To Self-Publish or Try the Publishing Option? That is the Question…

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Last week I came across an article about Hydra, a digital-first imprint of Random House. Here is the link to read the article. Hydra is reported as presenting the next generation of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who says: “Every title is available for purchase at major e-retailers and compatible with all reading devices.”

The interesting thing was, the article opened up a dialog about the options writers have in releasing their books to the public. It then becomes all about traditional publishing and independent publishing. Trying to figure out what is best for you is sometimes hard.

I am lucky to have built up a friendship with Lyz Russo, an accomplished author and the owner of an Indy Publishing company called P’kaboo Publishers. As a novice author, writing my first novel, I wanted to hear what choices I had available to me. There are so many choices and things to consider. I felt lost in the process.

Lyz Russo

I asked Lyz to give me her opinion about book publishing and some of the things I should consider before making a decision. Here is what Lyz shared:

Publishing vs Self-Publishing

Opinion piece: For Silver Threading

Thank you, Silver Threading, for giving me the opportunity for this guest post! 🙂

To say there is a war going between indies and traditional publishers would be putting it kindly. But it doesn’t have to be!

Let me start with the dream. You’ve written a book. Now, what?

Pros of traditional publishing.

  • A large publisher pays you an advance cheque upon acceptance of your work.
  • He pays for editing; layout and design; the cover image; the printing.
  • He prints a large run (5000+ books, which he still considers a “short” run) and pushes it into thousands of brick and mortar retail stores.

So far, so sweet! And, if your book starts being a runaway bestseller, the publisher takes care of the rest… all you do is swan from interview to interview, attend book signings, give talks about yourself, and cash it in.

Here comes reality:

  • Bomb 1: It took Terry Pratchett well over 200 submissions! You need stamina. And a crocodile skin.
  • Bomb 2: Your “short run” is only given between 2 weeks and 3 months (the latter in South Africa) on the actual shelves before the retailer has to replace it with a faster-selling title – unless it is indeed a best-seller.
  • Only about 2% of books become best-sellers. The rest are discarded, returned to the publisher; who discards them or sells them off at huge losses, and who discards the author along with the title. No more from that author by that publisher! Your 900+ submissions? Within a few weeks, it’s over!

Pros of self-publishing:

  • You maintain 100% control over your work!
  • Nobody edits things without your permission; nobody changes your wording and style or decides that the scene with the fire lizard (relevant to not-yet-published sequels) is irrelevant.
  • You decide on your own cover graphic.
  • You can update your work as often as you like (many authors are “fiddlers” who just can’t leave what’s well enough alone).

The bitter truth:

  • Bomb 1: It’s all up to you! Your friends and family? You’ve already used them up as beta readers. If they are truly amazing, they’ll come to your launch and if they are more amazing, they’ll repost your stuff on Facebook. But basically, you’re on your own. You’ve got to blow your own horn… no matter how rude it feels to you, how much you wish for some edification by some third party. (Reviews help!)
  • Bomb 2: You have no idea where to start! You’re walking this whole route as one huge experiment, slurping advice like smoothies, trying to apply it all and finding you can’t (it’s contradictory).
  • Bomb 3: It would work better if you started with a load of money… but often, that’s exactly why you write, because you want to make money, not spend money…

Here is what is actually happening:

The modus of the large publishing houses:

In German, a publisher is known as a “Verleger”. This comes from “vorlegen”, advancing. And indeed, the publisher gives you an advance (on royalties); also, he advances the money to have the book printed (with all the trimmings and improvements) and distributed. It is very noble that the publisher doesn’t expect you to return your advance if your book sells fewer copies than he based his estimate on.

But in fact, what he is doing, is gambling. He knows that out of 100 books, 2 or 3 will run. The rest will be discarded… the booksellers (stores) don’t exactly give each book a chance to build a readership, it’s all so streamlined for instant profits. Publishers compete for the prime area in the front of a bookshop, where the reader will browse first; they pay bookshops incentives to put their titles in that prime space. And they count on it that their 2 or 3 best-sellers in every batch will cover the mind-boggling cost of the entire batch.

