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Formal Publishing v Self-Publishing by Moire O’Sullivan

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Article by Moire O'Sullivan ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

There is something prestigious about having your book formally published. Signing a publishing contract can feel profoundly satisfying. To some, the self-publishing alternative can seem like abject failure, an option reluctantly pursued only when traditional avenues have failed.

Having gone down both of these routes myself, I honestly believe that both formal publishing and self-publishing have their own distinct merits, depending on what you want for your book.

In 2009, I wrote ‘Mud, Sweat and Tears – An Irish Woman’s Journey of Self-Discovery’ about attempting the Wicklow Round, a mountain-running challenge to summit twenty-six of Wicklow’s highest peaks within twenty-hour hours. Though I quickly found an agent to represent the book, ultimately no publishing house shared my agent’s enthusiasm.

After two years of rejection letters, and with my agent’s retirement, I decided to bite the bullet and self-publish. I was not looking for fame or fortune. I just wanted my writing available in the public domain for others to read.

I was surprised at the quality of the online guidance on how to self-publish, with step-by-step manuals on how to format the text for e-book and hard copy. The main requirement was some working knowledge of Microsoft Word.

Though I could have also used an online application to design a cover, I opted instead to enlist the help of a local graphic designer who rustled up a presentable image within a week. I also contracted the help of an excellent copywriter who provided feedback and edits to my manuscript before it went live.

Though putting the book online myself was a steep learning curve, it provided me with an appreciation of all the various steps involved in the publishing process. This experience prepared me well for my first formal publishing contract for my second book, ‘Bump, Bike and Baby – Mummy’s Gone Adventure Racing’, which documents the challenges of combining nascent motherhood with training and racing.

Six years on from my self-publishing foray, I found the formal publishing process much more structured. I really enjoyed and valued engaging with my editor. She took the time and effort to refine and craft the text, going into a level of detail that I did not ask my copywriter to do with my first book. In terms of the cover, the publisher took control and worked hand-in-hand with a graphic designer behind the scenes. I was only presented with a final product, which fortunately I loved.

Working with a publisher definitely produced a higher quality product in terms of text and design. Having said this, if I had invested more when self-publishing, given the vast array of resources that can now be contracted, it is entirely feasible to produce an excellent book with the DIY approach.

Apart from production, there are several other process differences.

When working with a publishing house, my editor and I had very clear sign-off deadlines. This meant that once the text and cover were agreed, further edits were prohibited. The self-publishing process, on the other hand, gives the author on-going control over the book. I am allowed to log back in and do edits, even insert photographs or change the cover, years after the book’s original publication. Self-publishing effectively allows you to print endless new custom editions at any point in time.

Admittedly, the real draw of self-publishing is the impressive royalties on offer. E-books pay anything from 35% to an eye-watering 70% of the list price. For paperbacks, I typically receive 20% to 30%. I can also dictate the retail price and change it at will.

Given the amount of human resource investment in the formal publishing supply chain – the costs of editors, marketing personnel, distributors, retailers, etc. – it is understandable that royalties are considerably less. Though of course this is a matter to discuss during contract negotiation, 25% on e-books and 10% on hard copies are not unusual terms for new writers.

Although self-publishing margins are clearly better, you need to work with a formal publishing house to get your book in the high street bookshops. This important distribution channel is not available through the self-publishing route. My first book, Mud, Sweat and Tears, is only available online. Having said this, most readers these days are comfortable buying books over the Internet. Indeed, most couldn’t care less about how the book was published – they just want a good read.

Self-publishing websites like Amazon, Createspace and Smashwords allow you to check exact sales figures online, updated on a daily basis. Sales commission is deposited straight into your bank account at the end of each month. With a formal publisher the process is a little more manual, with sales figures typically reported once every six months along with a commission cheque.

The general expectation is that lower royalty percentages from a formal publisher are offset by greater marketing and distribution coverage and therefore higher overall sales. Publishing houses have marketing departments and contacts with newspapers and magazines that can potentially review their books. However even publishers are at the whim of the print editors who decide whether or not to print kind words – so there are no guarantees there.

Ultimately the success of a book will depend on the level of energy and engagement the author puts into promotion. With the advent of social media, it is amazing how much publicity you can drum up for free, whichever way your book has found its way onto Amazon or Goodreads.

However, working with a publisher taught me about generating momentum during a marketing campaign. They suggested a blog tour that culminated in a launch event on the book’s release date, something I now realise that self-published authors can also do with a little foresight and discipline.

Overall, I’ve found both publishing experiences rewarding for different reasons. I still submit manuscripts to publishers simply because I enjoy the team effort involved. However, if publishers were not interested, I wouldn’t hesitate to self-publish again in the future.

(c) Moire O’Sullivan

About Bump, Bike and Baby – Mummy’s Gone Adventure Racing:

In Bump, Bike & Baby, Moire O Sullivan charts her journey from happy, carefree mountain runner to reluctant, stay-at-home mother of two. With her sights set on winning Ireland’s National Adventure Racing Series, she manages to maintain her post-natal sanity, and slowly learns to become a loving and occasionally functioning mum.

‘Bump, Bike and Baby is a hilarious account of her journey through pregnancy and as a new mother, all the while training for the Irish National Adventure Racing Series title.’ –Outsider Magazine
‘I really enjoyed the book. The honest account of how Moire dealt with coming to terms with becoming a reluctant mum is extremely brave… Brutally honest…’ –Killary Gaelforce
‘Highly recommend this book, whether you are involved in sport or not, it’s a wonderful, honest, raw and eye opening read.’ –Kayathlon.ie
‘An insightful, witty and honest account of her challenges in adventure racing and motherhood.’ –Oliver Kirwan, Quest Adventure Series

Order your copy online here.


Moire O’Sullivan is a mountain runner and adventure racer. She is married to Pete and is mum to their two amazing boys, Aran and Cahal. In between having her children, Moire won Ireland’s National Adventure Racing Series in 2014 and 2016. In 2009, she became the first person to complete Ireland’s Wicklow Round. She subsequently wrote the inspirational mountain-running book, Mud, Sweat and Tears. Moire previously worked for international aid agencies throughout Africa and South-East Asia. She now lives in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains.
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