When I wrote my first book in 1981, book publishing was pretty simple and straightforward: you sold your book to a publishing house, and they published your book.
Today, the array of publishing options available to authors is dazzling. Here’s a quick overview of the 5 basic categories of book publishing to help you choose the one that’s best for you:
1. Mainstream publishing
“Mainstream publishing” means selling your book to a traditional publishing house.
I have done this with all of my 80 books. My publishers include McGraw-Hill, Henry Holt & Company, John Wiley & Sons, HarperCollins, Prentice Hall, and Career Press.
One advantage of traditional publishing is that the money flows from the publisher to the author—as advances and royalties—rather than you paying them.
If you are writing a book for the prestige of being a published author—which can help establish you as a thought leader in your field—mainstream publishing is by far the most prestigious of the 5 publishing options listed here.
People are impressed when you show them a physical book that looks professionally produced—and when you tell them your publisher is Random House or John Wiley.
On the negative side, traditional publishing is a business in decline (it has been for decades) and these books have been selling fewer and fewer copies. Exceptions? Of course.
Despite this, I like mainstream publishing because someone else (the publisher) does most of the grunt work and I make money from the get-go.
“Self publishing” means paying a printer to print your book. You are also responsible for marketing and distribution.
Instead of the 8% royalty a mainstream publisher would pay you, you can earn 40% or more of the cover price per unit sold, depending on method of distribution.
Because you have a higher profit margin, self-publishing is a great option for speakers who want to sell their books at the back of the room.
Bottom line: self-publishing can potentially be more lucrative than mainstream publishing, though frequently it is not.
As for prestige of being a published author, self-publishing is less prestigious than mainstream publishing but more so than e-book publishing (see #4 and 5 below).
I have never self-published a real book. Decades ago, I self-published a book-length work as a typewritten, bound manual for a course I taught—and a small publisher picked it up and published it as a traditional book.
3. Publishing services
There are companies that are not “real” publishers but rather offer “publishing services”. Examples include iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, and Xlibris.
Typically these publishing services produce and publish your book for an up-front fee, and then pay you a royalty per book sold. But deals vary.
I have no experience with this category of book publishing. It seems to be an option for people who are looking to self-publish but want someone else to handle all the details.
The prestige is equal to or maybe a little above traditional self-publishing as described in #2 above.
4. PDF e-books
You can produce your book as a PDF and set up a website where people can purchase and download it.
There is very little prestige in writing an e-book. But the profit margins are close to 100% and so you can make a lot of money with this option.
Writing and selling PDF e-books is a good publishing option for authors who either want to maximize their revenues or get their ideas into published format quickly.
I have made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling e-books that are either collections of my previously published writing (columns, articles) or updates of my out-of-print paperback books. It is very lucrative.
5. Kindle e-books
A variation of #4 is to publish e-books for Kindle and sell them on Amazon.
Although there are rare stories of fortunes being made self-publishing e-books for Kindle, many Kindle authors have
limited sales and do it more for vanity. I don’t think having a Kindle e-book on amazon.com is terribly prestigious.
I have never self-published a book for Kindle, though many of my regular publishers sell e-book versions of my paperback and hardcover books for that platform.
* If you are writing a book to become a recognized expert in your field, go with a mainstream publisher (option #1).
* If you want a physical book to sell at the back of the room when you speak, self-publish a paperback (option #2).
* If you want to make a lot of money from book sales, publish PDF e-books and sell them online (option #4).
* If you want your work to be available for purchase on Amazon.com and you don’t want to write or publish a traditional book, publish it as an e-book for Kindle (#5).
Bob Bly is the author of “World’s Best Copywriting Secrets” and has written copy for more than 100 companies including IBM, Boardroom, Medical Economics and AT&T. He is the author of more than 75 books and a columnist for Target Marketing, Early To Rise and The Writer. McGraw-Hill calls him “America’s top copywriter”.