In defense of the publisher’s profit:

I hear authors complain that the publisher takes the “lion’s share” of a book’s price. Well, that is an illusion. Let me explain.

A printed book is sold at a retail price for, e.g. $11.99. Forget about the figure: Just understand the percentages.

You, the author, get 10% of the retail price. (This is industry standard. Most publishers don’t offer more. If you’re not happy, go self-publish!)

The bookshop (retailer) wants a deep discount; 45% is industry standard here; or with the distribution agent, 65% of the price.

Remains: 25% – and from that, the publisher has to pay the print cost, the editing, the cover design and whatever marketing is being done. It is doubtful that the publisher ever sees 10% of the retail price in profits. So much for the “lion’s share”.


It is still worth going with a traditional publisher. At least, you’re guaranteed of your advance cheque! But what if your patience wears out before you’ve made that 1001th submission that will land you the deal?

You need to know exactly why you want to self-publish. Be aware of the landscape. Realize that you’ll have to become a marketer to 50% (which means a 50% reduction in your writing time).

But: Then there were ebooks. There are tons of good, self-service ebook sites where you can upload your finished manuscript (or, what the hey, your unedited first draft, but if you do that, expect some really scathing reviews). There are also the POD sites which enable you to upload your book in a printable format so people can order a print copy. and Amazon’s Createspace are two such good sites.

Do not be fooled!
Readers of ebooks are not young undereducated “maplotters”. They are readers, just like all other readers, and they too hate an unedited draft. It is an insult to throw something like that out there. Have mercy on the entire industry: Get beta readers to check the plot for you; get a professional to edit for you, and have your cover designed by a professional. Yes, you’ll be spending money. Yes, your book (and self-respect) is worth it!

Except for the PODs, there are also Vanity sites.

Faithful gipsika test-drove one of these for you, too. If it had generated runaway sales, all P’kaboo’s books would have been processed by it, but we learnt an interesting lesson first-hand:

While Vanity sites can generate a book of absolute beauty – their market is not really readers. It is authors. Follow the money: You pay a lot of money upfront for them publishing you; then you pay for every inch of promotion they offer you. You pay to get your book pushed into reviews; you pay – basically for everything. And if you’re paying, that must mean that you – not the reader – are the customer.

If you’re ok with that, I can recommend them. They produce a quality book. That is usually overpriced, too.

And then there is the small indie press.

You knew I’d mention us last. But once again there are clear pros and cons. An indie press never has the same clout as a large publishing house; you should always try for the largest houses first. Here in South Africa, even the book chains give a different deal to indies than to the larger ones with whom they have huge contracts. They know that an indie cannot produce new titles at the same rate; so the gambling stakes are different. Often, indies cannot put down as much cash as the larger houses can; advances fall by the wayside, to be replaced by royalties from day 1. Runs are super short – if the book gets printed in the first place; if the indie doesn’t exclusively focus on ebooks.

Also, you take a risk with indies. We have seen a number of them fold in the 8 years since we’re in action, and we’ve seen others flourish into larger companies (or being bought up by larger houses). Many indie publishers restrict themselves to a niche market – e.g. war histories, like one house we know about in Durban.

But indies tend to experiment a lot more with marketing; they tend to fight for their authors, for publicity; they tend to cling to titles and not discard them like the large houses do. They tend to push books into as many formats as they can, straight-off, instead of relying on one type of book, the printed page in a run of several thousand. They tend to network with others; sweet-talk reviewers (where Vanity presses simply pay their way and relay the cost to the author), find opportunities. Everything a self-publishing author will try, an indie press may also try – if they find that it gives results.

Some indies make you pay upfront for editing and cover design; others do it at own cost. Some find compromises between these two approaches. And indies tend to treat their authors well – making sure they agree with the edits, the design… allowing the author to retain a good deal of control over the book.

