Do Self-Publishing and eBooks Demonstrate Viability?

Yesterday morning Donna Papacosta interviewed me about ghostwriting for her Trafcom News Podcast. (I’ll post a link directly to the show when it goes up.) Before we recorded, she asked her Twitter followers whether they had any questions for me. This question came in from MJ McConnell just after we finished recording:

Here is my question for Sallie: does she recommend that a first-time author self-publish or produce an eBook to establish themselves as viable (assuming the expertise comes from field work/client case studies)?

It depends.

Okay, yes, that is the standard consultant’s cop-out answer. But it’s true.

If you produce a sloppy, unprofessional eBook and it doesn’t sell—or you can’t even give it away to large numbers of people—that’s going to demonstrate the opposite of viability to publishers you might approach with your next project. The same goes double for a self-published print book. (You can get away with fairly minimal formatting and design if you produce a Kindle version of a text-only eBook, though the book still needs to have good structure, flow, audience-appropriate material, an engaging style, and of course be grammatically correct with correct spelling and punctuation.)

What’s going to establish your viability as an author is selling books. That means having the things that publishers look for in their authors: both a willingness to market and an existing audience to market to. Do you have a mailing list (online or off)? How about blog subscribers? Podcast listeners? Twitter followers? Facebook fans? LinkedIn connections? Do you do regular speaking? What about corporate clients who could buy the book in bulk? If you don’t have any of these things, then just self-publishing a book, even a quality book that you’ve taken time over and hired professionals to help you with, won’t automatically generate readers and buyers.

Producing an eBook rather than a paper book (sometimes known as a pBook or even a “tree book”) may give you an edge in sales, because you can set a low price point and encourage impulse buyers. Your royalty may still be equal or greater to what you get on the print book because of lower production costs. (Note that there are still production costs for eBooks, though it’s comparatively easy to make a readable EPUB or Kindle version of a book that’s just text, and much harder to do illustrations, diagrams, equations, etc.) Thriller writer J.A. Konrath is an expert at this, but he had built up a substantial fan base before he made his big push into low-priced Kindle books.

So first, you need a platform—that existing fan base you can market to. Once you have that, you need to decide what your goal is and whether you’re in a position to hire the editor, book designer, cover artist, proofreader, and other staff to create a professional book, then arrange for your printing and distribution, and then fire up your marketing machine. (And you do need a good cover for an eBook, even if you don’t always need quite as much interior design work.) If you aren’t, then you’re going to be better off crafting a good book proposal and approaching agents and publishers.

Selling will still be your job, but at least with a publisher the production end will get taken care of.