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Friday
Feb182011

4 Reasons to get published, and 7 reasons to self-publish

In this day and age, in which anyone can publish and distribute their books electronically, or self-publish them by going down several routes (none of which need include the traditional vanity publisher), why should anyone bother approaching a traditional publisher? After all, very few of the thousands of manuscripts that publishers receive find their way into book form, and of those that do, very few hit the big time.

There are, in fact, at least 4 reasons to try to get published by the age-old process of going to publishers. On the other hand, there at least 7 reasons to abandon the commercial publishing route, and do it yourself. In this article I look at both options, in particular from the perspective of an ICT co-ordinator in a school -- although the points could easily apply in many other contexts.

Having a book published:

Marks you out as a REAL author

There are good reasons to go with an ordinary publisherI don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I say that publishers, on the whole, are pretty hard-nosed creatures. If they think a book won’t sell, they won’t publish it. Why would they? Publishers receive thousands of manuscripts each year from wannabe writers, most of which are rejected. If you’re one of that happy minority whose manuscript is accepted, you can be sure that, in the eyes of a third party who is mainly concerned with profit, it has some merit. (I am, of course, not including academic publishing in this generalisation, nor those small independent publishers who are primarily concerned with “culture”, however defined.)

If this sounds rather uncompromising, think of the alternative. Someone was telling me a few weeks ago that he has led such an interesting life that his family and friends continually urge him to write his autobiography, and he has decided to do so. Why would anyone outside his circle of family and friends be remotely interested? HIs book will probably never be published by a third party, and if by some miracle it is, nobody will buy it. The only sensible route for this chap to go down is to self-publish the book and give copies of it away to his friends and relatives. But the publication will impress nobody else.

Now, suppose you write a book whose subject matter would appeal to a wider readership. If you can’t write well, your manuscript still won’t be accepted by a publisher. Many people think they can write, but they really cannot – and that isn’t just evidence of snobbery on my part, but which countless articles and books featuring interviews with agents, editors and publishers say all the time.

So being published by a proper publisher tells the world that (a) you have something to say which is of interest to a fair number of people, and (b) you have the ability to write in a way which engages the reader.

Establishes you as an expert

If you’ve written a non-fiction work, that is. Self-publishing is also a good way of establishing yourself as an expert, but even these days it is viewed with some suspicion. Having a book published by a “real” publisher indicates that someone besides yourself recognises your expertise too.

Makes you eligible to join professional associations

For example, I belong to the UK’s Society of Authors, which does allow self-published authors to join as full members – if they have sold over 200 copies of a single title in a 12 month period. That takes some doing, especially if your book is fiction, and nobody has heard of you. Being a member of the Society affords various benefits, not the least of which is excellent advice on contracts offered.

Helps you reach a larger readership

It’s true that we can all promote ourselves on the internet, and it’s true that every author complains that their publisher does too little to promote their book. But the fact remains that publishers’ catalogues and/or sales people go all over the place. In education, for example, catalogues are often sent to every school in the country and sales people display their wares in school staffrooms. When a book does get featured by the publisher, it can sell immensely well. (I know of at least two people who were able to go over to part-time working on the basis of their royalty earnings from a best-selling textbook; it doesn’t happen often, but it’s probably even less likely to happen if you were to self-publish a textbook.)

For these four reasons alone, I think it is too early yet to be sounding the death-knell of the traditional publishing company.

Nevertheless, there are at least seven very good reasons to go down the self-publishing route, whether in the form of print-on-demand books or e-books…

Publishing your book yourself:

Establishes you as an expert

Self-publishing allows to produce highly specialised topics

That’s right: even publishing the book yourself indicates that you are an expert. Print is better than electronic for this purpose, because it’s tangible: you can take it to conferences (especially if you’re one of the speakers) and meetings. The book still has a cachet that articles, on the whole, do not.

