In Defense Of Self-Publishing

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Back in 2009, I signed a contract to write a book. The book was published by php|architect, and was called The PHP Playbook. It was published in 2011. Being my first book, I assumed that going the route of a traditional publisher made sense, but after publishing a book this way, I opted for self-publishing for my next two books.

For individuals considering publishing a first book, going the traditional publication route offers some distinct advantages: credibility, editing, cover and layout, as well as marketing and promotion. Developing an idea for a book can take time, and for those inexperienced with the process, this can be helpful.

But for established developers who have reputation in their communities, traditional publishing is an old model that no longer serves the interest of the authors.

Consider the typical setup for a book contract: an advance (say, $700) plus a percentage of sales as royalties (we’ll go with 20%). Assuming an average sale price of $34 (taking into account returns, etc) and a total sales volume of 500 books (this actually overstates the average), total sales can be expected to reach $17,000. In a traditional publishing arrangement, the author can expect to earn $3,400 total. The advance is paid back as the book sells, so the total revenue sharing with the author is 20% of sales.

This means that the traditional publisher earns $13,600 on the sale of the book. Sure, they’ve incurred some costs: product development, the initial outlay of the advance (which doesn’t get paid back if the book is a flop), editing, technical editing, marketing, layout and design. But the dirty little secret of the publishing industry is that the cost to produce the book is always far lower than the money earned. After all, that’s why they publish books in the first place!

Instead, if you write your own book, pay someone to edit, lay out and design the book, you can expect to spend $2,500 – $4,000. With a decent-sized audience, if you sell the same 500 copies, you earn $13,000 or more on your book. This is a huge increase over what the publisher was going to pay you!

It’s true that nobody goes into writing a book expecting to make tons of money. In fact, few people find money to be the prime motivator at all. Most individuals write a book to share knowledge, and this is a good thing! That said, the difference in revenues for the self-published author versus the traditionally published author make book-writing a much more lucrative enterprise than before. And this is good for everyone.

It’s good for the author, because the countless hours spent writing, rewriting, editing, changing, tweaking and rewriting again are more rewarding. It’s good for the reader, because they have greater access to book options and knowledge. The community benefits because self-published authors can write more specific books aimed at technical topics. The only people who don’t benefit from self-publishing is the traditional publishing houses, and they are the most vocal in their opposition to the self-publishing movement.

There are a number of great self-published books in the PHP community today. Chris Hartjes has two books, available from Grumpy Learning. Paul Jones has Maintaining Legacy Applications in PHP. And Phil Sturgeon has Building APIs You Won’t Hate

Planning to write a book? For your next one, consider self-publishing. You’ll help yourself, the community, and your readers.

Brandon Savage is the author of Mastering Object Oriented PHP and Practical Design Patterns in PHP

Posted on 10/20/2014 at 12:57 pm
Categories: Community, PHP

Cal Evans (@calevans) wrote at 10/20/2014 2:20 pm:

“going the traditional publication route offers some distinct advantages: credibility, editing, cover and layout, as well as marketing and promotion. ”

Actually, I disagree with this premise. Michael Hyatt, formerly head of Thomas Nelson Publishing says in one of his older podcast episodes that these days publishers expect an author to already have a following and to do a lot of the promotion themselves. Given that, I’m really not sure what a traditional publishers bring to the table. If you can’t promote my book and me better than I can already, then why should I give you 80% of the price of the book.

Publisher’s – and I am talking in general, not specifically about tech publishers – don’t want to take chances. They want proven winners. So if you haven’t proven yourself and you need a publisher, chances are good that they won’t talk to you. On the other hand, if you have proven yourself and you don’t need a publisher, they want to take 80% of what you could be making and still allow you to do most of the work.

I really don’t see myself ever using a traditional publisher again.

Cheers!
=C=

Eli White (@EliW) wrote at 10/20/2014 4:53 pm:

One quick response to Cal’s response – Specifically this:

“Publisher’s – and I am talking in general, not specifically about tech publishers – don’t want to take chances. They want proven winners. So if you haven’t proven yourself and you need a publisher, chances are good that they won’t talk to you.”

In my opinion, this is exactly what publishers, at least tech publishers, do however. This is the role, IMO, where publishers have a very good value proposition. In my own case, I was a nobody, unknown, had given a couple conference talks, but that was it. And Sam’s Publishing was willing to take a chance on me to write a book for them. It really gave my career the kickstart it needed and helped me to become a proven quantity.

If you aren’t already someone who has done the work to become a ‘known brand’ (and/or if you are someone who perhaps is proven, but just doesn’t want to spent their energy on that promotion). Going a traditional route, at least for tech publishers, can be that perfect sweet spot for those without a brand behind them yet, like say Chris Hartjes aka Grumpy Programmer has. But who want to publish a book (for a multitude of reasons there).

And the tech publishers (at least some of them) seem to seek out those in that sweet spot, and are willing to take a risk on them.

I know that I am.

DISCLAIMER: I am one of the current owners of php[architect], the brand that published Brandon’s book, and their Managing Editor. Though I was not involved with his book, it was under different ownership & management at that time.

Eli

Yitzchok Willroth (@coderabbi) wrote at 10/21/2014 9:33 am:

I think a lot of it depends upon what benefit you’re hoping to obtain out of the publication of a book.

If your end goal is royalties, self-publishing certainly sounds like an attractive proposition.

On the other hand, if you end goal is enhanced credibility (presumably with clients or potential employers, peers are likely more attuned to the trade-offs between a publishing house and self-publication and therefore more likely to judge an offering solely on its merits), I don’t think we’ve yet reached the era where self publishing is so ubiquitous that having a book published by an established publisher doesn’t carry with it some perception of higher quality.

Fair or unfair, I think there’s still a vast number of people for whom being able to see your offering on Amazon or an established publisher’s website carries an increased measure of credibility.

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