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What’s Better — Traditional or Self Publishing?

June 22nd, 2008 by Bob Bly

MF has written a nonfiction business book and wants to know whether I think it’s better to self-publish or look for a traditional publisher.

Here’s what I told MF….

If you want to establish your reputation as a though leader in your field, gain visibility, and build credibility, getting your book published by a mainstream publisher like McGraw-Hill or John Wiley is the best way to accomplish those goals. It is the most prestigious form of publishing, the one most likely to impress others.

If you want to maximize your revenues from sale of your book, I’d go with publishing it as an e-book. You can charge more than for a regular book, and your profit margin is much higher than with a printed book.

If you are a frequent speaker and need to get a book out on your topic quickly — to sell at your talks or to send to meeting planners to convince them to book you — a self-published printed book is the way to go.

A famous self-publishing guru once said in a speech that self-published books are no less prestigious than traditionally published books. “People don’t shop for a McGraw-Hill or a John Wiley book. They don’t care who the publisher is.”

True, but many people (not all) look down on self-publishing. Every self-publisher I know save one (the guru mentioned above) has confided in me that the moment they reveal their book is self published, they feel somehow embarrassed or apologetic.

Mainstream publisher for prestige … e-book for profit … traditional book for back of the room sales or a give-away to potential clients. That’s what I told MF. Do you agree with my assessment of her book publishing options?


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16 responses about “What’s Better — Traditional or Self Publishing?”

  1. ElizabethAdamsDirect said:

    ebook for profit … providing a marketing machine is feasible … launch, lists, adwords, buzz, etc.

  2. dianacacy said:

    I hang out with writers both publishing in the traditional field and self-publishing. Both avenues work, and I feel you gave a very good response on it.

    Self-publishing’s reputation has been damaged by the unethical practices of the dishonest self-publishing/POD service providers. It not only makes the honest service providers have to work twice as hard to prove themselves, it leads many writers groups to recommend to all new writers to avoid them completely.

    Also, to add to the benefits of publishing your own e-books. Even in genres and occasions where you charge less for an e-book than you would a printed book, you get to keep more of the money generated from the sale per book.

    I think which avenue a writer takes is dependent upon what and how much that writer is willing to undertake in the marketing of the finished product. And if it’s a one shot deal or if the writer will continually produce more e-books.

  3. ElizabethAdamsDirect said:

    then there’s the little matter of breaking into publishing … maybe a dozen ebooks or so under your belt would give you a leg up …

  4. ElizabethAdamsDirect said:

    Bob, there’s a plug-in that lets people put a check in a box so they get email notifications of comments … just a suggestion …

  5. Kristi Holl said:

    Self-publishing’s reputation hasn’t just been damaged by unethical practices, although that’s certainly true. Most self-publishing is pretty substandard, which is why bookstores won’t stock many, if any, titles. They tend to be rushed, barely edited or critiqued, and with art work that isn’t the best. I know there are exceptions–I’ve seen a few–but for the most part this is why self-publishing has a bad reputation.

  6. Jim Logan said:

    I agree with your recommendation Bob: mainstream for prestige, ebook for profit and self-publish for promotion.

    I have a friend who self-publishes books in support of speaking opportunities. He’s very successful with his books as a lead generator. Also, he’s successfully sold many copies on Amazon. His books look, feel and read like a book published by McGraw-Hill or John Wiley. I believe he uses Lulu to publish.

    That said, I agree with you and it’s the advice I offer to friends and clients.

  7. dianacacy said:

    Self-publishing is still a great way to get your work to the readers. Authors send me copies of their books for reviews, and what Kristi says is true.

    I think anyone considering self-publishing has to keep in mind that people are not going to enjoy something that looks like second-class material. They want first class. They expect more than their money’s worth.

    Always produce the best product you can and go for the repeat sales.

    Tell them to do more than just kick out the e-books. Tell them to kick out QUALITY e-books, and they’ll get the respect they’re looking for.

    BTW, Bob, in case you were wondering if anyone else knows about that checkbox that Elizabeth mentioned … I did look for it. I have your blog on my google reader, but can’t follow a single comment thread through it, so I would have needed that checkbox.

  8. dianacacy said:

    I’m not sure this is on-topic, but this subject did make me think of this.

    Bob, I keep your Copywriter’s Handbook close to me. I refer back to it often. So often that my copy is getting pretty worn already. And I know others in the same situation with your book.

    Have you ever thought about releasing the book in a tough page, spiral format for quick and constant reference? If you have the rights freedom to do that, it could be an option.

    I have a few other of your books and some of the e-books, but that’s the one getting the most abuse from me.

  9. Bob Bly said:

    Dianacacy: The Copywriter’s Handbook is published by Henry Holt & Company. They are a traditional publisher and therefore are only going to publish it as a standard trade paperback (the first edition way back in 1985 was also a hardcover). Only self-publishers have the option of special formats, which is another advantage of self-publishing traditional publishers do not offer.

  10. dianacacy said:

    Thanks, Bob …

    I was afraid that would be your answer. Figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask though. LOL

  11. Barney Davey said:

    I am a successful self-published author. My book after 3 years regularly ranks in Amazon’s top 20 Business of Art category. I would not trade the 16:1 difference in revenue to have a traditional publisher for any reason. Further, I have never felt any shame in self-publishing. Rather, I’m quite proud I was able to do achieve success through my own efforts. My book was selected for the prestigious North Light Book Club. Apparently, it was not bothered by the fact the book is self-published.

    The development of POD (Print-on-demand) technology and the Internet make this the best time ever to be an author, artist or musician. My blog post today is titled Indie Art Intersection. If the revenue were more equitable, I still doubt I would use a traditional publisher. It’s old school.

  12. S.P. Gass said:

    Does the same advice apply to fiction? I am writing my first novel and plan to try traditional publishing agents for a couple of months. If I do not get a response, then I’ll self-publish. Does that approach make sense?


  13. Barney Davey said:

    I am a self-published author and proud of it. Shame or embarrassment never crossed my mind. My book has steadily remained in Amazon’s Top 20 Business of Art category for three years. It was ordered and reordered by the North Light Book ClubI I net nearly $18 for each copy sold and do zero fulfillment. A traditional publisher might pay $1.00 per copy. I would be far more ashamed to be taking such a financial beating from the traditional publishing model.

    In my blog post today, title Indie Art Intersection, I talk about how POD (Print-on-demand) and the Internet have given artists, authors and musicians more opportunities to create their own success than ever before. If you have it in you, go for it. If you don’t, or you are hidebound to faltering traditional distribution models hang in, but don’t complain either.

  14. Bob Bly said:

    Barney: congratulations on your success. Choice of publishing mode (traditional, self-published, e-books) depends on several factors. I always went with a traditional publisher for two reasons. First, I did not have the time, temperment, or talent for self-publishing. Second, I wrote books to establish myself as a guru in my field (direct response copywriting), and potential clients were impressed that I was able to get big publishers to publish my books.

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