Written by A Guest Author June 8th, 2023

My Journey from Self Publishing to Traditional Publication

By Rachel Presser

Back in 2015, I started my own consulting business and soon added writing for hire services. With a goal to have a flexible income source that paid more than my last salaried job at a tax law office and let me focus on game development, I knew I couldn’t rely on grinding out business plans and articles all day.

Or at the very least, didn’t require as much ongoing hustling online and in person while also cementing me as an expert in my field.

Enter the very first tax law book by and for indie game developers.

I wasn’t expecting the book to make me rich, but that it would at least demystify several common tax and business structuring problems I saw my peers encounter and that many accountants tended to give misguided advice for. While well-intentioned, they were totally unfamiliar with how life and business actually work for the average “garage” indie developer rather than the more established and well-funded studios with payroll. I saw this as an opportunity to create something that hadn’t been made before, with my unique fingerprint as an indie developer with a tax law background.

Moreover, I figured self-publishing a medium-sized book that made taxes humorous, accessible, less scary, and tailored to my field’s precise needs would send consulting work my way and it certainly did.

The Next Chapter: A Publisher is Interested

As my consultancy and games career evolved, I became a regular speaker at various regional and national games conferences on business topics pertinent to indie developers. It was after one such speaker slot that I was approached by a representative from Taylor & Francis, a UK-based academic and reference publisher with several imprints. A few of these imprints, namely CRC Press and Routledge, cater to the professional and educational needs of the games industry. They’ve now been folded into Informa, the games media behemoth that also runs GDC (Game Developers’ Conference, the largest industry-facing event of the year in games) and Game Developer magazine, formerly known as Gamasutra.

Obviously, I won’t find a more ideal fit in terms of reaching my target market: other game developers.

When I was approached in 2018, it was right after the then-unexpected 2018 tax reform went into effect. It seemed like the perfect time to get a publisher involved now that the largest change to the tax code since the Reagan-era tax reform had taken place, and thus torpedoed a lot of my book’s content when it was barely three years old at the time.

But life had other plans.

A Stymied Contract

I don’t want to scare you with this part, but years of back and forth slog ensued.

Some of the delays were on my part, some on the publisher, then 2020 needs no introductions.

I spent much of 2018 and 2019 dealing with an intensely painful orthopedic issue that completely ruined my quality of life. 2018 was a crappy year because of an unsuccessful surgery that still required downtime and physical therapy. I had to get it corrected a year later. To this day, I thank the stars I had a successful second operation two months before COVID struck.

Although I had the publisher very interested from the start–read: the hardest part was already taken care of!–I submitted the proposal then would follow up on the state of the contract. I would hear nothing for weeks, then get the runaround when I thought we were making progress. Having had the same experience with mega-corp game publishers on licensing agreements, I loathe the “wait and see” game as much as anyone else but thought it wouldn’t take so long.

Then I had my unsuccessful surgery, and needed to focus on recovery and paying bills. Even if I got an advance in the contract, it wouldn’t be paid until the new manuscript was submitted and sent to bed. But I did not have a contract yet so that part couldn’t even be negotiated!

I sent a few follow-up emails in 2019 but they mostly went into the ether, so I assumed a publisher-supported update was dead in the water. I had “update tax book” on my to-do list for a year now and it was not getting done: after all, I was making big bucks with a new column and several indie teams hired me to be their interim business development manager all at once while I attempted to get back to work on my own games. All while I had another major foot surgery on the horizon, and instinct told me I had to change doctors! (Was VERY glad I did. Trust that instinct, even if it slows the process down.) Updating an old product that mostly served as a marketing tool and was making about $10-15 a month just wasn’t a priority.

Then the world shattered in 2020. But to give you the 5-Second Movie version of what happened next, I decided to move across the country to California and would need about a year and a half to make it happen. So I focused on my most lucrative clients, snagged those relief programs, sold possessions on eBay, and prepared for a new life out west.

I arrived in Los Angeles right before New Year’s 2022.

GDC 2022: The Contract is Signed

GDC was back after two years of it being too unsafe to run a massive, multinational event that attracts about 20,000 attendees. I was stoked to work the room again and see old friends and colleagues while making new ones.

Lo and behold, I reconnected with my publisher rep at the show. He was keen on rekindling the discussion of changing my now incredibly dated tax book into a professionally published product with proper support.

This time, the contract was in my inbox before I even touched down in LA.

I had my lawyer red-pen it after I reviewed it on my own. We went through two passes before I signed, including the addition of ongoing grant payments whenever I updated the webpage that would be accompanying the book. If you’re writing a reference book with content that constantly gets updated, this is a feature you WILL want unless you’re already negotiating future editions that entail additional compensation.

Have about $1,000-2,000 on hand for this process. If you can’t afford that, see if you have any free or sliding-scale legal clinics for freelancers and artists where you live. The legal fees I paid were definitely worth getting a higher payout for life.

Revamping Old Content and the Editing Process

Because of the ongoing product support and content creation payments separate of my royalties, I was glad I got a publisher. Other projects and my ADHD, not to mention the book serving more as marketing than a major income source, didn’t make updating the material a priority. But now I was under contractual obligation to revamp this book and deliver by October so it could get out in time for tax season.

