Self-publishing your book: 5 benefits, 3 drawbacks

A member of staff reads a test book prin
A member of staff reads a test book printed from the "Books On Demand" Espresso book machine at the Blackwells bookstore in central London, on April 23, 2009. The service will offer the chance for customers to either produce their own books or print and bind any of over 60,000 books on the Blackwells system in around 5 minutes.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

As self-publishing costs drop and digital opportunities grow, many writers are avoiding traditional publishing houses.

Self-publishing can be an appealing option, but success is hard to come by.

While it's tempting, it's still tough to make a living on self-published works. Most of the books sell fewer than 150 copies, The New York Times reported earlier this year.

Guy Kawasaki, the co-founder of and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures, joined The Daily Circuit Thursday, Dec. 6. He co-wrote an upcoming book, "Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book." Author Lee Goldberg and Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab and Darby Creek, also joined the discussion.

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1. Higher royalty rates

"Royalty from a traditional publisher is 15-20 percent of net revenues," Kawasaki wrote for Kirkus Review. " Kindle ebooks, by contrast, pays a 35 percent or 70 percent. Apple pays 55 percent, and Barnes & Noble pays 65 percent. If you select Kindle's 70 percent royalty rate, remember that Amazon subtracts delivery charges for ebook files."

2. You can bypass traditional publishers

"The current digital revolution completely changed the face of publishing," Goldberg said. "Before, authors needed publishers simply to get their books to customers. Publishers controlled distribution. It was virtually impossible to get your books into brick and mortar bookstores and to shoulder the cost of producing those books... It is now possible for an author to be on the same footing as James Patterson, and Michael Connelly and Nora Roberts virtually for free."

3. You can be a control freak

"Think of it as artisinal publishing," Kawasaki said. "Instead of thinking of self-publishing and vanity publishing as perhaps a stigma, that my book was rejected by traditional publishers so I have to do it myself, you think of it as artisinal publishing. Instead of going to the Anheuser-Busch or the huge conglomerate traditional publisher, I wanted to do it in an artisinal way. I wanted to control the content, I wanted to control the cover, the interior design, the marketing of it."

4. Your book gets more time to catch on

"Books have a shelf life of 30 to 60 days in the brick and mortar store," Goldberg said. "The great thing about a digital book is the shelf is forever. It's a marathon, not a sprint. You have much longer to establish yourself there than you do in a brick and mortar book store."

5. You can control costs

Kawasaki said self-publishers can expect to pay $2,000 to $4,000 to produce the final product. Some authors have also found success on Kickstarter and Indiegogo getting initial financial support from fans.


1. Publishers already have a platform

When you go through a publisher, they have an established platform for you to launch from. Their connections to major publications make it easier to get your book publicized to larger audiences, Kawasaki said.

2. A "tsunami of swill" online

The ease of digital publishing is also a major drawback for writers trying to gain attention. "There's this tsunami of swill on Amazon now that it's harder and harder for readers to find a good book because there's so much to have to slog through," Goldberg said.

3. Publishers can make your book better

"I don't think a day will ever come when there aren't authors who believe that a good team, a good collaboration will benefit their book," Karre said. "There's an incentive structure built into the author-editor relationship in traditional publishing that you can't replicate in a self-publishing structure. The author isn't paying me; the company is paying me to make good bets on books. So when the author and I are working on a book, there's a tension there. I can say 'no' to the author and not feel that I'm not serving the author well... It's a different kind of relationship and I think that relationship is artistically valuable."


7 signs you are ready to self-publish (Damien G. Walter)

The joys and hazards of self-publishing on the web (New York Times)

Self-publishing is the new Internet gold rush (Digital Trends)

MPR News' Meggan Ellingboe contributed to this report.