Should you self-publish or work with a publisher?

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Self-publishing has undoubtedly made the book publishing process much more democratic. People can publish themselves or work with a publisher, and on the whole, that’s a good thing. We see this happening across so many media channels. YouTube democratized TV. Podcasting democratized talk radio. Blogging democratized op-eds; Twitter democratized news to the point where some mainstream media news shows are little more than someone reading tweets aloud. Self-publishing means more content – good or bad – is available, and it lets the free market work to determine who really is excellent.


The question many of us have faced, and that you might be facing, is whether to self-publish or try to work a book deal with a publisher. The answer, unsurprisingly, is that it depends on three factors: marketing, money, and quality.


Do you have your own marketing engine? By this I mean a large, responsive following in social media, a large email list (1,000 or more subscribers with high open rates and high clickthrough rates), experience with (and budget for) advertising systems, and/or access to people who can do this for you? If so, the primary purpose of a publisher – marketing and distribution – is already something you fulfill.

If you don’t have the network, a publisher will probably do a slightly better job of marketing your book than you will. In my case, my marketing capabilities exceed that of most publishers, so I chose the self-publishing route.


Do you want to publish a book as a loss-leader for a speaking career, or do you want to make money from it? For many authors, book deals are unprofitable, sometimes deeply so. Publishing a book as a loss-leader with a publisher means taking very small advances (since you have to pay them back through sales or cash out of pocket), and having the publisher leverage their distribution deals to get your book seen.

If you want to make the lion’s share of the cover price for every book sold, self-publish instead. Amazon lets you keep anywhere from 35-70% of the cover price; vendors like Gumroad (which I use for my books) let me keep 95% of the cover price.


Some publishers, depending on your deal, offer you the services (usually at your cost) of a copy editor and/or proofreader who can help you improve the quality of your book. If you go the self-publishing route, quality is entirely up to you. If you want a professional editor, you’ll have to find one on your own.

Despite the existence of works like 50 Shades of Grey, quality does still matter, especially with business books. Whichever route you choose, make your writing the best quality you can afford.

More Reading

If you’d like greater insights into choosing how you distribute your books, go check out the blog of my friend and martial arts mentor/senior Jon F. Merz. He writes frequently from the independent author perspective, and has lots of useful advice to offer from someone who makes a living writing independently.

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