Traditionally Publish or Self-Publish? This is a more complex question than it first appears. You also have to answer 1) What are your objectives? 2) What are you willing to do/not do yourself to help sell your book(s)?
I have modest experience with both traditional and self-publishing: 20 years ago I wrote a novel, printed it, put it in a box and sent it to what back then was a medium size, independent publisher of military history that was trying to break into the fiction market. I had no agent and put a letter in the box to the effect of ‘let me know if you want to publish this.’ A few weeks later I got a thick envelope back. They loved the book and had sent me contracts for it and two more books. I signed all three contracts and they sent me advances for all three.
After a year of editing the first novel, they shut down their fiction line and told me I could keep the advances. At that point, I secured an agent with JCA, and we went to work finding another publisher, but after a couple close calls we both gave up, and I got on with my life in business.
When I look back on what happened, my sense now is that my first novel had its strengths but in sum was not so strong. And perhaps the publisher was not so good at telling the difference, which is why they ended their foray into fiction after one huge bestseller and lots of duds. In any event, the novel still sits in a box in the back of a dark closet and will probably never be published.
I’ve been in marketing, product management and sales in the business world for 20+ years, which is relevant. There is a famous book in the technology world called Crossing the Chasm. To summarize, it argues that to launch a successful new technology product you need to: 1) Make a great product, 2) Get it in front of interested buyers, 3) Get early adopters to talk it up among their peers so that their peers then buy it. After that, a virtuous “tornado” follows that results in the product “selling itself.”
Hmm… Sounds like: 1) Write a great book, 2) Get it in front of people interested in that genre, 3) Get them to write positive reviews in the hope that after 30+ positive reviews sales become self-perpetuating.
I’m not going to belabor all the oft-repeated things about the pros and cons of TP or SP. I will say for those thinking about “self-publishing” that it is dividing into two groups: Those who upload a manuscript to Amazon and push the “publish” button and never sell more than 10 copies, and those who take on self-publishing as a complex business that requires discipline and thoughtful preparation across multiple functions to be successful. Though it is a little bit tangential, take a look at this recent article by Joanna Penn about the thought, time and money she puts into ramping her sales.
Of course, saying there are only two kinds of self-publishers is an oversimplification because there is really a sliding scale between the two. That said, if any of us is thinking about self-publishing and are not brutally self-critical in preparing our manuscript (to including hiring a good editor), and are not ready or able to do the many, many things and put in as much work on our marketing and promotion plan (and some money) as we did on our book, then we will be better off trying to land an agent and hoping our agent can then land a publisher. And, yes, for them to do all that work they are going to make you sign away many of your rights and much of your revenue. But they don’t work for free.
Even at that, few traditionally published writers make enough money to live on, and often don’t cover their advances, so they never get asked to publish another book. This is not a slam on traditional publishing. As a group, self-published authors do worse.
Lastly, I don’t think making a profit on our first book should be a goal no matter which way we go. To be successful long-term, we should (IMHO) plow all our income back into marketing and promotion, building a following for our next book. It is kind of like Crossing a Chasm…our first book or two is building a clientele. Only after that can we expect to reap significant profits.
My first novella — which was self-published — has made it to the top 10 of nine of Amazon’s bestseller lists. Several of the lists are pretty damn obscure, but a few are big and competetive. I’m most proud of having made it to #1 in its niche in the UK, which was not an easy feat. And I’ve sold well over 2500 copies in less than 21 months. More importantly, my book has stayed near the top of its primary niche in both the US and the UK for well over a year now, which makes me a proud father. For some insight into what I’ve done to help achieve this, check out this blog on book marketing and promotion.