The Best Way to Publish Your First Book

People ask me all the time, “Is it better to try to find a traditional publisher or to self-publish?”My answer is always, “It depends.” It depends on your goals, your resources, your book idea, the marketplace. There are many factors to consider.Nevertheless, there are several good reasons to consider self-publishing first.1. It’s very, very difficult for a first-time author to get published these days by a legacy, or traditional, publisher. Ironically, part of the reason for this is precisely because the current technology makes it so easy to publish! There are so many books out there, the bookstore shelves are overcrowded (and that distribution mode is so flawed-but don’t get me started on that!). Publishers are more and more wary of publishing unproven authors.I don’t blame them. I’ve been on the “inside” of publishing enough to sympathize with their side of it. It’s very expensive to produce, publicize, and distribute a book-especially given the very flawed bookstore distribution model. (Oops! I couldn’t help that one.) Profit margins are often razor thin. Publishers put out maybe $10-30,000 to produce a book, and they never know which books will make that back.In fact, 85 percent of all books published don’t even “sell through” enough to pay back their advances! I’m often amazed that publishing remains an industry (especially given the very flawed business model from which they operate-uh-oh, here I go again).2. You may make more money-at least per book. When your book is published by a traditional publisher, you may get an advance against royalties. It’s increasingly true, however, that advances for first-time authors are pretty paltry-not much more than $5000. In fact, advances are shrinking. I just heard one publishing professional report that the most common advance these days is $0! Nothing.Even if you do get an advance, remember that most books don’t even earn out their advance, and that it’s an advance against (future) royalties. Typical royalty: 7-10 percent of net, which means after the bookstores or other distributors get their discount (typically 45 percent). Let’s do the math. A book that sells for $19.95 has a (discounted) base price of $12.97 (45% discount means you net 65 percent of list price). Of that, you get your 7.5 percent royalty (typical paperback royalty-hard cover is almost unheard-of for a new author). Now you’re down to 97 cents per book sold. Out of that comes, off the top, 15 percent to the agent (if you had one). So your net royalty per book is a whopping 82.7 cents per book.Now, if you can produce the book for $10, and it’s something you can actually sell for $19.95, you will net $9.95 per book if you self-publish and sell it yourself. The tricky thing, of course, is to make sure your production costs will not exceed the price you can actually sell the book for. The trouble with a lot of “publishers” such as is that you can easily price yourself out of the market. You have to be very careful and very realistic about what the market is used to paying for your kind of book.The other trick is to make sure you have an audience, or can build an audience, for your self-published book. If you can speak and sell it from the back of the room, this can be very effective. If you already have some kind of platform, some kind of audience, you can learn Internet marketing strategies and sell it online. The Web is becoming increasingly effective for promoting and selling books, which is why I’m so encouraged about publishing these days.3. You get published quicker. A legacy publisher may take 9-18 months to produce your book, once they get your manuscript. It might only take you half that time to do it yourself. You reap the rewards quicker if you self-publish.What are those rewards? Publishing a book positions you as an expert, like almost nothing else. According to Kevin Hogan, author of The Science of Influence, nothing boosts your credibility and expertise in the mind of the public like your own printed book. An advanced degree is actually second to having published a book. You can build on your expertise before, during, and after you write the book, and reap the rewards of being a published author quicker.Once your book is published, and you begin to promote it, you will make connections you can’t imagine now. Doors will open to you. When you’re perceived as an expert, people approach you; you don’t have to work as hard to go out to find them. You can charge higher fees for your services, products, speaking-whatever it is your book supports.Then there’s the incomparable satisfaction of hearing someone say, “Your book changed my life….”You might as well begin to reap these rewards sooner than later!4. As you learn the ropes of promotion, you can attract a legacy publisher. One who will then be willing to pay you a larger advance than they would earlier. You will have to learn how to promote your own books anyway, no matter how you publish initially. If you successfully promote your self-published book, and build a big audience, it’s likely a legacy publisher will approach you.This is another result of the self-publishing phenomenon. Increasingly, publishers are looking for successful self-published books to take on. It’s only good business. You (or perhaps a smaller publisher) has taken the initial risk, and you’ve proven you know how to promote your book. The risk is much less for them.Your advantage to being picked up at that point by a legacy publisher is that they will give you wider distribution (i.e., in bookstores and chains and other retail outlets), and you may well get a decent advance. (At that point, you will be in a position to know whether you want to sacrifice income for the greater distribution and having them pick up the hassles of producing, warehousing, and distributing the books. You may decide you’d rather keep it self-published.)If you are picked up by a traditional publisher, you can still sell your book and build your platform while they are producing your book. You can typically keep selling your book up to 60 or 90 days before your new book is published. Then, of course, the publisher will want to be able to sell the new edition, and you will have to retire your initial edition. (Often, this will include complementary materials-beware! For more on that, see the article, “Know Your Author Rights.”)I predict that more and more legacy publishers will look for successful self-published authors. They’d be foolish not to.5. You’re more likely to work hard to get your return on investment if it comes out of your own pocket. Isn’t this human nature? Don’t you think you’d work harder to recoup $5000 from your book if it’s your own money invested? And this motivation may be just what you need to propel you to success.Ultimately, you are the one who will have to promote and sell your book, no matter how you publish. Always, always remember that. You are your book’s own best advocate. Writing is only a piece of the picture. The real work comes later, in promoting it and making sure your investment of time, energy, and money yields a return.But that’s where the fun begins.

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