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Novelists such as John Grisham and Meg Gardiner, to name two, are certainly at the top of the publishing heap when it comes to lawyers who have garnered international fame as authors. And let’s not forget those who have devoted their careers to writing legal treatises and manuals — Hiroshi Motomura, Stephen Yale-Loehr, Robert Divine and myriad others. Some even have their names as part of the book’s brand, for example, Kurzban’s Immigration Law Sourcebook (Ira Kurzban) and Gibber on Estate Administration (Allan Gibber).
These authors contracted with medium- to large-scale publishers. But more and more lawyers are taking the self-publishing route — like best-selling romance novelist Louise Bay. Even authors who have contracts with big publishers are testing the self-publishing waters, be it for fiction, how-to manuals or works like practice area guidebooks.
Whether you choose to self-publish or follow the traditional route, it pays to know what you’re getting into. Consider my top-five list of the good and bad characteristics of both.
New authors can benefit from the prestige of having a well-known publisher handling their manuscript. However, traditional publishing contracts can be quite restrictive, offering royalties of 15 percent or less with boilerplate language that provides little to no room for negotiation. The contracts can include non-negotiable clauses and broad ownership rights that last even after the book goes out of print. A traditional publisher tends to have the upper hand when dealing with new authors.
In contrast, as a self-published author, you own your manuscript and can choose how to publish it — in print, e-book format, even as an audiobook. You own the copyright. If you want to use an excerpt from your book for a seminar, you only need ask yourself for permission. In fact, providing excerpts of your book to your intended audience could help boost sales of the book and attract more people to your website.
Often, traditional publishing contracts list production costs as chargebacks to the author. The costs of editing, formatting, design, page composition, printing, e-book conversion, even delivery charges to a warehouse are expenses that might be deducted from author royalties. Because royalties are based on the revenue derived from the book’s sales, it could take months or years to recoup these charges. Meanwhile, the author receives no royalties. Contracts also can require authors to purchase copies of their own book, albeit at a discounted rate.
As a self-published author, you can estimate and plan for your production costs, but the payout for these expenses will be upfront when contracting with publishing professionals to help you with editing and design. (You can take the DIY route, but the finished product might not be the polished piece you’d hoped for.) Self-published authors will need to know how to find the right people to handle the production aspects, including conversion of the manuscript to an e-book format.
The larger the publisher, the bigger the marketing budget — and that typically bodes well for many authors. Or does it? Many of these publishing houses will shift their marketing dollars to the bigger fish — manuscripts that are projected to make top dollar. That means you may not get the level of attention you desire. Not only can this affect royalties, this can adversely affect your book’s release date, whether the book receives its own marketing plan and dedicated staff, and where it is eventually marketed (e.g., catalog only, online only). You might need to rely heavily on yourself to market the book.
Signing with a publisher but still handling most of the marketing yourself isn’t much different from self-publishing. However, while some publishers have a ready-made audience to market your book to, as a self-published author, you will need to build your own following. This can prove to be very time-consuming, ultimately stealing precious time away from your daily caseload.
Traditional publishers rarely give authors the opportunity to participate in the creative aspects of book publishing. Protests regarding content organization, even a change in book title, have been known to fall on deaf ears.
As a self-published author, you are in the position to maintain control over most, if not all, of your manuscript’s presentation and distribution. Notwithstanding, you must be open to suggestion. For example, not every book title is appropriate for the specific genre, and it must give the reader some sense of what the book is about.
It takes time to shop around a manuscript; frankly, most authors will use a literary agent for that purpose. Most agents will accept only manuscripts that show a high level of promise, as they tend to be paid only when they place a manuscript with a publisher.
With self-publishing, you can become a published author in a matter of months, even weeks. But it will behoove you to research your topic to see what already exists. The market might be saturated to the point where your book would be lost in the crowd.
If you choose the traditional route, I recommend using a literary agent, who will review your manuscript and tell you whether there is any interest in it among the publishers they know. Make sure you understand the contract terms and are willing to accept the parameters of the relationship.
With self-publishing, you will need a strategy that fits your budget. Clearly, you will need a budget for production costs if you want a quality piece of work. There’s nothing worse than a self-published book that looks and reads like a self-published book. When budgeting, I advise placing financial emphasis on the two most important aspects of self-publishing a book: professional editing and proofreading, and professional cover design.
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