In this article, I will be sharing my thoughts on self-publishing as a technical blogger. In my opinion, self-publishing is an extremely lucrative path to take which is often overlooked. Many people will aim for getting publishing deals with the likes of O’Reilly Media, Sitepoint, or Smashing Magazine. Over the time that I have been blogging and self-publishing books, I have been offered a few publishing deals (not with the companies I just mentioned) – none of which I have taken. I’ll be discussing the specifics of why I haven’t taken these deals, and why I prefer self-publishing.
50x More Profitable?
That’s a bold claim and obviously doesn’t apply in the general case. However, this is a specific scenario that I have faced and serves as a good counterpoint to the notion that you need to work with a big publisher in order to get anywhere.
I’m going to avoid using specific terms here because I don’t want this to come across as me “outing” the publisher. I don’t think that the deal I was offered is intrinsically bad, but in my circumstance, it was a way better move to self-publish.
Back in 2015 whilst I was working on creating Building Mobile Apps with Ionic I was approached by a publisher with an offer to create an Ionic course for them. The outline of the deal would be as follows (I’m providing a range of values as I don’t want to provide exact figures):
- Advance of between $1,500 – $2,000
- Royalties of between 15% – 20% per sale
- The advance would be repaid through the royalty earnings
Based on some rough calculations of my own and some estimates with the publisher, I would have likely been looking at earning somewhere in the region of $3,000-$4,000 from this deal. At the time that I turned this offer down, I had of course not yet released Building Mobile Apps with Ionic, which would go on to be my highest selling book by a large margin. However, even at that time, my self-published books were generating revenue around the $3,000-$5,000 region. For context, at this time I had an audience of around 1,500 email subscribers.
I was confident in my decision to turn down the offer at the time, but it certainly ended up being a good move for me. Building Mobile Apps with Ionic, which may not have been published if I did go ahead with that deal, ended up making over $200,000 (as you can see in the graph from my Year in Review article):
$200,000/$4,000 = 50. This is how I arrived at the 50x more profitable statement.
Again, for context, I launched Building Mobile Apps with Ionic to an audience of around 12,000 email subscribers. In the early days, especially before you build up a sizeable audience, these types of publishing deals may seem attractive. However, if you are aiming to build a serious business around creating and selling content, I think the better option is to take charge of the publishing process yourself.
The Benefits of Self Publishing
I think my little anecdote above serves to make the point that I am trying to convey. Obviously, self-publishing isn’t always going to generate 50x the revenue for you that a publishing deal would, but there is the potential for you to massively outperform a publisher by self-publishing (even if they are much larger than you).
There are other benefits to self-publishing that I enjoy – some monetary related, some not – and I’d like to talk about a few of those in this section.
No need to strike a deal
This is obvious, but if you are self-publishing then you don’t need to find a publisher to make a deal with. No negotiations, no contracts, no obligations. This is all stuff that does not bring me joy, so I’m glad to be able to avoid it entirely.
You can tailor content to your specific audience
If you are self-publishing, you don’t need to agree on a book or course outline and you don’t need to have any of your work approved. You can decide what content will work best for your audience and design it however you like.
No contractual obligations
One of the big factors that put me off of the publishing deal was the contractual obligations. Most importantly, there was a clause that aimed to protect the publisher’s interests by limiting what I would be able to publish in future without prior approval from the publisher. This makes sense from the perspective of the publisher – they don’t want me to release a book or course that is going to directly compete with the one that I created for them – but it would have put me into a legal gray area. Could I self-publish a different Ionic book in the future if I took this deal? Could I publish a book that covers a different mobile framework, or would that be considered to compete with the course I created for the publisher? I avoid getting into situations that are going to limit my future options.
Even if I was technically legally in the clear, I’m the kind of person who is going to worry that a letter from the publisher’s lawyers is going to rock up one day. I’m sure most of the time these publishers are going to be pleasant to work with, and they aren’t out to screw over their authors – but things are always pleasant until they are not. If I had have made that $200,000 in sales from a book in a situation where that might have been in breach of some contract, I don’t think I would sleep very well at night.
Set you and your brand apart from the crowd
When you publish through a publisher, you are one of many as you fall under the publishers brand. There is a huge advantage to this because typically these publishers have a well-respected brand, and just by being associated with that it gives you more credibility. But it is still their brand, and there is not much to make you stand out. Even with a small following, you can build your own unique brand with customers who want to keep coming back and buying more from you. As much as people respect the big names, people are also very willing to support independent creators.
Freedom of packaging and pricing
This is similar to the point above about controlling your own brand. By self-publishing, you are able to completely control how you present your product to your audience. You can set the price point, you can design the sales page however you like, and you can package the product however you like.
