Corey Wilks, Psy.D.

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A Quick and Dirty Guide to Book Publishing for Entrepreneurs

If you didn’t know, I’m writing a book. But writing a book and publishing a book are two very different things…

I’ve talked with bestselling authors on all three sides of the publishing debate (traditional, self, hybrid).

Each seems to have equal pros and cons.

Every entrepreneur has a book in them, whether or not they know it. So, if you’re considering writing a book (or dream about doing it “one day”), I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far, plus the best advice I’ve gotten for each.

So here’s a quick-and-dirty, bullshit-free guide to everything I’ve learned so far about book publishing for entrepreneurs…

*Also, some links to books, etc. may be affiliate links

•••

Traditional Publishing

Traditional (or trad) publishing is what most people think of when they think about writing a book. This is considered the gold standard if you want to be a “legit” author.

Examples of traditionally published books: Atomic Habits, 4-Hour Workweek, Feel Good Productivity, Building a Second Brain, Crypto Confidential

Pros of Traditional Publishing

  • You have a team of professionals behind you to help make your book the best possible version it can be.
  • If you’re given a high enough advance, you can focus on writing and promoting your book instead of writing your book on the side while you do your “regular” job or business to pay the bills.
  • You have an instant stamp of legitimacy and prestige that comes with a trad house signing you, like getting accepted to a college with a low acceptance rate.
  • Your job is to write a great book, then promote it. Your job isn’t to find, hire, and manage a bunch of freelancers for services like editing, cover design, formatting, distribution, etc. Your publisher handles most of this for you.
  • You get the satisfaction of being able to walk into a bookstore and see your book on the shelves (assuming your book is good enough for the store to keep stocked).
  • It’s easier to secure media appearances since you’re “official.”
  • It may be easier to schmooze with authors signed to the same publisher (and get blurbs, guest on their podcast, etc.).

Cons of Traditional Publishing

  • 99% of the cons of a trad deal revolve around the fact that you don’t own the rights to your book—the publisher does.
  • You might get consultation rights, meaning you get to weigh in on decisions, but you don’t get to cast the deciding vote. If they want to change the title, subtitle, cover, or category of your book, but you think it’s a terrible decision, you’re shit out of luck because they have all the power and control. If you wrote 13 chapters but they only want the book to have 12, you have to kill one of your darlings. Maybe you can release it as a “bonus” chapter to people who preorder it or something, but your book won’t feel like your book if you deeply believe each of those 13 chapters belonged in it.
  • You can’t give it away. You can’t put out a cool limited-edition cover. You can’t redo a part of it. You can’t package up the ebook, paperback, and audiobook together. You basically can’t control any part of your book that you spent a part of your life to create, because you don’t own the rights to it.
  • You have zero relationship with customers—no data, no contact, no nothing. As an entrepreneur, your ability to access analytics to make data-driven decisions is critical to your success. With a trad deal, you get none of this.
  • Some bestseller lists are curated based on the editors, so you can technically sell “enough” to hit the list but still not be included.
  • Your advance is typically treated less like free money you can live off of and more like your marketing budget to promote the book to hopefully make it a bestseller, so the idea that you’ll get a huge advance and live the idyllic writer lifestyle is a fantasy.
  • You don’t get your advance in one fat check. It’s typically broken down into quarter payments: a quarter when you sign, a quarter when you submit the manuscript, a quarter when it launches, and a quarter about a year after launch.
  • You don’t make much per copy. Even if you get a decent royalty rate (rare, especially for first-time authors), tons of fees are subtracted on the book sale before your rate factors in. Common calculations claim if you sell a $20 book, your cut may only $1, but then your agent gets 15%. So you could make as little as 85 cents per $20 book sold with a traditional publisher. So you’re banking on selling way more copies going the traditional route to compensate for how little you make per sale and how much control you give up.

Considerations and Advice I’ve Gotten on Traditional Publishing

  • Only do it if you get a big advance. Otherwise, the publisher won’t be invested enough to put real resources behind you to help you succeed.
  • You need a minimum of 10K newsletter subscribers, but preferably 25K-50K, to attract a solid agent and publishing house. If you don’t have this, you likely won’t get a deal, let alone a great one.
    • Side Note: I don’t currently have these numbers. If you wanted to help me get there (*wink wink*) I’d love it if you shared your favorite article from me, or my newsletter, with your favorite people.
  • Traditional publishing is a VC play. Meaning the publisher invests in your book in order to gain equity (aka, ownership) of it. Trad publishers bet on multiple authors in the hopes one out of a hundred will have a high enough ROI to make up for the duds. The difference with a trad publisher vs. other VC arrangements is if you take outside investments for your business, you still retain equity in your business. With trad publishers, they take full ownership and cut you a royalty check (if you earn out your advance).
  • Readers don’t know or care if you’re traditionally published, they just care if your book is awesome.
  • Trad publishers don’t care if your book idea is awesome. They just care if it’ll sell, and unless you can prove to them in your book proposal that it’s all-but-guaranteed to be a bestseller, they’re unlikely to give you a good (or any) deal.
  • “You already have an established network and know how to market yourself. You don’t need a traditional publisher for that. Plus, they rarely do this stuff for you anyway. You can get yourself on podcasts, collaborate with other influential people, and do outreach for speaking gigs.” — advice from multiple author friends
  • If you want more information on trad publishing, check out this article by Nat Eliason (author of Crypto Confidential) and this one by Tiago Forte (author of Building a Second Brain). Each goes deep behind-the-scenes of what it’s really like to get a traditional publishing deal.

