ISTM # 37 Traditional Publishers are for Oprah –Self-Publishing is for the Rest of Us

[Johannes Gutenberg, World’s 1st Book Publisher] 

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from people considering writing their first book is whether to publish traditionally or to self-publish. It’s a big decision, one I can remember agonizing over when I first started in 2005. 

The world was different back then, there were perceptions that you needed a publisher for legitimacy. Over 90 percent of books sold were in paper, and while Amazon was already strong, most business books were sold by bookstore chains. 

I opted to traditionally publish my first book. It was a great and successful experience. My second was part of a Dow Jones eBook series and there was no decision for me to make. I went back to a traditional publisher for my third, and the relationship turned so acrimonious that I considered suing them.  

Since then, I have self-published all my books and for more than 10 years have encouraged others to do so as well. This way Authors retain control, select and manage their own team of editors, designers and miscellaneous talent, and most important, make a lot more money if the book even modestly succeeds.  

Back when I started, I needed a publisher to get my books into distribution through major bookstore chains, which have either consolidated or tanked. Since then, paper books represented 90 percent of sales for most books: These days, paper sales represent less than 50 percent of nearly all books sold except for picture books and textbooks. 

Traditional publishers can still be helpful getting into books clubs, which generate significant sales for famous authors, but books clubs only want titles from people who are already famous. They’re also good at generating deals with foreign editors, but international sales for most first-time authors doesn’t amount to a whole lot of revenue. 

Digital technologies and the advent of the Web have made publishers far less relevant than they once were. The industry has consolidated or has been flat ever year for the past 15 years and it is expected to continue on that track for at least another five. They operate on thin margins and are reluctant to take risks on new unknown writers. When they do, they make unreasonable demands, such as taking a percentage of speaking fees—which is often the sweet spot for business book authors.  


So, unless your name is as recognizable as Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama my advice to you is to self-publish.

Along Came the Web 

Johannes Gutenberg, the guy in the picture at the top. Invented a printing machine that used moveable type. He was the first book publisher. He could print three Bibles a day, thus obsoleting Trappist Monks with quills who could produce only one Bible in 2.3 years.  

This changed the world, improving literacy and thus creating a demand for more books. Over the next 600 years printing presses got bigger faster and more productive. Every author needed their services, and thus book publishers amassed great power.  

Then, late in the previous century the Web along came and it shattered the publishing model. I imagine they will slowly reach the vanishing point, as did the blacksmiths when automobiles came along. There still are some blacksmiths today, but they are no longer relevant to most of us. 

This trend was already in motion when I signed my first book deal in 2005. My book discussed how social media was disrupting traditional media. I remember joking with my publishers about them financing a book filled with printed words about the death of printed words. 

 We both laughed. 

Today, few publishers laugh much about anything.  

Why Self-Publish? 

There are many reasons why self-publishing your best option is, but there are three that seem to me make your decision a no-brainer. 

1. Ownership. You own your book when you self-publish but not when you go the traditional route. You decide what is in your best interests in content and design you hand-pick your team of editors, artists and designers.

2. Amazon. Amazon is the Indie Author’s best friend. Not only are they the guys with the printing press, but they also own Kindle and Audible where you are likely to produce more sales than through paper books. Amazon is the Author’s only one-stop shop. The company certainly has its controversies to deal with, but we Authors have very few complaints with them when compared to the old days under the publisher’s thumb.

        • Speed. While it takes publishers at least three months to print and distribute you book at a minimum, Amazon can roll yours out in a few days. This reduces an Author’s time-to-revenue by at least 12 weeks.
        • Special Cases. Publishers have unbending rules related to production and distribution. I once had to get 250 books to Sydney Australia in two weeks. Amazon just subcontracted a publisher in Sydney, and the books arrived in time for an event with days to spare with no international expedition fees.
        • Reader Reviews. Big media, such as the NY Times only reviews books from traditional publishers, but you and I are unlikely to get one of those coveted reviews in any case if you are less known than Oprah and Michelle.

The reviews that have mattered the most for me are the ones that appear on Amazon, where readers can see what others experienced, then just click-to-buy your book. These reviews have impacted my sales far more than any other reviews I have received. 

3.  Money. Amazon also has a lot to do with why authors make more money by self-publishing. With   Amazon. For paper, you will pay Amazon from $2.50 to $4 per book that you will sell for $20-$30, depending on variables. A Kindle exclusive relationship will net you 70 percent of the price you set in it.
And you can change the price whenever you wish. Audible gives you similar returns, but you will need to  revenue share with whoever you retain to read your book.

Publishers will probably offer you between $5,000 and $15,000 as an advance in lieu of royalties and you are unlikely to make anything beyond that.

There is also something new called hybrid publishing. From what I see, this is just a new spin on traditional publishing with a few variations, but I have only spoken with two Authors who have used it. Both were disappointed with the results.

The big difference, however, is that you will make 100 percent of speaking fees (unless you use an agent). Now that publishers are nibbling at speaking fees as well, which it seems to me to be the last straw for any Indy Author. 

Exception and other Perceptions 

There is one strong exception to the rule. If you plan to write for the educational channel, then traditional publishers have a level of access that you are unlikely to attain independently. Publishers work with academia, the same way they do with bookstores, except the textbooks are a growing business—simply because college enrollments is steadily rising year-over-year.  

Here are a few fellow independent authors and ghostwriters I spoke to. I wanted to see if they shared my views on self-publishing and what exceptions they may have.
Nick Arnett, has self-published five books but he’s going with HarperCollins for his soon-to-be released new book. He’s hoping for a larger audience, and he expects the publisher’s marketing team will reach a broader audience than he can access on his own. Plus, like every author, he would love to see a review in the venerable NY Times, something no Indie author has ever achieved. It’s a good point, but he knows that such coverage is still a long shot.


John Zilber  has ghostwritten a half-dozen books for first-time authors. He shared with me that every time he starts a new project, his client opts for a traditional publisher, and he discourages them. “I get them to understand the steep price of admission,” he told me, and he succeeds in persuading them to self-publish.

I have a hunch I could ask ten more ghostwriters and Author Consultants and would get similar responses. But any close look at the situation is likely to get you to realize that if you are not already rich and famous, self-publishing is the best way to go. 

My Free Offer 

Do you have writing a book on your mind? Want some free advice? If you are planning a business book, I will give you one free hour of my time to discuss your ideas. Just email me.