Thursday, June 18, 2009

When Does It Make Sense to Self-Publish?

I was commenting in a professional publishers Linked-In group and decided to republish here.

Think of self-publishing as just another entrepreneurial endeavor. Some businesses can (and must) start out with mounds of start-up cash. But many, many businesses start out in garages or dorm rooms. Think: Dell, Amazon, FaceBook, and thousands of other businesses that started off baking cookies in their kitchens or making yogurt on their farms. They didn't have live audiences to entertain or a huge industry to start them off - just a visionary product that could start local and build.

So let's think of a self-published book as an entrepreneurial effort to create and sell a product.

What made this entrepreneurial effort difficult in the past was the amount of money required for an individual to publish her own book. Although authors still have to pay for good editing, etc., two revolutions have made it easier to "entrepreneur" with a book:

1) Radically less up-front risk because of print-on-demand. (I just received an e-mail that Lightning Source is offering to print your first POD book, if you submit it in digital format, for $199. Imagine telling someone 20 years ago that you'd get their book on the market in a month for $199. You'd have been indited for fraud!)

2) New ways to market books outside of traditional bookstores. (Amazon, social networking, etc.)

So, when does it make sense to self-publish?

(One publisher suggested the first four reasons; I chimed in with the rest.)

#1 - You're a great salesperson.

#2 - You can work with a good team of sales people.

#3 - You teach and use the book as a text.

#4 - You don't plan to sell many copies. Print-on-demand makes sense for those publishing a family history that only relatives and family friends are likely to buy. Also, some publish highly technical books that a few hundred people might pay large sums to purchase.

#5 - No traditional publishers accept your book, but you still believe in it. (We could build a large list of self-published books that ended up becoming best-sellers.)

#6 - A non-fiction book fits in a niche category that would likely come up to the top in an Amazon search. (I've not marketed my book on Christian music in 15 years, but it continues to sell steadily on Amazon. A search for "Contemporary Christian Music" brings it close to the top of a search.)

#7 - The author thinks the book will be a steady, slow seller, but never sell a lot in any given year. I know of a successful author who writes books for other writers, such as "Late-18th-Century American Terminology and Culture" (I made the name up, having forgotten the actual title) to be used by people writing historical fiction. It wouldn't make sense to print 5,000 copies and store most of them for 10 years. But the author might sell 500 copies per year forever on Amazon. If you write 20 books like this, you're making some decent money.

Other ideas of when it's best to self-publish? Please comment!

J. Steve Miller
Author of Enjoy Your Money! How to Make It, Save It, Invest It and Give It