If you write nonfiction, and cannot command mega-advances, you should think about self-pub

Editor’s Note:  When discussing self-pub, few pundits consider nonfiction books. In his guest posts on The Digital Reader, William D. O’Neil will help to correct that oversight.

8140770540_b986f6cb54_bThe great majority of indie self-pubs are genre fiction, and a large proportion of nonfiction in self-pub is about how to write and sell genre fiction. Some say self-pub is no good for nonfiction, surely not “serious” nonfiction. I listened to the arguments but decided they were wrong, or at best half true.

I’ve backed my conclusions with action, publishing three more or less “serious” nonfiction titles. The first two were largely test runs, to see what was really involved, but I’ve recently published a book on the disastrous German decision-making before and during the early days of World War I, and am working on one about AIG. The World War I book has done reasonably well and gathered praise from pros in the field.

Self-pub means no advance, but unless you’re an established bestseller you don’t get much of an advance these days, certainly not enough to finance lots of research. It also means missing out on the trad-pub publicity and distribution machine. Few mid-list titles get advertised these days, but simply appearing in the catalogue is worth a good deal.

The other supposed advantages of trad-pub are mostly not for midlist nonfiction. Very few titles get any real editing, and what they do receive is rarely of good quality. You can buy or barter better editing services. The same is true for indexing, art, and layout, and these you also have the option of doing yourself.

The biggest advantage of self-pub for nonfiction is agility. You can get a topical book out in self-pub in less time than it would take to shop the proposal around the trad-pubs. And you can have a new edition of your book out as soon as you can make the changes in your manuscript. This agility can be used to produce exploitative trashbooks, like the wave of titles on Ebola and other trendy subjects, but you can use it for better purposes.

Many trad-pub e-books have notably bad art — muddy, thumbnail-sized images. Many conclude from this that Kindle, etc., are inherently bad platforms for art. In reality, trad-pubs have simply been lazy/cheap about it. Art on a good e-ink screen can be fine; the e-reader software poses no real barrier. You have to live with some banding, but its effects can be minimized. And on the LCD screens of tablets and phablets art can display better than in any trade book. Most of what you read about art in e-books is obsolete (at least for Kindle) or never was true at all; it takes some experimenting as well as careful reading of the documentation to get the best results.

Nonfiction calls for print as well as e-book editions. Print accounts for around a third of my sales and I hear similar reports from elsewhere. Since I do my own art, layout, etc., I use CreateSpace. They produce a good book, integrate with Amazon, and charge me nothing for setup. But I’ve seen samples of high-quality books produced by other POD outfits too. CreateSpace only does trade paper, but there are others like Virtual Bookworm that also offer good-quality hardbounds. Major POD publishers now list their titles with Ingram and Baker & Taylor (for wider distribution). I’ve had sales to bookstores and libraries.

Parallel production of e-book and print editions raises workflow issues. You want a single manuscript that can quickly and easily be used for both. Any sort of serious nonfiction title involves much more complicated book layout than nonfiction. (I’ve done both). Some authors I know write in page layout systems like Adobe InDesign or Serif PagePlus; they offer easy routes to both e-book and print output. So far I’ve written in Microsoft Word formatted (per CreateSpace’s directions) for print. But rather than send the .DOCX file to CreateSpace (which works for simple-format books) I’ve produced a .PDF and edited it a little in PagePlus to do the things Word won’t. Then I’ve produced an HTML version in Word and edited it a bit before uploading to Amazon. You need different versions of most images, tailored to print and screen. It all takes less than two days.

The advice given for promoting self-pub fiction is probably largely applicable for entertainment-value general nonfiction too. If your book falls into a category like military history or Americana you probably already are connected into interest groups that can be a great way to spread the word. Much nonfiction lends itself to homebrew book events than can do a lot to build your audience.

image by streetwrk.com


  1. Glinda Harrison6 October, 2014

    Nice post! It is nice to read something geared towards non-fiction self-publishing.

  2. Brian7 October, 2014

    Thank you for this very helpful post. I was wondering if you have any recommendations for reliable services who can format a digital or printed manuscript that contains photos. You seem more technically competent than I will ever be and I’m considering outsourcing the placement of images into the manuscript to ensure it’s done correctly. Any suggestions?