You can publish a niche product

If you have a passion for, say, making open source software work in a nursery school setting, there is no way on earth that you will find a commercial publisher to take you on. But you can do it yourself. In a different context, you could write and publish the history of your school. You could go even further and write and publish a book about the development of educational technology in your school, and give it to parents at parents’ evenings.

Enables you to control the content

This is very important, especially in a niche area such as education technology. The publisher is concerned with profit, and that will affect the topics to be included in the book for various reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the subject matter per se. For example, the number of pages will be a factor, which may lead to the dropping of some topics.

Enables you to seize the moment

Traditional publishing takes at least a year, and often up to two or more, to go from the stage of the contract being signed to that of the book being signed at the launch event. This is a huge disadvantage in an area like ICT, where things can be out of date within weeks. With self-publishing, especially e-publishing, you could have a book written and starting to be distributed within days, or even overnight.

Helps you establish a culture of expectations

That sounds rather grandiose, but what I mean is this. If you are the Head of ICT or E-Learning, you will probably want to produce an ICT handbook for staff. Most such documents take the form of a ring binder, which is fine, but not (in my opinion) the best. When I visited Singapore in 2010, where I was speaking at the ICTLT 2010 Conference, some schoolchildren presented me with a print-on-demand book containing their science assignment write-ups. The sense of pride they had was almost palpable. From my point of view, the book format was much more inviting than a ring-binder would have been. Imagine joining a new school and being given the staff or ICT Handbook not in the form of a stapled photocopied booklet, but in the form of a paperback. Wouldn’t that make you want to read it, even if just out of curiosity? And wouldn’t that tell you, in a way that words could never quite convey, that the school regards presentation as important? Incidentally, if you think all the handbook chapters should be online, I agree with you – but you need the printed format also to help ensure that it’s read – especially if part of it relates to how to access school documents online!

You decide on the promotion policy

If, for example, you wish to send out 100 copies of your commercially-published book to various bloggers to review, good luck with that. When my book Managing ICT was published I managed to get the publisher to agree to give away 50 copies for review purposes, but at first they were prepared to send off only around about half a dozen, if my memory serves me well. It certainly wasn’t many.

You keep 100% of the net profit

You may sell fewer books than if you were published by a commercial publisher, but you will get to keep all the money once the taxman has taken his share. With commercial publishing, the typical rate is 10% of selling price, and payment takes place only twice a year (sometimes only once).

Conclusion

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to both routes to seeing your book in print or on virtual book shelves.  I think that if you’re able to you should definitely have at least one book commercially published, because I think that the first point I made, about it establishing you as a real author is quite significant. But at least, these days, it’s not the only viable option available.

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Reader Comments (7)

I write a lot so I was really interested to read this blog post. I have a passionate dislike of the opinion that books are of more significant than reaching a larger audience by using a different mean. I think creators respect writing is not about the creator but about the audience ergo using the best content delivery mechanism is the best solution.

I think I'm reading your post hoping that you encourage me to take the offer I have had already from a few publishers to go ahead and write a book but I really don't see the justification in killing a bunch of trees just for my opinion. The fact that many books have just one author imho discredits the value of the content.

Maybe its a generation gap and mindset thing but I would much rather have 50k people a day read a user guide I have written than have 5 people read a book. If you want to talk about influence and becoming a real author then surely the reality of an author is based on the amount of readers you have and the amount of engagement they have with your material?

Also books leave no room for comments or really-real time modifications/collaboration and lets face it books are no where near as profitable as popular web content.

So, with all that said it brings me to e-books, e-books are awesome. I love e-books as a medium however I never read them. I'm not an exception, this is due to an increase in society that prefers to absorb content through either a video or interactive medium such as video games. I do read white papers though. I find white papers far more factually oriented and tend to be the product of a number of collaborators.

So I'm doing to summarize this in a very broad, brief and easy to criticize way.. If your audience is 30+ then go ahead and write a book/e-book. If your audience is < 30 I would recommend considering a different medium.

It's also worth noting that I do appreciate lots of books have co-authors and books are a great mechanism and have done amazing things for human development.

