Self Publishing vs Traditional Publishing: The Pros and Cons

Srinivas Rao
Feb 4 · 10 min read
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I’ve self published two books, one of which hit the WSJ best seller list, and I’ve also written two books that have been published by Penguin Portfolio, one of the most well respected publishing houses in the world. There are pros and cons to each method of publishing. Regardless of which route you go, there are some essential ingredients for a successful book.

The Non-Negotiables

1. Write a book that doesn’t suck.

“Why Do You Want to Write a Book?” This is the first question I ask when I work with a coaching client. Writing a book is hard and unless you’re ok with the possibility that it will lead to nothing, you shouldn’t do it. The best reason to write a book is because you have something to say. JT McCormick had a great reason for writing a book. He was the son of a pimp who became a CEO. As he was traveling for work, he realized that he had a lot of lessons that he wanted to pass on to his kids.

If you’re writing a book because you think it will lead to a life of fame, glamour, and riches, you’ll be disappointed. If any of your reasons for writing a book are ego-driven, you should reconsider.

When people write books for the wrong reasons, the writing is stilted, they sign shitty contracts, and ultimately write shitty books.

2. Write a Lot

I didn’t make any progress with self publishing or traditional publishing until I started consistently writing 1000 words a day. Once I did, I self published two books, wrote 100’s of articles and eventually landed a book deal with a publisher. Professionals create on a schedule, amateurs create when they feel like it.

3. Platform

One of the most jarring realities for a new author is discovering that publishers don’t necessarily care about the quality of your book IF you don’t already have an audience of potential readers who will buy your work.

Sure, there are outliers like J.K. Rowling, but the vast majority of book deals happen because authors can demonstrate they have an audience who cares about what you write about.

Regardless of whether you self publish your book or go with a traditional publisher, unless you have an existing audience, your book will linger in obscurity. You have to find a medium for your message (blog, podcast, newsletter, non-profit, etc), build your audience of 1000 true fans, and build what Seth Godin calls “a permission asset”. The only viable long term strategy to build your audience is to focus on mastery instead of metrics.

A large social media following is a terrible permission asset because you’ve built an empire on rented land. The best permission asset is an email list because it gives you a direct connection to your potential readers. Even in 2019, email is still the #1 driver of book sales.

4. A Message/Theme

If you’re writing a book you have to be able to explore one idea over several chapters and sometimes over several hundred pages. In my experience, the message of your books emerges through the work you do, whether that’s writing articles, recording podcasts or expressing your creativity in whatever medium you’ve chosen.

The Pros and Cons of Self Publishing

Self publishing a book is the most valuable thing aspiring authors can do for their career. The success of my self published book, combined with the platform I’ve built led to a book deal with a traditional publisher.

Editors at publishing companies aren’t sitting around waiting to pluck people of out obscurity. They’re looking for opportunities to say yes to people who’ve stopped waiting for permission and stopped waiting to be picked. The best way to give them that opportunity is to self publish.

Cost and Production Quality

If you want the production quality of your book to be on par with what a publisher can do for you, you will spend a lot of money on editors, cover designers and much more. If it flops, you’re out of a lot of money. Self publishing a book is like a minimum viable product. It gives you an opportunity to test the demand for your ideas. By releasing an electronic version first, you protect your downside.

AJ Leon hated what his publisher was doing to his book. So he returned his advance, and published The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit as a free collection of essays. After it was downloaded over 100,000 times, his audience asked for a physical version. He hired kickstarter wizard Clay Hebert, and his campaign for a physical version of the book was fully funded in 4 hours.

When I published The Art of Being Unmistakable, the only version available was on Kindle. I didn’t make a physical version of the book available until after it sold over 1000 copies and people who had seen me on the Glenn Beck show asked if I could make a physical version available.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a small fortune creating something when you don’t know if anybody wants it.

Creative Control

My friend Mars Dorian designed the covers for all of my self published books and did the chapter illustrations for Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best. I’ve always said he’s the definition of unmistakable. But my publisher ironically wouldn’t let him design the cover for Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best.

When you self publish, you have complete creative control over the content, and the final product. There’s no requirement that your book needs to be a certain number of words or follow some sort of formula. At the moment, I’m working on a new book called The Scenic Route, which I intend to self publish. I’m creating an Adobe Spark version that I plan to give away for free and publishing a Kindle version. I’d probably never be able to get a book deal for it, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing it.

Marketing/Promotion

Whether you self publish or traditionally publish, marketing and promotion are YOUR job. Even if you hire a book marketing wizard like Ryan Holiday, you are the one who has to do the hard work of building an audience and a relationship with your potential readers.

In many ways it’s easier to market a self published book because you can give it away for free and price it as low as you want. You don’t have many of the constraints of working with a publisher.

Perception

The final authority on your book is not your literary agent, editor or publisher. The final authority is your reader. And readers don’t give a shit who published your book. They want to read a good book. I couldn’t tell you who published many of the books by my favorite authors.

  • Even though they’re more well written, and much more polished, my traditionally published books haven’t sold nearly as well as my self published book.
  • Hal Elrod self published The Miracle Morning, which has sold thousands, if not millions of copies.

The idea that your book is somehow magically going to be more well perceived in the eyes of a reader just because a publisher has put their logo on it is nonsense. There are plenty of terrible books published by traditional publishers.

Traditional Publishing — Pros and Cons

A few years ago, I had a conversation with Betsy Rappaport, who helps authors bring their book ideas to life. She said I wasn’t ready. At the time I was pissed off, but she did me a huge favor. She gave me time to improve as a writer, and develop the habits and mindset required to write a book with a traditional publisher. Below I’ve outlined how it differs from self-publishing.

