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Should I Self-Publish My Great Idea or Get an Agent?

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If I had a nickel (well, make that a dollar) for every time I’ve heard this question, I would perhaps not be writing this column but sitting on a beach somewhere, enjoying life. Of course, when I began my career in publishing, this question did not exist.  There was no self-publishing in the way we know it today.  There was something called “vanity” publishing, where an author paid a company to publish his or her book, but today’s self-publishing world is a huge advancement since those days.  Today’s self-publishing has become an enormously viable option for many writers, especially first time authors who are eager to get their message out into the world as quickly as possible.

What I’m saying is that this is now a meaningful question for a lot of authors to ask. There are some real pros and cons to making the decision to get an agent and a traditional publishing company for your book, or to move forward with the many self-publishing options available to you (including my company).

Here is my honest advice—and I feel very qualified to offer it because I spent many years in traditional publishing and I know the inside story of its advantages. Admittedly, I am somewhat more involved today in helping my clients self-publish, but I still help some people write book proposals, get an agent, and try to sell their book to a traditional publisher.

So, let me propose my answer to this dilemma to all those who are struggling with it. I am going to try to form this into a sort of decision-tree. I won’t do a fancy graphic to accompany this blog, so just follow along with the logical thinking here.

  1. First, ask yourself this: “Is my idea really a BIG idea?  Is it truly distinctive from anything else out there in the marketplace? Have I done my research to check out what books have already been published related to my idea?”  You can’t fool an agent or a publisher by insisting that “no book exists like my book” if it just ain’t so. Your idea really has to be a new way to frame or think about an issue to make it worth your while to jump through the hoops of writing a book proposal, getting an agent, and selling it (with a good advance) to a publisher.
  2. If your idea is good, but not really a BIG one or there are already a half-dozen books out there that define the market, then your desire to be an author might best be served by self-publishing.  I believe everyone who has an idea for a book should pursue writing their manuscript and publishing it. The reason you should self-publish is that having a book today is also a way to attract clients to your business, to demonstrate your expertise, to enhance your reputation and stature in your field—even if it doesn’t sell to a national audience. And besides, it may be that in the process of writing and self-publishing your book, you could end up further developing your ideas (especially if you work with a good editor who can help you deepen and extend your concepts) such that your book actually does begin to take off nationally and sell many copies. It is increasingly possible that a traditional publisher will eventually ask to pick up your book and publish it for you.
  3. If you are still on the fence with the logic of the first two points above—i.e., you are not sure if your idea is BIG enough or not—you need to ask two new questions: “First, do I want to invest time and money in writing a book proposal and trying to find an agent?  And second, how quickly do I want to have my book in the marketplace?”  These questions are linked because the truth is, if you are in a hurry to become a published author for whatever reason, traditional publishing is not the route to take.  It takes months to write a proposal, sample chapters, get an agent (if you don’t know any), sell your book, and get the contract. And you may even fail to sell your proposal, thus wasting that time and money. If you need to see your name on a book within 6 months to one year, you should bite the bullet and self-publish. Only if you can afford to wait 18 to 24 months to see your book is it worth the challenge of lining up a traditional publisher.  The slow pace of traditional publishing is one of the most significant turn-offs for authors who believe they have a BIG idea or a great niche market book but they just cannot wait 18 months or more to see their book published.
  4. Now, if you are still on the fence about which way to go – i.e. you think you want to self-publish because you are excited and ready to roll, but you are worried about the “stigma” of being self-published or that your book could come out poorly written or poorly designed—the answer to this is to approach your self-publishing with the same eye towards quality and professionalism as you wanted your mainstream publishing company to do for you.  This means investing in a good developmental editor to help ensure your ideas are logically and powerfully expressed.  You need to have your manuscript professionally copyedited.  You need a great cover design and interior layout. This quality will cost more than just throwing your book together without any editing and using inexpensive template cover designs—but the results will make you proud to show and sell your book to others. You will feel as if you published with a mainstream publisher, and you will see your book done, usually within 3 to 6 months after completing your manuscript.
  5. Finally, if you are still on the fence about your decision, there are indeed other factors to consider, such as how much do you need your book to be in bookstores versus selling it largely via online sales, what are your budget limitations for self-publishing (although traditional publishers still expect authors to spend money marketing their own book), and more.

At Publish to Get Clients, we can help you evaluate your options. We know many first-time authors find the choice between Self vs. Traditional publishing to be baffling and complex, so we are happy to give you guidance, customized to your situation.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog: How Long Should My Book Be? 


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