I have a lot of conversations with would-be authors.

These are people who aspire to put a book out into the world, whether it’s a novel, a memoir, or a self-help non-fiction book. But one issue keeps coming up again and again throughout these conversations.

Should they self-publish, or should they go for a traditional publisher?

Once upon a time, this was a very easy question to answer. Self-publishing used to equate to vanity publishing – shell out a few thousand dollars so you could get a handful of copies of your book to ultimately give away to families and friends. But today, it’s a bit more complicated. There are plenty of people who self-published and created a commercially viable book.

But while there are a lot of factors to consider in answering this question, there is one that stands above all of the others.

One of the great surprises I experienced when I first worked in one of the editorial departments at Penguin was the nature of author royalties. I worked at a hardcover division, and the typical author would receive a graduated scale of percentages for each copy of their book sold retail: 10% for the first 5,000 copies, 12.5% for the next 5,000, and 15% thereafter. This typically amounted to a few dollars per copy.

What really surprised me, though, was the nature of trade paperback royalties.


A trade paperback book would typically sell for about $13 to $15, so when I found out that each copy earned the author 7.5% – only about a dollar a copy – and how typical books sold 10,000 or 20,000 copies, I wondered how authors even made money at all.

All of this is juxtaposed with the cost of self-publishing, which can of course cost a great deal up front – editor, designer, copyeditor, etc. – but with 70% paid out through ebooks sold on sites like Amazon, and the relatively low cost of print-on-demand options like with sites like CreateSpace, there is a great deal of potential for actually making a living by self-publishing. Receiving 70% of 10,000 copies sold actually looks pretty good.

This article promised that one factor is more important than any other when it comes to deciding whether it’s ideal to self-publish or go through the often maddening task of attempting to traditionally publish. And that factor is very simple.

Do you aspire for publishing books to be your primary vocation?

13334051344_34e1ee1796Let’s look at this another way. I’ve had a number of clients over the year who have made millions from their various endeavors. By the time they come to me for help (with what is always a non-fiction book that reflects the process they’ve created for making their fortune), they are looking to simply broaden their sphere of influence by publishing a book. They’re not concerned with selling 10,000 copies of a book because it might make them $10,000 or $50,000 in revenue. That amount of money would mean nothing to them.

They’re concerned with how selling those copies might do something for building their profile.

In other words, a book isn’t a potential source of income for them. It’s a potential source of credibility.

In their case, I recommend they put together a book proposal and pitch it to traditional publishing professionals. They could easily sell a self-published book to the people who already like them, but a traditional deal would get them distribution and therefore a new audience. Perhaps the book could make a splash in Barnes & Noble or elsewhere, and then they could add being a bestselling author to their resume.

All of this is to say that if you’re struggling with whether to self-publish or traditionally publish, one thing to consider is whether you want book publishing to be one of several tasks, or your reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

If the latter, then traditional publishing might not be the best course of action for you.

This isn’t the only consideration for making a decision like this, however. There are others. Be sure to click here for a cheat sheet that will help you decide whether to self-publish or traditionally publish.


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