On whether to self-publish: a professional publisher’s view

In response to my review of The Naked Author: A Guide to Self-publishing, Propagandum asks me to articulate my views on the question of self-publishing more generally. This post is my attempt.

Two previous posts – on disintermediation and convergence – sought define the value-adding functions of publishers. Essentially, publishers (a) co-ordinate services and (b) provide a brand (in most cases, effectively a B2B brand). In addition, they operationise risk capital.

A prospective self-publisher needs to ask: what is the value of the above functions? Let me offer a few observations that I believe should inform the answer to that question more often than they do.

1. One needs to compare like with like. Yes, if one self-publishes without employing a proofreader, the cost of publication can be reduced. But proofreaders add value: a book that hasn’t been professionally proofread is an inferior product. The same point applies to other kinds of craft providers (cover designers, for example).

I make this point because I sometimes hear people say,”It would only cost me $X to publish a book, why would I want to let a publisher keep 90+% of the proceeds?” – to which my answer is, “That’s a good question to ask – but to produce a professional quality book would actually cost $x+Y” (where Y = all the services that the have been stripped out at the expense of quality).

2. The prospective self-publisher needs to factor in time. Yes, one can do for oneself some of the things that publishers would do and, by not paying oneself, one can do so without a cash outlay. But that doesn’t make these processes free. They all have an opportunity cost – which is the value (however defined) of what else one could have done with that time.

3. By extension from point (2), there is a division of labour point here. I once presented a seminar at the University of Zurich and one of my co-presenters – a social science researcher – said something along these lines: “I’m a good researcher. When I spend time researching, I use it very productively. But I’m no better at other things, like editing and indexing, than many other people. So as much as possible I pay other people to do those things and reserve my own time for what I’m best at”. I was struck by the hard-headedness of this view. The implication for the prospective self-publisher is: “The time you’re considering spending on self-publishing: would that be better spent doing what you’re already good at (presumably, writing)?”

You may discern from the above a measure of scepticism regarding self-publishing. I am, however, far from hostile to the phenomenon. I think it’s important to make the self-publishing decision rationally – but for some authors self-publishing will indeed prove the optimal route.

Overall, I think the best metaphor for publishing today is ‘ecology’. There’s a diversity of systems out there and productive links to be made between them. (I am, for example, currently in discussions with a self-publisher – an eminent professor – about acquiring the library rights for his next book.)

I don’t at all subscribe to the ‘end of civilisation’ jeremiad that one hears from some corners of the industry. When I survey the self-publishing books scene I feel the same as when I survey the blogosphere: there’s a good deal of creativity out there, there’s even more self-fulfilment – and, yes, there’s also lots of dross. That’s two cheers for democracy.


PS Readers may wish to compare a post on Digital Book World (30 Sep 2012) by literary agent Richard Curtis on this subject.


3 Responses to “On whether to self-publish: a professional publisher’s view”

  1. Many thanks for following up my question! Four points:
    (1) It seems to me that the e-book medium barely adds production or design value – I see little more than raw keystrokes on my Kindle, with poor proofreading even from established publishers. Surely self-publishers can do as well (?) as this?
    (2) Reasonably enough, a publisher’s decision to publish may factor in the value added by an author who is good at self-promotion. But this is very different from adding value for the author.
    (3) Amazon percentages of selling price look much better (say, twenty times?) than publishers’ royalty rates for e-books. Do publishers offer twenty times more added value?
    (4) Publishers do a fantastic job for some authors. I wonder if the Harry Potter books would have sold anywhere near as much had not the publisher thought that J.K. sounded more mysterious than Joanna. And of course Allen & Unwin did a brilliant job for Tolkein and his elf-publishing.

    • On the question of whether publishers add, say, twenty times more value:my answer to that is, the author needs to decide on a case by case basis. But it is certainly a more than rhetorical question.

      My reason for saying that stems from the point that one needs to compare like with like. The script that the author produces is not the same as the final book. The script needs first to be copy-edited, set, and proofread – and the cover needs to be designed. There is then the manufacturing cost – paper, printing, binding and/or e-book conversion. And finally distribution – whether via warehouse or various online outlets.

      All of that costs some combination of money and time. It may be that the author factors in all of that and decides that, nevertheless, it’s a better bet to self-publish. Or maybe not. The key point here is to be sure to factor in all the (financial and/or opportunity) costs before making the decision – in other words to compare like with like.

  2. […] and Karen Hayes at Professional and Higher (the former of whom has also written recently about the dangers of throwing out the publishers with the bathwater) always challenged me to take my writing to the next level, asking all the right questions, probing […]

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