Q: I’m thinking of self-publishing my book. I hear that if you publish through a traditional publisher, you have to pay back your advance if you don’t sell enough within a certain amount of time. Plus you only get about a dollar a book in royalties—you’d never earn your advance back at that rate. And you might have trouble getting your rights back.
What do you think?
A: Breaking into traditional publishing can be a frustrating business. I marketed The Warrior Heir for five years on my own before I found an agent who sold it for me. I never considered self-publishing because I didn’t think it was right for me and my project. I had a day job and had trouble finding time for writing, let alone intensive promotion.
What’s right for you depends on your individual situation. There are pros and cons to both self publishing and traditional publishing. I’m not an expert on self publishing. I can tell you that traditional publishing opens a lot of doors in terms of distribution and availability in brick and mortar book stores, as well as access to reviews.
Some writers self-publish because they want complete control of their final product and they don’t want to make the changes demanded by editors. But a good editor is your partner—she can make your book better. While we’ve all seen poorly written and minimally edited books from mainstream publishers, it’s less likely than in self-published books, where there are fewer quality control mechanisms in place. Your book may be fabulously written and edited—it’s just harder to get reviewers and bookstores and readers to take a chance on it because there’s a lot of bad stuff out there.
If you self-publish, it’s especially helpful to have what is called a "platform"--visibility and a ready means of accessing your audience. That’s why there are so many celebrity books out there. Let's say, for example, you are a well-known quilter and you publish a novel about quilters. You could market your book at quilting conventions and through quilting newsletters. Or maybe you’re a well-known motivational speaker who’s written a book about that topic. Every time you speak, you have an opportunity to push your book.
Regarding advances from mainstream publishers--you don't get any more money in royalties until the advance is earned out. But you typically keep the advance, even if you don't earn out, as long as you met your contractual obligation in terms of delivering an acceptable manuscript, etc. Of course, if you don't earn out your advance, it makes it less likely the publisher will publish a second book with you.
The issue of if and when you get your rights back is a contractual one. If you’re a new author without an agent, you don’t have as much leverage in terms of negotiating with a publisher. But if you have an offer from a publisher, it’s much easier to get an agent!
One thing I like about traditional publishing is the fact that the publisher is the one taking the risk and fronting the money for design, editing, and printing—not me. Many authors wish their publishers would do more in terms of marketing, but at least they’ll do something, particularly if they’ve invested a lot in an advance and production. I work hard to market my books, but I’ve really benefited from my publisher’s support. If you self-publish, it’s all up to you.
Good luck with your decision. It would be a good idea to talk with some authors who have self-published. We’ve all read about self-publishing success stories. Most of those authors have worked very hard. The important thing is to go into it knowing that in addition to writing a great book, you’ll need to be an expert in book promotion and networking.