Five Tips on Evaluating Publishing Options

by Tanya Hall, CEO, Greenleaf Book Group

Despite the allure of traditional publishing, self-publishing is growing as a viable option for prospective authors. Still, it may not be right for everyone – in many cases, a hybrid model is the best fit. Here are five quick tips to help you find the best business model for your book:

  1. Consider Ownership of Rights: When dealing with traditional publishing houses, you don’t sell them ownership of the book itself but instead the right to reproduce and sell your work. So long as they own those rights, the publishing house has complete control over how your book is published, packaged, and when it is delivered. Self-publishing lets you retain all rights and ownership of your work as well as control over the creative direction and distribution of your work. Many hybrid options involving author investment also allow the author to retain rights and ownership.
  1. Examine Potential Sales Channels and Payout: Self-publishing provides the highest returns. Authors generally receive 20-35% off the cover price for books sold through retailers and 100% of the retail price for all books sold directly from the author to the consumer. For niche titles most commonly bought online, self-publishing may make the most sense. Traditional publishing, on the other hand, pays out 5-15% of the cover price and only after money paid out for advances is recovered through retail sales – however, traditional distribution models may bring much larger volume in sales than self-published authors can accomplish alone. Hybrid models (like Greenleaf Book Group) provide easy access to online sales plus the distribution muscle required to sell in the brick and mortar landscape.
  1. Determine Importance of Time to Market: Traditional publishing can take years to go from idea to finished product on the shelves. Self-publishing lets you get to market in a fraction of that time. However, choose your self-publisher carefully to ensure they have enough distribution power to get your book into national retailers and specialty markets if those channels are a priority. The retail buying schedules (for Barnes & Noble, etc) still require five months lead time, so avoid “shotgun publishing” if retail bookstore distribution is one of your goals.
  1. Understand the Importance of Quality: Self-Publishing as a whole is not known for its quality of product. Often times, retailers will refuse to carry self-published books because they do not match up to retailer’s standards in terms of content and design. There are, however, standout companies producing high-caliber materials that either meet or exceed industry standards. Be sure to compare the quality of a prospective self-publisher’s produced materials with those available through national retailers before committing to a partner. Remember, this is your brand that you’re putting out there, and it’s hard to pull back once it’s live.
  1. Assess Your Risk Tolerance/Investment Capability: Because it provides the highest returns, self-publishing and hybrid models require a larger upfront investment from the author. Here, the author assumes the risk for publishing, covering all elements of production including editing, design, printing, shipping, and warehousing. The author is always responsible for his/her own marketing, whether publishing through a traditional house or as a self-publisher. Traditional publishing requires no initial investment from the author to cover printing, but the author retains less on the back end…and if sales are poor, traditional publishers may status the book out-of-print, tying up your content until the rights revert or are bought back.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the options available, you’ll need to evaluate your skills, goals, project, and budget to determine which approach is best for you. The questionnaire below may help:

1. Would you rather:

a. Not spend your own money and get paid up front

b. Pay just to print in exchange for a moderate return

c. Make a reasonable up-front investment for a higher return

2. Would you prefer to:

a. Let someone else handle the entire process

b. Manage the process yourself

c. Retain creative control while working with an experienced team

3. In terms of marketing and sales, are you more comfortable:

a. Handling your own marketing, but knowing the publisher’s credibility will carry you through the distribution chain

b. Handling all of your marketing and forgoing retail distribution

c. Coordinating your marketing efforts through a strategic campaign through retail and specialty distribution channels, while still having the option to sell directly to readers

4. In terms of creating content, are you more comfortable:

a. Writing it yourself, but working with an editor to finalize it

b. Writing and editing it all yourself—I’ll hire an editor if I need one

c. Writing it yourself, but using the help of a ghostwriter or an editor to organize your thoughts and save time

5. When it comes to design, would you rather:

a. Leave it to the pros

b. Do it yourself

c. Have creative control, but work with a skilled designer

6. When it comes to distribution, do you want:

a. Access to a traditional distribution chain

b. To sell them all yourself

c. A combination of traditional distribution and the ability to sell books on your own in return for the full cover price

Answer Key

Mostly A’s: Traditional publishing is probably the best option for you.

Mostly B’s: Digital or self-publishing may be best for you.

Mostly C’s: An independent/hybrid publisher is likely the best fit.

Regardless of which option you choose to pursue, it is vital that you protect yourself by doing your homework, taking the time to weigh the pros and cons, and analyzing each option’s ability to help you meet your short and long-term goals.

Publishing a book is a smart and crucial step toward building your brand. Take the time to do it right!

Tanya Hall is the CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, a (hybrid) publisher and distributor specializing in the growth and development of independent authors and small presses. Contact her at or @tanyahall on Twitter.

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