Wolfgang Loder
Wolfgang Loder About Me
Back to Article List

Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing

Sep 03, 2017
(updated: Jul 10, 2018)

My experiences with self-publishing a book and a traditional publisher. It is not always as it appears at first sight.

Mid August 2016 I published my book Erlang and Elixir for Imperative Programmers. I have written about the experience in another blog entry. About a week after publishing the finished book, a traditional publisher whose name shall not be revealed approached me.

After the first feeling of being flattered by such an approach, I started negotiating the contract. The first draft of the contract let me cringe. Perhaps to explain my experience with contracts: I was freelancer and self-employed the last 20+ years and did on-premises software projects in two continents and several countries, all with their own little differences in contract laws. Therefore I am very aware of many pitfalls in contracts, and the publisher’s contract was so vaguely worded that anything could be interpreted in. One clause - the non-competition clause - was standing out:

“During the term of this Agreement, You agree to not publish or furnish to any other publisher any Work that is on the exact same subject and that targets the exact same market and that could hurt sales of the Work.”

Work in this case means my book. Exceptions from this clause are articles or anything published before the agreement was signed. Other clauses in the contract were similar vague and I got the feeling they were done in that way to lock an author in.

After a few rounds of negotiation I rejected the offer, but that was also based on the fact that they could not meet my ideas of publishing technical books:

  • My thinking is that we can’t publish technical books like fiction books, because there is more to such a book than just text. The underlying languages, frameworks, programs etc. are changing regularly. Having long editorial phases before printing a book makes the book’s contents outdated from the start. A friend of mine had written a book for a publisher about a database he himself developed together with a friend. It took the publisher almost two years to bring this book into the catalog and on Safari for online reading. Needless to say it was not a success.
  • The community should be integrated into the decision about the contents of the book. This was not done a lot with my Erlang/Elixir book, but I plan to do this much more with future books. It is an approach similar to open source projects where features are proposed. Participants can vote for or against feature requests and make sure they as readers or potential readers get the book they are looking for.
  • Not everyone needs a printed book, but rather an ebook that is often updated. I plan updates for the published Erlang/Elixir book at least every 6-8 weeks for a year and want to do the same for future books once finished. There will be on-demand printed books, but the content of the printed book is a bit different from the ebook. The ebook is up-to-date the moment it is bought or downloaded, the printed book is a snapshot at certain milestones. The printed book also has a slightly different content being black and white, so images like diagrams are b/w and code is not highlighted. The text as such is not different. The reason lies in the high costs of color prints: a b/w book can be sold for 15-20 USD, a color book would cost at least 35 USD.
  • A technical book is not only a book, there is at least code accompanying it, but there may be other goodies as well like videos, templates etc. depending on the book’s subject. Readers have to get access to it in a way that protects the author’s rights and also gives the readers the feeling to have bought something useful they would not get elsewhere.

It is no surprise that the traditional publisher sent me this statement after I was trying to discuss the above mentioned points:

“I do not think we can be as nimble as you need us to be with regards to updating the eBook often. Also, we cannot make the changes to the contract as you’re requesting. “

For me it is a clear decision: go with a traditional publisher, get potentially locked into a contract and be on the backfoot regarding updated content from the start. I strongly believe that - at least with technical books - traditional publishers will have a hard time competing against self-publishing authors. To be a real competion, self-publishing needs to sort out the following, though:

  • Editing, both language and content. Authors like me who are not English native speakers may come up with “awkward phrases” or grammatically incorrect sentences. I have worked in English speaking countries for 15 years, but I know that I will never reach a proficiency in English as with my native German. A native speaker needs to go through the book and sort out everything that is incorrect or sounds odd. Similar applies to the contents of a book. Having worked for decades as software developer does not mean that I know everything. Readers of a book expect to gain knowledge and not having to question every statement. Technical reviews are the only way to get the contents right.
  • Formatting. Content is certainly important, but it also needs to be presented in a nice and appealing way. I have seen this with my first book when I did not always find the right proportion between code listings and text. Results are gaps that interrupt the reading flow. Again, this can be sorted out, but we authors need to put more effort into formatting or let it do somebody else.

Traditional publishers will do editing, formatting and proof reading. On the other side, they will also influence the contents as they see fit with the author having no real control over it once a contract is signed. If the “additional exposure” is more worth than the vastly reduced royalties is a question authors must answer for themselves. Self-publishing also means self-marketing and not everyone is happy with that. I have seen that being present in social media all the time and pitching my own book is necessary to get readers. Stopping for a few days also stops sales. If someone does not like that, self-publishing is not the right approach.

I think I will continue self-publishing. Learning from the writing process of my first book I will sort out the editing and formatting problems and will also engage readers and potential readers more. I hope it will be successful and bring the quality of self-publishing technical books forward.

Edit July 2018: And it comes different than one thinks. In the meantime the second book for the publisher is finished and more may come…