Should You Self-Publish or Pursue a Mainstream Publisher?

Open text book with shallow depth of field with bokeh.
Open text book with shallow depth of field with bokeh.

Over the past month, I have fielded numerous inquiries about book development and promotion, so I figured it would be helpful to share with you my tips for both. In this first installment, I'll focus on the starting point question of whether to self-publish or pursue a mainstream publisher. There is really no right or wrong answer here. Instead, there are pros and cons of each route, along with numerous variables to consider. Here are some of them:

Self Publishing Pros:

  • You have total control over content and publication date.
  • You receive all the profits generated by book sales.
  • You don't need to develop a book proposal (which is like a business and marketing plan for the book, plus book summary, chapter summaries, and sample chapters).
  • You don't need to have an already-established platform (impressive media clips, a strong social media following, previous work with VIPs, previous speaking engagements at leading venues) to entice literary agents and publishing company editors.

Self Publishing Cons:

  • There is no advance.
  • You have to pay for publication.
  • You have to do all your own promotion.
  • Media, VIPs, and speaking venues may not take you as seriously as if you publish through a recognized publishing company.
  • There are a number of self-publishing company scams out there, attempting to take advantage of the eager and unsuspecting novice author. It may be difficult for a lay person to distinguish between what is legitimate and what is not.

Mainstream Publishing Pros:

  • You may get an advance, and it may be large enough to take time off to write your book, without also having to work during that time. Getting an advance is more likely with a larger publishing company and with more accomplishments under your belt, ie, a stronger platform (see "bling" reference above). If the publishing company expects your book to sell well, they are more likely to offer a greater amount of money up front.
  • The publishing company does all the work of publishing, and the physical books usually appear more professional, polished, and higher quality than self-published books.
  • The publishing company does a certain amount of promotional work - including securing media, booking speaking engagements at book stores, and creating a limited number of promotional items for those engagements.
  • Mainstream publication establishes you as a credible author - the bigger the publisher, the higher your credibility as a trusted source of information. This credibility in turn makes it easier to generate respect and interest from media, VIPs in your field, and prestigious speaking venues. It additionally helps generate "brand trust" - ie, it offers third-party validation that makes people feel more comfortable with you and therefore willing to invest in your products or services.
Mainstream Publishing Cons:
  • It is likely to take you much longer to go the mainstream publishing route than the self-publishing route:
  1. After developing the book proposal, you will need to identify literary agents who are not only competent and well-connected but who are also a terrific match for your particular book.
  2. Once you find the best literary agents for your book, you will need to develop a killer one-page query letter, to entice said literary agents to take you on as a client.
  3. Once you sign with a literary agent, you will need to wait for days, weeks, or months, while your literary agent wines and dines editors at the various publishing companies - with no promise of actually placing the book, even after all that time.
  4. Once you sign with a publishing company, you will need to write your book (if it's not yet written), then wait for the editor at that publishing company to review and finalize your book content - which may include a significant amount of back-and-forth with you, especially if there are disagreements about content edits.
  5. You then will need to wait until the publishing company is ready to release the book, given all the other books it already has in queue.
  • You may end up with an editor who doesn't "get" you or your work and who demands edits that you feel compromise your integrity or that of your book. The more edgy your book is, the more likely you are to find yourself butting heads with a mainstream editor. Remember, they want to sell books.
  • Unless you are an A-lister and/or your book takes off like wildfire, shortly after publication, you will get a limited amount of time and attention from the publishing company, with regards to book promotion. You are likely to have to invest a certain amount of time, energy, and resources into promotion, even with some of the larger publishing companies, especially if you want a targeted and sustained promotional campaign.
  • The publishing company is likely to send out a one-size-fits all press release to all media outlets, whereas media editors/producers respond best to pitches tailored to their specific audiences - for example, one version to health magazines, another version to business magazines, and still another version to women's magazines. Remember my previous blog post about how to spin yourself from different angles? A mainstream publisher will not do that.
  • The publishing company is likely to just send out press releases, without calling editors/producers, or to send out press releases and call, but just once or twice, before stopping. It can take as many as three or four persistent phone calls and emails before editors/producers respond, given how busy they are. Frequently, after finally getting one of them on the phone, following multiple pitches, they confess to having no idea what the pitch is, despite repeated voicemails and emails - which they then scroll through and find in their inbox. It often takes a certain kind of relentlessness to get the attention of media, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the pitch or the interest in the topic.
  • With some exceptions, you need to develop a book proposal, referenced above, regardless of whether the book is already written or not. It is often harder for people to write summaries of chapters than to write out the entire chapters, and while you may love writing about a certain topic, you may not love writing about the business of that topic. Again, a book proposal is a marketing plan, designed to convince editors that you can sell your book and generate a profit for them.

So...Which route to go?
My general rule of thumb is this:

If you have a nominal or entirely non-existent platform, you might be better off self-publishing. You can use this book to build your platform, then circle back around to mainstream literary agents and publishers down the line, to republish your book once you have a strong social media following, speaking engagements, VIP collaboration, and media clips under your belt. Alternately, you can see this book as an investment in your platform, then leverage that platform for another book - for which you can go after mainstream publishing.

If, however, you have accumulated a significant amount of "bling," you might be better off going the mainstream publishing route. While you still will have to invest a certain amount of time, energy, and resources into book promotion, you won't have to pay for publication; you'll get at least a certain amount of support with media and speaking engagements; and you may get an advance. (Who doesn't like extra cash?) Perhaps most importantly, you'll have the extra validation and prestige that come with mainstream publishing - which in turn can open all kinds of doors to you.