Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing: Which is Right For You?

As regular readers know, I recently co-authored a book about social media marketing entitled “Friends With Benefits”. Before that, we wrote an ebook on the same topic. We distributed the ebook as a PDF, enabling people to buy it through PayPal. The traditional book is published by No Starch Press and distributed by O’Reilly Media.

A longtime reader asked that I write a post comparing the two approaches.

Editorial Decisions

If you’re self-publishing, you have complete control over what your book is about. You can publish a book on as narrow a topic as you like (“Capri Pants of Upstate New York, 1963 to 1965”), and you get to decide what goes into the table of contents. When we wrote our ebook, we pretty much skipped MySpace because, well, we didn’t know a lot about it, and we didn’t feel like learning.

On the other hand, we negotiated the book’s outline with our editor. This proved a healthy and useful process, as it ensured that we covered all our bases. We did, however, have to write a chapter on MySpace. That was almost certainly the least fun chapter to write in the book.

An editor has a ton of earned wisdom which they can impart to you. They’ve confronted hundreds of decisions–from ideal chapter length to whether website names should be italicized–that the self-publishing author needs to consider.

Length

Your eBook can be as long or as short as you like. A traditional book has certain expectations around length. In addition to the practical marketing requirement that it occupy enough shelf space to be visible to the bookstore browser, it needs to seem substantial enough to merit its price.

Our eBook was about 25,000 words long, while “Friends With Benefits” clocked in at 90,000. The latter, obviously, is a lot more words than the former.

Marketing and Promotion

With a self-published book, you do all of the marketing and promotion yourself. If you’re up for this work, and maybe have done some kind of marketing in the past, this isn’t a big deal. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not rocket science. If you’ve never promoted anything before, then you’re going to face a learning curve.

Publishers offer marketing help. I hear a lot of authors complain about how little marketing support publishers offer, but they may not understand the economies at work inside publishing houses. The publisher may have dozens of books to promote, and few (or one) staff members to do this work. Our publisher helped with a lot of the marketing legwork–writing press releases, pitching reviewers (we helped assemble the list of reviewers to contact) and so forth. Knowing what I do about publishers and marketing, I’m entirely satisfied with their efforts.

I should also mention the process of signing a book deal. For us, it was super-easy. We were introduced to a literary agent, and she asked us to write a three-page proposal for the book. Armed with that and our ebook, she got interest from a publisher within a couple of weeks. I think we got really lucky, so your mileage may definitely vary.

Production Process

When creating an ebook, you can apply as much or as little design work as you like. I’ve seen ebooks that are style-free Word documents, and ebooks that look indistinguishable from published books. I made the mediocre cover of our ebook myself. It’s adequate, but certainly nothing to write home about. The self-published author needs to handle or outsource all of the production aspects–cover design, layout, illustration, indexing and so forth. For our ebook, we hired a designer we know to tweak our layout and give us some good advice on how to make the book look more professional.

If you’re planning on using Blurb, Lulu or the like to sell your self-published book, be sure that you layout our your book to their standards. This was one of the reasons we didn’t use these services–we couldn’t be bothered to match our layout to their requirements. Another reason, if I recall correctly, was that some services only accepted US-based customers.

The publisher takes care of all of this for the author. In a couple of cases, I simply drew illustrations on our whiteboard, photographed them and sent them along to the illustrator to render as actual diagrams. We’re very happy with the cover and illustrations in our book.

Earned Credibility

Obviously there’s a difference between self-publishing a book and convincing a publisher to produce your book. The latter includes an implicit endorsement of you and your work. Of course, we’ve all read really bad books from publishers and great ebooks, so one should take this with a grain of salt. However, there’s no question that people view published books as more ‘legitimate’ than self-published ebooks. Take that for what’s it worth.

Money

Here-in lies the rub. As I said in an earlier post, you don’t write a book to make money. You can, however, write an ebook to make money. The math is pretty simple.

  • We sold our ebook for $29. After transaction fees, we made about $27.25 per book.
  • On our actual book, after our advance, we make less $2 per book.

It’s a little hard to say at this stage, but we’ll probably make about the same amount on the actual book as we did on the ebook.

If you consider all the above factors, the ebook is by far the better money-making proposition. Say you spend 100 hours writing and producing a 25,000-word ebook. Then you spend another 100 hours promoting it, and you sell just 500 copies at $27.25 a book. You’ve just earned $13,625, or about $65/hour. Not serious money, but better than a kick in the pants with a frozen boot. This is doubly true if you’re passionate about the subject matter. Plus, if you write five ebooks, and offer them for sale in perpetuity, then there’s a lot of potential for ongoing passive revenue.

Which is Right For You?

If you want to make money, go the ebook route. You’re the captain of your own fate, and your hard work can translate directly into hard-earned cash. If you’re looking to (as we marketers say) ‘establish expertise’ and ‘build your brand’, then get a publishing deal.

9 comments

  1. Great post, Darren. But you can capture credibility with certain markets using an ebook. Mine has led to joint ventures, paid speaking engagements and so on. I’d also estimate that you can write and promote an ebook in fewer than 200 hours…especially if you have something else to leverage, like a well-trafficked blog or busy consulting business. And 500 copies may be a modest number, if you hit the right need. Plus you can price higher or lower, package it with other stuff, repurpose it, update it at will, and sell it forever, as long as it’s up to date.

    But, if you’re going B2B, looking to leverage a book for consulting deals or hoping to promote yourself as an expert, there are many advantages to be had from a nice big glossy business card, as one of my clients (who’s doing a book deal) noted this week. Still, it’s worth looking at whether you can do that with an ebook first. Obviously you guys weighed it up and noted the advantages.

  2. Thanks for this very informative post! It’s so awesome I’m going to tweet about it. And I must say, “Friends With Benefits” is a hilarious and catchy title. Well done. I’m a freelance copy editor and I’m tempted to write and self-publish a book just so I can go through the process and be better able to advise my clients as to what to expect. (But you’ve done it for me.) Hmmm. “Write about what you know”… something to think about. Anyway, as I said, thanks for this interesting blog post. Cheers, Marlene

  3. Hi Darren,
    I am in the process of making the decision about which direction to go with my book and discovered your post here in my research on this subject. Of all the thoughts I have read so far on this topic, yours is the most helpful and clear-cut to me. You confirmed my hunches — that more money can be pocketed the ebook route but more personal branding and “expert credibility” can be had the traditional route. I appreciate your perspective here! Thank you.
    Mary Lou Kayser

  4. I have a couple in-print books that I’d like to publish as e-books, but I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. I know you can pay companies to change the formatting for you…

  5. I am a writer who is looking for a traditional publishing house to publish my manuscript but in vain. I have published one book by my self with Authorhouse but so far the costs have been more than the benefits. By reading your article I saw that e books bring in a decent amount of money. How do I publish an e book?

    Yaw Asomaning

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