Would I self-publish?

A few weeks back, Dave Birch asked me if I’d publish my next book myself. I don’t think I would. I’m really happy with Karen Gettman and Jessica Goldstein at Addison Wesley, and I’ve convinced my co-authors for my next book that we should have a discussion about publishers.

So why am I happy with them, and what can you learn from that?

First, let me scope this by saying the New School is what they call a “big idea” book. This is in contrast to a lot of books in technology, which are, well, technology specific. The New School is a tech book, but it’s not a tech book in the way that “Mastering Office 97″ or “Teach yourself Haskel in 28 Days” are tech books.

Books like that are usually on a hard schedule. You need to get them done as the software ships. No one wants a copy of “Mastering Office 97″ anymore. If you get them done too soon, they don’t reflect the final program. Anyone writing such a book gets a lot more pressure than we did. (Jessica called me one day and said “you know, if you guys finally finish, we can release at RSA and your sales will be higher.”)

That advice “do this and your sales will be higher” is tremendously useful to any author not named “Rowling,” “King” or “Clancy.” However well an author may understand their audience, there are trends in publishing, and understanding those trends is far easier for a publisher who has people monitoring their sales and those of competitors.

When we were getting started, we wanted to write a book for executives, and call it “Security Decisions.” Several publishers rejected that proposal, because ‘executives don’t read,’ and if you look at Amazon SalesRank for a book on managing security that you like, you’ll see that that’s roughly borne out. (Yes, SalesRank is a bad indicator, but an easy one to use.) So we got effective market advice from our publisher.


The next thing authors get is financial support, either in the obvious form of an advance, or in that the publisher pays for printing, binding, warehousing and distribution in advance.

The final thing you get from a major publisher is channels, both domestic and international. I’ve seen the New School in Borders and Barnes and Noble. When there are trade events, my book tends to magically show up at the show bookstore, and I don’t have to do anything. Addison Wesley makes that happen without any effort from me. Cory Doctorow speaks out “In Praise of the Sales Force.”

Of course, for all of this, they extract a fee of about 80-90% of the sale price of the book. (See Mary Shaw and Tim O’Reilly for a breakdown.) That would make it hard to earn a living on the sales of technical books. If I werre writing to earn a living, I might choose differently. Then again, I said “if I were writing,” not “if I were selling books for a living.”

As an aside, in “Why There’s no Tip Jar” Charlie Stross writes, “If I put a Paypal tipjar on this blog, to take conscience money from folks who’ve downloaded a (cough) unauthorized ebook or two, the money would come to me, not to the publisher. And without the publisher those books wouldn’t exist: wouldn’t have been commissioned, wouldn’t have been edited, wouldn’t have been corrected and marketed and sold in whatever form filtered onto the unauthorized ebook market.”


If you still want to self-publish, check out 6 Ways to Publish Your Own Book. Otherwise, any good publisher will have a set of resources up for authors. Pearson’s is here.

[Update: and they copyedit & proofread your words!]

6 thoughts on “Would I self-publish?

  1. One thing I’ve noticed about publishers: A good publisher is very worthwhile, but a bad publisher is far worse than no publisher at all. I know some people who could tell horror stories about books that are never in stock, checks that are constantly “lost in the mail,” and nonexistent pre-press quality control.
    Obviously this shouldn’t be a concern if you go with a big name in the business, but a lot of people who are just starting out don’t have the name recognition to get noticed by a big publisher.

  2. David,
    It’s an interesting thought. I actually first met Karen in 1996 or 1997. I’m pretty sure I didn’t qualify as a “big name” then.
    I fully agree a bad publisher could be differently bad than self-publishing.

  3. > Barnes and Nobel … Addison Weslesy … Cory Doctrow
    Careful with the spelling Mr Shoestack.

  4. If I were writing a security book noaways (no risk of that!) what I’d want to maximize, in order, follows. They reflect my values; yours might be different.
    1) Benefit to the industry
    2) Benefit to my professional reputation
    3) Royalties
    If it was a net-net win to use a publisher, I would. If it was a net-net win to publish myself, I would. Of course the trick is knowing which is more likely in advance. The scales remain hugely tilted in favor of publishers, because they effectively buy shelf space in bookstores.
    There are other criteria which could drive the decision one way or the other. For example, if you require a royalty advance so you can take a sabbatical to write the book, then you go with a publisher. (Some, but not all, are reasonable if not generous with advances.)
    One thing you don’t want to do is let warm fuzzies drive your decision. I loved my acquisition and copy editors. It was clear they were “on my side” — warm, generous, willing to take up slack, empathetic. They did me favors above and beyond the call of duty. It was all genuine. But at the end of the day that didn’t sell any books because they didn’t personally control distribution of the book.
    Warning: If you publish yourself make sure you hire excellent editors. The best way to un-legitimize your book is to have typos, spelling and grammatical errors. But this is something you have to watch carefully even with a publisher. I wrote my own cover copy. Between my approval of the final draft and it reaching the printer, the publisher had replaced one correct word with an incorrect homonym.

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