To Publish or Self Publish Scholarly Works

I often receive questions from former students and colleagues about self-publishing. This page includes some common questions people ask and my responses.

How Will a Self-Published Book Look on my Vita?

If you are considering a career in academia, self-published scholarly books on your vita likely could be viewed negatively. It may be assumed that you could not find a reputable publishers to accept your manuscript. In academic settings, a self-published book will often either not be considered or will be viewed negatively. Often, you will be better not mentioning it at all. If you are not going into academia, there be less chance of it being viewed negatively, but it still might have a negative impact in many professional contexts.

The Citation Factor

For many scholars, obtaining citations to one’s work is as important, if not more important, than being published. A scholar’s citation index is increasingly being considered when applying for jobs, applying for promotion, or seeking tenure. Self-published books are much less likely to be cited, particularly in journals and other scholarly works. As a graduate professor, I consistently emphasize that students must use appropriate scholarly sources in their papers, thesis, and dissertation. To be considered a scholarly work, the resource should be 1) intended for a professional audience and 2) peer reviewed. Self-published books do not meet the criteria of being peer reviewed. If you self-publish, even as an established scholar, your book is much likely to be cited in the professional literature.

Should I List Self-Published Books Differently on My Vita?

Yes! If a potential employer or review committee has the impression that you are trying to make a self-published book look like a peer-reviewed book, this could be seen as cause to question your credibility. I would suggest one of three options 1) listing self-published books in a separate, clearly identified section of your vita, 2) label your book as “self-published” in parentheses behind where it is listed, or 3) do not include it on your vita.

I even clarify books published by publishers while I was working for them. I clearly list on my vita my role with the publishing company and that they are the publisher of books I publish through them. While these books typically still go through a peer review process, it is not the same as an independent peer review from an unaffiliated publisher. If I were to submit my vita as part of a job application, or when my vita has been included as part of applications such as becoming a Fellow of a Division of the American Psychological Association, I also note that I work with the publisher of several of my books in the cover letter.

Will I Make More Money by Self-Publishing?

First, let me dispel the idea that you are likely to get rich off of book publishing! It is rare that books, particularly scholarly or trade books, make much money. Textbooks are an exception, but the textbook market is highly competitive. Most authors of scholarly books make significantly less per hour invested in the book than they do at their job.

To return to the question, self-publishing may or may not make more money. You will make money per book if you self-publish, but you will likely sell fewer books. Most scholars, including myself, are highly skeptical about self-published books. I occasionally buy a self-published book by a friend, but rarely will I buy a self-published book by anyone I do not know. Even if you really promote your book, self-published books are hard to sell. If you are publishing a scholarly or trade book, it is highly likely you will sell more books by finding an established publisher. Yet, do not expect thousands of sales. For many publishers, if they sell 500-1,000 copies of a scholarly book they view this as a success.

For most scholarly authors, the best case scenario for a self-published book is to make about as much profit as you would publishing thorough a reputable publisher. Given this reality, I would say that rarely is self-publishing a good option for a scholarly book.

What Percentage of the Royalties Can I Expect?

Royalty percentages vary wide. From my experience as well as authors I have spoken with, 7.5% to 15% is pretty average. The higher royalty rates often come with more expenses for the author, which does make sense. You should consider the royalty percentage in relation to the costs.

If you self-publish, you do not necessarily get 100% of the sales. The book retailers often take a larger cut than what the author receives on print books. On ebooks, authors typically make a better percentage. However, despite the increasing popularity of ebooks, my own experience and the experience of those I speak with has been that print versions of scholarly books still sell much better than ebook versions. The vendor that helps publish the book may still take a cut as well.

What are the Cost Considerations?

