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The Storyteller's Dilemma: To Self-Publish or not to Self-Publish

Updated: May 18

So, you’re a South African writer. Your book is complete and your publishing pack is on the ready. You have finally done it.  After all the tears, years of hard work, and the late nights!  At long last you finished your baby that you spent months nurturing, with all the research, and the many, many cups of coffee – it really is a dream come true to sit back and admire your completed work. Usually, this is where the marketing of your book would start – where you’d traditionally hand over to publishers, allowing them to perform miracles in their field of expertise, except, it doesn’t happen that seamlessly, your phone isn’t ringing endlessly with offers, and you’ve sent your synopsis out to multiple publishing houses and…nothing. Do not panic!


Movies often have us thinking that the writer’s work ends once the manuscript is complete; that once all the words have been written, it is time to pop the champagne, and as much as we love celebratory bubbles, it is at this time authors are faced with the question; to Self-Publish or to Traditionally Publish? Let’s help you weigh up the pros and cons:


  1. Royalties


Royalties, calculated as a percentage, are the amount the publisher pays the author in exchange for the right to publish their book. According to Publishdrive, authors earn royalty rates of around 10% to 15%  per every book sold. Traditional publishing houses like Penguin Random or Pan Macmillan will keep the remaining pieces of the royalty pie to cover their publishing costs.


How much you make as a writer from self-publishing depends on factors such as market shifts, number of sales and book price. What makes self-publishing attractive is the potential to earn anywhere from 35% to 70% more royalties. For example, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) offers royalties of up to 70% on e-books, and up to 60% on print books.


2. Creative Control


Traditional publishers need to be involved in the creative side of things too. Typically, publishers' decisions are based on economic viability and marketability. Approaching a traditional publishing house like Black Letter Media, might mean you would need to hand over some of the creative decisions with regards to the contents of your book and cover design and ultimately lose some control over your creative process.


As a self-publisher, you would have the autonomy and freedom to oversee the ideation process and play the various roles of an entire publishing team, involving creating a marketing plan, design, and production. You might still consider getting a specialised copy editor and content person on board to assist you with marketing and planning we can help!


3. Exposure


Traditional publishing houses are very well-connected with bookstores, online reviewers and media outlets so the probability of getting eyes on your book (and sales!) is higher. South African poet and journalist Antjie Krog, acclaimed playwright and novelist Zakes Mda and Thriller author Lauren Beukes have all become highly successful using traditional publishing houses.


With self-publishing, the amount of exposure your publication receives is entirely up to you. By focusing on your brand and target audience, you are in complete control of publishing your work. South African author, Dudu-Busani Dube’s best-selling Hlomu the Wife series is proof that turning your book into a best seller by self-publishing is possible - with the right mindset and methods.


4. Shelf life


Being a new author on the market and attracting the likes of a big publishing house like Hachette Book Group is a great feat. However, for publishing houses to continue to reprint your novels, you need to be consistent with market trends. The selection process means that they will only reprint the novels that make the most money and resonate with greater target audiences. Being on par with traditional industry patterns will give your book mainstream exposure. Your book will spend maybe the first few months on the shelves and once it’s sold out, the chance of a reprint usually depends on commercial success.


Self-published novels have a longer shelf life because the author is more involved in actively promoting their books. Years after publication, storytellers are still able to promote their books using the marketing and sales methods that make the most sense to them.


5. Digital is an option too.


For first-time authors, choosing to go digital first may be the best route. In South Africa, you are typically looking at a rough estimate of R4000 for 50 copies of your book, which as a budding writer, or even an experienced author, you may not have, and that’s just for the printing. We haven’t accounted for editing, proofreading and design. You can reap the benefits and get your work out into the digital landscape, by using self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble Press, Rakuten Kobo and Draft2Digital for a fraction of the cost!


6. Speed to Market


The time between completing and editing your manuscript, to getting it published is far longer with publishing houses mainly because they have a large number of clients, and their process involves many moving parts; editing, proofreading, designing, marketing, and, and... Self-publishing accelerates the speed to market. By self-publishing, the wait can be anything from 6 hours (if it is an e-book) to a month from date of manuscript completion, dependent on your commitment to the process.


Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and it comes down to what your objectives and goals are. The major difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing is the ownership rights and royalties. Traditional publishing means that the publishing company owns the rights and royalties, while self-publishing means that the rights and royalties are owned by you. If you are hell-bent on keeping creative control and earning higher royalties, self-publishing may be the way to go.


Still feeling torn about which route to choose? Connect with us to learn more about our book coaching services. We’ll guide you through the decision-making process and get your manuscript publisher-ready!

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