So, redoing an old book has different challenges compared to writing a new book. In some ways, it was certainly easier than writing new material from scratch. But there was also so much dated material to read through, redo, or scrap entirely and replace with something new.

Other upsides of having publisher support after being self-published: I didn’t have to think about all of these minute details like page and proof layouts, or pay for an artist if I didn’t want to make an obviously half-assed cover in Canva for free. I only had to focus on updating my original material and approving or denying the changes made by the editor.

But it wasn’t without its challenges.

Just because the audience is STEM doesn’t mean the editor should be, and I really wished they assigned me a legal editor. There were also times when I looked through the proposed edits and saw a complete disconnect from the intended audience, the voice used, and even basic English. Because we were in a hurry to get the book sent to the press–a new process for me that I had no say in–it also meant that it wouldn’t get released until the tail end of tax season.

Harkening back to my Kindle experience, it made me remember how satisfying it was to finish the process and just click “publish” when I was done.

There’s some works in progress that I’d rather self-publish, namely fiction, because it has a much wider audience than a professional reference book for a fairly tiny industry. The proposal and contract processes for fiction writing are also completely different, often requiring you to finish your entire manuscript first. Some reference and academic publishers want to see sample chapters, but mine evaluates proposals based on a tentative table of contents.

Given that my audience is a small and dedicated niche, going with this publisher made sense for me. While I longed for some of the speed and degrees of control that self-publishing offers, ongoing grants plus royalties definitely beat what I was making on Kindle just to get my name out there. But publishing the first edition was a valuable learning experience as well, and also served as a stepping stone to getting traditionally published. You only go up from there!

Key Takeaways From This Experience

  • A Kindle book can absolutely be your jumpstart to working with a reference publisher. I don’t want to comment on how effective this approach would be with something like novels or poetry, there’s definitely fiction writers killing it in self-publishing and others who’d be happy to afford a pizza with their monthly royalties. But if you’re a nonfiction writer who doesn’t want to spend hours scouring publishers and submitting proposals out of the gate, or writing the entire thing just to face countless rejections, put it up on Kindle, Lulu, Gumroad, and other distributors just to see how it does. You can say you finished a book on your own, learn from the process, and it could catch a publisher’s eye if it’s fairly unexplored territory (who else would write about game developer taxes but me?) and/or was well-received.
  • Consider the content and how frequently it would need to be updated. Are you writing a nonfiction book that would be more evergreen, like a biography of an unsung hero, or a topic that changes as frequently as the tax code? If it’s the latter, publisher support holds a significant advantage over self-publishing unless you have editorial assistants of your own.
  • Always have a real lawyer red-pen your contract. Don’t take the first offer. Do not use an AI legal assistant. Sure, use Rocket Lawyer or Avvo to find someone if you don’t already have attorneys you regularly work with, but their templates and basic review services aren’t going to help you here. Yes, it’ll cost money out of pocket but that’s how I won the right to a perpetual annual payment for content updates irrespective of how much royalties the book generates. Red-penning is part of the negotiation process, so if you want an advance or you want to set other conditions like a longer timeline, tell your lawyer.
  • Check if your publisher has an affiliate program. I’m an Amazon Associate and you bet I want additional monetization for selling my own books. My publisher has an affiliate program as well, although I wasn’t able to get in. If yours has an affiliate program and you’re eligible to participate, bolster those royalties! You’ll get commission if visitors buy other books in addition to yours. Amazon’s affiliate program is pretty plug-and-play, publishers with affiliate programs might put you through a more rigorous enrollment process through their own website or an affiliate network like Commission Junction or Share-a-Sale. No matter how they do it, get that bag if you’re eligible. Don’t leave money on the table!
  • Is your end goal royalties or professional positioning? It’s difficult to say whether the publisher route is automatically more lucrative than self-publishing. It depends on the type of book, the audience, what’s in your agreement, and if you will receive an advance. Many reference publishers won’t pay an advance, others might if you’ve proven you can deliver. But if you want to write a reference book that productizes your knowledge while generating leads, or where you have full control over the content as well as the distribution and marketing, self-publishing would be a much faster and less time-consuming option.
  • Think about whether the publisher would help you reach your target market more effectively, or if you feel confident in your ability to work Kindle and other ebook search engines. In my case, this publisher is the big cheese for my particular industry although I’m not opposed to working with other reference publishers, or with a big house for both fiction and nonfiction projects. But I have more risque projects I’d rather self-publish.
  • Consider whether you work better under a contractual deadline or at your own pace. I have my own business, my own projects, several interests, and severe ADHD. There are times I don’t cope well with deadlines, and times when setting a deadline on myself is an exercise in entropy. But when it came to finally updating my tax book seven years after it came out, I was very glad I had a defined timeline that had to be adhered to get the book out in time for GDC 2023 and the tail end of tax season.


BIO: Rachel Presser is a former Enrolled Agent who retired from the tax profession just to use her years of taxation and business advisory experience to help other creatives with Sonic Toad Consulting. She has taught courses and spoken at various gaming industry events about business development and tax law issues for indie developers, and is the author of The Definitive Guide to Taxes for Indie Game Developers (second edition through CRC Press). She lives in Los Angeles with her monitor lizard, Liora.


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