Cost/Production Quality

In my experience, the greatest value of working with a traditional publisher is the opportunity to work with a skilled editor. You are held to a much higher standard than correct spelling and proper grammar.

  • You learn how to support the arguments you’re making with evidence.
  • You develop the ability to work on bigger and more in-depth projects.
  • You learn how to start with nothing but an idea and bring it to life.

Like most goals, the benefit of doing a book with a publisher isn’t a finished book. It’s the person you become in the process.

With traditional publishing, you get paid your advance and you get to focus on writing your book. However, just because you get a six figure book contract, it doesn’t mean you’ll be flush with cash. You get 1/4 of your advance on signing a contract, another on delivery of the manuscript, another upon publication, and another upon release of paperback or a year after the release of the hardcover. One thing publishers are very good at is making books. The final product will be polished, and thoroughly edited.

Creative Control

As I said in post about what I wish I’d known about building a career in the arts, publishers are not in the business of making dreams come true. They’re in the business of minimizing risk and selling as many books as possible.

Publishers are not charities. They are not doing you a favor by publishing your book. They are businesses and they want to make money. — Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn

As a result, they want to protect their investment and that means you will sacrifice some creative control. For a visual brand like The Unmistakable Creative, the biggest fight I had with my publisher was over book covers. Although, we did finally end up with covers that we really loved.

Marketing and Promotion

When I interviewed Ramit Sethi years ago, he said, “Publishers don’t do shit for you. They’re good at designing book covers and putting your book in stores.”

Contrary to popular belief, publishers don’t do much to help with the marketing of your book. They’re fantastic at making books, but ironically don’t know much about selling them. Almost every author has a story about the lackluster or failed marketing efforts of their publisher. If you want to proof, this is what DHH said about his recent book launch,

Harper Business bought the rights to publish It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Workwith a mid six-figure offer. They outbid another publisher who were in the final running for the rights by a fair margin. Awesome, we thought. This means they’re really invested in blowing this out! This is going to be great.

It was not great.

Despite paying top dollar for the book, Harper Business decided to only print 14,000 copies in the first run. That 14,000 was based on the first orders from retailers. Barnes & Noble wanted 4,000 copies. Amazon wanted 3,300. The rest went largely to independents and wholesalers, and a few for overseas. Once everyone had gotten what they had ordered, Harper Business had no books left. The whole first run was spoken for.

If publishers were great at selling books, Tim Grahl, Ryan Holiday and Digital Natives (the team that worked on my recent book launch) wouldn’t have thriving businesses. Your book is one of the hundreds that a publisher is releasing every year. Unless it sells thousands of copies in the first few weeks, most of the marketing and promotion efforts from your publisher will be over after the launch.

Bookstores and Best-Seller Lists

The biggest challenge you’ll face with a self-published book is getting into bookstores. But given how few people purchase books by random authors they’ve never heard of, having your books on shelves inflates your ego more than it inflates books sales. My self published book was a WSJ Best-seller. But I could never hit the NY Time Best-Seller list with a self published book. It’s also worth considering what Seth Godin has said in his article about the list:

The Times’ list is completely fictional. Made up. Divorced from reality. The stated goal of the list is to find (and promote) books that Times editors want people to read, not books that are actually selling a lot. (The editor of the Book Review told this to me years ago). So, they make up ‘rules’ to appear consistent.

Word of Mouth

Many of the most successful books don’t spread because of massive book launches, overpriced ad campaigns or national media attention. Books that have the potential to become perennial sellers spread by word of mouth. A recommendation by a trusted source to one reader is worth more than a flood of attention from strangers on the internet.

  • I’m more likely to buy a book if it’s recommended to me by a friend.
  • Glenn Beck caused the sales of my self published book to skyrocket because he’s a trusted source for his audience.
  • Oprah has the impact that she does on book sales because she’s a trusted source.

Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way wasn’t an immediate success. But thanks to word of mouth, it eventually spread, made its way to the NFL and went on to sell 300,000 copies. Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of national media attention. In some cases, it barely moves the needle on book sales. As Ryan says in his book Perennial Seller, no product can survive long term without word of mouth.

If you’re serious about building a career as an author, it can’t be about one book, one week or one launch. Ryan Holiday says that authors should spend as much time promoting their books as they do writing them. Having seen slow, but steady sales of An Audience of One at about 50 copies a week, I couldn’t agree more. You’re better off having a perennial seller than a best-seller that makes headlines for a few weeks, only to be forgotten about forever.

Perception

The biggest value in the perception of traditionally published books is in the eyes of people who would consider hiring you for a speaking engagement. Prior to my traditionally published books, I rarely got booked for paid speaking gigs. When you’ve written a 50,000 word book, it shows that you have a clear message that can be easily translated into a one hour talk. In my conversation with Jay Bayer, he said, “I don’t write books to sell books. I write books to sell speeches.”

I’ve had tremendous success with published books by the standard of book sales. But I’ve become a much better writer through the process of writing 2 traditionally published books. Neither one is a guarantee of fame, fortune, or success, but choosing the right one for where you are on your path will sharpen you.

Gain an Unfair Creative Advantage

I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.


Originally published at unmistakablecreative.com on February 4, 2019.

Srinivas Rao

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Order An Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake:https://amzn.to/2LVjgQa Listen to the @UnmistakableCR podcast in iTunes http://apple.co/1GfkvkP

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