el/2024/5/21 22:07:24

Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish?

Maybe I’m a bit naïve about the whole book publishing industry, but I can’t really figure out why most tech author use major publishing houses to release their books.  I have only work on one book (as a tech reviewer for Kurt Cagle’s SVG Programming book) and have been approached a bunch of times to work on others, but I can’t really figure out why to use a major publisher.  As a tech reviewer, the work was really cool, and the pay was alright (but not great), so from that point of view, I’m fine with the majors, but as an author who might only sell a couple 1000 books at the most, I can’t always see the value.  Yes, there are lots of time where a major publisher is the way to go, especially if you want to get your books into brick and mortars.  But, if they can’t get the book into the stores, where’s the value?  And, I’m seeing more and more tech books that are not available in my local stores (and this in New Jersey where tech is a big part of the economy).  I have a lot of respect for publishers like Gary Cornell and APress, but I can not get their books in my local Borders or Barnes & Noble, so why bother with middle men, and just go right to the source Amazon, and use one of the publish on demand vendors out there?

Here’s some of the data that I’ve collected on the topic from various sources on the web.  Is there something I’m missing?

  • Costs about $250 to get 10 ISBN numbers.
  • Costs about $11/book (of about 600 pages) to print using on demand digital printing (using estimates from places like InstantPublisher)
  • Add another $2 per book for shipping to places like Amazon.
  • Amazon pays 45% of suggested retail price per book.

So if it costs you somewhere around $13 a book to make it, if you price a 600 page book at $49.99, and you can sell it thru Amazon (which they buy at a price of $22.50) you will make $9.50 per book sold.  That is assuming you do all the work yourself (of course).

Now, compare that to APress’ commission of 10% net profit (I’m not picking on APress, but they publish their rates because they pay well).  Even if APress can produce a book for less than the $13 that it would cost you (say cut it half to $6.50), APress’ net profit can not be more than about $16 a book which means you will get $1.60 a book (that's an 85% discount off what you could make).  Now, I know that they give you an advance (which may be needed on one’s financial situation), but that is really just based on the number of books they think will sell, times your commission, and you don’t get any commission until after you pay off the advance.  They also hire people (like tech writers and tech reviewers) which eats at the profit but if the book can only be found online, why use a publishing company, when you can make a lot more doing it all yourself?  Am I being naïve here?  Or is it due to not having the capital to produce the books (to print 100 copies of the book it would cost $1300 out of pocket).  And I’m not even talking about trying to sell books on your own website, which would mean even more profit for the author.

As more and more books are not sold in your local store, and we become more and more accustom to buy books online, is the value of a tech publisher disappearing?  I’d like to hear from the tech authors out there, and see how they feel about this.

posted on Friday, May 07, 2004 11:55 AM


re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/7/2004 1:11 PM Michael Trier

Very good assessment. When I saw your post I stopped what I was doing and read it immediately. This has been a subject that I've thought a lot about over the years. I wrote an <a href="http://michaeltrier.com/blog/articles/155.aspx">article</a> on the subject several years ago. Although my focus was more on my frustrations with the publishing industry, I think you offer a great alternative.

The value of the tech publisher is disappearing. Currently I'm reading several books, none of which I just picked up while browsing a book store. My sources are usually recommendations from others (personally or via a website review or blog) or I'm looking for something on a particular subject matter. In that case I go straight to Amazon and search it out.

# RE: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/7/2004 2:00 PM bryant@sqlxml.org (Bryant Likes)

Also factor in that you have no way to track the sales yourself when you publish through a major publishing house. I wrote two chapters for the SQL Server XML Distilled and never got a single comission check from either CurlingStone (AKA WROX) before they went bankrupt or APress after the book was republished. I've contacted them twice and I was always told they would "send me a check".

I've made more on my Amazon link to the book (via Amazon Associates) than I have made on the actual sales ($0) of the book.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/7/2004 2:38 PM DonXML Demsak

Bryant, Have you contacted Gary at APress? I know that the situation with Wrox was a real mess, but IMHO Gary is very professional, and always got back to me promptly. Thankfully, one of the book offers I turned down was with Curlingstone.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/7/2004 5:34 PM paul

The Record Companies became the Recording Industry and MP3's became a phenomena. Book publishers appeal to authers vanity and the perception that a “book” brings recognition, but we are about to turn the page and launch the ebook.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/8/2004 5:08 PM Joe Duffy

As Paul hinted at, I think the situation's very similar in the recording industry today, albeit a couple steps further along. Tools to create and distribute tunes are becoming more prevalent, and the ease with which new artists can get their music out there w/out the overhead of recording deals and expensive recording fees is getting better all the time.

