The Great Book Publishing Question: Self-Publish or Use a Traditional Firm?

2 Apr , 2018  

This September I’ll be releasing my latest book—a guide to creating strong business presentations. You can read more about the project here.

Anyone who has written a book knows one of the big questions these days is how to publish. Should you work with a traditional publisher? Self-publish? Some combination?

Over the past several months, I’ve been working through this question. Here is what I’ve learned.

Traditional Publishers

Traditional publishers seem like the obvious choice. They bring credibility and production expertise, as well as marketing connections. Get a big publisher excited about your book and you are off to the races!

Having done three books now with traditional publishers (Breakthrough Marketing Plans, Defending Your Brand, and Kellogg on Branding), I realize that the decision isn’t so clear.

When you work with a traditional firm, you turn over full control. The publisher picks the cover, the price, the formatting and the schedule. The publisher can even discontinue the book whenever they want. Sometimes the publishing house will do a nice job with the production, and other times they won’t. Palgrave did a great job with my book Defending Your Brand  but a painfully feeble one with the first edition of Breakthrough Marketing Plans.

In return, you get a small percent of the net price (not the retail price—the net price). So on a $20 book this might be $1. If you work with an agent, you give up a meaningful share of this. You get the book produced at no cost, and you receive a small advance payment that you have to pay off through the royalties. You also get a bill for things like creating an index.

In terms of marketing support, for almost all business books the marketing is pretty much up to you. The publisher doesn’t do a lot.

The reality is that most business books only sell a few copies. A very successful book might sell 5,000 copies. With a cover price of $20, that is total revenue of $100,000. The retailer might take 50% of this, which leaves $50,000. Warehousing and distribution then takes 25% of this amount, leaving $37,500. If you assume a printing cost of $3 per book, you are down to $22,500. This has to cover editing, design and marketing. There just isn’t much money to work with at that point, so publishers won’t invest much in promoting your book. They can’t. The author does the marketing.


Self-publishing is a very different model. You own the production process, the distribution process and all the earnings. You have full control over the final product. If you want to print with gold trim, you can print with gold trim. You’ll probably lose money on every book you sell, but that is up to you.

The problem with self-publishing is that you have to do all the work: design, naming, production. And who has time for all this? It also has a bit of a stigma.

My Decision

For my book on presenting, I decided that neither option was too appealing. I didn’t want to produce the book myself—I have nightmares about books stacked up in my garage. I also didn’t want to give up control. As a branding person, I know that details matter, and you really want to retain control of your material.

So I decided to go with a hybrid publisher. I signed on to work with Page Two Strategic Publishing out of Vancouver. The firm was started by publishing industry veterans. We have a bit of a blended arrangement: Page Two does the editing, design, production, distribution and some marketing. I provide funds up front and retain ownership of the work.

Things are going very well so far. The book is going through the editing process, we are considering names and cover designs and the marketing efforts are taking shape. I’m excited about our progress.

More updates to come!


3 Responses

  1. Linda R. says:

    Congratulations on the upcoming release! I am investigating options for book #2 now. Your piece is very well timed. Thank you.

  2. Angie Mord says:

    Very interesting. I never considered the details of the descision of the price that it took to have it traditionally published.

  3. emitahill says:

    Fascinating. And my experience with the traditional publisher was exactly as you described and my hesitation at taking on all those responsibilities to self-publish my next book is close to crippling. Is your solution one only appropriate to books in your field? Love to talk with you about this.

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