Should You Self-Publish Your First Book?

After talking to several people with significant experience in the industry, I realized that traditional publishing was not going to be easy.
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When I first considered writing a book about millennials seeking meaning in their professional lives, my dream was to find a publisher. I knew publishers would be intrigued since the topic was highly relevant to 20- and 30-somethings and receiving frequent media coverage in outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic and NPR.

After talking to several people with significant experience in the industry (including someone who works for Chronicle Books -- my favorite indie publishing house in San Francisco), I realized that traditional publishing was not going to be easy. First of all, the traditional publishing process moves slowly. Very slowly. At the time of my meetings, it was spring 2013 and assuming I even got a book deal, the earliest my book would come out was fall 2015. Second, most traditionally published authors are still on the hook for running their own marketing and publicity campaigns. Third, advances for new or non-famous authors like myself are usually in the ballpark of $10,000-$15,000, or lower. After an advance, you're giving up about 80-85 percent of the royalties from your book sales.

So, I did the math and realized I could give myself an advance through crowdfunding, an incredible tool for new authors. In July 2013, I ran an Indiegogo campaign to sell pre-orders for The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, and raised nearly $13,000 from 518 supporters in 38 countries around the world. This both demonstrated that there was indeed a strong market for the book and gave me the "advance" I would have gotten from a publisher.

I used the campaign funds to pay for professional developmental and copy editing services, cover design and book design, as well as marketing and publicity costs. Since I'm self-publishing, I'll keep around 60-70 percent of the royalties from my sales, which means that even if I sell only 1000 more copies, along with my campaign, I'll still net significantly more than I would have made with a publisher and the $15,000 advance.

Furthermore, my book is about 20-somethings who are redefining their professional lives on their own terms and making a positive impact in the world -- what better way to reflect the purpose of my book than to become an entrepreneur myself and self-publish?

The trade-off with self-publishing is that my book won't be in retail bookstores across the country (at least not immediately). When my book launches in two weeks, I'll be distributing the book as an e-book through Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing) to start with, and later on iBooks and Nook. The paperback book will be sold through Amazon's print-on-demand service (CreateSpace), and will also be available to over 38,000 retailers and libraries through Ingram (printed by Lightning Source via IngramSpark), although I don't expect many bookstores to actually order it since very few brick-and-mortar shops carry self-published titles. I'm also printing high-quality paperback copies to fulfill my Indiegogo pre-orders and to sell at full price on my website and at speaking events.

If you're weighing the decision to self-publish or publish, like most important decisions in life, it boils down to your personal situation and your expectations.

If you're hella famous, you can either publish or self-publish and you'll be good. Newsflash: famous people are pretty much always going to be fine. If you're someone like Tim Ferriss or Seth Godin, either your traditional book advance is probably going to be very large, or you have over 500,000 blog followers who love you and will buy your self-published book the second you tell them to (so either way you're going to sell books and make some money).

If you're kind of famous but not hella famous (let's say you have a decent number of followers or founded a small but reputable company or write for a small but reputable publication), the decision whether to self-publish is a bit more tricky. You should probably send out a few book proposals to publishers and see what kind of response you get. Perhaps you'll find a publisher who's really excited about your project.

If you're not famous (someone like me), I think the way to go is self-publishing since you don't really have a choice anyway. I could have spent a year sending off book proposals and even if I got a book deal, it likely wouldn't have been that lucrative. So, instead I decided to experiment with building my own platform to connect with readers.

It all comes back to your intentions. If you want the credibility that comes with having your book stocked in the back of Barnes & Noble in suburban Minneapolis, then by all means you should spend the next year sending off proposals to get a book deal.

If you want to try to build a community around an idea and help inspire others with your story, which is what I'm trying to do, I think the self-publishing tools available today to authors (Amazon, crowdfunding, blogging, social media, etc.) are a great option.

I'm not writing this book to become a bestseller, I'm writing it to serve as a calling card for future writing projects and future work opportunities with mission-aligned organizations. The book is an effort in building my personal platform as well as empowering a community of millennials who refuse to settle for mediocrity and want to change the world. My goal is that I build enough momentum from online sales and word of mouth engagement that maybe I can start writing for a reputable publication, or start speaking at mission-aligned events. Or maybe a publisher wants to work with me to get this book (or my next book) out to a wider retail audience. Or maybe an organization working to help young people fulfill their dreams will want to hire me in a few months. The book is not the end game, it's just the beginning.

Whether you self-publish or publish traditionally, don't write a book to make lots of money because you probably won't make that much. Instead, find a story people absolutely need to hear, and go out and do everything you possibly can to tell it.

More and more, I think the lines are becoming blurred between publishing and self-publishing. All authors, even the hella famous ones working with the top publishing houses, have to "self-publish" in terms of marketing and PR. The snobby people that you meet at book readings are no longer rolling their eyes when you explain to them that you're self-publishing.

Whenever anyone asks me whether I'm publishing or self-publishing, I respond, "Oh, I'm publishing. The publisher is a wonderful new imprint, called 20s and 30s Press, based in San Francisco, that happens to share a laptop with me. I spent a year of my life (well over 2,000 hours) working on every single aspect of this project, from storyboarding to running a crowdfunding campaign to writing the back cover copy; you better believe I published a book."

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