Have you ever thought of self-publishing your latest outdoor adventure story? If so, here’s the good, bad and the ugly that comes along with it.

I’ve published 17 books through a traditional publisher (Firefly Books, one of the largest in North America). But a couple of years ago I experimented with self-publishing a book titled Once Around Algonquin: An Epic Canoe Journey. The success convinced me to give self-publishing another try, and I just released my second one: Another Bend in the River: The Happy Camper’s Memoir.

Were both books a success? Yes. Was it more fulfilling? Absolutely. Was it financially stable? Maybe. Would I do it again? I’m not entirely sure on that one.

image of Kevins booksKevin Callan

First off, the stigma of self-publishing, as they say, is real. A self-published writer is still looked upon as a wannabe, a writer who didn’t have the talent to make it in the big league. They’re like an opening act at a rock concert.

Why is that? Even today, when the self-publishing industry has gained exponential growth in the last few years, the going perception of a self-published book is that it’s poorly written, has low quality production, and contains page after page of grammatical errors that makes it impossible to read. Some of them are like that. Heck, anyone can self-publish a book. Vain outdoorsy types with little skill with the pen or the paddle can become self-indulged experts overnight.

I’m not saying there’s nothing particularly wrong with the idea of having anyone publish a book. If it’s just a poorly written book, edited by the author’s spouse or mother-in-law, then maybe no one will buy it. No big deal. Just time and money are wasted. However, if it’s something like a guidebook on nonpoisonous mushrooms or how to safely canoe down whitewater, especially without a full fact-check from a proper copyeditor, things can turn deadly. It’s like re-wiring your house with guidance from a YouTube video. Yikes!

writing books is workKevin Callan

However, let’s not forget that there are so many good stories, especially adventurous ones in the outdoors, that are missed out on because large publishing companies simply don’t think they’ll sell thousands of books and make them a huge profit. I can name countless skilled wilderness travellers who have done far more incredible trips that far exceed others who have been professionally published and promoted. There’s something wrong with that. A good story untold is a sin in my opinion. It’s like a good song not played.

So, why go with the “professional” publisher? The reason why I still continue to work with mine, besides the fact that I’ve known them for years and I wouldn’t have had the initial success back in the day if it wasn’t for them, is mainly for their ability to provide larger distribution. The only way I got my self-published books into Chapters-Indigo in Canada is because of my other bestselling published books through Firefly. Why I was able to talk about it on major media was because of my previous work. If I didn’t have that, none of them would have touched the self-published work. A good point to remember.

bestselling amazonAmazon

Also, there’s the point made about initial set up costs. With a traditional publisher I’m given an advance to work on a book (usually $1,500 to $3,000 depending on the work involved). There was no advance money, obviously, with my self-published books. I also had to put up $6,000 plus to hire a professional editor and designer.

Some authors who are published in the traditional sense will tell you there are other advantages. Marketing for example. In my experience, however, that’s not entirely true. It’s usually the author themselves who promotes the book more than the publisher. I set up 99 per cent of book tours and media. I also know my market audience far more than someone who's promoting all sorts of genres.

And if you’re thinking you’ll make more money with a traditional publisher, think again. I make 8 per cent royalty on each book sold through my traditional publisher. That’s it. The rest goes to the publisher and the bookseller. Max for Canadian authors is 10 per cent royalty. Self-publishing (I choose IngramSparks) I’ll make 40 to 70 per cent per book. That’s a big difference!

I also have complete control, because essentially, I’m the publisher. I have final say over content, design, editing and pricing. I know the professionals who are working on my book, because I hired them.

Reading his bookRandy MitsonJust make darn sure you spend the money and get the best. That’s been the smartest thing I’ve done with my two self-published works.

There’s also a third option called “hybrid publishing” or “vanity publishing” that combines elements of the other two. Their name will appear on the copyright page as the publisher instead of yours, which makes it look like you’re now a published author. Most readers can’t tell the difference between hybrid publishers and traditional publishers. This option works if you don't have good contacts with a good editor and designer, and you’ve never tried publishing anything before. Or you’re a high-profile author who wants to leave their traditional publishers for a more independent experience and don't have the time to organize it all. Believe me, self-publishing is triple the work then working with a traditional publisher.

self published coverRandy Mitson

Just be wary of hybrid companies. You must give them money in advance; and yes, I know authors who have had bad experiences with this. The quality in design and even paper choice is usually lower than with traditional publishers, and they do limited marketing and distribution. At the end of the day, your name is on the book. If it looks bad, then so will you.

In retrospect, my guidebooks I’ve done through the regular publisher would probably be too expensive and time consuming to be self-published. And a book about paddling around Algonquin Park or a memoir about “The Happy Camper” wouldn’t get touched by a traditional publisher. It’s a double-edged sword, really. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What I do know, however, if you have a solid story to tell, you’ll find a way to tell it.


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