Whether you’re crafting the latest, greatest crime novel or inspiring children with magical worlds that fire the imagination, the actual mechanics of getting any book published have become far more accessible in recent years through the massive progress made in self-publishing – also called independent publishing or indie publishing. Once pursued by only the most daring and determined authors, self-publishing has embraced the new print-on-demand and ebook technology, enabling almost any author to get their work out into the world. While self-publishing may seem like an obvious shortcut between writing your final page and seeing your work in print, success requires considerably more effort and input after you’ve typed ‘The End’. You may therefore be weighing up the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing as the former will require a considerable cash outlay and a lot of work, and the latter will rob you of control and ownership of your book, and yield low royalties unless your book is a best-seller – and even then, very few published South African authors are rich from writing.

In a nutshell, self-publishing is when the author funds the publishing of their book and takes on the marketing responsibility, using service providers to help edit, format, print and distribute the book. The author earns all income derived from the sale of the book. With traditional publishing, a publishing company agrees to publish the book after assessing its viability in the marketplace and then funds the production and printing of the book; they also take care of all the marketing and distribution. The author outlays no money and earns a royalty on sales made.

We have compiled a basic guide detailing the differences between these two publishing models so that you can hopefully make the right decision for your book. If you’re still not sure, or would like to explore the opportunities available for your specific book, you can book a publishing consultation with one of our experienced staff.

What you will earn

Self-publishing can offer good returns if the book does well. By making a financial investment in the book, you are entitled to all the profits from the sale of each book. By selling directly to your customers you can make anything from 50–70% of your retail price depending on your production and printing costs. But if you don’t sell your book, you could stand to make a great loss depending on how much you have invested. You also make very little selling through bookstores due to the high costs of the distribution chain and reduced economies of scale because of typically smaller print runs. So selling directly to your customers is key.

With traditional publishing you receive a royalty, which in South Africa is usually 10–15% of the trade price of the book. The trade price is the price bookstores pay the publisher for the book. The trade price usually equates to 60% of the retail price. Some publishers may pay a royalty based on even less: the trade price less distribution costs of roughly 15% – so a royalty calculated on 45% of the retail price.

Potential for success

Self-publishing offers you the opportunity to dictate your own success. The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. Your marketing efforts will not be wasted. You can continue to earn an income from your book for as long as you promote and sell it. Self-published books, even mediocre ones, can often have a longer life span than traditionally-published books because authors tend to promote their books long after publishers have abandoned it and moved on to the next title.

With traditional publishing you’re totally dependent on the publisher’s efforts. Publishers tend to heavily promote the books of their better-selling authors and may not put the same time and effort into your book. They also tend to spend just the first few months actively promoting any new title. Once the book has sold out, there’s very little chance of a reprint unless the book has been selling consistently. If you don’t have direct access to your target market or don’t feel comfortable marketing and promoting your book, the traditional route may be better for you if your book grabs the interest of a publisher.

Control

Self-publishing includes you in the production process and allows you to have input and control over the presentation and delivery of the end product.

Traditional publishing often excludes you from these decisions as publishers’ decisions are based on economic viability and what they believe will sell. While this makes perfect business sense from the publisher’s point of view, it is not necessarily compatible with the author’s vision for the book.

Ownership

Self-publishing allows you to retain full ownership of your book. You are free to publish your book anywhere in the world, in any form. There are no restrictions regarding the use of your content. In some instances you might also own the electronic files used to print the book and if that is the case, you are free to take those files elsewhere for printing. Quickfox Publishing grants authors this right since we offer our services on a ‘work-for-hire’ basis, which simply means: you’re paying for the work so you own it. But beware: many other author services or self-publishing companies do NOT work this way, particularly package-deal publishers. They catch you by saying that you own the original manuscript and anything you provide to them for production, but you do not own the cover design or book interior layout because their designers did that. If you choose to publish elsewhere, you need to start from scratch.

