Can Writers Realistically Make a Profit Self-Publishing?

Occasionally I get this question, “Did you ever consider self-publishing?”

And I have to honestly say that no, I never gave it a thought. Not only have I always had the goal of traditional publication, but when I first started querying I was naïve about the self-publishing process. I knew absolutely nothing about it, and therefore wouldn’t have known where to start even if I’d wanted to pursue it.

Most non-traditional publication gets labeled “self-publication.” Perhaps in one sense, when we choose to publish (versus having a publisher choose us), then we are self-publishing. We, ourselves, are taking the initiative and making it happen, rather than waiting for someone to give us permission.

For clarity’s sake, however, let’s define a few of the major publication options (this list is NOT all inclusive and there is overlap):

Traditional publication: A company pays an author to publish a book through advances and royalties. The publisher invests in the editing, marketing, and promotion of the book. These types of houses are usually closed to unsolicited manuscripts and require an author to work through an agent.

Small press: They're similar to traditional companies, but operate on a smaller scale and budget. Advances and royalties may be less. Like larger houses, they make their profits by selling books to consumers, rather than selling services to authors.

Subsidy press: The author must pay a fee to print a book under the company’s imprint. The company often offers paid services for cover art, editing, warehousing, and perhaps some degree of marketing. The books are owned and stored by the publisher, and the author receives a portion of sales in the form of royalties.

Self-publishing: The author takes the entire cost and burden of publication upon themselves. The author is the publisher. Other than using a printer, the author works independently to design, edit, store, and sell the book. All sales proceeds belong to the author.

I’ve known several people who’ve self-published in the truest sense. They have no company name on their books, no extra costs except the price of printing the books, and they had no help—except what they sought. Two of my family members published books this way—mainly for family and friends.

I’m also acquainted with authors who’ve used subsidy presses. A long time friend, Rebekah Freelan, used WestBow Press, a fairly new division of Thomas Nelson Publishers. WestBow describes themselves as “self-publishing company” (although they more closely resemble the description of subsidy press used above).

Rebekah used Westbow to print an Advent devotional: His Advent Still His Greatest Gift. I recently asked her about the pro’s and con’s of her experience, and here’s what she said:

Pro’s of Using WestBow:

• Being able to publish without having to secure an agent or a publisher.
• WestBow has affordable packages (Rebekah used the cheapest package and paid an upfront $700 fee, which included a 20% discount special at the time she initiated the process.)
• She liked the amount of input she had over design and content, and thought the staff was very proactive in helping her.
• She’s purchased a total of 750 books, and has sold enough copies to pay for the cost of buying those books as well as pay for her initial investment of $700.

Con’s of Using WestBow:

• Lack of promotion (if she’d paid more, they would have helped more). She said it’s been a struggle for her to promote the book because marketing isn’t something she’s good at.
• Lack of guidance in the business aspect of the process of publication.
• Hasn’t earned enough money to begin seeing a profit yet. She said she could make up to $3000 if she sells all her books.

In summary, Rebekah said this: “Would I try it again? I would. I would still like to try to publish traditionally but I had a good experience and would do this again. Some of my upcoming projects would go much more smoothly if I had the assistance of a traditional publisher, though, admittedly.”

I have another friend who’s used a subsidy press for her delightful children’s book. And she too struggles with the time and effort it takes to promote her book. She has to work hard for every sale she makes.

The more I learn about subsidy and self-publishing, the more I realize that writers need to carefully consider the financial aspect and ask themselves: Do I care about making money from the venture?

It’s already hard enough for most traditionally published authors to make a profit from publication—even with the backing of a publisher’s marketing and publicity departments. So, without any help (or with very little), a subsidy or self-published author must be realistically prepared for an uphill battle. They’ll have to make peace with making little to no money, as well as the possibility of actually losing money.

Recently, Eric at Pimp My Novel asked his readers to weigh in with self-publishing success stories. Interestingly, none of the writers reported making more than a couple hundred dollars. Granted, success isn’t always measured in dollars. But I think most of us, if we’re completely honest, would like to eventually see some financial compensation for the hours, weeks, and months we put into our books.

What do you think? If you’ve self-published or used a subsidy press, how hard or easy has it been to make a profit? And if you’re going the traditional route, did the possibility of making a profit play a role in that decision?

The winners of The Preacher's Bride Christmas giveaway are: Lily Robinson & Tina Toler. Congratulations! Thanks to all who entered! I loved the enthusiasm of everyone!

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