To Publish or Be Published: First of several posts on being an author

A friend recently asked me about the benefits, if any, of self-publishing versus publishing. The scenario goes something like this: You have a book idea, or maybe even a manuscript, and you want the world to read it. What is the best way forward?

It is going to take quite a few posts to answer this, so before I get to it, you might wonder why my friend asked me. I have self-published and been published. I have had twenty-some books published by traditional publishers such as McGraw-Hill (the photo on the left is me as a much younger person, leaning on a stack of books I wrote--each one is a different title, although to be fair, some are foreign translations). These were technical books and most of them were commissioned. In other words, the publisher had already decided that a book about subject X was needed and I was asked to write it (this happens a lot more than many beginning non-fiction writers realize). A few of them were books where I suggested X, but I suggested a lot of X's that were not picked up by the publisher.

My "break-through" book was about a subject that was my idea, but the publisher only agreed reluctantly and really the book only happened through an odd set of circumstances. What do I mean by "break-through"? I don't mean best-seller. Relative to some of my books, sales were dismal. But the book established me as an expert in a field that has been good to me. I was able to leverage my "expert" status to make money and this is an important first lesson for anyone thinking of trying to publish a book: I have made a lot less money from book sales that I have from the status of being a published author. Furthermore, I can generalize this—I have several friends and acquaintances for whom this is also true. And that's okay. I'm not complaining. Although I have learned some harsh realities about publishers along the way.

So this is something for you to think about as we look at book business numbers: Why are you writing the book? Is it because you want/need to make money? Are you planning to make the money from the book sales? The work that being a published author may bring you? The screen rights? Are you writing the book to make a point, change the world, help others? My advice to everyone is to publish at least one book, but don't expect it to earn you a fortune. In fact, be prepared for it to loose money.

Really serious cash flow from book sales alone is unusual. Bear in mind that stories of a "six figure advance" for a book often involve a writer who is famous (or infamous). That advance is a sum of money paid to the author at some point before the book appears in print. It represents an advance on the book's earnings, known as royalties and the book may not actually earn that advance. In fact, some of the most talked about book big money deals don't earn the royalty that the author got in advance. So what happens? Check the next post, coming soon.

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