•••

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing, or independent publishing, has become increasingly more viable over the last decade with the advent of companies and technologies that have made producing your book on your terms accessible to anyone willing to put in the effort.

Examples of self-published books: The Pathless Path, Anything You Want, The War of Art, Write Useful Books, How to Write Nonfiction, Sponsor Magnet

Pros of Self-Publishing

  • You retain full ownership and control over every aspect of your book.
  • You can update your book—content, cover, etc.—anytime.
  • You can create limited-edition or collectors versions of your book.
  • You can package different formats of your book together, so readers can buy the physical, ebook, and audiobook all at once.
  • You can get creative with giveaways and guerilla marketing tactics to get your book into the hands of the right people.
  • You don’t need to make as many sales to make a viable income versus a traditional deal where there’s more pressure to hit higher sales numbers to earn out your advance and start earning a royalty. You could make upwards of 70% per book sale, far higher than the possible 12-15% (minus tons of fees) you’d get with a traditional publishing deal. So if you can move enough units on your own, you’ll retain way more revenue going self-published.
  • You don’t have to make a “mass market” book—so you can write a super short one (under 100 pages), focus on a narrow niche, or get weird with the formatting and structure.
  • You can also minimize the time between finishing your final draft and having your book publicly available. You could upload the file and have it ready in a few days going self-published vs. having to wait a year or two going the trad route.

Cons of Self-Publishing

  • You have to pay for everything out of pocket.
  • You have to find and manage a team of freelancers.
  • Quality control can be a huge issue—on-demand printers tend to produce low-quality books on cheap paper that comes unglued from the spine, the ink may smear on random pages, and the cover could look like someone designed it in Microsoft Paint.
  • Doing it all yourself is a pain in the ass and super time consuming—all the different types of editing, getting ISBNs, formatting, cover design, uploading it to somewhere like Amazon KDP, contacting local bookstores to beg them to stock your book, etc.
  • It’s hard to get mass distribution.
  • It’s hard to get it translated because many foreign publishers don’t want to work with self-pub authors.
  • It’s hard to get on certain bestseller lists even if you hit the sales requirements because they may not count self-pub books.

Considerations and Advice I’ve Gotten on Self-Publishing

  • Many self-published authors treat their book as a loss-leader, so they focus on using the book as a marketing asset to make money indirectly (speaking gigs, increasing their coaching/consultation fees, courses, etc.) rather than relying on direct revenue from book sales.
  • More trad authors are moving toward buying back their rights from publishers (Derek Sivers did this) and going self-published for their future books to retain ownership and control.
  • Although the onus is on you to find and manage freelancers, many editors and designers who work for trad houses also freelance. So you have the potential of assembling a team of badass freelance professionals and cherry pick exactly who you want to work on your book versus going with a trad publisher who may assign people to work on your book who aren’t a great fit.
  • If you want a behind-the-scenes of a self-pub author who’s sold over 50K copies, check out this resource by Paul Millerd, author of The Pathless Path.
  • Here is a list of books that were originally self-published, but were later picked up by trad houses.

•••

Hybrid Publishing

Hybrid publishers attempt to bridge the gap between offering authors access to high-quality professionals while allowing them to maintain ownership and creative control over their work.

Some hybrid publishers take equity (but nowhere near as much as traditional publishers), while others take no equity but require upfront payment (so you’re effectively hiring an agency).

Examples of hybrid published books: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, Can’t Hurt Me, The One Thing

Popular hybrid publishers:

Pros of Hybrid Publishing

  • It’s a one-stop shop instead of finding and managing a team of freelancers. So you don’t have to mess with formatting, uploading it everywhere, minutiae like getting ISBNs, etc.
  • You (hypothetically) get the benefits of a traditional publisher like high-quality book design and editors while also maintaining most or all of the equity.
  • Some hybrid publishers, like Scribe, offer author training and coaching to help you make your book all it can be, so you get support instead of doing it all by yourself like a pure self-publishing route.

