Why self-publish your book?

Aug 29, 2023


stacks of books with one open
stacks of books with one open
stacks of books with one open

I chose to self-publish my UX design book after a lot of research and thought. But in talking to people, I realized that a lot of people don’t know why or how someone would do such a thing. So I wanted to share my rationale, and some of the things I learned.

The primary benefits of self-publishing:

  1. Retain the IP. My book is based on many classes I’ve developed over the years, and will be the foundation for additional classes. It also draws on my full career of experience as a designer. Going with a publisher would give them all the intellectual property rights to what is basically “my life’s work”. It would be very hard, as a first-time author, for me to negotiate a contract that would allow me to retain that IP. This was the reason I had to self-publish this book. My lawyer said “you’re actually one of the few people I would advise to self publish.”

  2. Retain creative control. If you go with a publisher, they decide on the cover, interior design, and even the title of your book. For my book, the design was as much a part of the concept as the words, so I needed to have full freedom with it. I didn’t expect publishers to trust me, and didn’t want to burden myself with their pushback. A friend who’s a top-tier designer and repeat author still has constant arguments with her publisher to get them to do the design quality she wants (and her audience expects). Other designer friends have said that publishers and editors wanted to change cover designs in a way that would have killed the book’s aesthetic.

  3. Retain the royalties. Publishers will give you 10-15% royalties if you’re lucky. One friend wrote a book where he got 5% royalties (which he and the other two co-authors had to split three ways). And then, even if you go spend loads of your time or money promoting the book, you still only get that tiny percentage of each resulting sale. With self-publishing, you just pay for printing and distribution, and keep around 70% of the retail price.

  4. Launch faster. Publishers release certain types of books at certain times of year, and at moments that mesh with other releases. Cheryl Strayed says that Wild was released over a year after the book was completely done because her publisher said it was “a spring book”. Publishers may acquire books years out from actually publishing them. If you have time-sensitive material, you may need a quicker turnaround than that.

  5. Publishers don’t really help you with marketing. This was a huge surprise for me; I thought of marketing assistance as a primary benefit of having a publisher. But this is the most frequent complaint I’ve heard from published authors. One friend said all the help they provided was a 4am slot on a college radio show. Another friend said a reputable art book publisher wanted him to pay $60–70k for production costs (and then ghosted him for 6 months when he pushed back). Unless you’re Michelle Obama, publishers don’t really see the ROI in promoting you.

  6. Publishers don’t really know social media. The publishing industry is still famously stodgy—I worked in the industry for three years and many methods and tools seem practically pre-internet. A friend who got a book deal wanted to collaborate with his publishing team using Slack, and they had never heard of it. Most tech industry people have far more social media savviness and followers than publishers do (look at their social media profiles for evidence). You’d be better off following TikTok marketing plans.

  7. Choose your collaborators. When you DIY you can pick your own editors, designers, marketers, etc. You can vet the particular skills and taste you want, instead of having them assigned to you.

  8. Print-on-demand (POD) quality is actually good now. Self-published books used to look like bootleg Xeroxes of “real” books, but the last few years have upped the game. IngramSpark (the POD arm of the world’s largest wholesale book distributor, Ingram) just launched “ultra-premium color” of laser printing on 70# paper, and UK competitor BookVault has a variety of glossy options at half the price. (Amazon’s KDP, however…)

  9. POD removes financial risk. You don’t have to risk your savings printing a thousand books you store in your living room and mail out one-by-one; with POD you just upload files and people can order a copy that’s printed as needed. If you go with IngramSpark, it’s connected to the same ordering system that bookstores, libraries, and other retailers use, so they can order your book too—the distribution network is included.

  10. Learn how book publishing works. It’s a huge curve, but I find no better way to understand a process than to DIY. (With help — I give a huge hat tip to Kat Vellos for introducing me to the possibility of self-publishing, and walking me through it in her Designer-to-Author mastermind class.) I’m now able to produce future books myself (none of them can possibly be as complicated as this first one lol), or if I do go with a publisher for a later book, I’ll have a much more informed foundation from which to negotiate.

The biggest difficulties I’ve found so far in self-publishing:

  1. No stamp of approval. A friend with a large online presence still decided to publish his book with Penguin because he wanted that logo on the cover. Most people don’t trust that self-published authors have gone through a professional-quality editing or design process with their book. And some of the big book review sites won’t review self-published books.

  2. POD printing is still not offset quality. It’s CMYK colors (no spot or Pantone options), on a limited selection of papers. This was my primary sacrifice with the choice; it’s mostly set up for regular fiction or nonfiction manuscripts, not magazine-like interiors and bleeding-edge design (pun intended). IngramSpark’s basic and premium color options use inkjet printers (!), which clog and leave ink voids or banding if you do solid color backgrounds (their ultra-premium option uses laser printers). If you need offset quality, but still want to reduce your risk in doing a short print run of books, you need to do a crowdfunding campaign to gather pledges up front (but then you still have to do all the fulfillment yourself, ugh).

  3. Big learning curve. I was lucky to have a background in print and digital design; there were a lot of production details to figure out. There’s also pricing, marketing, and distribution decisions. But there are a ton of resources online—my Notion page of links and notes for my book project is its own wiki at this point.

  4. So much work. Just the last couple months of prepping my final files and prices have made me crave more assistance. But, as I said earlier, you can choose your own collaborators for informed help. My next book I’ll definitely delegate more (now that I understand the process, and how to manage it) — or I’ll know exactly what I want from a publisher.

  5. Finding quality collaborators. You need help, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Published authors talk about editing as one of the most valuable parts of the process. I was lucky to know one of the top line/copy editors in my field through my old coworking space, and she also referred me to a developmental editor who was perfectly suited to understand my complex topic. If I hadn’t had their particular brains on this project, it would have been a very different book.

A book is just a product, and publishers are no longer the only good way to put one out into the world. I hope this post gives you some inspiration for your own book projects. Feel free to leave other thoughts or questions in the comments!

Update: some resources I’ve found most useful

  • The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi): Wonderful group of experienced self-published authors, both fiction and nonfiction. Lots of cheat sheets for all parts of the process. Very active Facebook group with helpful answers to all kinds of questions. Membership pays for itself if you’re printing with IngramSpark, they give you 5 discount codes each month for free test prints. They also do advocacy with Amazon and Ingram and other big companies as needed.

  • Useful Books: If I write another nonfiction book I’m starting here. Rob Fitzpatrick (who’s made $1M self-publishing) has systematized and shared a way to write successful books iteratively. The membership includes a great tool for getting beta feedback on your book, as well as a community for accountability and cool Q&A guests. He’s now launching courses that guide you through the process. His three books (Write Useful Books, The Workshop Survival Guide, The Mom Test) are also very helpful reading.

  • Nonfiction Authors Association: Another good source of information, including lots of articles and a yearly conference (that includes free 10-minute 1:1s with a variety of industry experts, and speakers who I continue to spam for help post-conference). Most self-pub advice is geared toward fiction writers so this was a helpful subset to find.

  • How to Market a Book: Pithy guidebook with sharp overviews of all the major sites and tools, written by the founder of Reedsy. Free!

  • Reedsy: Marketplace of marketers, editors, designers, and other professionals you will need (unfortunately very aggressive with the marketing emails if you sign up, which is required to browse). Lots of good articles too.

  • Jane Friedman: Generous blogger sharing tips on the publishing industry, also has a free Discord community where she’s active and available.

  • The Creative Penn: Another great blogger sharing tools and tips.

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