All I want is the perfect publishing model

self-publishingI need to decide how to publish my upcoming book Writing Without Bullshit. Here’s what I want from a publishing model: everything. I’m not going to get it, of course. But you can help me figure out which imperfect model is best.

So far I don’t have a book, I have an outline. I’ll finish the manuscript by December. And I have a host of promotional assets, starting with this blog, which thanks to all of you, receives 40,000 views per month. So, here’s what I’d like out of a publishing partnership:

  • Publish as soon as possible. I’ll need to copyedit the book, lay out the pages, and print it, of course. So let’s publish in February of 2016.
  • Complete editorial control. Don’t mess with my content. Especially, don’t change the title.
  • Distribute the book everywhere — Amazon.com, eBook channels, bookstores, and airports.
  • Pay me up front. Don’t make me pay to get the book published.
  • Give me the maximum possible royalty per book.
  • You worry about printing and inventory and warehousing, so I don’t have to.
  • Maximize my chances of having a breakaway hit and like, totally becoming a famous author guy.

This, of course, is impossible. But it’s interesting to look at three possible publishing models and see what I get and what I have to give up in each one. I’ll look at traditional publishing, self-publishing on Amazon, and working with a publishing services company augmented by Kickstarter.

Traditional publishing: fast money, slow process

To go this path, I would complete my book proposal in August, send it to my agent, and he would shop it around major publishers in September.

What I get: This is the only option that pays up front, in the form of an advance. It’s the best option for broad distribution. The publisher pays for and manages all that “stuff” that authors forget they need to do: layout, copyediting, cover, foreign rights, and even some promotion.  In my opinion, this option maximizes the chance of it being a hit.

What I give up: Forget February. Traditional publishing is more likely to get me a book in November. While I get that nice advance, if the book is a big hit, the royalty rate is only 10 to 15% of cover price, and it pays out very slowly.

Risks: I might not get a publishing deal at all. And If I do, publishing is a partnership, which means you get an editor who either helps you or meddles with your content, depending on your perspective. We could fight over everything from the cover to the word choices. (The book title is non-negotiable, and the publishers will know that when they bid on it.)

Self-publishing: fast process, weak long-term prospects

Hire a content editor as a sounding board and complete the manuscript. Pay for services like layout, cover, and copyediting myself. Publish the book around February 2016 through Amazon as a print-on-demand paperback and ebook.

What I get: Complete editorial control and the fastest path to publishing. And a very high royalty rate of 45% to 55% of cover price (but paperback books have lower list prices).

What I give up: This option limits distribution to Amazon.com. That vastly reduces the chances of having a huge hit. While print-on-demand paperbacks are pretty nice, they’re not as nice as a hardback. And I figure there would be up-front costs of about $15,000 for all the services I need to buy, instead of an advance. Not only that, I’d need to spend my time managing all those resources.

Risks: I’d have to do all my own promotion. And even if the book is successful, it’s harder to translate that success into speeches and consulting on a self-published book. In the end, sales would be lower than in the traditional model, so I’d get less money overall. (It’s possible, of course, that such a book would get picked up by a publisher later, but only if it’s very successful.)

Publishing services company plus Kickstarter: High risk

You can hire a company like Greenleaf Book Group or IdeaPress Publishing to produce a hardback book for you and even get it into distribution. But you have to pay for everything, even manufacturing the books.

This made me wonder: could I fund that cost with Kickstarter? I’d get a bunch of you (hundreds?) to pony up $20, $50 or more to get the book early. My backers fund the book; I give them a special early edition. They then help me promote the book.

What I get: A hardback book, editorial control, and a moderate royalty rate. While a company like Greenleaf pays 35% of cover price in royalties, twice what  traditional publisher would pay, you need to subtract the cost of printing and shipping from that. That reduces the effective royalty rate to 20% or 25%. You also get one company to manage the copyediting, manufacturing, warehousing, and so on, which reduces the overhead. Finally, you can get into bookstores this way, although these publishing services companies don’t have the clout of a big publisher.

What I give up: This process is a lot slower than print-on-demand, so it would be tough to get an actual pub date before June of 2016. With less push, it’s a lot harder to be a breakaway hit. And I won’t get paid up front (unless Kickstarter is a huge success).

Risks: The big risk is Kickstarter, because if I don’t reach my funding goal there, I’m on the hook for at least $25,000 in costs. And if Kickstarter does succeed, managing the customer service aspect is a huge pain, as I’ve learned from talking to others who have published there.

The chart below summarizes my options. Look, I know you want the book soon (and the hell with the risk to me). But I’m very interested in your perspective on my choices. Leave me a comment about it.

publishing options

Graphic: From my post on self-publishing options

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  1. Well, I’d say you can cross traditional publishing off the list entirely, Josh. Having heard stories of authors (people I know personally) going through all sorts of gyrations and expense to regain the rights to their traditionally published books, I’d avoid it entirely.

    You seem like a guy who wants to own his own stuff, and do so without BS. Then you don’t want to sign up for a life of BS lack of control do you? Honestly, that’s what you get with traditional publishing.

    It has its place in the world, but not with you personally. Oh boy, sounds like I think I know you pretty well, right? Well, it doesn’t take a psychic to know a guy whose MO is no BS shouldn’t go traditional. It’s just logical, at least to me.

    1. I appreciate the very honest comment.

      I have worked with traditional publishers on four of the five books I wrote or edited. I had a pretty good experience in all of those cases. As long as you set your expectations properly, they are the best choice for broad distribution and paying up front.

      But it is a deal with the devil, just as you say.

      1. Josh, here’s the thing…. If the money up front is what you want (not a bad thing) then selling your book may be worth the endless BS and all the promotional work you have to do “for them.”