Cons of Hybrid Publishing

  • Most of the time, you pay for everything out of pocket just like with self-publishing—so you don’t get an advance. Other times, you might not have to pay out of pocket, but you also don’t get an advance. They basically sign you and take some equity, then pay you an ongoing higher royalty—so this arrangement is more neutral than a con, depending on what you’re wanting.
  • With fee-for-service hybrid publishers that don’t take any equity, your interests may not be aligned. They get paid regardless of how well, or poorly, your book sells. Obviously they want it to sell so it’s a success story for them, but they can tell a creative story about how it was a success because it helped you “finally write the story only you could write,” while neglecting the fact you paid them $50K and all you got was 300 poorly formatted paperbacks with missing pages and a janky cover.
  • With a hybrid publisher that takes equity but doesn’t give an advance, they’re entire relying on you to do all the marketing (using your own money) while they reap the rewards of your effort for as long as they own equity in it. These publishers also typically require you to have massive reach and all-but-guaranteed sales before they sign you. So you’re giving up equity to effectively work with an agency instead of self-publishing or finding a different hybrid publisher where you pay out-of-pocket but retain 100% equity.

Considerations and Advice I’ve Gotten on Hybrid Publishing

  • Currently, most of the best equity hybrid publishers are hard to actually work with because they’re as, if not more, selective than traditional publishers since they have smaller teams, smaller budgets, and smaller margins for error if an author they work with doesn’t sell tens or hundreds of thousands of copies.
  • It’s basically like paying to work with a small publishing house, with many of the same issues you’d run into if you signed with a traditional deal with a small publishing house like issue around infrastructure, support, and distribution but with many of the same benefits like working closely with a passionate team of evangelists ready to put everything they have behind you to help you succeed.
  • Sometimes if you go hybrid and do well, trad houses will come knocking since you’ve established a track record of success.
  • This is a great interview between Nathan Barry and Eric Jorgenson that lays out many of the pros and cons of the various publishing paths.
  • Here’s an article that dives into several things to consider when you’re looking for a hybrid publisher

•••

Where My Head’s at Right Now

I’d like to go traditional for my first book for legitimacy, hopefully get access to networks I currently don’t (I’d love to get on podcasts like JRE, Lex Fridman, Armchair Expert, YMH, Daily Stoic, etc.), and to get access to world-class editors to help me become a better writer and develop skills I can take with me far into the future whether I stay trad or not.

But I hate the idea of not owning something I created. Like many entrepreneurs, I’m highly oppositional—it’s why so many of us started our own businesses instead of staying in a normal 9-5. So the thought of being told what to do, especially if it’s a stupid decision that doesn’t align with what I’m trying to do or the message I’m trying to share with the world, sounds like a set of golden handcuffs in the making. Check out The Hidden Cost of Success and Why You Might Not Be Willing to Pay It for a deep dive on this concept.

I’ve seen people like Paul Millerd and Derek Sivers have a ton of fun with their books through intriguing marketing ideas (Paul randomly leaves his books around town, at conferences like SXSW, and in hostels when he travels all over the world) and creative ways of using their books (Derek sells his books at a discount on his website and gives away all his book profits to charity).

But I’ve also seen authors like Ali Abdaal, Tiago Forte, and Polina Marinova Pompliano take their careers and businesses to incredible new heights through going the traditional publishing route.

The ideal for me is currently a pipedream: Signing with a traditional publisher while retaining all the rights and most of the equity. Because authors should be entrusted with how best to write, market, and position their own books

•••

Eric Jorgenson is the CEO of Scribe Media and author of the bestselling Almanack of Naval Ravikant. He took over about a year ago after the company went through a complete overhaul after bankruptcy, new investors and owners taking over, and Eric getting appointed CEO (a great decision on their part) to rebuild the company into what it always had the potential to be.

A few months ago, Eric visited Austin, so we met up and I asked him how he was adjusting to his new role as CEO.

“It’s great,” he said. “I hire the best people, then stay the hell out of their way.”

This is one of the many things that makes Eric incredible at what he does. He knows the most effective CEOs don’t micromanage or insert themselves into every aspect of the company—they find the right people, put them in the right places, empower them to do their best work, and then get the hell out of the way because they trust them.

This should be how traditional publishers operate—find the right authors, give them the resources to succeed, then get the hell out of their way.

•••

But until this happens, I’m stuck with the current options. So I’m going to attempt to get a traditional deal and an awesome agent.

If I don’t get a deal, or a good enough deal relative to the control I would give up, then I’ll go self-published or hybrid and see where it goes. Maybe a trad publisher comes knocking with better terms after they see my book do well. Maybe they don’t and I continue to iterate and write more books.

But regardless, I’m writing this book, and several books after it.

I firmly believe every entrepreneur should write a book, so if you made it this far, I hope this was helpful and gave you some ideas on which route you can take for your own book. Also…

I’d love to know:

  • If you’re interested in writing a book, what are your thoughts on which route is right for you?
  • If you’ve already published books, what have your experiences been, and is there any advice you can share?

Shoot me an email or DM and let me know!

I’ll share book updates in my newsletter. So if you aren’t already, you can subscribe to my newsletter here. Each issue is a deep dive exploring the psychology of how to succeed in life and business, plus other cool stuff (check out the page for more information).

•••

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