With traditional publishing the publisher owns all rights to the book for the duration of the publishing contract. During this period, you may not take the original manuscript or any parts of it and publish elsewhere unless this has been specifically written into the contract, and even then, it is likely that you will be restricted in how that material may be used. Once the contract has expired, you will again own the rights to the original content of the book, but the publisher will continue to own the copyright to the book in its published form (i.e. the look, design, layout, editing, as well as all the printing material and plates). Should neither party choose to renew the contract, the book’s files will be archived. If you decide to publish the book yourself, you have the option of starting production of the book from scratch using your original material, or you may be able to purchase the existing material from the publisher, for a fee. The latter is the preferred option as it works out very much cheaper than starting from scratch. You are advised to follow up with your publisher the moment your contract expires and either renew your contract or obtain the print files from your publisher while they’re still likely to have them. The longer you wait, the greater the risk of not finding the original files – your publisher may go out of business or get taken over by another publisher.

Getting published

Self-publishing allows your dreams of seeing your book in print become a reality – no hassles, no fuss, no rejections. However, any good and reputable author services company will make recommendations on what needs to be done to your book to make it a professional and marketable product. If you are serious about successful self-publishing and about producing a book that will be accepted by bookstores and book marketers, it is essential that you invest in professional book production. While you may not notice the difference between a low-cost self-published book and one produced by a professional publishing or author services company, people in the book trade certainly will. The downside to self-publishing is that just about anyone can publish a book – even a terrible one – simply by accessing some of the free services available online.

With traditional publishing it is very difficult to have a book accepted, and even a good book may never see the light of day. With fierce competition, and the high cost of production and distribution, publishers have become extremely selective about what they take on and will only accept books they know will sell. They also work to very strict budgets and these budgets are normally worked out a year or two in advance. Also, some publishers may funnel the bulk of their budget towards specific genres for the year – those that have shown an uptrend globally. Your manuscript may unfortunately fall into the ‘wrong’ genre or appeal to too small a target market to make traditional publishing viable. Well-known South African publishers receive a couple of hundred manuscripts a month while overseas book agents have been receiving up to 1000 manuscripts a month (each!). Your manuscript has to compete and prove economically viable.

Time and effort

Self-publishing requires a lot of hard work, especially when it comes to marketing and distribution. The commercial distribution chain is not geared towards the author publishing independently so most of your sales will have to be generated through your own efforts and sales made directly to your customers. You will also need to explore other channels, including online stores, third-parties who already have easy access to your target market, and specialist stores who won’t mind you approaching them directly. If you don’t have the time and effort to put into marketing and promoting your book, this route will likely prove unsuccessful.

With traditional publishing the author has none of these headaches. The publisher has the resources, volumes, contacts and marketing experience to get the book ‘out there’ and selling. Furthermore, traditional publishers have a broader book-buying market that they can appeal to, including international agencies and distributors, which the self-publishing author most likely won’t have.

Financial risk

Self-publishing carries financial risk as there will be production and printing costs to cover. South Africa has a small book-reading market when compared to the rest of the world and a book that sells between 3500 and 5000 copies in South Africa is considered a best-seller! If you’re not a self-motivated and entrepreneurial author, your financial risk is even greater as the likelihood of moving the volume of books required to cover your production costs is greatly reduced. If you invest in professional production you will need to sell between 250 and 350 books directly to your customers to cover your costs.

With traditional publishing there is no financial risk for the author. The worst that can happen is that the book doesn’t sell and the author doesn’t make any money.

Quality

Self-publishing is often synonymous with poor quality. This is especially true when authors do not invest in professional editing and production. Good editing and cover design is an art, and the expression “you get what you pay for” is usually very apt when it comes to these services. Poor quality destroys credibility as well as customer trust and gives self-publishing a bad name.

With traditional publishing, editing and production standards are usually high and this builds customer confidence. Customers will buy what they believe they can trust, especially when choosing between two similar books on a bookstore shelf, one of which has been produced by a reputable brand.

In conclusion

Going the self-publishing route takes time and effort on the part of the author. While there are resources available to help you get your book into marketable shape, distribute and publicise it, much of the marketing and promotion is going to be up to you. Also remember that professional services don’t come cheap, so the more you can do to actively promote your book, the better!

Before committing to the independent route, it is recommended that you first book a publishing consultation with an expert to get a handle on the ins-and-outs of the industry, and to find out how you can make the most of the benefits self-publishing has to offer, thus maximising your chances of success.