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
I 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
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).
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.