Early on, every indie or self-publisher must answer a crucial question: what's the scope of your publishing program. Will you publish only one book? Will you publish every book you write? Or will you become a hybrid author, publishing some yourself and traditionally publishing others? There is, of course, no right or wrong. There are only options.
Becoming a Successful Small Business
I like to put the question of self-publishing into a wider business context. In the U.S., most small businesses fail within the first year. Usually it takes 3-5 years to turn a profit and start making money after the initial investments.
What that means in practical terms is that self-publishing a one-off book is the least likely to make you any money. Indies who do well think long term and think about overall income over a variety of books. Often at first, nonfiction takes off first, because nonfiction is written to solve someone's problem. Finding that audience is often easier.
It takes time to build a reputation with fiction. For those authors who already have a reputation in the traditional publishing, it's possible to do well with a one-off book, especially if you're finishing off a trilogy or series that was dropped by a traditional publisher. You can do well, that is, if you've built a mailing list of fans and know how to contact them!
Most indie publishers will succeed if they have a long term strategy of consistent publishing in certain genres for certain audiences. The more you can concentrate writing and publishing in one area, the more likely it is that your reputation--and sales--will grow.
Projects of the Heart
For some people, though, making a profit as a small publisher doesn't matter. For example, you may have a deaf daughter and want to write a story that helps other families with deaf children. For niche markets like this, you're unlikely to turn a profit. If you must commission art and hire freelancers for editing and layout, then your budget is hard to balance. Some indie publishers will be happy with just breaking even on such projects. Nothing wrong with that. For these folks, maybe publishing just one books makes perfect sense.
Traditional Contracts - Will You Ever Go Back?
An interesting thing happens, though, as you start to self-publish. You no longer have to split profits with a publishing house. Your per book profit is much better. For ebooks sold on Amazon, for a $5 book, Amazon keeps 30% and the publisher receives 70%, or $3.50. Traditional publishers normally pass along 5% for a picture book ($0.18) or 10% for a novel, or ($0.35).
After a couple books under your belt, traditional contracts don't look as enticing as they once did! This isn't a post about contracts, but Kris Rusch has done a series about contracts that explains her indie mind-set. At the very least, Kris gives you lots to think about!
On the other hand, there are times when it does make sense to work with a traditional publisher. They have a wider reach and have the ability to make huge sales on certain projects. There's nothing wrong with being a hybrid author who both indie and traditional publishes. Just go in with your eyes wide open.
Do you have to choose the Scope of your publishing program? Yes and No.
Yes, you must decide what you plan to do. It's important for many business decisions what you plan to do.
Taxes. If you only want to do one book, maybe sole proprietorship is fine; if you do many, you may want to incorporate.
Name and Logo. Will you publish under your own name or give your publishing company a more professional name? Please, please, please do not put your publisher as Create Space! I can't think of a more amateur way to list your books. Unless maybe it's one of the other scam "book publishers." If you only publish one book, maybe your name is OK; if you plan many, you need to be a pro about †his issue and really create a publishing house.
Freelance or DIY. If you only publish once, maybe it's fine to freelance everything; if you plan to do many, maybe you want to invest in learning programs to cut costs and gain control.
Publish wide or only Amazon. If you only publish once, maybe it's enough to go exclusive with one distributor; if you publish many, maybe you want to maximize your income streams and not put your company's success squarely on the shoulders of one fickle distributor.
ISBN. Will you buy a single ISBN or a block of ISBN? 10? 100? 1000?
The list could go on, of course. The decision of the scope of your publishing affects every other business decision you make.
No. You don't have to decide what you plan to do. One idea in the business world is the "minimally viable product." That means a business will bring a product to market as bare bones as possible and let the success or failure in the marketplace determine what comes next. They will add or subtract features based on customer feedback. It's an interactive process based on the market the product finds.
My own experience in self-publishing has followed this trajectory in some ways. I first published a workbook for a novel revision retreat that I taught. Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise is in its second edition and doing well. My first children's picture book, 11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph, was a learning book and hasn't yet found its real audience (translate: poor sales). But the second children's book, Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for over 60 Years received a starred Publisher's Weekly review and has done well.
That early success with a science picture book has set me on a path of doing more science books. It's a good market for me, with sales so far this year of 2900 in special orders alone. I also publish fiction picture books and hope they do well, such as Rowdy: The Pirate Who Could Not Sleep.
Initially, I planned to only publish the one workbook. But it was easy, the money was good, and I learned early on that I was a DIY-type person, so I could keep budgets streamlined. When I decided in 2013 to go full-time with Mims House, I bought a block of 1000 ISBNs to signal my serious commitment to indie books. The scope of my publishing has grown until I have about 30 titles, and about 60 ISBNs used between hardcover, softcover, ebooks and audiobooks.
You can choose one path and then change your mind later. You have options. But you must choose something, even if you later change your mind! What is the scope of your publishing?