Self-publishing: why (or why not) and how
This post summarises a workshop led by Monographer at the 2012 annual conference of the National Association of Writers in Education on 10 November.
There are many reasons why self-publishing is burgeoning. Some of them are summarised in this post on Kindle Nation Daily (15 Dec 2011): ‘8 reasons self-publishing is entering a golden age‘.
Various sources have itemised what traditionally publishers do. For example, Scholarly Kitchen has published ‘60 Things Journal Publishers Do‘ (18 Jul 2012).
Q1. What are the main advantages to the author of self-publishing?
1. You get it out there.
2. Publishing is itself a creative process and can prove enjoyable, as can learning about it.
3. You have control over your project – over its content, extent, design, etc.
4. You may earn money from (a) direct sales, (b) rights, and (c) indirectly – from, for example, being invited to talk about (the subject of) your book.
Q2. What do you lose, as an author, from self-publishing instead of taking the conventional route?
1. Publishers co-ordinate processes. In publishing, any number of processes may be outsourced. However, those processes still need to be co-ordinated. Publishers can add value by co-ordinating services.
2. Publishers provide a brand. Although few publishing brands enjoy high recognition amongst consumers, they may enjoy more recognition amongst distributors, library suppliers, wholesalers, co-publishers, retailers and so on – that is, recognition as B2B brands. Thus publishers can add value by exploiting sales and distribution channels.
3. Publishers provide capital, typically risk capital.
Q3. What should a self-publishing author do?
1. Account properly (I): think like-for-like. When comparing the costs of conventional publishing, be sure to compare like with like. For example, supposing you calculate the cost of self-publishing your book. You wish to keep the costs low, so you may decide to dispense with, say, copy-editing. This might well enable you to strip out hundreds of pounds from the total cost. Then you think, “Why, if a book is only going to cost me so much, would I want to let a publisher do it and keep the bulk of the proceeds for themselves?” Your prospective royalty may seem unreasonably small in the light of the investment required. Yes, but if the publisher is employing the services of a copy-editor, then you’re not comparing like with like. Copy-editing does improve the product (which is precisely why publishers use copy-editors): if your self-published book has not been professionally edited, it will be an inferior product. It follows that an answer to the ‘Why’ question above may then be ‘Superior quality’.
2. Account properly (II): value time. It may be that there are some processes that a publisher would pay a supplier for that you can do, or have done, free of charge. For example, a member of your family may be a skilled proofreader who is prepared to do the work for you without payment. Again, this reduces your costs and may make the let-a-publisher-do-it-in-return-for-keeping-the-bulk-of-the-proceeds option look unattractive. Yes, but you’ve valued your time (or rather, in this example, your family member’s time) at zero. Is that rational?Is your time (or theirs) really worthless? The solution to this is to impute a cost for the service they have provided and include this in your comparative cost calculations.
3. Account properly (III): recognise opportunity cost. This is a corollary of (II). The opportunity cost of self-publishing a project is the value of what you would have done with the resources (your money and time) otherwise. For example, if you are a skilled writer, you could have used the time you devoted to self-publishing to doing more writing instead. Perhaps doing more writing would have been more fulfilling or done more to build your authorial brand – or, on the other hand, you may decide that you are content to sacrifice that potential output. The calculation here will be subjective: that is, it will depend on your preferences and circumstances. What isn’t subjective is the fact that a rational cost-benefit analysis of self-publishing entails an estimation of opportunity cost.
4. Think anti-linearly. The natural thing to do is to think and plan a self-publishing project in the sequence in which events follow. For example, first the text is written, then it is copy-edited, then it is typeset, the it is proofread, then it is printed, then it is sold, and then it is read. But in fact you would be better advised to think the project through anti-linearly.
First, consider who is going to buy it. What sort of market is the book designed to appeal to? Second why will they buy it? What needs will the book fulfill, what benefits will the book provide for its readers? Third, how will your prospective readers get to hear about the book? What will need to be the marketing messages and channels? Fourth, how will the book itself reach your readers? What will be your distribution channels – and what are the requirements of those channels?
All of these considerations may have a bearing on (a) deciding on which books to write and which to self-publish and (b) deciding on the nature (i.e. form and content) of the book (for example, which title to use, what length the text should be).
Q4. What should a self-publishing author not do?
1. Equate (a) creating an artifact (printed copy; e-book file) with (b) publishing it.
2. Equate making a book available with selling it.
3. Overestimate the interest of your book. (In conversations about market potential, beware the phrase ‘mid-list’, which is often in effect a euphemism for ‘bottom list”.)
4. Overestimate price elasticity: pricing a book low (e.g. 99p) or even free does not guarantee sales.
5. Underestimate marketing, the need for which follows from points 1-4 above.
Q5. Where can I find out more?
1. Book – Alison Baverstock, The naked author: a guide to self-publishing (Bloomsbury, 2011).
2. Book – Stephanie Chandler, From entrepreneur to infopreneur: make money with books, ebooks, and information products (Wiley, 2007).
3. Online: @selfpubreview (Twitter) and Self-Publishing Review.
4. Other posts here on Monographer’s Blog. See in particular the series of posts entitled ‘What does a publisher do?’ – in particular the post on marketing, selling, and distribution (14 June 2012).
Q6. What platforms are available?
2. For grey literature: Scribd.
4. For books: