Self-PublishingTraditional publishing

The harsh realities of book publishing—Part 2

From Rick:

In response to last week’s post, I received a comment from one of my writer friends who did go with a smaller traditional publisher. He said that I failed to mention things like the costs associated with self-publishing, specifically the editing, cover design, printing, and marketing, including blog tours, cover release, and tons of other stuff a new author may have no idea about. He said that “All those things cost more than I earned from my book’s sale.”

He makes some excellent points, so I’ll address them one at a time.

Before I do that, I want to bring up a couple of points.

Last time I tried my best to give you the pros and cons (mostly the latter) of agents if you still choose the traditional publishing route. However, if you do try that route, you’ll need some good advice on how to write a query letter that will stand a chance at getting you noticed. The folks at recently put out a superb blog post on how to craft query letters.

In fact, even if you decide to self-publish, this article will help you focus on writing a good hook for your novel that you can use when you write our cover synopsis:


The second point I want to make before delving in self-publishing costs is to mention the two types of writers out there. The first are the casual or week-end writers, those who want to write a book (or two or three) for the enjoyment of doing so. To them writing is a hobby. They may hope to make money or even craft a hit, but initially they are not looking to turn their writing into a business or to make a living from it.

Some of these are living under the illusion that having a published book is going to make them famous and semi-rich. But the truth is that, while they’re serious about the book they’re writing, they really are not serious about the business end and many are not serious enough to invest significant time in learning the craft. I’ll talk more about this later, but it makes a good lead into the first of the costs (usually the largest one) that can be associated with self-publishing…


I’ve talked about editing and editors in previous blogs, but here’s the one that talks about editors and the types of editing:


If you check out the various links IN THAT POST, then you’ll see that editing can be very expensive. But despite the several editing categories listed, there are really only two fundamental types of editing.

(1) “Copy and clean-up editing” is the type that eliminates the spelling, grammar, and small errors in the manuscript, including basic consistency and continuity errors. I call this the “make it look good” edit. It doesn’t pay attention to overall structural or plot issues.

(2) “Big picture editing” (or whatever you want to call it) is the editing that I call “make my book a good book” editing. This looks at the book as a whole and breaks it down into its structural components.

In the past, traditional publishers were sometimes willing to take a promising book that wasn’t up to par and try to turn it into a good book. That isn’t the case anymore with the big publishers. If it isn’t good enough to start with, they’ll simply turn it down. The small publishers, then and now, didn’t/don’t have the resources to perform major editing on a book. At most they may make suggestions and let the author attempt to fix ii. Or they may just go with an “okay” book that they hope will sell well enough that they won’t lose money on it.

My personal feeling is that if an author does not have the skill to turn out a good book to start with, he or she should be spending time in workshops and writers’ groups or taking classes, not paying an overpriced editor (yes, most “make my book good” editors are overpriced) who may or may not do the job properly and who may try to fashion the book into his or her idea of a good book instead of letting the author’s voice shine through.

Or, to put it more bluntly, if your writing is so bad that you need someone else to make it good, then you probably should not be writing—not yet anyway.

Even with the “clean-up” editors, you certainly can end up paying a lot if you’re not careful. A larger traditional publisher will handle this editing, but I’ve found that smaller publishers sometimes do an inadequate job in this regard.

Therefore, while the argument for using a traditional publisher because editing costs too much for a self-publisher may sound good on the surface, in truth, authors should be learning to do as much clean-up as possible themselves, THEN find an inexpensive clean-up editor (or maybe someone who will do it on a barter basis) to provide the final polish. Trust me, this can be done, and in the end you’ll also be learning to become a better writer. And if you are serious about your writing, this is what you should be doing anyway.


This is usually the other major expense for a self-publisher, but there are many inexpensive designers out there, and I’ve observed many times over that hiring a top-notch designer for your cover doesn’t translate into significantly better sales. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful and award-winning covers whose books simply do not sell well, often because what’s beneath the cover either isn’t all that spectacular.

I’m completely convinced that all you need is a DECENT cover (one that doesn’t shout “amateur writer”). The professional designers who proclaim that great covers sell books are merely pushing their services. As much as I respect The Book Designer and what he does for self-publishers, more than a few of the nits that he and his guest judges pick on the various covers that they critique simply will not matter to a potential buyer.

I’m not denying that good cover design is an art, but I’m not convinced that art is what is going to sell most books. I can point out far too many bestsellers with less-than-stunning covers to prove my point. And while I’m sure you loved the Harry Potter books as much as I did, the covers had nothing to do with the purchasing decision. In fact, only a handful of covers have ever influenced my decision to look further into a book.

Good covers can be done for little or no money with some careful thought, researching some articles on cover design (this blog has plenty to refer to), a good application of common sense, and the help of someone competent in Photoshop or GIMP. I’m not minimizing the importance of a good cover, but there is a point of diminishing returns on your investment, and there are certainly a lot of overpriced cover designers out there. Remember that readers are not paying for artwork. Your book cover should be an accurate advertisement for what’s inside—no more, no less.

