Self-publish or go with a big house? Not either/or anymore. Or, as you work, so shall you publish.

Four Views of a Book Press

Flickr photo by 802

Just stumbled across this rather caustic overview of the publishing industry from Mark Hurst. (It’s from 2008, so not recent.) Mark’s got a particularly cynical outlook about most (not all!) publishing houses.

He seems to be upset that the publishers aren’t risk-takers. Well, hello, until a few years ago these folks were running around with leather elbow patches on their herringbone sport coats! These folks aren’t bungee-jumpers! And Mark seems upset that these folks want a certain guarantee that a book is going to sell. Well, they are in business. They want to make money. Anyway, you could go on and on. Mark has some valid points. He does feel the publishers take too big a cut of the revenue given what they add to the process. That may or may not be true. For some folks, having the imprimatur of a big publishing house has a value above and beyond sales of books. But it does seem that he was overly disappointed by the whole experience of trying to work with publishers. It’s probably worth asking him what he expected going in. That might explain a lot of what happened. As it turns out, he self-published his book, Bit Literarcy.

I don’t entirely agree with Mark’s presumption about why you write. He says you don’t do it for the money, and that’s true in the short term, but you should look at a published book, particularly a business book, in a longer-term way. It is your calling card for a speaking and/or consulting career. We still live in a world where “author/authority” means something. Authors have authority. People are willing to pay to hear someone who knows what they’re talking about, someone with information that will help them in their personal and/or business lives.

Whatever authorship means moving forward, I suspect that the world of publishing will be a lot like the world of work. Work-wise, people no longer have one career; they won’t spend their working life at one place. In the old days, someone would get out of college, find employment at a big company and hang in there until age 65, then left with a gold watch. Hard to imagine, but it happened. Well, in a similar way, many authors found a home with a big publishing house and then stayed with them to their mutual benefit for a long time. These days you may work for a big company for a while and then go off on your own and you may go work for another big company. There’s no one way; there’s no linear route. That’s the same for publishing these days, too.

Look at David Meerman Scott, who is one of the commenters at Mark Hurst’s blogpost. (Read all the way through the comments.)  He self-published a couple books, then went to a small publisher and then went to a big publisher, Wiley. Where he is now. He says that he sold more copies in two weeks with Wiley than he did in years with his self-published titles. But in the future he may well revert to self-publishing again. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has published all of her books with a big publishing house, but now she’s setting up a self-publishing operation called Pottermore.

All by way of saying there’s no one solution these days. You do what works best for you at any one time. The one thing that doesn’t change, though, is the marketing. That all falls on the shoulder of the author, whether she’s self-publishing or working with a traditional publisher. (This is one of the things that ticks off Mr. Hurst about the big publishers.) It’s not worth complaining about anymore. It just is. Look at this blog post from Michael Hyatt, chairman of Thomas Nelson Publishers. He lists four reasons why authors must take responsibility for their own marketing. He writes, “Yes, it is easier than ever to get a book into print, but it is more difficult than ever to sell it.”

If you’re going to self-publish, you need a following, you need people who are interested in what you have to say. That following doesn’t show up over night. I’ve heard Seth Godin say that you should give away your first book in digital form. As a way to attract an audience. If it’s good, it will spread. If it isn’t good, you’ll know soon. And that same audience is what the big publishers are looking for. Whichever way you go, you need your own audience.

Seth Godin’s advice to would-be authors. Here again, not recent, from 2006 in fact. But still relevant. Which I guess says something about how forward-thinking Seth is.

David Carnoy, a journalist at, has published a list of 25 things you need to know about self-publishing.


2 responses to “Self-publish or go with a big house? Not either/or anymore. Or, as you work, so shall you publish.

  1. Erik, I appreciate the even-handed treatment. Sometimes the contempt I’m hearing for traditional publishing is a little over the top.

    I’ve been trying to get interviews with rock bands for my upcoming book (“Business Lessons From Rock”) with mixed results. But I suspect I’d have better luck if I had a publishing name behind me. Yet the advantages of self-publishing are considerable.

  2. Erik Hansen

    Have you determined how you’re going to publish? Have you put together a proposal? Are you working with an agent? Or are you doing this on your own?