Which is Better, Writing for a Publisher or Publishing by Yourself?

Dorothy Zemach
Dorothy Zemach

By Dorothy Zemach

Recent years have seen a boom in self-publishing, or indie publishing. Pretty much anybody with a computer and Microsoft Word can crank out a book and put it up for sale on Amazon. Does this mean the death of traditional publishing (called in the biz “trad pub”)?

Heck no. At least, not for ELT textbooks. The nature of our materials is very different from a novel, which is basically just text. At the same time, though, I think self-publishing is bringing back the type of book that disappeared around the 1980s as big coursebooks took off.

So if you’re a materials writer, what type of publisher is best for you? And if you’re a materials buyer, from which type of publisher will you be able to find the most suitable materials?

I’ve written a good 20 or so textbooks for trad pub, everything from workbooks and teacher’s guides to skills books to coursebooks; and then I’ve self-pubbed fiction and ELT materials, and now in fact run a micropress that publishes my own work and that of other authors. I also work as an editor for trad publishers, my own authors, and independent authors. Drawing on that experience, then, here’s what I would advise:


Traditional Publisher

Go here if you have a big project (such as a book with several levels; or a book with many components, like a student book, workbook, website, teacher’s book, and so on). Big publishers are skilled at herding all the cats necessary to handle big projects like these.

Likewise, trad pubs are better able to handle things like audio, video, and some art requirements (like illustrations instead of stock photos) that require both expertise and a big budget.

Trad pub is also what you’re looking for if you want to write—and just write. Yes, publishers take a hefty cut of the profits; most ELT publishing contracts award only 10% or even less of the net profit to the author. A book that retails for $50 might actually earn only $2.50 or so, after all the expenses have been paid; the author’s share, then, would be .25. Some books earn more, but those figures are not atypical for the sorts of books I have published. But in return, the publisher handles at a minimum editing, proofreading, recording, design, formatting, and sales and marketing, and sometimes more, including concept and approach.



Because your expenses are lower (I assume you’re not maintaining a large home office in London or New York as well as sales offices around the globe), you can handle smaller projects—ones that wouldn’t make enough money to be worth it to a trad pub, but would still make good money for you. Think of “one off” titles; things that aren’t series. Think too materials for specific audiences, such as niches of ESP or bilingual materials meant for one country. The bigger publishers are more and more reluctant to invest in books that aren’t multilevel series; but then some of the smaller audiences with more specific needs wind up without targeted materials.

Many indies publish ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks, rather than doing a print run of 25,000 copies. That means that indie publishing is ideal for time-sensitive material—something you want published very quickly, or something that needs constant updating. If I want to change something in a self-pubbed book, I can have those changes rolled out in 24-48 hours. For a trad pubbed book, I’d have to wait for reprints or a new edition, which could take anywhere from several months to several years to never.

Ebooks are especially suitable for short books. You don’t need to include a long introduction about the history of teaching pronunciation in the world if that isn’t necessary. I’ve published ebooks around 5,000 words long (so, roughly five times the length of this article). I say what I need to say, and then I stop. That saves the customer both time and money.

You’ll make more money per copy sold with self-publishing. Current royalty rates for ebook authors are 60-70% of cover price (not net!), and for paperbacks, once the printing costs are met, you can set your own price, and know instantly how much you’ll earn per copy.

Want to do things your own way? Self-publishing gives you that control. You decide the content—as well as the artwork, the cover, and the price. And all of those things are easy to change if you change your mind later.

Remember, though, that as an indie, you do have to do all the things. Self-publishing is more than typing. You are now the one responsible for arranging an editor and a proofreader, and then once the book is published, you’re the one in charge of marketing and publicity. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say. Think honestly about whether handling everything would be stressful for you or fulfilling.


Middle Ground

Ebook and print-on-demand technology has also given rise to small publishers, which can be a good compromise for those authors with smaller, more targeted projects who don’t wish to handle all of the non-writing aspects of the job. The publisher will still take some of your royalties in exchange for providing services, but royalty rates are generally higher than for the big trad pubs (my little company, for example, offers 50% royalties on ebooks and 40% on print, for most projects).


I love self-publishing, and I’ll only do more as the years go on. At the same time, though, I love the projects I do through traditional publishers as well. I just use different channels for different types of materials.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be an author—or, for that matter, a consumer, because so many more types of works are now available to you.

* * *

If you’re interested in exploring self-publishing in-depth, I’m doing a one-month course for ELT teachers through iTDi. We’ll do everything: evaluate your materials for suitability; write the book (“we” in this case obviously means “you”—you will write your book); edit and proofread it; format it for ebook publication; design or source a cover and add interior art; discuss distribution, sales, and marketing; and finally create a finished product. It’ll be a busy month, but even if you go through the process with just a few chapters, you’ll know how it’s done. For more information, click here.

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Dorothy Zemach

Dorothy Zemach holds an MA in TEFL and has been teaching English for 30 years. Since turning to materials writing, she has penned everything from the Teddy Bear's Magic Music teacher's book to the lowest and highest levels of Macmillan's flagship course Open Mind to the groundbreaking English for Scammers (self-published). She’s worked with CUP as an in-house senior development editor, and has written and/or edited as well for OUP, Macmillan, Pearson, Cengage, and University of Michigan Press, among others. In 2012, she founded Wayzgoose Press [http://wayzgoosepress.com], an independent publisher of fiction, literary non-fiction, and educational materials.

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