I speak with people all the time who are hoping to publish a non-fiction book but don’t know how to get started. One of the first things I ask is whether they’ve considered going with a traditional publishing house or self-publishing. There are a variety of pros and cons to both routes and the best choice truly depends on the author’s situation and goals. Some people know this already, but most people don’t know that it can actually be smart to decide on the publishing route before they start writing. Publishers won’t review a manuscript to decide whether they want to work with a non-fiction author; they review a book proposal. So the question really comes down to whether would-be authors should focus on their manuscript or a proposal.
In this post, I lay out the top three things to consider when choosing between a publisher and self-publishing.
Platform: To obtain a book deal from a traditional publisher, it’s essential that you have a “marketing platform.” In a nutshell, this means that you’re in contact with a lot of people who would buy your book. (You didn’t think the publisher would do all the work in making the book a success, did you? That would be nice, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.)
The publisher serves as a brand name for the author, and they want the author to repay the favor. That’s why publishers opt to work with authors who can sell copies on their own. In fact, there’s an entire section of the standard book proposal that’s dedicated to the author’s marketing efforts.
This is where you would share stats like:
• Average number of visitors to your website per month
• Other websites and publications that have published your writing
• Number of speaking engagements per year and the average audience size
• How many people are on your email list and connected to you on social media (And whether they are engaged in your content, opening your e-newsletters and retweeting your messages)
• YouTube video views
• Partnerships with influencers in your industry
• And the list can go on and on
I’ve written several book proposals that were accepted by a publishing house or even started a bidding war between publishers. In each case, the author had a really impressive marketing platform. They didn’t all have huge numbers for every criterion listed above, but when one was lower, another more than made up for it. (One author had fewer than 5,000 email contacts but had 50,000 twitter followers. One had fewer than 5,000 social media contacts, but had many impressive business partnerships and spoke in front of 10,000 people a year.)
This isn’t to say you can’t get a non-fiction book deal without a huge marketing platform, but it certainly makes it harder. The bigger and more successful the publisher, the higher their expectations are likely to be.
If your platform isn’t up to snuff, you could work on it before you dive into writing your book, or you could self publish. But even if you self-publish, you’ll still need to work on your platform if you care about getting your book into people’s hands. There are so many books in the world, people don’t just stumble upon unknown titles and turn them into best-sellers. Yes, it can happen, but 99.999% of the time it doesn’t.
You have to be active in marketing.
Money: No doubt you’re familiar with the allure of book deals where publishers pay authors six-figure advances to fund the writing process. You’ve probably thought to yourself how nice that sounded. Yep, kind of like winning the lottery would be nice. Publishers still dish out big advances like in the old days, but only to authors who are a sure thing. If you aren’t a celebrity, you haven’t already written a book that sold thousands of copies, and you don’t have a massive following, you probably won’t get a huge advance. You might get enough to cover a ghostwriter, but it’s smart to plan on funding the creation of your book either way.
Advances aside, the way you make money through a traditional publisher and self-publishing is very different. Through a publishing house you make royalties, which is a percentage of sales. Royalty deals can be complex and vary greatly, but we’re typically only talking a dollar or two per book. If you sell a million copies, you’re golden, but most books don’t come anywhere near that number. When you self-publish, the money you make is the price of the book minus your costs. Depending on the variables, you could make closer to $10 per book. As you can see, your sales can be much lower and yield the same revenue.
Even though these models are totally different, the thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of non-fiction authors won’t make most of their money on book sales. They will make it through bringing in more clients, booking more speaking engagements, and being able to charge more for their services.
Think of your book as a marketing piece.
Freedom: It usually all comes down to freedom, doesn’t it? When you work with a publisher, they own the rights to your book. You agree to the terms of what they’ll pay you in various sales scenarios, but they’re running the show. That means they have final say in your title, cover art, timeline for release, length of the book, and any edits to your manuscript. The idea is that publishers have more experience than individual authors in making good choices on these matters, so authors benefit from handing over the decision-making power. For the most part, I agree with that. However, it might not be enough to give up this freedom if you don’t feel like you’re getting much in return. Most publishers don’t help very much with marketing the books they represent. They might do a few things for authors, but not enough for authors to lean on them. That’s one reason why self-publishing is becoming more and more popular.
If you don’t want to give up your decision-making power, well, more power to you. Just know that unless you are a seasoned writer and publishing expert, you should still get professional help with the editing and production process. (Heck, everyone needs an editor.) There are plenty of companies that will print your book or create an e-book with no questions asked, but there’s a good chance it will look like you slapped it together by yourself.
Channel your freedom into hiring whoever you want to help you.
There’s a lot to know about publishing, but these are the three most important factors for new authors to consider. Instead of determining the one “right answer,” you must decide which path is best for you as an individual.