There's one critical dimension that I think is overlooked, though. Buying from reputable publishing firms - Addison Wesley, for instance - provides for a level of trust between the seller and buyer. Yes the situation that you're describing might be better for the content creator, but will it really improve the experience for the reader? It would take more time to verify the integrity of the book author, and probably lead to frustrating purchases that fail to deliver (sans some third party willing to review and vouch for certain publications). Some areas might improve as well, however, such as more up to date books, wider array of selections, and perhaps cheaper prices (especially if the option to purchase digitally is offerred).

Just a couple thoughts.

# Geek Notes 2004-05-10 5/10/2004 9:53 AM Geek Noise

# Four Times Tidbitten 5/10/2004 10:22 AM Neopoleon.com

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 10:40 AM Mike Gunderloy

You left out entirely the costs of the people whose job it is to edit the author's words into actual English, to make sure everything flows logically, and to make sure that screenshots and diagrams are legible. Those are tasks at which many authors are very, very bad. Self-edited books are usually pretty awful.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 10:50 AM DonXML

Mike, Very good point, and this is exactly the type of feedback I'm looking for. Yes, I agree with you that I left it out, but it was on purpose. I think it is up to the author to determine if they need the different editors, and if so what type and how much. The same is true of reviewers. And, publishers don't always use quality editors or reviewers. So I left it up to the author to decide if they needed these services.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 11:16 AM DonXML

In thinking about this topic some more, I guess what I'm trying to say is that before you sign with a publisher, make sure you try to quantify the value that they add to your book, and not just use a publisher because that is what everyone does. Every situation is different, and they don't all require the same solution.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 11:37 AM Darrell

I'm not an author myself, but from a buyer's perspective, the stuff Mike Gunderloy talks about is crucial.

It is a shame that publishers do not provide *graphic* support for books in addition to the editorial support. Take a look at the first Scrum book by Schwaber for example. All the graphics are amateurish at best, which in no way reflects on the rest of the book.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 11:45 AM Larry O'Brien

Quality of most POD (Print-On-Demand) books is lower than what you expect to find in a bookstore. Specifically, the covers are flimsy and the binding (especially on a 600-page book) is usually weak.

If you have a strong belief that you'll sell more than a thousand or so books, risking an an offset run will give you a significantly lower cost-per-unit and higher quality.

Other than that, your analysis is spot-on. For that matter, throw in this additional thought: If you self-publish and have a success, you'll be in a very good bargaining position for your second edition if you think that a publisher could give you the "next level" in distribution and marketing. If, on the other hand, you publish a first-edition with a publisher, they _will_ have a short press run, throw it against the wall, and only if it sells well with little more marketing than you could provide yourself will they invest more money in marketing it and producing a second edition.

Self-publishing (or some form of coop publishing, which is something I've been mulling over) is absolutely the way to go.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 12:21 PM DonXML

Coop publishing is definitely the way to go, and I think that was the original idea behind APress, but at some point they crossed the line and became more like your typical publisher. But I think that all has to do with overhead, and trying to manage it.

I think it is about time for a coop publisher, especially for those niche market books, like SVG, XSLT, XForms.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 1:20 PM Randy

I went POD with iUniverse for my book - their hardcover and paperback is right in line with what I've seen/ordered from bookstores, but I'm around 250 pages. They are sorta on the expensive size, but all of the POD publishers seem to be in the same price range these days... if you can offer it, at all, which many fulltime authors cannot.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 1:25 PM mike

Gunderloy is right about editing and general publishing quality; you can see the difference in articles that are propped by the author vs those that get professional editing and production, like MSDN (as one example).

The imprint of a respected publisher does mean something, FWIW. For example, APress publishes good books, so the APress brand on a book can tell you that it's probably a reliable, quality book. Same for Addison-Wesley and others. As noted, however, without a significant number of potential buyers, a publisher probably will not take on a project.

As for eBooks, Scott Mitchell and Dan Appleman had an interesting conversation about the economics of eBooks (http://scottonwriting.com/sowblog/posts/314.aspx) in which the conclusion was that not yet ready for prime time. But it still seems like a good idea, even if the distribution channels haven't quite figured out the best way to deal with them.

# Graphic Support for Books 5/10/2004 6:21 PM Adam Kinney on .NET

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/10/2004 8:02 PM Bob Arnson

I've written, edited, and tech-edited, for both books and magazines. *Every* time a professional editor touched my copy, it's gotten better, at least overall. (There are bad edit jobs, but that's what revision tracking and version control are for.)