        But if you’re in it for building your credibility as a thinker and writer and blogger and speaker, etc. then handing/selling people a trad published book is like an eco-conscious person driving up in a gas-guzzler. There’s an immediate, unspoken disconnect. It unbrands you immediately, IMO.

        I guess you can see I have a lot of strong opinions! Thanks for offering a NO BS place to share them, Josh.

  2. Your table is focused on what’s best for *you*, not what’s best for *the book*. (Not surprising, that – snicker.)

    You didn’t include an “credibility” line in the table, and I think there are important differences there. Frankly speaking, much of the audience you want to reach needs the seal of approval of a major publisher. While your personal brand is strong in a niche, I think it’s not strong enough to overcome the perception of “if these ideas are so good, why couldn’t he get a real publisher?” in the broader market.

    Also, it will do wonders for the validity of “bullshit” as a term to have it in the title of a book from a major imprint.

    Finally, I don’t see that your desire to publish quickly is grounded in an actual marketplace need. The topic is evergreen and nobody is going to beat you to market with a better book on the same topic.

  3. My agent shopped around to traditional publishers – large and small, and independent ones with more interesting models that were in alignment with the topic of my book (a memoir about my career/personal path in fighting corporations and big box stores) and we ended up accepting a deal with a small indie publisher and negotiating a good contract with all editing done in house, at their expense, with me retaining all editorial control. They are small enough to work hand and hand with me, and care about my success because theirs depends on it, too. I didn’t get an advance but we negotiated a good royalty fee. This is my first published book and hopefully not my last. I wanted to work with a publisher that would guide me through the process but not take advantage of me being green to the industry.
    A friend of mine went the self-published ebook, print-on-demand way and has spent upwards of $12,000 on her book. I have spent zero dollars and have had the luxury of being able to meet with my editor in person and discuss the direction of the book. I trust my editor and publisher because we have a good relationship. Maybe a smaller, independent, no bullshit publisher with the know-how to no bullshit with you is a better choice?

  4. Who is the audience for your book? If it is the web savvy people who read your blog, then I think Kickstarter is the best route. We’ll fund your book in exchange for early access or other low hassle perks. Many people see Kickstarter as a tool for promotion rather than just funding (seeing a successful campaign gets new people interested), so the Kickstarter route is a route to a breakout hit among people who use the internet.

    If your audience is English teachers or business professionals, then Eric is probably right. A traditional publisher will give your book credibility among those people. I don’t think you should target them, but if you do, traditional is the best way.

    1. Great thought, Tim – I hadn’t connected the question to target customer. I had been presuming that it was business professionals (that is, the people whom I need this book for to batter them with.) But maybe I’m wrong on that.

  5. Josh,
    I missed your main goal. Do you want it to make you money most – or make you credible/famous? Or change the world? Or get the “street cred” that comes with another publisher backed work?

    I’ve done Kickstarter (not for books). Totally possible to make an impact / change lives and make money and get street cred (Kickstarter famous).

    I’ve helped publish a few books (hard back coffee table book and soft back marketing book). The motivations for these books are different.

    And it seems any publisher will pick up good work once you have proven yourself. IE Permission Marketing – Godin. Publishers want homeruns and to do the least amount of work possible (from what I understand).

    So, what is the one thing you really want out of all this?

      1. Good goal.
        I think you’ll have to decide how scrappy you want to be. A Traditional publisher will have “more” legs for venues (including the airports), but their are fees there too for face-outs, visibility etc, and you’ll still have to be a seller. Not matter what you’re going to have to push and peddle.

        So, there is this. How can you increase the likeliness of your target audience seeing and therefor buying your book? Is it airports? Or email lists? If you self-publish and partner with people that have lists for revenue share you could potentially sell through more books than via the traditional publisher. It seems the biggest pushes all include some stunts. What will your stunts be? And does that play well with your traditional publisher or not?

        Also, earlier I intended to reference Idea Virus not Permission Marketing.

        Lastly, if you want to get as many books out there as possible – you’ll have to market like hell. No matter if you self-pub or have a traditional pub. So the work load wont decrease under the traditional model.

        The companion post to this post should be about how you can increase engagement and exposure for your book. What channels you can/should develop yourself, how to grow your audience now before the book is ready, and how to gain interest and pre-sells now. Then figure out which outlet works best knowing the support you have.

        Or, do a Robert Collier and direct sell them before you ever even write it : )

        Nice decision flows and graphics by the way.

  6. So interesting to see this laid out so clearly. I’m a publishing services provider myself – I guess option 3 is nearest what I provide (though both my terms and my turnaround are better than you have here!) – but here are a few additional thoughts to consider as you weigh up the options:
    1. control of the files (both print and ebook), important for corrections/updates/new editions – a vote for self-publishing unless you can be sure your partner will let you have copies of the files and a non-exclusive relationship;
    2. control of and ability to exploit rights – this is something larger traditional publishers are usually good at, make sure if you go with a smaller publisher that they either give you free rein with translation and other rights or, if they reserve those rights, that they have a solid plan for exploiting them.
    3. ability to buy copies at cost and sell them direct – traditional publishers usually give you a decent discount on your own book, although it’s way above cost of manufacture, and of course if you’re self-publishing this is a given, but read the small print of any publisher carefully or you could find yourself paying well over the odds and/or handing over revenue for sales you make yourself.
    For me the biggest risk with self-publishing isn’t so much the time but the impact on brand, which you don’t mention here: your book is a proxy for you, and to reflect well on you it needs to have professional editorial, design and production values. And that’s hard if you’re not a professional publisher.
    Thanks for a really interesting piece – hope those extra thoughts are helpful!