I typically offer several different packages for my books/courses. My top tier packages are quite expensive and make up a large portion of my income. The top tier package of Building Mobile Apps with Ionic, for example, costs $129. I sell my Elite Ionic course for $179. I’m able to add whatever I like to these packages to make it valuable to my customers.
By having control over this process, you can analyse what is best for your customers and how much they would be willing to pay for that. If you are selling through a publisher, typically the pricing and packaging are going to need to fit in with the other books or courses that they offer.
You own the relationship with your customers
As I have stressed in other articles, your audience is the biggest asset you have, so this is perhaps one of the most important points. When you release free content on your blog, your readers are building a relationship with you. They come to trust your content and end up buying a book or course from you. This is what helps build a larger and larger customer base, as the people who are buying from you are likely to continue to do so in the future (assuming that you are delivering content that is valuable to them). A lot of the people who purchase your books or courses aren’t going to consider the interaction to be like purchasing a book from a store. They are purchasing directly from a person they know and trust and who they also want to support.
The Disadvantages of Self Publishing
I’ve gushed about self-publishing for long enough – now let’s consider some of the disadvantages. Remember, this is coming from the perspective of someone who has not published a book or course through a publisher. My perspective of what it is like to work through a publisher is based on my limited interactions with publishers, and of conversations with people who have published through a publisher.
You are responsible for editing
As much as having complete control over your content can be a good thing, it is also something you are entirely responsible for managing. Writing and forming a cohesive message throughout the length of an entire book or course is a skill that needs to be developed. The same goes for creating videos, even though it may not require as much writing, it can still be difficult to make your content flow throughout the course. Some people may struggle a great deal with this.
When working with a publisher, you are likely going to have talented people assigned to you who can help throughout this process, as well as helping edit drafts of your work.
You are responsible for the publishing process
It is a real pain in the butt to format and publish a book – especially if you want to include code syntax highlighting. I’ve tried a myriad of options over the years including using programs like Pages, and Scrivener, through to a semi-automated build process using bash scripts and markdown files. It’s very difficult to find a process that:
- Let’s you generate the book in PDF, ePUB, and MOBI formats
- Allows for code formatting and syntax highlighting
- Displays nicely
- Is easy to work with
I plan on writing more about this in the future, and I’m even working on a tool now to make this process a lot easier. Video courses aren’t perhaps as difficult to format, but it still does require quite a bit of effort in getting the right hardware and software together before recording.
If you are working with a publisher, then they will have a very well defined process and will likely handle most of this for you.
No access to the publisher’s audience
Big reputable publishers have a huge audience – by publishing through them you are going to have your book exposed to this audience. This is certainly an advantage, but keep in mind that the publisher’s audience is going to be much less targeted than yours. If you have built up a large enough audience of your own, you may even be doing the publisher a favour here by giving them access to your audience.
Generally, if a publisher publishes your book they are going to spend some money promoting it. Whether that is through using their staff to engage in promotional efforts or pay for advertisements with companies, your book is likely going to get free (to you) exposure in this regard.
However, if you are taking the approach I talk about on this blog (releasing free content, building a following, and selling to that following) then I don’t think this should be a big factor. Although I have dabbled in running paid AdWords campaigns in the past, the vast majority of my sales have been created organically (for free). That’s not to say that there isn’t anything to gain through spending money on marketing, this is an area I have been weak in and hope to improve in the future. However, it is certainly possible to generate sales without a marketing budget.
There is certainly more prestige to having your name on a physical book published by a respectable publisher – how cool would it be to see your book sitting on the shelf of a bookstore somewhere? It’ll probably make your Mum, brother, friend, or anybody else who doesn’t really “get” what you do proud of you. Being a published author is also a good look for your CV and will probably grant you more industry connections.
However, a big wad of cash does help overcome missing out on some of these things, and there is still certainly a degree of prestige in self-publishing a book as well.
This article is in no way intended to be a dig at people who publish through major publishers, or at publishers themselves. Some people’s goals aren’t monetary, some people want to write a book purely for the love of it, and having a physical book published with a reputable publisher and your name on the spine is pretty awesome. Sometimes publishing through a publisher will be the approach that ends up making you more money.
My main motivation for writing this article is to help dispell the notion that you need to be popular and in with the big players to make it in this game. You can turn your content creation into a serious business of your own making.
Keeping in mind that my perspective is biased, here is a summary of my thoughts on self publishing in the coding space: Working with publishers is a good way to make extra money on the side along with the prestige benefits that come with it, self-publishing is the better option for creating a full-time business.