The cost considerations are changing rapidly in the publishing business. Many authors hope to get an advance and have no expenses on their end. This is increasingly rare in scholarly publishing. Most authors who I have spoken with that have received an advance were required to purchase a certain number of books at an author discount. Often, this was going to be more than the advance! It is increasingly common for authors to have to share some of the expense; however, this can be done in various ways. Authors may be given the option to 1) pay for an index to be done for them, 2) have the cost of the index taken out of their initial royalties, or 3) create their own index. Authors may be asked to pay for copy-editing or, pay for copy-editing if anything beyond a minimal amount is needed. The recent trend is that authors are required to share the risk by purchasing a number of copies of their book at an author discount. Even with the author discount, the publisher still typically makes a decent profit. Authors can be asked to purchase anywhere from 10 to 100 copies. If you are required to purchase copies of the book, it is wise to look up the average prices of books by the publisher and clarify the author discount. Author discounts are typical 40-50% off the regular price, but it can be lower.

There are costs in self-publishing as well. There are typically set-up charges. If you are doing print and ebook versions  of your book, there could be separate set up fees for both, especially if you want a wider distribution. The set up changes can be pricy, especially for the higher quality set ups. If you want your book to be good quality, it is important to hire a professional copy-editor or, at the least, a professional proof-reader. Few people can do professional quality copy-editing of their own work. To self-publish a quality scholarly book, it generally will cost $1,000 or more. You can invest less, but it may be evident in the quality of the book and I would not recommend it.

Distribution

Self-publishing often limits the distribution. For most books these days, Amazon is where most sales will occur, so author do not worry about distribution beyond Amazon. I think this is a mistake in most situations. When considering distribution, you should consider several factors:

  1. Will my book be available to bookstores? To be available with bookstores you generally have to offer a 55% discount to the bookstores and have a return policy that allows for return of books. There can be an expense associated with the returned books as well.
  2. Will the distribution automatically be set up with Barnes & Noble and other online book retailers, or do I need to set this up myself? If I have to do the set up, does that mean that I will have to be responsible for sending books to the retailer?
  3. For ebooks, will it be available with Nook (Barnes & Noble), Kindle (Amazon), iBooks, Google Play, and Kobo? These are the major ebook outlets. With Kindle, you get the smallest percentage of the profits; iBooks is generally the best. Thus, it is good to be available beyond Kindle.
  4. Will the book be available internationally? This may not be a concern for some authors, but it can be an important consideration.

What About Other Types of Books

If you are writing a novel, poetry book, chap book, or memoir, self-publishing may be a good route. Still, it is rare that you will sell many copies or make much money, but self-publishing makes more sense for these types of books and is less likely to be looked upon negatively. If you think you are writing any book that has the potential to sell several thousand copies, it is worth the effort to find a good publisher who can market the book.

If you are writing general non-fiction seeking a wider audience, then a reputable publisher is still very important. Marketing a book is time consuming and expensive. Without a good publisher, very few authors will be able to help their potential audience find their book.

Bottom Line

If you are an academic or scholar, unless you are solidly established, the self-publishing route is generally not the best route unless you are publishing something that is not relevant to your scholarly work as a hobby. Although there are frustrations and even expenses with the traditional publishing route and self-publishing may appear as an attractive way to avoid this, there are many risks with self-publishing as well. The risks can include your credibility and reputation as well as the quality of the book. Once you are established with a few books by reputable publishers and have a solid list of journal publications, the risks may decrease, but rarely will your book sell as well if it is self-published.

by Louis Hoffman, PhD
April, 2017


We dishonor those early influential thinkers in our movement when we turn them into idols. We distort the message they were bringing to us and the message they lived in their lives. I believe (and hope) that if these figures were around today that their harshest critiques would be of the way we over-revere their contributions. We love and honor our heroes when we recognize their humanity. To be revered as an idol or infallible scholar is much less of an honor than to be revered as a human who within all the limitations of being human rose to contribute a unique voice and make an important, though imperfect, contribution worthy of a lasting influence on the history of humankind.

— Louis Hoffman, The Proper Use of Tradition and Scholarly Authority