Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: The Pros and Cons

I’ve self-published two books, one of which hit the WSJ bestseller list. I’ve also written two books with Penguin Portfolio(one of the most respected publishers in the world). There are pros and cons to each method of publishing. Regardless of which route you go, there are some essential ingredients for a successful book.


The Non-Negotiables

1. Write a book that doesn't suck.

"Why Do You Want to Write a Book?"

This is the first question I ask when I work with a coaching client. Writing a book is hard, and unless you’re ok with the possibility that it will lead to nothing, you shouldn’t do it. The best reason to write a book is that you have something to say. 

JT McCormick had a great reason for writing a book. He was the son of a pimp who became a CEO. He wrote his book to share important life lessons with his kids.

If you’re writing a book because you think it will lead to a life of fame, glamour, and riches, you’ll be disappointed. If any of your reasons for writing a book are ego-driven, you should reconsider.

When people write books for the wrong reasons, they sign shitty contracts and ultimately write shitty books.

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2. Write a Lot

I didn’t make any meaningful progress until I started consistently writing 1000 words a day. After that, I self-published two books and wrote 100’s of articles. Eventually, it led to a book deal with a publisher. Professionals create on a schedule. 

Amateurs create when they feel like it.


3. Platform

One of the most jarring realities for a new author is discovering that publishers don’t necessarily care about the quality of your book. If you don’t already have an audience of potential readers who will buy your work.

Sure, there are outliers like J.K. Rowling. But the vast majority of book deals happen because authors already have an audience.

It doesn't matter if you self-publish or work with a traditional publisher. Unless you have an existing audience, your book will linger in obscurity. You have to find a medium for your message (blog, podcast, newsletter, non-profit, etc.), build your audience of 1000 true fans, and build what Seth Godin calls “a permission asset”. 

Focusing on mastery instead of metrics is the only viable long-term strategy to build an audience.

A large social media following is a terrible permission asset. It's an empire built on rented land. The best permission asset is an email list. It gives you a direct connection to your potential readers. Even in 2019, email is still the #1 driver of book sales.


4. A Message/Theme

If you’re writing a book, you have to be able to explore one idea over several chapters. The message of your books emerges through the work you do, whether that’s writing articles, recording podcasts or expressing your creativity in whatever medium you’ve chosen.

Every book has one core message. If you don't figure out what it is, your book will be disjointed.


The Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

Self-publishing a book is the most valuable thing aspiring authors can do for their career. The success of my self-published book led to a book deal with a traditional publisher.

Editors at publishing companies aren’t sitting around waiting to pluck people of out obscurity. They’re looking for opportunities to say yes to people who’ve stopped waiting for permission. The best way to give them that opportunity is to self publish.


Costs and Production Quality

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You have to spend a lot of money to achieve the same production quality as publisher. You'll have to hire cover designers, editors and more. If it flops, you’re out of a lot of money.

Self-publishing a book is like a minimum viable product. It gives you an opportunity to test the demand for your ideas. By releasing an electronic version first, you protect your downside.

AJ Leon hated what his publisher was doing to his book. So he returned his advance. Then, he published The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit as a free collection of essays. After it was downloaded over 100,000 times, his audience asked for a physical version. He hired Kickstarter wizard Clay Hebert. His campaign for a physical version of the book was fully funded in 4 hours.

When I published The Art of Being Unmistakable, the only version available was on Kindle. I didn’t make a physical version of the book available until after it sold over 1000 copies.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a small fortune creating something that nobody wants.


Creative Control

My friend Mars Dorian designed the covers for all of my self-published books. He also did the chapter illustrations for Unmistakable. I’ve always said he’s the definition of unmistakable. But my publisher ironically wouldn’t let him design the cover for Unmistakable.

When you self-publish, you have complete creative control over the content, and the final product. There’s no minimum word count or formula. At the moment, I’m working on a new book called The Scenic Route. I plan to self-publish.

I’m creating an Adobe Spark version that will be free, and I'm publishing a Kindle version. I’d probably never be able to get a book deal for it. But, that hasn’t stopped me from writing it.

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Marketing/Promotion

Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, marketing and promotion are YOUR jobs. You are the one who has to build an audience and a relationship with your readers.

In many ways, it’s easier to market a self-published book. You can give it away for free and price it as low as you want. You don’t have many of the constraints of working with a publisher.


Perception

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The final authority on your book is not your literary agent, editor or publisher. The final authority is your reader. And readers don’t give a shit who published your book. They want to read a good book. I couldn’t tell you who published many of the books by my favorite authors.

  • Even though they’re better written and much more polished, my traditionally published books haven’t sold as well.
  • Hal Elrod self-published The Miracle Morning, which has sold thousands, if not millions of copies.

Your book won't magically be better in the eyes of a reader just because of a publisher.

There are plenty of terrible books published by traditional publishers.

Traditional Publishing - Pros and Cons

A few years ago I spoke with Betsy Rappaport, who helps authors bring their books to life. She said I wasn’t ready. At the time I was upset. But, she did me a huge favor.

