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Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

teacup on books

A few weeks ago, I published a book of poetry called Dirt Girl (buy it here). It's actually my third forray into the world of self-publishing (my previous two books are available on Amazon as well), and I've been asked a number of times why I decided to self-publish. My reasons are outlined below, but they all boil time to two reasons: time and money.

From 2011 to 2016, I attended a school called Bradley University in Peoria, IL. Bradley is a small, private Division 1 institution and I was only there because I'd earned a scholarship to run. My senior year, I suffered an injury that put me out for the season. With an extra year of athletic eligibility and a completed English degree, I wasn't sure what to do. I decided to pursue a Master's (also in English), cramming a two year degree into a year and a half. One of my favorite professors was Dr. Susan Brill de Ramirez. She was a bit quirky, remarkably smart, and always happy to chat over a strong cup of coffee. In one of her classes during my final year at Bradley, she had us all write, edit, and publish ebooks. We were all skeptical and the English department at large rolled their eyes. What was the point? we all asked each other, when we really should have been asking what the point was in reading 1890's literature or writing long essays our professors never read.

My ebook was about learning to manage time as a college athlete. My peers wrote about baseball, knitting, business, teaching, whatever they had experience doing. We learned how to write in a style that made an ebook compelling, how to edit them, how to format, publish, price, and market them. Dr. Brill was looking forward while the rest of us were simply looking down.

With the knowledge I gained in her class, I felt empowered to keep creating books. Here is why I decided to self-publish.

  1. Money: Not many people go out of their way to read poetry, and getting a book deal in any genre is notoriously hard. Even some poetry journals have fees to simply submit work, and I'd be lying if I claimed to read any journal with regularity. In traditional publishing, money (and not necessarily very much of it) flows toward the author, because the author is not the only one involved. There is an agent to pay, a publisher, and the cost of design/layout, as well as marketing/promotions (although most publishers don't do much marketing anymore, either). The best way to land a book deal is to be famous already (but how many more celebrity memoirs do we need?) because publishing houses expect authors to help market their books. Bonus points if you have a large social media following or online presence. For every paperback book I sell (priced at $12.99), I make nearly $6. At a traditional publisher, this ratio would be much smaller, and who knows if I'd sell a greater volume of books to make up the difference. From a traditional publisher, you can expect anywhere from seven to twelve percent. From a money standpoint, I expected to be ahead by going the self-publishing route.

  2. Time: In addition to a low likelihood that my book would ever be accepted by traditional publishers, I also didn't care to wait. It can take up to a year for a book agent to respond, and frankly, I could sell a lot of books on my own in a year. In addition, I'd have to hunt down agents, send out samples of my manuscript, and do a whole lot of work without knowing if it would ever pay off. Instead, I spent that time editing (and re-editing, and re-editing), formatting, editing some more, designing a cover, ordering proofs and (you guessed it) editing again. Because I published with Amazon, I was able to create an ebook, paperback, and hardcover, and the paperback is available on Prime, so it's delivered within two days. The ebook is available immediate, of course.

There are some downsides to self publishing, and they're not insignificant. First and foremost, I have to be the one to tell people about my book. The responsibility of marketing falls squarely on my shoulders, which is my least favorite aspect of the entire self publishing process. There is also a certain prestige associated with gaining a publisher, although that prestige is slowly deteriorating. Blogging used to be considered low-brow writing, but many bloggers are fairing far better than folks writing for large publications. The internet is changing the publishing world, for better or for worse. And lastly, self-published books probably won't end up in Barnes and Noble. Those spots on the tables by the door are reserved for publishers who pay handsomely to have their books front and center, face up. If you do decide to self-publish, you will be exchanging potential shelf space for the entire, bottomless world of the internet.

P.S. Read more about traditional vs. self-publishing on this forum, or that forum. Buy the absolute best spiral bound journal here, or buy your favorite teacher or writer these fun writing dice.


Sarah Rose

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