Tech reviewers are good, too. "With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow," after all. Sometimes just one more pair of eyes is all it takes.

This isn't a point in favor of publishers, BTW. Most editors that work for publishers are free-lance and would just as happily take your money as a publisher's. You can probably get tech reviewing done by local user group buddies or co-workers. The point is: If you're going to charge the same as the big publishers, readers are going to expect the same quality -- better, really, if they realize that you're getting more of they money.<g>

# Why Shouldn't Authors self publish 5/10/2004 9:30 PM Mind Tracks

DonXML Demsak of Grok This asks Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish?...

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/11/2004 12:57 AM Swaroop

This is a very interesting discussion indeed. I have written a free online book titled 'A Byte of Python' (http://www.python.g2swaroop.net) and I want to look forward to a print edition of the book.

One reason that I fret to approach a big publishing house is that they are known for taking undue advantage of yet-unknown ;-) authors like me. I am not pointing out anybody but this is my take on the subject.

With regards to getting it proofread, I am extremely happy to say that most of my readers do it for me! Once I received a mail from a reader that there is an extra space between a word and the dot on such and such line.....

Also, interested readers are now translating the book out of their own interest to Icelandic, Danish and Spanish.

In summary, e-books have their own advantages and disadvantages. Of course, I haven't made any money from the book *yet*. But consider 'Dive Into Python', it became very popular as an online book and was then published in print by APress. Similarly, I came across a book called OpenOffice.org XML Essentials in association with O'Reilly in a similar situation.....

Is this the new way of the publishing industry?

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/11/2004 7:08 AM Jonathan Gennick

Your question is a fair one. Just printing a book used to be a big deal, but now it's within reach of pretty much anyone, so the physical aspects of printing books aren't the compelling reason to use a publisher that they once were.

When I think about what a publisher has to offer, distribution is the first thing that comes to mind. Distribution drives sales. I've three friends and acquaintences who have self-published. To my knowledge, none of them has gone to a second printing. The one who does best is the one who spends time driving all over the Upper Penninsula to get his books (and his music CDs) into gas stations, gift shops, and other places where tourists will find them. He spends a LOT of time doing his own distribution. He's profitable, but he works hard at it.

Publishers also bring editing and book design skills to the table. These are more important than many might first think. Some of the self-published books I have aren't all that enjoyable to read.

Having said all of the above, and having written several books published by mainstream publishers, I'm intrigued by the idea of self-publishing. If I weren't employed by O'Reilly Media, I'd be very tempted to give self-publishing a go on one of my next books.

Lastly, a bit of self-disclosure: I work full-time as a computer-book editor, so you may want to take my comments with an appropriately sized grain of salt.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/11/2004 8:19 AM Jonathan Gennick

Actually, it would be more accurate of me to say that if ever O'Reilly balked at publishing one of my books, that's when I'd consider self-publishing. I get on very well with my O'Reilly editor (yes, even editors get edited), and I'm really quite happy to have O'Reilly covers on my books.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/11/2004 8:20 AM Tim O'Reilly

Let me second Jonathan's comments.

As a self-published author who grew into a publishing house, I certainly agree that it can be done. But when you do it, you no longer have time to be an author, because of all the other things that being a publisher entails -- from choosing and editing possible books by other authors to book production, inventory management, sales, marketing, distribution, collecting payment from customers, and the like.

The internet changes some of the dynamics, but far fewer of them than you might think.

You have only to look at the web to see the recapitulation of the history of print publishing. In only ten years, we went from a level playing field where the democratizing technology of the web made everyone equal to one where people pay marketing folks to get their web content listed appropriately on Yahoo! and Google. In short, we've seen the evolution of giant "publishers" like Yahoo!, CNet and the like; IBM Developerworks is as large a publisher of technical content as any book publisher. Why don't those authors just write for their own web site? In my essay, "<a href="http://www.openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2002/12/11/piracy.html">Piracy is Progressive Taxation</a>", I draw some lessons from book publishing for the music industry. Point 5 in particular addresses the question "why publishers."

