Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing- Why Not Pursue Both?

Charlotte Ashlock Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place! 

Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing- Why Not Pursue Both?

An Interview With A Successful Indie Author

By Charlotte Ashlock, Digital Producer & Editor

Disclaimer: the opinions stated below are the opinions of the person being interviewed,

and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

I was invited to speak at a panel called, “Self Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing,” for the San Francisco Writers for Change Conference. Berrett-Koehler has been doing traditional publishing for twenty years, but our self-publishing branch has only existed for two years, and I'm not as familiar with the self-publishing side of the author story.

So, to make sure I knew both sides of the story, I interviewed a successful self-published fiction author, Brian Rathbone. He’s mentored about a dozen other self-published authors. Some went from, “having no income or making 50 bucks a month, to paying their mortgages off writing revenues,” says Brian. That’s the dream, isn’t it? So listen closely!

Which is better, self-publishing or traditional publishing?

Brian’s surprising answer: “I want to be a hybrid author. I want to do both and do them well. Done right, self-publishing and traditional publishing can compliment each other.”

Brian is reluctant to give his successful self-published books to agents, because he’s making so much money off of them. However, books that are not current revenue streams he’s more than happy to give to agents to see what they can make of them. He plans to write books specifically for traditional publication. If these books aren't picked up, then he will self-publish them.

Brian is not the only author to feel that self-publishing and traditional publishing are complimentary strategies. Berrett-Koehler Author, Bill Treasurer, published Courage Goes To Work via Berrett-Koehler's traditional publishing program, and Leaders Open Doors via our self-publishing program. As you can see by watching the video on this link, he is delighted with the results.

Notable quote: Keep in mind that no matter what kind of publishing you pursue, “Writing is not the hard part, marketing is the hard part. You have to continue your momentum, and build the buzz, and maintain it.”

What’s your major strategy as a self-published author?

Brian puts free novels and podcasts on as many channels as possible, and uses them as a hook to get people engaged with his paid content. Examples:

  1. On, he offers free serialized chapters narrated by himself. But he also SELLS a full book download done by a professional narrator on Audible, iTunes and elsewhere.
  2. Brian has published the first book in his “Call of the Herald” series for free on the Kindle. The free e-book gets them hooked on the series, so they are willing to pay money for the sequels, or pay money for an omnibus edition.
  3. How would Brian’s strategy work in a nonfiction context? Well, you might have something like “Seven Tips to Achieve _______” and the introduction and first tip might be a free kindle book. Then you’d charge for the full book that shares all seven tips.

Notable quote: “I'm a writer, I'm an artist, but I'm also a businessman. If someone’s got three bucks, they will spend it on the author they know vs. the author they don’t know. So I give them the first book for free so they get to know me. That model has worked extremely well for me.”

What do you think are the downsides of traditional publishing?

It’s hard to guess exactly how much effort a publisher will put behind a book. You don’t want a publisher who’s not contributing significant added value.

Publishers also have what Brian considers very high expectations for sales figures. A sales number that a self-published author considers excellent, a traditional publisher may consider disappointingly small, much to the consternation of both parties.

What do you think are the downsides of self-publishing?

If you’re self-published, you have to put together your own team, and that takes a lot of work.

The book needs cover art, copy-editing, layout, promotion, distribution, search-engine optimization, etc. Over time, Brian has painstakingly assembled a team that does all those things (or he’s learned to do them himself.) If you get a traditional publisher, the team comes pre-assembled, saving you incredible time & energy.

What distribution channels do the bulk of your profits come from?

80% of Brian Rathbone’s revenues come from Amazon ebook sales. However, Apple, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and many other channels have proved successful for him.

Printing paper books can be a losing proposition for a self-published author. Brian spent $10,000 printing his book, and he lost 90 cents on every book he sold online, because Amazon’s cost structure was not sufficient to support his printing costs. The books he hand-sold helped the project just barely break even.

What’s the best way for a self-published author to promote him/herself on Twitter?

People won’t want to follow you if you’re always asking them for something and never giving them something. So practice soft promotion- don’t directly ask for sales.

Find people with whom you can share a genuine connection. Write tweets that entertain and assist your audience. Brian spends about an hour a day on Twitter, but he really enjoys the interactions there, so it doesn’t feel like a self-promotional chore.

Notable quote: “It's a long game. Lots of authors who I advise to go to Twitter don't see results right away. But over time, the effort pays off for an author or anyone who’s trying to build up a platform.”

Conducting Your “Eyeballs and Earholes” Campaign on Twitter

  1. “When you find a person you like, see who they follow.” That’s a great way to build a bigger and bigger network of people with shared interests.
  2. “People on Twitter will see you as you present yourself. Present yourself as a polished professional with a brand. Don't be a cheesy salesperson. This will help snowball your following.”
  3. “And yes, you do have to do Twitter everyday. Otherwise, people WILL start to miss you! ”

Should a self-published author spend money on advertising?

Only the right kinds of advertising.

