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Book Self-Publishing:
Pros and Cons

Look at the best-seller lists of the past decade and on them, you will see The Christmas Box, The Celestine Prophecy, and Into the Light. These titles were originally self-published. They went on to national distribution through Bantam Doubleday Dell and Random House after years of selling locally.

If self-publishing is such a road to success, why don’t more authors do it? The primary reason is ignorance: the tools that make self-publishing possible — like desktop publishers, freelance publicists, and independent book distributors — are new on the scene. Not all authors have heard that you can be your own publisher if you can line up the right people.

Second, self-publishing involves an investment of about $20,000. When you see what the return on this investment can be, you may think more seriously about investing in your book. A publisher will usually pay you a royalty of ten percent; self-publishers average three to four times that on each copy sold.

Third, a self-published book may be inferior in editing and production quality. This pitfall can be avoided by hiring professional editors and designers who work for the major publishers to come in on your project. If you plan well so that you aren’t paying them for hand-holding but strictly for professional expertise, the costs are surprisingly low.

Fourth, vanity presses over the years have published some terrible, terrible stuff. Nonfiction is the best subject area for self-publishing. Novels are best left to the specialty publishers whose imprimatur assures readers that the literary quality is high. Poetry and children’s books are often beautifully published in small editions until the author and artist are established. The control over editorial and art questions in the self-publishing arena makes this an important aesthetic as well as economic choice.

For nonfiction, though, self-publishing makes a lot of sense. The average book takes four years of work from concept to delivering a book to the reader. If you self-publish, you can reduce this time to four months if you concentrate and fourteen months if you do things at a more leisurely pace.

I was an acquisitions editor for St. Martin’s Press, William Morrow, and Prentice Hall for twenty years, publishing over 500 books for them. The biggest gripe I heard from authors was that the marketing was not intense enough to make the book a success. When you self-publish, the decision of how much to allocate to advertising, autographing, and in-store promotions is yours. You can evaluate your sales, and you can decide what to do next to market your book — without the killing delays that are inevitable in working with a big publisher.

Ultimately, the reason to self-publish is a financial one. You can earn more per unit sold. But, more important for financial planning, your foray into publishing the book will give your literary agent and publisher the ammunition they need to launch you book into the big time.

Ellen E.M. Roberts
This article was published in
The SuperScript Scribe, January 2002.

(See also
Ten Myths About Writing.”)

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