I'm not book bashing, just sharing my thoughts.. I have tried to justify to myself writing a book instead of doing open source work but I feel that the contributions I am making to OSS outweigh the benefits a book would have(to society as a whole).
February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn McLear
Thanks for your comments, John. Let me go through them bit by bit:

"I have a passionate dislike of the opinion that books are of more significant than reaching a larger audience by using a different mean. " I'm not sure I actually said that, but there are two aspects to this. Firstly, in many people's minds, having a (traditionally published) book IS more significant, because it tells them that you are regarded as an expert. If you think about it, I could publish all sorts of rubbish on my blog, but I would be "found out" if I tried to get a book published with that content, because the publisher would take my sample content and ask other experts in the field what they thought of it. The only downside of that process comes when someone has a brand new and unconventional way of looking at things, that current experts wouldn't understand.

Also, a traditional publisher can get the book into the hands of people who don't read blogs and would therefore not find out about it otherwise.

"I think I'm reading your post hoping that you encourage me to take the offer I have had already from a few publishers to go ahead and write a book but I really don't see the justification in killing a bunch of trees just for my opinion." Well I certainly would encourage you to seriously consider the proposal. As far as trees are concerned, if the 50k people are anything like me, they'll print out your stuff anyway, to read on the train etc.

"I would much rather have 50k people a day read a user guide I have written than have 5 people read a book." who said the two things are mutually exclusive?

"If you want to talk about influence and becoming a real author then surely the reality of an author is based on the amount of readers you have and the amount of engagement they have with your material?" It depends on what you're trying to achieve. For example, if you wanted to get a job as a Head of ICT, you'd stand more chance of impressing the school if you had a book to your name than if you had a blog, other things being equal, for the reasons stated above.

"Also books leave no room for comments or really-real time modifications/collaboration and lets face it books are no where near as profitable as popular web content." a lot of authors now have a website/blog/forum to go with their book.

"I love e-books as a medium however I never read them. " I don't understand this, sorry. How can you love them and not read them?

"I find white papers far more factually oriented and tend to be the product of a number of collaborators." There is a need for White Papers: some of them are written by one person, while some books are written by many people and edited.

"If your audience is 30+ then go ahead and write a book/e-book. If your audience is < 30 I would recommend considering a different medium." on the whole I'd agree with you.

"I have tried to justify to myself writing a book instead of doing open source work " what if the book brought a new and different audience to your open source work?

"
I'm not book bashing, just sharing my thoughts.."

I didn't take it as book bashing, John. Always good to have a discussion, and there are pros and cons on each side of the fence.

Cheers
Terry
As a publisher I was very interested to read this blog post. And was equally interested to read John's response. Publishing is having to take a long hard look at itself at the moment, and publishers are having to redefine themselves and consider what role they can and should play in the future of 'content creation' and dissemination. I believe that those publishers who clearly understand their changing markets and accept that alternative financial and copyright models must be established in order to survive will have an important if different role to play in the process.

Terry's post considers two alternatives - to 'be published' or to 'self-publish'. I think there is an important third way that would-be authors or resource developers should consider - 'collaborative publishing'. In this model the publishing project - and by publishing project I mean anything from book, e-book, software, online application, news article, classroom resource, website, poster, magazine, audio, video etc etc etc - is the product of publisher and writer collaborating from the very outset, with both parties bringing their ideas and expertise to the table for exploration. This may result in a publisher 'commissioning' the writer (who might be an educator with a particular expertise or interest) to write to an agreed outline with publisher supporting the author through the process. Or it may be the germ of an idea discussed in a pub, or at a conference, or at a chat with teachers in a school or a DM on twitter (and I can cite successful examples of all four) which through collaboration between parties becomes a reality to the benefit of all involved.

