Have you ever wanted to write a book? The challenge of getting a publisher deters many would-be authors. But now your manuscript doesn’t have to be a dusty dream.

Once scoffed, self-publishing companies are now producing books that are indistinguishable from traditionally published books. They’re sold through all the major outlets, from Ingram (the major distributor to bookstores) to online retailers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.

Some of these books have sold so well their authors have been offered contracts by traditional publishers (ever heard of Rich Dad, Poor Dad?). Yet — get this — some authors are turning down contracts for the perks of self-publishing. These include higher royalties, faster production and greater control of production — since authors retain the rights to their books. Plus, self-publishing has become affordable, thanks to print-on-demand technology, which allows books to be printed a few at a time.

To learn the pros and cons of self-publishing, Biola Magazine spoke with two Biolans in the publishing industry: Jerry “Chip” MacGregor (M.A. ’84), founder of MacGregor Literary Agency, based in Hillsboro, Ore.; and Stan Gundry (’63), senior vice president and editor in chief at Zondervan, one of the largest Christian publishing houses.

Chip, as someone who makes a living getting contracts for authors, what do you think of self-publishing?

In that industry, there’s a history of ripoffs. But if you really know how to self-publish, you can actually make more money self-publishing than you can publishing a book through a regular royalty publisher. People don’t understand the economics of publishing. The fact is, if you do a book with a regular royalty publisher — let’s say it’s a $20 hard cover book and you’re getting a 10 percent royalty on the retail price — then you’re making $2 a book. But if you self-publish that same book and you have a big enough print run, you could probably have it produced for about $5. And if you sell that for $20, you make $15 a book. That’s why people who have a ministry or another platform will sometimes self-publish. I’ve successfully self-published four of my own books on magic, in addition to dozens of others I’ve authored or co-authored that have been published traditionally.

Stan, as an executive at a traditional publishing house what do you think of self-publishing? Does a self-published book automatically equal junk?

No, a self-published book does not automatically equal junk. Zondervan has far more manuscripts presented to us each year — even good manuscripts — than we can possibly publish successfully. And there have been books that have been self-published very successfully by individuals. You might be interested to know that I have self-published a highly specialized book of my own. I restored a rare Studebaker called an Avanti, and I won two first places nationally with the car. After doing that, I realized I had acquired an incredible amount of information that no one had collected in one place. So, in 1999, I wrote a book called What the Shop Manual Won’t Tell You: Studebaker Avanti Restoration and Maintenance. I hired a freelance editor and proofreader. My daughter, who is a graphic artist, created the cover. I created a Web site (www.avantipublishing.com), and I advertise in two different club magazines. I have sold almost 500 copies of this book, which is not bad at $55 a copy.

Stan, would you recommend self-publishing?

Self-publishing isn’t a good option for most authors because the average author can’t edit his own book, can’t proofread his own book, likely does not know how to design a book interior or cover in a manner that looks professional, and — even if he goes to an outside freelance vendor to do these things for him — he probably has very little basis on which to judge the professionalism of the vendor’s work. So often self-published books come off looking like they’re self-published. And it’s extremely difficult for an individual to be successful in making his book known and getting book retailers to put it on the shelf. So usually the only party who ends up making any money on self-publishing is the company that is publishing it for you because they generally do not have effective means of selling and marketing.

Chip, who should consider self-publishing?

Only those who have the know-how. The reason I warn most people away from trying to self-publish is because most people don’t have the knowledge to be successful self-publishing. They think they can create a Web site for their book and everybody’s going to flock to it. With my books, I’ve spent my life with words so I know how to write. I took my books to a professional editor. Then I used an art company that designs book covers, and since the books required drawings inside I also hired a line artist. There are a lot of companies that will actually produce a pretty good product in terms of the physical book. But understand, with a number of companies what you send in is what you produce. So if it’s filled with errors, if it’s poorly organized — certainly if it’s poorly written — most companies are not going to fix that for you. More importantly, I knew how to market a book. The fact is, the reason most writers, even good writers, don’t make any money on a self-published book is because they don’t know how to market or sell their books.


Tips for Successful Self-Publishing

Avoid self-publishing pitfalls with these tips from the pros.

  1. Make sure you have credibility on your book’s subject. Stan Gundry said he never could have sold so many copies of his book on Avanti restoration if he hadn’t first restored his own award-winning car.
  2. Don’t rely on yourself for either cover design or editing and proofreading. Gundry hired a professional editor to edit his book, even though he’s an experienced editor. “A person is his own worst editor,” he said.
  3. Have a clearly identified target market that is both easy and economical to reach. When he wrote his books on magic, Chip MacGregor knew his audience, as a former associate editor of a magician magazine, The Linking Ring. He bought advertisements in the four major magician magazines, sent his books to reviewers, and promoted the books at magicians’ Web sites, which helped him get media interviews. “I was basically getting free publicity as well as paid advertising,” MacGregor said.
  4. Choose a reputable company.