NOTE: While some people have used Word and PowerPoint for cover design, I really do not recommend this route except perhaps for a book that you don’t plan on selling a lot of copies of. There are enough designers out there who can give you a good enough stock cover for very little money.


My friend mentioned a couple of other points: Printing, marketing, blog tours, cover release, and other stuff a new author may have no idea about.

Unless you plan on selling books yourself by hand, there are no printing costs involved because customers will be ordering them through Amazon as print-on-demand books. If you do plan on purchasing books yourself to sell at events, you’re going to spend only the cost to print those copies plus some shipping. The typical 300-page novel will run you about $5 each, including shipping (based on an order of 10 books or so because bulk shipping rates kick in). Most authors won’t sell many books at an event, and you don’t save much ordering 20 books vs. 10 books at a time, so there’s no need to be stuck with a bunch of unsold books. And if you price your print book at $10—$12, you won’t need to sell very many to make back your investment and a little extra.

Only if you really plan on selling hundreds of copies on your own, will have to look into a printer for bulk printing to cut down on per-copy cost.

Now, my friend was from the beginning concerned with marketing and promotion, which he said he had no time for and little knowledge of initially. As he did learn from having a small publisher, sales were meager and he ended up doing a lot of promotion himself.

This all goes back to last week’s article. New authors generally do not have a clue about how to promote their books. But guess what? There is a ton of information and advice out there on the Internet from authors who have already gone through it. Always keep in mind, though, that not every promotional scheme works for everyone, so you will still have to sift through advice and experiment.

Back in the old days, it was important to prime the market with things like a cover release and announcements for the book came out, but today that’s not necessary. Traditional publishers relied on and expected a quick return on their investment, typically sales in the first couple of months of a book’s release.

As a self-publisher, there is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON why you need to adhere to this philosophy. Since your book almost certainly won’t be in bookstores, it doesn’t matter how long a wind-up you give your book. There is no magical turning point after which a book is deemed “old” or “a failure” except in the clouded eyes in the eyes of the Big Publishers who have only a few months to recoup their investment in a book. After that time, a book has either taken off or it has not. And if it din’t, they deem it a failure.

As I also said last time, a number of bestselling books did not become so until much later in their lives. And to prove my case, many midlist authors are republishing their older out-of-print books themselves (often 10 or more years out of print) and making good money from these books, often more than they do on their new releases from traditional publishers. Age has little to do with the demand for a book. Many of these authors were never bestselling authors but simply authors who gained a reader following over time.

What I’m saying is this: It’s very hard for a new author to make a splash with one novel. The better route to follow is to keep writing (hopefully good) books. The more books you have out, the better your chances of discovery. It’s like the more lottery tickets you buy, the better your chances of winning.

The best advice is not to spend a lot of time promoting your first or even second book but to keep writing and publishing. Once you have several books out, THEN is the time to start pushing because if a reader likes one offering, chances are good that reader will go after others from that author. Of course, it goes without saying that those books have to be well-written books. During this initial time, the author should be gathering information and spending a bit of time marketing, but not to the exclusion of writing.

John Grisham’s first novel did not do well, but his second, The Firm, took off. As a result, his first one A Time To Kill then took off, and the rest is history for him. Dan Brown’s first several novels did not do all that well until he wrote The DaVinci Code. I know there are many other examples like these, authors not as prominent and Grisham and Brown, whose initial work did not do well but who became top-selling authors later on.

If you’re expecting quick success as a writer, no matter how you are published, you will likely be disappointed, but there is absolutely NO reason to think that going the traditional publishing route will be any easier or yield better results than self-publishing today.

With self-publishing, it takes perseverance and some luck, but you can keep going. With traditional publishing today, if you don’t score a hit out of the gate, you’ll be left on your own anyway and probably just as clueless as if you had decided to self-publish initially. So why not educate yourself in the beginning, put in the work, and enjoy the ride?

If you want to make money from writing, then don’t expect success if you treat it like a hobby. It must be a business, and in that regard it’s no different from starting your own business in any other area of endeavor. You will have to invest in your business to make it successful. Sustainable businesses need to grow slowly. trying to do too much at once is an invitation to failure. Very few new businesses will explode on the scene, and if they don’t look to the future, they can disappear just as quickly. Just remember that once you publish, your books remain available, awaiting discovery or a push from you.

If your writing is just a hobby, you’ll still have to invest some money into it. The only difference is that you’re not getting much return other than your own satisfaction.

So, you decide. Self-publishing is more like starting and running the business entirely yourself. Traditional publishing is more like working for someone else, who in turn pays you for your work but where most of the control is out of your hands. The choice is yours.