What I am really saying is that if you do want to write you don't need to be writing manuscripts in solitary confinement in the hope of a JK Rowling moment. If you want to 'be published', or if you are an educator with an idea, or have several ideas, and if you want the expertise that many publishers offer (eg editorial, software development, design, illustration, marketing, sales plus support, even friendship) then the more forward thinking publishers will, at the very least, listen. We need to listen. Successful educational publishing (in all its guises) has to be a collaborative process in my opinion and those publishers in ivory towers, with bins full of discarded manuscripts and with heads firmly buried in the sand will find the future very difficult indeed.
March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Carr
A second view from a publisher!

My view is that it very much depends on what you want to achieve from the work you have written. As I see it, there are three options above now, not just the original two:

Blogging. Useful, can be amended / rewritten in changing circumstances etc. and useful to build a name for yourself. Depending on your reason to blog, you have to be unrelenting in your writing to build that name. If your reason for writing is financial, this probably isn't your route (unless you're Seth Godin).

Self Publishing. Fantastic for all the reasons stated in the article. You can print as few or as many as you want; you have ultimate control over everything from the content to the marketing, and after you have paid your tax and cost of product, you have more of a cut to take in profit or put back into marketing. The best results from self-publishing have often come from people who blog regularly and have built up a reputation. It is very hard to get wide distribution for self-published works, and therefore in my view, you are unlikely to have a self-published best-seller.

Working with a publisher. The benefit here is that you get to work with people who are good at editing, marketing and selling. As Andrea said, the best publishers will work closely with the author to discuss marketing and sales opportunities - often the authors contacts will help get the book recommended within the right circles. Publishers (should) add reach: if you are published by the company I work for, you will be carried into over 4000 schools per year and talked through with teachers in most of those. If it is a particularly 'tradey' title, you are likely to get it ranged in high-st booksellers and with the trade representatives we have, taken to independents and wholesalers. In terms of marketing, we are able to tell all schools about something very swiftly through many channels (DM, email etc.).

So, in my view, it is very much down to the reason you want to be published in the first place. 10% royalty on the RRP may on the face of it seem less than you'd get from self-publishing, but if you are going to sell ten times more copies of your book it is still a good way to go!
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris Ratcliffe
@Andrea Thanks for your comments, Andrea. I'm not sure that your "third way" is really that different to the traditional publishing route if one is comparing that with self-publishing. For example, for you the bottom line is always going to be of paramount importance, whereas for a subject expert wishing to cement their reputation, that may be less so. For example, if I earnt the bulk of my income from speaking engagements, I would consider having a print-on-demand book to give away to people. A local builders shop where I live gives away print-on-demand books containing the the story of the history of the company. I can't imagine any publisher being interested in that as a commercial proposition.

However, I do agree with you about the benefits of collaborative publishing as you call it, and havinbg been involved with Rising Stars I am impressed by how that works in practice. I certainly agree that forward-looking publishers will be looking to work in that sort of way, because the wasted talent, time and effort, not to mention foregone income, of the silo approach are too costly.
@Chris thanks fpr you comments, with which I almost entirely agree. Almost.
"Blogging. Useful, can be amended / rewritten in changing circumstances etc. and useful to build a name for yourself." I still contend that, on its own, having a blog is no recommendation to a third party. Maybe it is once they read it and fall in love with it, but howdo you get them to read it in the first place? IF, say, I approach a magazine with an article idea, and my only publishing credit is my own blog, I'm not sure that that is as powerful in the approach email as being able to say "I have been published in such and such a magazine (which paid me).

"10% royalty on the RRP may on the face of it seem less than you'd get from self-publishing, but if you are going to sell ten times more copies of your book it is still a good way to go!" Definitely

I also agree with you and Andrea about having the benefit of specialist experts on the production side of publishing (design, editing etc). Going it alone is absolutely no easy option!
I think that self-publishing these days over searching for publishers is the way to go! Everyone knows that when you try to get your book published by a real live publisher, you get kicked around a lot! You may never even find one willing to give you a shot! Self-publishing has never been stronger! Especially after the explosion of the tablet revolution!
July 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCreative Writing Tips

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