The headline is just a teaser. There is no simple answer to this question.

This much is clear: The dynamics in book publishing — as in all forms of media — are rapidly changing. The New York Times has chronicled the decline of traditional publishers and the rise of the do-it-yourself jobs. So has Time magazine. Everybody who thinks he or she has a book rattling around inside his or her head now has a way to get it out there (a great thing for egalitarianism but not necessarily the advancement of good literature). And scores of companies stand ready to help them achieve their dream — for a fee, and sometimes not a small one.

(Full disclosure: I published my two books myself. They were intended to be lesson-learners, and boy, did I learn some lessons. But this post isn’t really about my books; rather, it’s a take on an emerging trend in publishing.)

Non-fiction vs. fiction

I’ll start with a broad assessment of self-publishing, then drill down to some fine details.

Let’s say you have a targeted non-fiction book (fake title for the purposes of this discussion: “30 Easy Steps For Not Losing Your Shirt — Or Your House — in Small Business”).

If …

* You’ve built a detailed marketing plan.

* And you have access to a top-notch cover designer and a top-notch editor.

* And you’re willing and able to do all the work related to establishing and distributing the book (procuring an ISBN, filing for copyright protection, forming a relationship with a printer, fulfillment entity and distributor).

* And you have the hustle to get that book in front of the eyes of the people who will want it and — more important — will buy it, then self-publishing may well be the best choice for you. If you can move the book in big enough quantities, there is a lot of pure profit out there that can yours and yours alone. But, obviously, there are a lot of ifs in this scenario.

If you’re writing fiction, the self-publishing game is a far trickier proposition. Savvy marketing and tenacious promotion of the book can work, but you have to know that fiction audiences who would be interested in your book are quite a bit more diffuse and harder to root out. And fiction, even among the big publishing houses, tends to fare worse than non-fiction unless your name is King or Cornwall or Picoult or Meyer. Sorry. Just the way it is. If you’re going to self-publish fiction, you need the same things as listed above (top-notch covers and editing, a mastery of the business side of books) plus a more formidable marketing machine and a good deal of luck. Know that going in.

Follow the steps

Let’s assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that you’re going to self-publish. My advice, having been through it:

1. Before you do anything else, buy Peter Bowerman’s “The Well-Fed Self-Publisher” and absorb it, especially the wise words about marketing and the timeline for pushing your book into print. I read this book after I published, and I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement on damned near every page. A lot of the lessons that I learned in a hard way are in this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

2. Identify the potential audiences for your book and cultivate them aggressively, before and after your book appears. A scattershot marketing campaign requires a home run to be successful. A strong, targeted campaign can yield singles, doubles, triples and grand slams. Which would you rather have?

3. Compare the costs and benefits of the various self-publishing companies. By definition, self-publishing is going to require some upfront cash. You need to get the per-unit cost of the books as low as possible, so the difference between what it costs you to get the book to market and what you make when it’s sold is as high as possible (that, after all, is your profit). You can’t achieve this just by boosting the retail price; your book has to be competitively priced. And you also have to account for the discounts to retailers (which run as high as 55 percent off your list price) if you’re going to distribute your books in that way.

Bowerman is stridently anti-POD (print on demand), and I disagree with him slightly here. It’s great if you have the upfront cash to finance a print run of 5,000 books, but POD has come a long way since his book was published, and many of the outfits can handle fulfillment, distribution and returns, same as an offset printer and with comparable quality. Want proof? Check out reputable POD outfits, and you’ll find that many big-name publishers are using such services to create their own books.

4. Do not rush to market (unless you have a super-timely nonfiction book that may be overtaken by events). This is the single biggest mistake I made. There is four- to six-month window in which you need to do things like send out review copies, build anticipation for your book, line up other writers and experts who will “blurb” your book, etc. You get only one bite at some of these apples, so don’t blow it. Bowerman covers this information in exhaustive and illustrative detail.

My rush to market — because, hey, I had written a novel! — cut me out of some of these opportunities, and I’ve had three covers and a couple of revisions of the insides of the book because I didn’t take enough care on the front end. Take the time to get it right. It will save you money and aggravation.

5. Establish a robust Web presence, one that includes direct sales of your books through a store on your Web site. I love selling books through bookstores. But I make about three times as much when I sell one myself. A good Web site also has media resources (because you want media attention, right?), a blog or an e-zine and ways for folks to get in touch with you. You’ll want all of this even if you publish through a traditional house, but if you don’t have it when you self-publish, you’re dead in the water.

Bowerman’s site practices what he preaches. Mine is a bit more sedate but has the necessary components (and I’m adding more all the time).

6. Never stop marketing. One of the points in your favor as a self-publisher is that you call the shots on how aggressively a book is pushed. With traditional houses, the hype ends on their terms (just about any published author can tell stories about having to sheepishly answer “Well, it’s out now” when asked about an upcoming book). As a self-publisher, your title can go on for as long as you have the energy to promote it.

Will I self-publish again?

The answer is a qualified “maybe.” I write fiction, and so the optimum outcome for me is to establish a partnership with an agent who will help me hone the books, find the best publisher for them and help me manage my career. All things being equal, I would prefer to concentrate on the business of writing and promotion and leave the business of books to people who have much more experience at it than I do.

That said, the odds of breaking through with big publishers are long, and are getting longer all the time. Ultimately, I want to get my ideas and stories in the marketplace. If the traditional doors are closed, I’ll have to blaze my own trail.

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