  • I became a better writer
  • I grew my audience
  • I developed the habits and mindset you need to write a book with a publisher.

Two extra years made a massive difference. I got a bigger advance and wrote a much better book.


Below I’ve outlined how traditional publishing differs from self-publishing.


Cost/Production Quality

The opportunity to work with a skilled editor is the most valuable thing about traditional publishers. You are held to a higher standard than correct spelling and proper grammar.

  • You learn how to support the arguments you’re making with evidence.
  • You develop the ability to work on bigger and more in-depth projects.
  • You learn how to start with nothing but an idea and bring it to life.

Like most goals, the benefit of doing a book with a publisher isn’t a finished book. It’s the person you become in the process.

With traditional publishing, you get paid your advance, and you get to focus on writing your book. However, just because you get a six-figure book contract, it doesn’t mean you’ll be rich.

You get:

  • 1/4 of your advance on signing a contract
  • Another on delivery of the manuscript, another upon publication
  • Another upon release of paperback or a year after the release of the hardcover.

One thing publishers are very good at is making books. The final product will be polished, and thoroughly edited.


Creative Control

Publishers are not in the business of making dreams come true. They’re in the business of minimizing risk and selling as many books as possible.

Publishers are not charities. They are not doing you a favor by publishing your book. They are businesses, and they want to make money. – Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn

As a result, they want to protect their investment. That means you will sacrifice some creative control. Unmistakable Creative is a highly visual brand. So, The biggest fight I had with my publisher was over book covers. Although, we did finally end up with covers that we really loved.

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Marketing and Promotion

When I interviewed Ramit Sethi years ago, he said, “Publishers don’t do shit for you. They’re good at designing book covers and putting your book in stores.”

Contrary to popular belief, publishers don’t do much to help with the marketing of your book. They’re fantastic at making books, but ironically don’t know much about selling them. Almost every author has a story about the lackluster or failed marketing efforts of their publisher. If you want to proof, this is what DHH said about his recent book launch:

Harper Business bought the rights to publish It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work with a mid-six-figure offer. They outbid another publisher who was in the final running for the rights by a fair margin. Awesome, we thought. This means they’re really invested in blowing this out! This is going to be great.

It was not great.

Despite paying top dollar for the book, Harper Business decided to only print 14,000 copies in the first run. That 14,000 was based on the first orders from retailers. Barnes & Noble wanted 4,000 copies. Amazon wanted 3,300. The rest went largely to independents and wholesalers, and a few for overseas. Once everyone had gotten what they had ordered, Harper Business had no books left. The whole first run was spoken for.

If publishers were great at selling books, Tim Grahl, Ryan Holiday and Digital Natives (the team that worked on my recent book launch) wouldn’t have thriving businesses. Your book is one of the hundreds that a publisher is releasing every year. Their marketing efforts will be over right after the launch unless you sell 1000's of copies.

Bookstores and Best-Seller Lists

The biggest challenge you’ll face with a self-published book is getting into bookstores. But hardly anyone buys books by authors they've never heard of. Having your books on shelves inflates your ego more than it inflates books sales. My self-published book was a WSJ Best-seller. But I could never hit the NY Time Best-Seller list with a self-published book. It’s also worth considering what Seth Godin has said in his article about the list:

The Times’ list is completely fictional. Made up. Divorced from reality. The stated goal of the list is to find (and promote) books that Times editors want people to read, not books that are actually selling a lot. (The editor of the Book Review told this to me years ago). So, they make up ‘rules’ to appear consistent.


Word of Mouth

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Successful books don’t spread because of massive book launches, overpriced ad campaigns or national media attention. Books that have the potential to become perennial sellers spread by word of mouth. A trusted source is more valuable than attention from strangers on the internet.

  • I’m more likely to buy a book if it’s recommended to me by a friend.
  • Glenn Beck caused the sales of my self-published book to skyrocket because his audience trusts him.
  • Oprah has the impact that she does on book sales because she’s a trusted source.

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way wasn’t an immediate success. It eventually spread by word of mouth. It made its way to the NFL and went on to sell 300,000 copies. Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of national media attention. In some cases, it barely moves the needle on book sales. As Ryan says in his book Perennial Seller, no product can survive long term without word of mouth.

If you’re serious about building a career as an author, it can’t be about one moment. Ryan Holiday says that authors should spend as much time promoting their books as they do writing. Having seen slow, but steady sales of An Audience of One at about 50 copies a week, I couldn’t agree more. You’re better off having a perennial seller than a best-seller that makes headlines for a few weeks.


Perception

The biggest value of traditionally published books is in the eyes of people who hire speakers.

Prior to my traditionally published books, I rarely got booked for paid speaking gigs. When you’ve written a 50,000-word book, it shows that you have a clear message. You could easily give a one hour talk.

I’ve had tremendous success with self-publishing by the standard of book sales. But I’ve become a much better writer through the process of writing two traditionally published books. Neither one is a guarantee of fame, fortune, or success. But choosing the right one for where you are on your path will sharpen you.

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