Backlist vs frontlist (or why you want your book published in January)

Publishers and booksellers consider a book that was published last year, backlisted. Frontlisted titles get prime time; they are pushed and marketed, but the moment the year turns, they are “backlist” items and the limelight is taken off them.

The large publishing houses invest their “gambling” money into front-listed books and make a huge deal of them. Nevertheless, it is usually the backlisted books that carry the entire shop. Consider: How many copies of Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” are still sold? I haven’t seen a bookshop throw them out; they still go at full retail price, and it is decades after their publication date.

Ebooks move differently from paper books

Because of their physical nature, paper books sell in batches. They sell at launches, book signings, and in runs into shops. They have steep, sudden sales peaks and equally steep drop-offs.

Ebooks are much less likely to do that. Typically, a new ebook on a site like Smashwords or Epub gets a lot of views on the first day; fewer on the second and third, and by the fourth it is forgotten. But the sales pick up slowly and steadily, and they can be stable for many months before suddenly for some obscure reason, creating an unexpected peak. The peak often follows promotional activity.

Paper books don’t get that luxury (of slow, low, long-term sales). After their initial peak, once they drop off, if they haven’t sold enough copies they are out on their ears. (Yes, books have ears! More with some readers.)

Paper books still account for 70% of all books sales and this seems to have stabilized out. The large traditional houses currently still dominate the paper book publishing world with their sales model. While paper books are mostly published by the 5 major publishing houses, ebooks seem to be dominated largely by self-publishers and indies.


I can’t make a recommendation as to what your choices must be in publishing. I think it depends as much on your character as on your book. I would always recommend to authors to try the following path:

First, submit to the large publishing houses (and/or their agents). Even with the risk of going obsolete within 2 weeks of publication, this is still first prize in terms of sudden income (the advance cheque, remember?), reputation (“published author!”), distribution and a chance on the big-time. 2 out of 100 is a much better chance of winning big than you’ll ever get in the lottery.

Second, failing this, submit to as many smaller presses as you can. If you get more than one offer, be picky, be really picky, and do your research about the company. Even if only one offers, investigate them carefully before deciding. The business principle holds:

Every client (in the case of the small press, that is every author AND every reader) has to be earned, deserved. If we don’t go out of our way, don’t give our best or are not dead honest, we don’t deserve the business.

Don’t expect the same kind of deal from an indie though that you’d get from a large publisher. Their contract and “about us” page will give you a clear idea what you can expect. If they say “digital runs”, be aware that this means usually 100 copies or less of a printed book – therefore, no chance of distribution into thousands of brick-and-mortar shops. Also, the chances are that the indie relies on you helping them with the publicity by means of your own social network (Facebook, Twitter etc).

Failing (1) and (2), do self-publish. It is better to self-publish than to have your book languish in a file somewhere on the mortal C: drive. And if you self-publish, shoulder the responsibility like a hero and accept that your role has shifted: You’re a publisher and have to act like one. Professional is the key word here. Set your standards high and put out only the best. Hire professionals for the various different steps of publishing.

(Not that I followed that path in steps (1) and (2)! I realized far too early on that I wanted to retain complete control over all my books. There is only one remedy for one as crazy as that.)

There is only one route I’d distinctly not
recommend: The Vanity Press. You can hire local (or even online) talent to do the same thing, for much cheaper, plus, you retain a lot more control (e.g. over the retail price). Remember: Follow the money. If you’re paying enormous amounts and don’t have control over someone overpricing your book (so that their cut per sale is bigger), then you are the customer. Not the reader. Authors should receive money, not spend money, in order to be read.

~ gipsika ~

I feel like I have a better idea of what options are out there for me. How about you?

Do you have a clear path to your publishing goal?

If you would like to contact Lyz Russo (gipsika) directly you can find her on her blog: The Red Ant, and on Twitter at @LyzRusso. In addition, here is the link to P’kaboo Publishers About page so you can learn more about this company.

Thank you for your stopping by to read about some of the options we authors have available to us. There is much to think about. I would love to hear what you think!


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