Three big questions

One of the biggest decisions business owners interested in building their personal brand and promoting their expertise involves choosing between self-publishing and trade publishing.

During the past few years, technology has made it easier than ever to self-publish your own book, and the number of self-published books continues to grow.

But, is self-publishing really for you?

Exploring the trade-offs & implications

The starting point to answering the “self-publishing versus trade publishing” question involves recognizing that you’re not a “trend.” You’re an individual operating in the real world, with your own resources, talents, and preferences.

As such, the issue doesn’t boil down to the popularity of one publishing alternative over another as much as “What’s best for you in your specific situation?”

Since you can build your personal brand with either a self-published or a trade book, ultimately, your decision between them boils down to 3 big questions:

  • Big Question 1: How do you want to spend your time after your book appears?
  • Big Question 2: How much control do you want to have over your book?
  • Big Question 3: What are the cash-flow implications of choosing between self-publishing and trade publishing?

How you answer the above questions is far more important than the recent popularity of self-publishing, the “credibility” factor of a trade-published book, or the greater potential earnings of a successful self-published book.

The right publishing alternative for you is the choice most appropriate for your unique aptitudes, preferences, and resources.

Big Question 1: How do you want to spend your time?

The first question involves task preferences; looking at what tasks needs to be done when self-publishing and determining the “fit” between what needs to be done (in terms of tasks and time requirements) and your willingness to enthusiastically commit the necessary time.

The following are some of the non-writing tasks that need to be done before your self-published book is printed and after it’s publication date:

Pre-publication tasks

  • Professional editorial support. It’s nearly impossible for authors to be their own editors, and its unrealistic to expect family and friends to deliver professional results. Professional results require resources like developmental editors to fine-tune and monitor the book’s structure and grammar editors and proofreaders to ensure an error-free book.
  • Design support. The content and appearance of the front and back covers of your book play a major role in its success, as does the layout of the inside pages of your book. Potential readers and reviewers will take one look at your book and form an opinion about the quality of its contents.
  • Soliciting printing bids. There’s more to choosing the right printer than obtaining price  quotes and choosing the cheapest alternative. There are multiple printing choices to address, beyond simply price, that play a crucial role in your book’s success.

Distribution tasks

  • Obtaining bookstore distribution. If you are interested in widespread retail bookstore distribution, you’ll be responsible to marketing and selling your book to bookstores and trade distributors. Success requires more than listing your book in a catalog. You’ll have to create a unique image for your book and negotiate discounts and terms with both the national bookstore chains as well as the regional independents.
  • Shipping, invoicing, & tracking payments. Your post-publication responsibilities will include shipping books to bookstores and regional distribution centers, issuing invoices, and–most important–tracking accounts receivable. Hiring a trade distributor doesn’t eliminate the paperwork, it just adds another layer between you and your money.
  • Returns & inventory. Shipping books to retail bookstores is no guarantee that they will be sold. Books are sold on a consignment basis. If the books don’t sell within a certain period of time, they can be returned. (And, complicating matters, bookstores often return books and then immediately re-order them–further complicating financial records.


  • Direct-response marketing. If you are self-publishing for a specific market niche, you must become a direct-response marketer, mastering the nuances of web-marketing, e-commerce, and sales tracking. You’ll need to continuously test and retest the endless variables that influence conversion, or the percentage of website visitors who buy your book. These variables include offers, prices, bonuses, color, headlines, subheads, order forms, landing pages, keyword choice, etc.
  • Individual orders. After orders come in, books have to packed and shipped. You either have to set up an efficient system for you, outsource fulfillment, or select and manage part-time employees.

Some authors thrive on the minutiae of marketing and fulfillment, others prefer to spend their time leveraging their personal brand building books into new business opportunities and writing new books. What’s your preference?

Big Question 2: Control

The second big question involves the amount of personal control you desire over your book’s content and design. When you self-publish, you enjoy total control over your book. When you choose a trade publisher, you join a team and must share responsibilities with others.

Are you a team player or a rugged individualist? Are you willing to allow input from numerous others to shape your book’s content and appearance?

Here are some of the issues that will be influenced by the publishing alternative you choose:

  • Title, subtitle, and back-cover copy. Titles frequently change between the time a contract is sign and a book appears. In many cases, this is for the good. But, if you’re unwilling to compromise…
  • Section titles, chapter titles, and contents. Your book’s table of contents will be continuously scrutinized, with inputs from the publisher’s sales representatives and others.
  • Front and back cover design, inside page layout. Authors may specify in their contract that they have right of approval on cover designs, but their input is sometimes ignored.
  • Back-end opportunities. In most cases, authors must negotiate the right to purchase books from the publisher for resale to end users. Copyright ownership is usually shared between the author and publisher, limiting the author’s ability to use the book title for audios, seminars, workbooks, videos, and follow-up books.

Control is always desirable, but the real issue is: How much control can the author afford? as discussed in the following section.

Big Question 3: cash flow

Author cashflow is often ignored until it’s too late. The costs associated with publishing a book cannot be divorced from the author’s responsibility to themselves, their families, and others who depend on the author’s income.

For many authors, the most important consideration is the direction of cash flow before a book’s publication: does the money flow toward the author or away from the author?

In the final analysis, choice between self-publishing and trade publishing involves 2 considerations:

  • How much will it cost to self-publish the book? The cost of printing and shipping is just the starting point: how much will professional editing and design cost? How much will it cost to set up an e-commerce website? How much will it cost to distribute the printed book to bookstores and fulfill individual orders?
  • How much of an investment can the author realistically afford? This involves realistically examining the author’s liquid assets–cash, savings, and monthly discretionary income–as well as the author’s borrowing power. How much can the author safely invest without jeopardizing their family’s welfare or credit rating?

There are no guarantees in publishing. As the old saying goes:

QUESTION: “How do you make a million dollars in publishing?”
ANSWER: “By starting with two million dollars!”


Self-publishing has changed the publishing landscape…in many ways, for the better.

But, what works for others may not be feasible, realistic, or safe, for you.

Before making a choice between self-publishing and trade publishing a personal brand building book, authors should carefully examine the 3 big questions introduced above.