As a ghostwriter, I often hear from prospective authors who would like to write a book but are on the fence about whether to self-publish it or try to find a commercial publisher. Many of these budding writers are entrepreneurs—whether solo professionals or founders of scalable companies—who want to raise the profile of their business to bring in more clients or speaking engagements, or who want to establish themselves as thought leaders.
These days, this is a tougher choice than it was in the days of “vanity” publishing houses. Self-publishing has come a long way since then, and you can earn money and build your reputation with both types of publishing. However, the experience of commercially publishing versus self-publishing is very different. It’s important to have a general sense of how they differ before you start your book, because commercial publishing requires some extra steps up front. Here’s a look at how they compare in some key areas.
- Speed to market
Self-publishing is usually a much quicker way to publish a book than commercially publishing it. There are no gatekeepers who get to decide whether you can publish your book or not. You just have to go ahead and write it, find an affordable way to publish it, and bring it to market.
Selling your book to a commercial publisher takes longer, and key gatekeepers will determine if you can publish this way. You’ll first have to find an agent to represent you and then, with the agent's help, pitch the book to publishers to see if one or more is willing to bid on it.
Because the process is very competitive for authors, an agent will want to see a book proposal that includes a full outline of the book and, often, one or two sample chapters. The agent may ask you to improve on this package before pitching the book to publishing houses to present it in its best light. Producing this package of materials usually takes several months and sometimes much longer.
An agent will then pitch the book to a list of publishing houses that buy similar types of books. If none of them bite, the agent may send it out to a second-tier list. This process can take several months or more, and it comes with no guarantees. Many people do all of the work and never get a publisher to buy their book for a host of reasons. However, if you do find a publisher to buy your book, you will benefit from the prestige that comes with making it through this gauntlet.
If you can get a contract, the commercial publishing process starts to gain momentum. An editor at the publishing house will give you deadlines. Many busy people won't write their books until they have to, so that's something to keep in mind.
2. Financial aspects
With self-publishing, you’ll take on the cost of publishing the book. Some authors hire custom publishing houses, which will tackle most of the work, sometimes down to providing a ghostwriter. In my experience, self-publishing in this way usually costs authors $50,000 to $200,000 or more, when all is said and done. Publishing a book on a no-frills platform like Amazon and doing all of the work yourself can cost much less, sometimes less than $10,000.
The upside of self-publishing is you get to keep the proceeds of each book sale. If you have a large following on social media or are a professional speaker who can persuade event organizers to buy a copy of your book for everyone in the audience as part of your speaking fee, you may be able to bring in a decent amount of money through book sales.
When you publish a book with a commercial publisher, the publisher pays you for the book. You’ll typically get an advance, which may be in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $50,000 for a new author, though there are outliers on both ends of the spectrum. This is often paid in two or three increments. (In case you’re wondering, you will have to pay back the advance if you don’t write the book.) You may also get royalties, where you receive a share of the cover price of each copy sold. Generally, the publisher keeps most of the cover price.
Agents usually require you to pay a commission from sales of the book, in the range of 12-17%. Generally, a good agent will have contacts in publishing that you’ll never be able to build as a layperson outside of the industry, so for anyone who isn’t a publishing industry veteran, there is no substitute for working with one.
3. Editing process
Self-publishing: When you self-publish, you’ll be the final arbiter of when the book is done. That may sound liberating but if you are not a professional writer or editor—and even if you are—it may be a bit daunting to write a whole book without a second set of eyes. What if a glaring mistake slips into the copy and you don’t catch it because you’ve been staring at the same pages for too long? What if you mean to say one thing but readers interpret what you meant to express very differently?
Many self-published authors end up hiring outside writers and editors to help them and some build a team, made up of a strategy consultant to help them map out the book, a ghostwriter, a manuscript editor to do the heavy lifting of editing it line by line, and a copy editor or proofreader to catch typos and the like. Depending on how large your team is and how experienced each player is, this can add anywhere from hundreds of dollars to $50,000 or more to the costs of producing the book. Some high-end custom publishing houses include these services as part of a full-service publishing package.
Commercial publishing: A commercial publisher will have a full editorial team in place. If your writing is generally clear, they will not usually require you to bring in your own editors, though there may be minor costs, such as hiring a proofreader.
4. Publishing process
When you self-publish, it will be up to you to investigate potential publishing options, whether it is publishing through Amazon or the many other private publishing platforms and publishing houses. Researching these avenues can take a lot of time unless you've self-published before. Depending on how robust the option you choose is, you may also have to look into matters like finding an artist to design the book cover, creating a listing on major booksellers’ sites, getting the book onto store shelves, and so on. If you don’t want to do these things yourself, you’ll have to hire consultants and experts to help you.
Commercial publishing: If you commercially publish a book, the publisher will generally handle the publishing process from start to finish. There won’t be any work for you, except to review the manuscript and cover as it moves through the various stages of production. However, you will have less control over the finished product.
When you self-publish a book, it will be up to you to publicize the book. Unless you are very well known, readers probably won’t just “find” your book or hear about it through word of mouth. This is why many authors spend the months before publication building up their presence on one or more social media sites, developing e-newsletters, and otherwise creating a “platform” for selling the book. If you don’t have time to do this work yourself, you’ll need to hire outside consultants to do it for you.
If you want to get publicity in major media, you will also need to think about doing a public relations campaign. This usually means creating a press kit for the book with professional photos, a professionally written bio and a press release. You will also need someone to identify media, whether traditional outlets or podcasts, to reach out to for coverage and to set up interviews, guest post opportunities, and so on. Many authors find this is too much work for them to tackle and hire a PR firm. This will generally cost from $3,000 to $10,000 a month. Usually, you will need the help of a PR firm for three to six months, given that the work publicists do doesn't always bear fruit the first month.
If you work with a large commercial publisher, they will have an in-house public relations team and assign someone to promote your book. I worked with Random House for my first book and found their PR team to be very energetic and well-connected. However, they are one of the largest publishing houses and have more resources than most. With smaller publishing houses, you may need to supplement what the in-house PR team does by hiring a PR firm or doing the legwork yourself.
If this all sounds like a lot of time and effort, it is. But there’s nothing like making it through to the other side, knowing you finally wrote your book and seeing it on the shelves of your favorite bookstore.