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Monday, November 29, 2010

To self-publish or not? That's the question!

Recently a writer asked, "Should I self-publish or should I seek a deal with an established publisher?"

That depends. You might want to go with a traditional publisher if your topic is too hot for you to handle alone. For example, if I were Valerie Plame Wilson and had just been outed by the White House as a CIA agent, I would go for lucrative book and movie deals. 

Do you have a strong marketing platform? Publishers would love you, but as John Shore wrote in The Huffington Post,

anyone who is so famous that they can sell 40,000 copies of their own book directly to their own audience needs a publisher like Willy Wonka needs a Whitman's sampler. If I could sell my own book to my own audience, why would I give any publisher full rights, forever, to that book, ninety percent of whatever I made selling that book -- and then give an agent fifteen percent of whatever was left over for me? Why? Why would I do that? Why would anyone?

There's a lot of wisdom in that line of reasoning. At the very least, if you have a strong platform and don't want to self-publish right now, then make sure you've got an agent who can negotiate the hell out of a contract. Learn from the capitalist rappers of hip hop: keep your rights, own your intellectual property, don't be a slave to the big guys, know your value. 

When I was just starting out, I didn't know what to ask for. For example, I didn't know that it was possible to receive a bonus if your book achieved New York Times best-seller status. I didn't know that royalties could be negotiated. I didn't know that foreign, movie, and digital rights could stay with me. 

Bottom line, do your homework.

Now if you're looking to build your business, ministry, nonprofit organization, or grassroots movement, self-publishing makes a lot of sense.

1. Self-publishing gives you the power to communicate your message in your own way.

2. Self-publishing can be profitable.

3. Self-publishers are passionate about their life mission. Through their books, they change lives for the better. Being rejected by a traditional publisher doesn't stop them. They turn to self-publishing to get out their message.

4. Self-publishing is like an incubator for speculative and revolutionary ideas. It allows writers to explore topics that have not been vetted by the marketplace and that traditional publishers are wary of touching. 

5. Self-publishers can take their time on a project. They're not beholden to a publisher's deadline. It took Roger Isaacs and Janice Miller, his editor/publisher, 10 years to complete Talking With God.

6. On the other hand, self-publishing allows writers to spit out projects quickly – unlike a traditional publisher's 9 to 12 month production timeframe. 

7. Further, self-publishers can turn out multiple books in quick succession. If you're a fast writer, you could literally turn out an e-book a month. Sometimes POD (print-on-demand) publishers experience bottlenecks in their production schedules. Even so, you can crank out multiple books via POD much faster than the big houses.

8. Just as bloggers monetize their blogs, self-publishers can monetize their books. You can insert ads and provide a presence for sponsors. You can use your book to market other products and services.

I just recently learned about a hybrid approach to publishing that combines self-publishing and traditional and is similar to what a book packager does. The author pays for everything – ghostwriting (if necessary), editing, proofing, cover art, layout/design. She then negotiates with a publisher to print, distribute, warehouse, and take orders. For authors with strong marketing platforms, this might be the way to go. They maintain creative control, and they retain a much higher share of the profits. 

I read somewhere that a famous mega pastor uses this approach. He produces his books in-house (transcribing sermons, rewriting, editing, etc.), and then he contracts with publishers for printing and distribution. Your dedicated editor will be hunting down such exciting case studies for future posts. 

One criticism against self-published books that I think is entirely justified is that editorial and design quality are sometimes lacking. Self-publishers, don't cut corners. You're competing against books that have been buffed and polished by full editorial and design staffs. Yours must be able to stand proudly along side them on book shelves, library stacks, and in online stores. 

We need both self-publishing and traditional publishing to keep ideas flowing in society. However you decide to approach your book project is entirely up to you. Isn't it nice to know that you now have options? If one door closes, thanks to digital publishing technologies, another opens up. 

Question to my writing stars: are you trying to decide whether to self-publish or not? Please drop a line. We'd love to hear how you're thinking through this important decision! 

Donna Marie 

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