Big Enough, my forthcoming book, is arriving in May. It’s being published via a partnership between me and publishing industry pros. Below, I’ll explain why I made this choice, how it differs from traditional publishing and why this option might become more popular in the future.
In 2012, I worked with Wiley, a major book publisher, to publish The Art of Explanation. I enjoyed working with Wiley and I’m proud of what we produced. Our relationship represented how publishers have worked with authors for generations.
My goal with Big Enough, though, is to self-publish a book that’s indistinguishable from one produced by a major publisher. It will appear on the same bookshelves and be of similar quality. Before getting into that, I think it’s important to understand the variety of expertise that goes into publishing nearly any book destined for bookstores.
Books, of course, must be written. Authors are responsible for putting ideas on a page, which takes time and produces no direct income. Writing a book comes with opportunity costs and possibly debt.
Authors need editors. Books meant for the mass market must be edited. Working with a professional editor can transform a book and increase its potential to be successful. In addition to content editing, copy editors and proofreaders ensure the book’s grammar, spelling and punctuation are correct. This work ensures quality, takes time and talented editors don’t work for free.
Books need design. Professional book designers create cover art and select layouts, fonts, headings, and more. A nicely designed book relates to the content and stands out on the shelf. Designers also deserve to be paid for their work.
A physical book must be printed and distributed. Like any other product, books travel through a supply chain. Getting a book into this supply chain requires business relationships with both printers and distributors. Project managers are essential in this process.
Purchases require awareness. Marketing, advertising and sometimes, public relations campaigns can help a book be discovered. These activities require time, expertise, and can come with significant advertising costs.
The bottom line is this: high-quality books require significant investment and acceptance of risk. I think about it in terms of a break-even point. Will the book sell enough to pay for the cost of publishing it?
Now, let’s talk traditional publishing. In working with Wiley, I wrote the book and they handled most of the work I described above. I was not required to invest in editing, design, printing, distribution, etc. In fact, they gave me an advance payment while writing the book, which I paid back through book sales. This relationship insulated me, the author, from financial risk.
In this scenario, the publisher is betting that they can produce a book that, at least, breaks even. Because of their size and volume, they dominate the supply chains and can negotiate the best deals. They have in-house talent and decades of experience that reduce the risk. This is why “getting a book deal” is sometimes a struggle. Publishers must bet on the future work of authors.
Being an author in a traditional publishing relationship can be stressful because there is a sense of obligation. Because the publisher’s money is on the line, they call the shots. Many have a structured process designed for maximum output. Because the publisher’s money goes into production, they also keep much of the income from book sales. In this scenario, authors sometimes feel a loss of control.
Now, let’s switch to Big Enough.
I love the idea of self-publishing and have spent over a decade self-publishing Common Craft videos. One of the messages of Big Enough is that technology has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher and earn a living from their intellectual property. My approach to book publishing is an expression of this focus on independence.
Self-publishing, though, has some baggage. Once it became technologically possible, authors could publish e-books with a minimum investment and without the help of experts who ensure quality, like editors and designers. Without these gatekeepers, quality sometimes suffered and self-publishing became known as inferior.
This is where things have changed. Self-publishing isn’t defined by technology, gatekeepers, or quality. There is no reason a self-published book can’t compete with a major publisher’s book. The key difference can be boiled down to a simple question: who is taking the risk?
In the case of Big Enough, it’s me. I am investing in the expertise and relationship that I believe will make the book a success. I am putting my money on the line and betting that I can make Big Enough successful enough to break even. As such, I remain in control and earn a greater percentage of the income.
My partner in this adventure is a company called Page Two, which is owned and operated by industry veterans Trena White and Jesse Finkelstein. Page Two specializes in working with non-fiction authors to self-publish high-quality books. Their team of professionals does the work of a major publisher but on a mostly fee-for-service basis. Further, they have key relationships with printers and distributors that would be difficult for me to form. Page Two is my secret weapon in making Big Enough a major publisher-style book.
One of the things I love about this relationship is that Page Two, in publishing industry terms, is a start-up. It’s refreshing to work on a book with a young company successfully being disruptive. They encourage ideas, like direct sales from my website, that major publishers might not condone. Importantly, they reflect the values I believe are important, like independence and a sense of creative control.
I consider this model of self-publishing the best option for me and the message of Big Enough. It represents a personal risk, but it’s one I’m willing to take.