disguised review. It comes across as VERY thinly disguised advertising under a blatantly deceptive title.

        I would repeat what M.P.McDonald said, but he said it quite well. By the way, you can put me on the list of what would once have been called mid-list authors who pays the bills with my earnings from self-publishing. There are many thousands of us and we don’t waste our time building platforms.

        • says

          JR, thanks for your comment, but it’s off-the-wall. The review (and point about self-publishing) is not advertising at all. I didn’t write APE, Guy Kawasaki did, and I received nothing in return for my review of the book. I’m very glad to hear that you can make a living self-publishing — what sort of books do you write?

  6. says

    Is self-publishing a lot of work? Sure. Is querying a book a lot of work? Absolutely. Does either promise millions of dollars? No, not unless you are a one-in-a-million author. If that is your goal, it doesn’t matter which route you take, you probably won’t get there. Wiser is to set goals to build a stable career, write books people will enjoy, and make sure you have a professional-looking product, from editing to layout to cover. Can you make a living being a self-published author? Yes. It might take awhile, but if you act like a professional, it is possible.

    Platform is not half as important as being consistent about putting out books for the self-published fiction author. Amazon does much of the platform work for you. This is not a secret among self-published authors, it’s just one that people who don’t know much about being a self-published author ignore or don’t truly understand. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is where platform makes a huge difference. A lot of non-fiction authors assume a big platform to be necessary for fiction authors, and it’s a fallacy. You can do quite well without focusing too much on platform when writing fiction.

    • says

      Hi, Rebecca — great to hear from you. I’m glad you took the opening line of my review in the right spirit. Obviously, I touched a lot of nerves! But my point was just to say, “let’s get real. YOU have to be the one that develops a platform; no one else is going to do it for you.” I think also we’re witnessing the difference between fiction and non-fiction writers. Two different economic propositions.

      • says

        Your point abocve is what I took from the article. Any dolt can publish something, but most don’t want to put in the effort on the business side to make it successful.

        It’s not enough to have a great book. You have to give a damn, and then convince others to do the same, and you won’t get there sitting around and waiting for people to discover your genius.

        • says

          Exactly, RD! Thanks so much for your comment. Apparently my blog touched a nerve, but I’m glad that the important point, that you have to think about platform, is getting across.

  7. says

    You bring up some valid points, but I’m pretty sick of the completely arbitrary statement ‘your book won’t make over $250′. Where does this figure even come from? With digital publishing, which is the vast majority of self-published books now, those books don’t go away in 2 months, or 3 months, or 6 months or a year! There’s no shelf life anymore, as opposed to the very short time authors are given to sell books in a bricks and mortar store.If your book doesn’t sell there, off to the shredder it goes.

    I just can’t believe this $250 figure is at all accurate. I know so many self-published authors who have made more than this. I can’t count them on one hand anymore. I’m one of them. I have 7 books published, the last one just a month ago (which is close to selling 250 copies already). Since July of last year, 6 months ago, I’ve made over $7000. In another month, I’m going to surpass $10k in royalties earned. You will find, if you look, hundreds of authors just like me, who are making way more than $250 a book. No, it’s not millions, but in my case, it pays the mortgage every month, and the phone bill, and the car insurance. I am not an outlier in this business. I believe I am the norm.

    I agree that to be successfully self-publishing authors have to work in areas they may not be accustomed to, but because I love writing, promoting my work and building the platform and doing all the marketing work I have to do isn’t like real work to me. I have a different view of it, so maybe that makes it more tolerable. I get to know new people almost every day. It’s more fun than not, so it isn’t quite as dour as you make it out to be. I have more to learn, but I don’t have to have it all lined up before I put a book out there. Like many self-published authors, I’m learning as I go. There isn’t really any rush since digital is ‘forever’. The only pressure I face is that which I put on myself. I’m ok with that!

  8. says

    Hi, Nick,
    I completely agree that one who chooses to self-publish certainly faces a mountain of challenges. I did have a publisher interested in my debut novel – but they were not a well-known publisher and after a few rounds of discussion I decided that I would be better of going the self-publishing route. There is no doubt that it was challenging and I had to come up a steep learning curve (not to mention that many of the best “experts” out there are still trying to figure out how to maximize the chances for success – even if you have a great book). With all of that said, I hit #1 at Amazon and I have sold more than 15,000 copies of my debut novel, Terminal Value. It took nine months before it finally took off, but it did. Perhaps I am a mini “rare exception” (I’m certainly no Hillary Clinton). Indeed, if a great publisher decides to pick up my next novel, I will absolutely consider it. However, I don’t think it is as black and white as many people seem to think.

    • says

      Hi, Tom —

      Great to hear from you and thanks for your comments. Congratulations on the success of the book! I’ve heard from a number of fiction writers with very strong feelings on the subject, and so it seems we have 2 very different markets — the fiction one, where the long tail phenomenon of the Internet makes it possible to earn a living (or least some money) selling books, and the non-fiction one, which is much more fickle. I would still say that both markets depend on the author having a platform and that means doing the work him- or herself. As you have so successfully done!

      I like your further point that authors need not see the two options as mutually exclusive for all time. In other words, depending on the book, it may make sense to self-publish one time and not another time, when traditional publishing might make more sense.

      It’s an evolving marketplace and we all have to stay flexible, and experiment to see what works!

  9. says

    Many people are talking about Lithasa ! what is it? http://www.lithasa.com .
    I’ve see that some where a guy said that he liked the design. I myself went to the website and it is simple but good.
    But I would like to know is it perfect for new authors and upcoming authors?
    They do have a separate publishing model.

  10. says

    Hi, Jonathan, and thanks for taking up the argument. It’s an important one. As a pulp writer, you’ve figured out how to make a living (I’m assuming) as a writer; congratulations and well done. But I stand by comments that it’s very difficult to do so for a first time writer of non-fiction who isn’t prepared to do the work of building a platform, finding a market, and selling books.

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