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  • Tatia L. Gordon-Troy, Esq.

Five Things Attorneys Should Know About Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Attorneys have been known to write more than just the occasional appellate brief. Many are accomplished authors with several books to their name. Fictional novelists, such as John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Meg Gardiner, to name a few, are certainly at the top of the publishing heap. Not to mention the myriad attorneys who have devoted their careers to writing legal treatises and manuals—Hiroshi Motomura, Steven Yale-Loehr, Robert Divine, and countless others. Some even have their names as part of the book’s brand, for example, Kurzban’s Immigration Law Sourcebook (Ira Kurzban) and Gibber on Estate Administration (Allan Gibber).

Many of these authors contracted with medium– to large-scale publishers. Yet, a growing population of attorneys is taking the self-publishing route—like best-selling romance novelist Louise Bay, for example. Even authors who have contracts with big publishers are testing the self-publishing waters with manuscripts written solely for that purpose. For those of you who believe you have the latest legal thriller just waiting to be written or maybe a practice-oriented, how-to manual that’s ready to be published, have you thought about self-publishing versus contracting with a traditional publisher? Consider these good and bad characteristics of both.


A new author can benefit from the prestige of having a well-known publisher handling his or her manuscript. The larger the publisher, the bigger the marketing budget—and that typically bodes well for many authors. However, traditional publishers can be quite restrictive, offering royalty-based contracts with boilerplate language that provide little to no room for negotiation. The contracts can include nonnegotiable clauses and broad ownership rights that last for an eternity. A traditional publisher tends to have the upper hand when dealing with new authors.

In contrast, as a self-published author, you own your manuscript and can choose to file the published version with the Library of Congress in order to enjoy additional protections beyond the traditional common law copyright. If you want to use an excerpt from your book for a seminar for which you are a speaker, no need to ask for permission first. In fact, providing excerpts of your book to your intended audience could help boost sales and attract more people to your website.


Oftentimes, traditional publishing contracts require production costs to be charged back to the author and must be recouped before an author receives any royalties. An advance on royalties paid to an author combined with the expenses of editing, formatting, design, page composition, printing, delivery charges to a warehouse, etc., are just some of the costs that could take years to recoup depending on the revenue derived from the book’s sales. And not all publishing contracts include cap clauses, which exist solely for the author’s protection. Contracts also can require authors to purchase copies of their own book, albeit at a discounted rate.

As a self-published author, you can estimate and plan for your production costs, but the payout for these expenses will be upfront. You can take the DIY route, but the finished product might not be the polished piece you’d hoped for. Self-published authors have to find the talent needed to address aspects such as cover design and page composition, even conversion of the manuscript to an eBook format.


Signing with a traditional publisher isn’t always ideal, as many of these publishing houses will shift their marketing dollars to the bigger fish—manuscripts that are projected to make millions. Depending on where your manuscript might fall on the grand scale, you may not get the level of attention you desire. Not only can this impact your expectation of royalties, this can adversely affect your book’s release date, whether the book receives its own marketing plan and dedicated staff, and where your book is eventually marketed (e.g., catalog only, online only). With fewer marketing dollars headed your way, you might need to rely heavily on yourself to market the book.

Signing with a publisher but still handling most of the marketing yourself isn’t much different from self-publishing; however, as a self-published author, you are free to tap into your personal network of clients, friends, and colleagues. Nevertheless, handling your own marketing and promotion can prove to be very time-consuming, ultimately stealing precious time away from your daily caseload.


Traditional publishers rarely provide authors the opportunity to participate in the creative aspects of book publishing, i.e., cover design, design of marketing materials, and page composition. Protests regarding content organization, even a change in book title, have been known to fall on deaf ears.

But as a self-published author, you are in the unique position to maintain control over most, if not all, of your manuscript’s presentation and distribution.


No matter how great you think your manuscript is, it might be difficult to find a publisher that agrees with you. And it takes time to shop around a manuscript; frankly, most authors will use a literary agent for that purpose (another cost to consider).

With self-publishing, you can become a published author in a matter of months, even weeks. But it might behoove you to research your topic to see what already exists. And even though your perspective is unique to you, the market already might be saturated to the point where your book could be lost among the crowd.

There are no guarantees of success regardless of which path you choose. But with self-publishing, a marketing and publishing strategist can help you save money on production and marketing costs by customizing and implementing a strategy that’s right for you and your budget.

There’s an excerpt of an article written by Judy Rein, a literary agent and former executive editor, which covers seven key points to a publishing contract, and it’s worth reading. It places emphasis on understanding the terms of a publishing contract well before you sign the dotted line.

****Tatia L. Gordon-Troy, Esq. is the founder of RAMSES HOUSE Publishing LLC, a publications management, marketing, and editorial services firm. Using her 20 years of legal publishing experience, Tatia helps attorneys self-publish as a way to market their practices. Copyright ©2016. RAMSES HOUSE Publishing LLC.

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