Why Self Publish When You Can Sign A Trade Contract

I just took a moment to search all of my recent blog posts, and was surprised to find that I haven't been writing much about the reasons to self publish lately. Maybe it's because I spend so many keystrokes writing about how to self publish, or the drawbacks of self publishing. The funny thing is, in person, I usually recommend self publishing to working trade authors. But when writers contact me through my website with their questions, it's frequently apparent that self publishing is unlikely to be the solution to their particular puzzle. It's rarely a road to fame and riches, and the energy spent trying to achieve fame and riches through self publishing might be more efficiently applied elsewhere.

The best reason to self publish books is because you've studied the publishing industry and decided that self publishing is the path that will most likely bring you a steady income and satisfaction in your work. It's also the least common reason people cite when asked why they decided to self publish. In fact, the few authors I can remember telling me that they had studied the publishing industry and decided to self publish because they would make the more money for less hassle were basing their arguments on the advertisements of author services companies!

Not surprisingly, the authors in the best position to weigh the pros and cons of self publishing against signing a trade publisher contract are authors who have already worked for trade publishers. But most authors who write for trade publishers earn advances and develop an "I get paid upfront" attitude that makes self publishing look very unattractive to them. I can't make an argument in favor of bestselling authors self publishing their literary fiction or nonfiction because I don't think it makes much sense. Bestselling literary authors get the best book contracts and other perks that should discourage them from going to the expense of setting up their own publishing companies, unless they aim to publish other authors books as well. An unhappy bestselling author is probably better off changing publishers than changing careers.

The authors who would likely benefit the most from self publishing are those who are in the worst position to give it a try; the hand-to-mouth writers who rather than advancing in their careers are spinning a squirrel cage to keep up with the bills. The problems keeping those authors from breaking through with some titles that would have a reasonable shelf life and contribute to the author's income and peace of mind over the long term are sometimes their publishers problems. Assigning or accepting book projects that have limited market opportunities because the publisher is risk averse is a major issue. Trade publishers have a need for product, and they will stick with reliable (ie, deadline meeting) authors whose books don't embarrass them, but which rarely sell enough copies to earn the author more than the advance. It's a tough way to make a living, and because such authors aren't all that difficult to replace, a single misunderstanding or shift in publisher personnel may leave the author out in the street.

Laying aside all of the complications of going into business for yourself and all the downsides of working for "the man", the question comes down to how much the publisher is really doing to sell the author's books. If the publisher's marketing effort is limited to listing the books online and getting them a brief stint on some chain shelves, the author is giving up the majority of the title's revenue for some design and editorial services that could be outsourced to freelancers. If the publisher is employing the author for titles in strongly branded series that pay five figure advances, it may be that the author has benefited greatly from the association. But it's important for trade authors who aren't advancing in their careers to at least look at their options in self publishing. If they're afraid of trade publishers noticing and adding them to a blacklist, I've never heard of such a thing, but there's always the mighty pen name.


Bryan Rosner said...

I think one of the most interesting reasons to self publish is that technology is no longer a limiting factor in the game. 100 years ago you couldn't self publish because you didn't have access to the printing press. Now, not only do you have access to it, but you have access to Lightning Source which not only prints books for you, but also ships them and does most of the work!

In 2008, self publishing barriers to entry have been all but eliminated. Which doesn't mean gauranteed success - you still have to write a good book and have access to a market - but it means that if these are in place, you CAN succeed.


Morris Rosenthal said...


It's sort of a different discussion, but I don't entirely buy it. Twain was one famous self publisher of a hundred plus years ago, and it wouldn't surprise me if it was a smarter move for a bestselling author to self publish then than now. Keep in mind, the same rules of outsourcing applied, you could easily find editors, and printers employed typesetters and designers. The main different between publishing and self publishing a hundred or so years ago was in who paid for the physical books. And even the "name" authors who didn't self publish were often paid a flat amount for a manuscript, no royalties, which the publisher/printer (because they were often the same entity) could print and sell in any quantity.

Another thing favoring the self publishers of yesteryear was that horrible quality of printing and poor editing was the norm for books with very low prices. These days, all books are pretty much held to the same standards, at least by critics.


Bob said...

Control is why one should self-publish. 5 trade books later, I've watched as things were changed in my manuscripts, heard promises of publicity and marketing that disappeared, books that went to press with the picture signature missing ("We forgot!"), and the self-realization that my efforts alone were the thing behind sales.

Like a typical author, I blame the publishers. If I do this myself, I have no one to blame except myself, and I hate self-loathing.

Morris Rosenthal said...


Control is one of the primary reasons I self publish. In this case, I just lumped it in "peace of mind." One of the most important control aspects to me is the life cycle of books, not dumping the maximum into stores and then immediately remaindering the blow-back. Control over the exact content is also big, but I'll admit there that a good acquisitions editor might have a better feeling for what will sell in some cases than I do. It's hard for authors to keep their emotions out of decisions as to what to put in a book, but the result isn't always best for commercial purposes.


Bobby Ozuna said...

Mr. Rosenthal:
It is one of the most crucial and toughest decisions I think a writer must come to terms with--traditional or self-publishing. But it is also a decision that fortunately can be weighed with insight, data, facts and information available on the Internet. I wrote about my struggle to come to a decision with self-publishing last year and I went back and re-read that posting today.
I wouldn't trade my decision AT ALL.. being in control of my situation and being "hands on" with all aspects of publishing are very important to me...and when you self-publish: guess what! You do it all!

If you get a chance, maybe you can read my original post:


Morris Rosenthal said...


I thought that was a great post. The reason I usually tell fiction writers to hang on and try for a trade contract is that they often aren't as clear as you are in terms of what they want out of being published.


Bob said...

"One of the most important control aspects to me is the life cycle of books, not dumping the maximum into stores and then immediately remaindering the blow-back."

Remainders. I wonder if most first-timers even realize there is such a thing?

I was a bit peeved when my first trade publisher told me that the initial run was going to be 2,500 books. I don't know why, but in my head (and for no good reason), I thought this was an insult. I thought that an initial run of 25,000 or more was to be expected.

Looking back, I realize that it doesn't matter how many books are's how many books are sold!

Ironically, I purchased the majority of remainders for my first book, about 750 copies. I eventually had the market cornered, and as the book got legs, I went from selling the book for half-price on Amazon to selling it at the cover price-signed by the author.

I made more money selling the remainders than I did with the 12% royalty.

If done right, remainders can be your best friends.

Morris Rosenthal said...


I know a few authors who've been happy selling their remainders, but if you'd published the book yourself, you'd have made that money on every sale from day one:-)

It also "helps" that the original print run was small. if they'd printed twice as many copies, it might have taken many years for the remainder market to stabilize. And it only works with titles that aren't time sensitive.


Bob said...

"And it only works with titles that aren't time sensitive."

Yep. I had the same situation presented to me with my paperback, The Low-Carb Bartender. I declined the remainders since the low-carb market had fallen apart.

That's one book that I really should have self-published. When it was was really hot!