Brian Rathbone stopped using Google Adwords when he realized his Twitter activities (one hour a day tweeting) were driving three times the amount of traffic to his site for free.

However, there are smart ways to spend money on advertising, for example paying for your books to be featured on a good book discovery site.

How can a self-published author find ways to stand out from the crowd?

1. It’s helpful to be a big fish in a small pond- look for the up-and-coming digital distribution channels and be the “big fish” there.

Brian was a best-selling author on Mobipocket eBooks for 18 months. It’s very hard to become a bestseller on Amazon, but if you can become the top dog on a smaller distribution channel, you can reap a lot of benefits from that.

Publishing audiobooks is one opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond, since there are fewer audiobooks. If you are an early adopter, and publish an audiobook before the market is flooded in your subject category, you will benefit.

2. To take advantage of book site algorithms, focus your promotional activities into short periods.

There are many channels for promoting your ebooks, for example:

The one thing all these sites have in common is their algorithms favor the promotion of books that are having SPIKES in their traffic. That means you’ll become more visible on these sites if you concentrate your promotional activities into a very short period of time.

How should a self-published author price their books?

It depends. The key really is to experiment with different price points constantly and see what your audience reacts to the best.

For fiction authors, low ebook price points like $3.99 can work extremely well. Nonfiction authors, on the other hand, might do better by charging high ebook prices like $19.99, because that increases the perceived value of their expertise.

How can a self-published nonfiction author get good press hits?

Build a credible platform and practice smart networking.

Example: Rick Austin, author of “Secret Garden of Survival: How to grow a camouflaged food-forest” got great media by working for the National Geographic Doomsday Castle project. He helped create the food source for the Doomsday Castle and that generated a lot of interest for his book. The key is to network with people who have strong shared interests with you, all while building your platform.

Rick Austin was doing well with Twitter and his online radio show before he got involved in the National Geographic project, which helped him leverage his media hit. Make sure you’re prepared for when your big media hit happens.

Do you think people view self-publishing with the same level of respect as traditional publishing, or is there a stigma?

The stigma is still there, but it’s on the decline. Self-published authors are getting more respected all the time.

Brian thinks the fact that prestigious authors like JK Rowling are publishing/distributing their own digital works, has done a lot to legitimize an author’s choice to self-publish.

High Amazon and Goodreads reviews can also legitimize self-published authors. People are starting to pay less attention to the publisher, and more attention to the reviews of fellow readers.

How do you search engine optimize your books?

  1. Optimize your Twitter name for discovery: Put high-value keywords in your Twitter name. Brian Rathbone’s Twitter name is “Fantasy Author” which means he is on the first page of Google Search results when you google “Fantasy Author.” So pick the Twitter name that you want to be known for, it can serve as SEO publicity for you.
  2. Pick good tools:Brian has used, which includes an SEO community of “mozinars” who swap tips & advice.
  3. Figure out what terms people Google most.Google Adwords Keyword Planner & are helpful here.

What distribution channels should self-published authors use?

It’s good to have many distribution channels and not rely too heavily on a single distributor.

Smashwords is a digital distribution channel that can push self-published books out to all the major outlets. Brian finds Smashwords useful for distributing to Barnes & Noble. However, when possible, Brian prefers to do his own distribution so he can better control pricing.

Smashwords can be extremely slow to register changes in pricing and metadata, sometimes taking as many as four months to display an update, which can be infuriating to the agile marketer. For authors who don’t experiment with pricing, though, Smashwords works fine. Brian also uses Axis 360 by Baker & Taylor.

You might want to avoid the Kindle Select program, which Brian considers, “A tourist trap for authors.” While this program does allow 5 free days every 90-days, it requires exclusivity, and the benefits may not be enough to warrant losing sales on other channels.

For paperbacks, Createspace is a path of least resistance for many authors. Createspace allows pretty good economics when selling on Amazon but does not do as well selling through other channels. Lightningsource is great because they’re owned by Ingram, but the interface can be challenging for self-published authors.

Notable quote: “Many author services companies are snake oil, others are wonderful.” Check with other authors to find out which services are credible.

How do you judge which traditional publishers are best?

Check out the sales rankings the publishers’ books get on Amazon and other outlets. Find the bestsellers in their stables, and judge their competency and commitment from that.

Notable quote: “If a publisher shows interest in an aspiring author, there’s the temptation to just be really flattered and excited. But resist that temptation- put your business person hat on.”

What marketing strategies do you consider particularly useful for nonfiction books?

  • Search engine optimize.
  • Look for connections between your book and newsworthy events, and blog about them.
  • Have speaking engagements, where people can buy your book afterwards.
  • Establish yourself as an expert in your field.
  • Find the venues where the hot topics in your book are being discussed.

All these marketing strategies work fabulously for both self-publishing and traditional publishing. The question is no longer, “Traditional publishing or self publishing?” The question is, “How can I market so fabulously I’m a huge success in both worlds?”