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/11/2004 9:06 AM Chris Sells

Don't forget the cost of a good copy editor or someone to do the indexing. I don't know how much the former costs, but AW likes to charge me $500 for the later. Also, publishers do advertise the book, both in magazine ads and at tradeshow booths. And, you should ping Dan Appleman, who's done some electronic self-publishing.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 5/12/2004 5:33 AM Randy

With that being said, Tim, how would O'Reilly feel about a Geek-related fictional anthology? *wink wink* *nudge nudge* :)

# New Book 5/30/2004 8:54 PM K. Scott Allen's Blog

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 7/25/2004 10:38 PM Andreas Duess

I part own a self publishing service in the UK, called 'Publish and be damned'. We have been in existence three months now and already three authors have published technical manuals with us.
When we first launched we thought thought that the majority of our clients would be novelists and such but it looks like the non fiction market is just as strong, if not stronger.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 9/5/2004 6:24 PM William (Bill) Vaughn

I've done both. I took my first book to MS Press and was turned down. I also hired an agent who could not place the manuscript. I got so many requests from MCS people I decided to self-publish. I used "tape" binding and 8.5x11 format with my own editing. It was pretty shabby by my standards today, but it sold very well. The problem I found is that bookstores wanted me to send them a dozen copies on "spec". If they sold, they would send me money, if they didn't I was supposed to "buy back" the books. I chose not to play that game (and in those days the Internet was not yet a viable channel). I sold (cash in advance) about 50 a week to companies and individuals all over the world. I sold one into Hong Kong and not another one into the orient (for some reason). I had a bookstore in the UK that paid to ship them to New York where he freighted them overseas. I made about $20 a book which is far more than the $1.50-$2.00 I make from bigger publishers. Many of my sales were by word-of-mouth recommendations and from exposure at trade shows. I got on with MS Press and Apress. Both of these had issues and didn't always follow through on marketing and promotion. Quite a bit of the price disappeared behind a complex set of royalty schedules and hold-back accounts. MS Press still owes me $6000 or so for books that haven't been selling for 3 years.
I think self-publishing can be a great way to get your foot in the door. I would spend the extra money on better binding, but not on the first book. The printing houses will want to make a big print run (several thousand books) and if you don't have the cash to invest (bet), you might just print enough for this month's projected sales. That way you can make changes as the technology evolves. Publishing electronically never has appealed to me but that's another alternative.
As a point of reference, I just finished my 9th book with Addison Wesley (the jury is still out) and I'm starting on my 10th.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 10/11/2004 3:30 PM Minh T. Nguyen

I recently self-published "Visual Studio .NET Tips and Tricks" (see http://www.enderminh.com) via POD-service lulu.com, and here are my thoughts.

- The good thing about self-publishing is that you are on your own and can decide your own price, format, and schedule. I've written this book over a period of more than a year, simply because I am awfully busy in my daily life. Publishers usually have very strict timelines which in my opinion can degrade the work if you are running from one conference to another. My book is also not very long (only 122 pages), which most publishers don't accept, but with self-publishing, hey it's your decision.

- The bad thing about self-publishing is that you are on your own. ;) So you have to do all the work yourself, from cover design, formatting, research and to hiring a copyeditor, indexer and doing your own promotion. That's all not that much work. The biggest problem with POD is that this doesn't bring your book into physical bookstores. However, I disagree that POD quality is bad. In fact, I can't see a difference from my book than another book I would find at Barnes and Nobles.

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 10/12/2004 8:09 AM Douglas Lyon

I love the idea of self publishing.
But what about marketing?
We have a PrenHall representitive who sends
e-mail to her region. PrenHall must have 100's of
reps sending 1000's of e-mails. They also
send out 100's of desk copies and we get
adoptions from various universities.

Now, the coop idea sounds like it will poor marketing
resources. But how much does GOOD marketing cost?

A single page ad in Java developers Journal could run upwards
of $1500. Can a coop afford this kind of advertisement?

# re: Why Shouldn’t Authors Self-Publish? 10/12/2004 9:15 AM Sebastien St-Laurent

I think self publishing can work good in niche markets. Such markets have limited marketing channels and it should be easier to get a bigger bang-for-the-buck than for a mass market type book.

Obviously, with self-publishing, you will make more money per-book. The key i think is to invest some of the return (and probably a little money upfront) into marketting. But the way i feel with my current publishing deals is that i still have to do my own marketting even with the measely 1-2$ i get per copy sold.

As for getting books into retail stores, there is a few issues. Especially with POD, it seems like the problem retail stores have isn't the quality of the print (I think it can be hard to tell the difference with a good POD company) but the fact that most POD's don't have a return policy. This means a big financial risk for the store as if the book doesn't sell, then they are stuck with the inventory.

However, some PODs such as Lighning Source allows you to permit returns which should go a long way into giving a book a chance to be picked up by retail outlets (with a little convincing and PR of course).




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