    1. Greg Strandberg7 October, 2014

      eBooks are relatively easy. If you do a print Createspace book, whoa, watch out – that’s a super pain in the ass, especially if you’re trying to keep captions on the same page.

    2. Robin Bromby7 October, 2014

      I began in the 1980s as a self-publisher after several Australian houses turned down my proposal. That book went to five editions (the last two after Simon & Schuster (Australia) picked it up. Then I found another publisher — which sold out to an international outfit, and there was no place for me. Now I am back self-publishing non-fiction and I get around all the technical nightmares by using a company in Minnesota that formats everything for reasonable cost. Yes, non-fiction is a hard business in e-books (because you should charge more than for a read-once novel). The people in Minnesota put in all the photos where they should be; they also, in some cases, they also format for Create Space and the end result has been excellent, with captions and photos matching on the same pages.

      But I think the big issue is that e-books are still dominated by fiction: if you look at Kindle’s top 100, non-fiction place-getters are rare and tend to be print best sellers (like Bill O’Reilly’s latest one). But I would be interested in any suggestions on how you break through with non-fiction.

      1. William D. O'Neil8 October, 2014

        Your books really look terrific! It seems to me that Kindle and CreateSpace offer excellent opportunities for authors in smaller markets like Australia to reach broad audiences.

        Trad-pub has built its marketing channels one link at a time and I don’t see any simple overall solution for small- and self-pub. I do note that I follow several forums on World War II and general military history (mostly US- and UK-based) and haven’t seen you promoting your interesting-looking WW II titles on them; that’s one good bet.

        I’ve experimented with several pay-per-click Internet advertising channels but not that seemed to pay its way.

        Australia punched way over its weight in both world wars and I would think there should be a real international market for good books about it from Down Under. I urge you to keep at it.

  3. Joe Follansbee7 October, 2014

    I self-published a number of non-fiction books after pitching them to publishers in the traditional manner. One was a maritime history book that trads said was too niche. I applied for two local grants for artists, which financed the manuscript and the publication of the book. I also self-pubbed two guidebooks with maritime history themes, again after it was clear that a trad publisher wouldn’t take the financial risk. I didn’t get rich, but I’ve made back my cash investment. (Making back my sweat equity investment will taking until 2097. ) I highly recommend other non-fiction authors consider the same strategy. You can see my work at http://joefollansbee.com

  4. Greg Strandberg7 October, 2014

    It’s such a no-brainer – if you’re not an egghead in some dusty university, go the Amazon route.

    I’ve got around 25 non-fiction books, 5 of them are history books, 1 of which is more than 400 pages in print. They’re read. If I’d have gone the traditional route I’d still have but one book and about 29 million query letters and other rejects from the big boys in NY.

    I guess I don’t need acceptance from a bunch of people I have no respect for, unlike many academically-minded folks.

  5. William D. O'Neil7 October, 2014

    Major congratulations to Joe Follansbee and Greg Strandberg! I’ve checked out some of your books on Amazon via “Look Inside” and am impressed both with the content and form. I agree with Greg that e-books are pretty easy: You insert your images where you want them in your manuscript (in MS Word). The “Amazon Kindle Publishing Guidelines” for KF8, http://kindlegen.s3.amazonaws.com/AmazonKindlePublishingGuidelines.pdf, gives all the details, but you probably won’t need them.

    I suppose you could say that it’s a bit trickier in CreateSpace, but not by much. Write the manuscript but just put markers indicating approximately where the images are to go. Then when you’re through start from the front and insert them, each on a blank line between paragraphs and in a location where it won’t cause a big gap in the text. You can use that same file for the KDP.

    Keep writing and publishing!

  6. […] D. O’Neil presents If you write nonfiction, and cannot command mega-advances, you should think about self-pub posted at The Digital Reader, saying, “Many in publishing say that nonfiction books […]

  7. Michael W Lucas23 February, 2017

    I’ve been a nonfiction writer for about 20 years now. Thanks to self-publishing, I’m now a full time writer.

    Nonfiction authors should definitely consider self pub. Your work has value.

    1. Nate Hoffelder23 February, 2017

      Just about the only reason not to self-pub a non-fiction book is if the author requires the validation of a university press (some professions do need this).


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