There is an oft-repeated comparison between self-publishing and staking a wild gamble on casino games like slot machines or roulette. The thinking goes that once you publish, you’ve paid your money and all you can do is trust your luck. This isn’t new thinking. It’s also been said of traditional publishing for years.

But while I certainly agree that there is an element of risk to publishing–in that there’s no single formula you can follow to ensure success–I do take some issue with those specific comparisons. Trust me on this, book publishing isn’t slots or roulette. It’s poker.

Let me explain.

Guess a Number

Roulette basically boils down to guessing what number a marble will fall into on a spinning wheel. There is literally nothing you can do to influence the wheel or the marble. In fact, doing so is cheating and a surefire way to face blackballing at your favorite casino (and maybe even criminal charges). The best you can do is bet on red or black, but even that’s not quite as good as a 50-50 chance on an American roulette wheel.

If you think that’s out of your control, slot machines are next-level random. And with their incessant blinking lights and the constant barrage of electronic sounds, they are literally built to bewilder you. So not only are your results based on nothing you have done, but you are probably not even sure what you did.

Know the Odds

But poker–still a gambling game with many variables outside your control–gives you control over some parts of the game. It allows you to make educated guesses about what other players are holding and your own chances of beating them. What’s more, you can control how much you throw into the pot. Essentially, when you feel like you’re chasing bad money with good, you fold and get out of the hand. You aren’t going to win that one, obviously, but at least you won’t lose any more than you already have.

The variables can still ruin your perfectly good hand of poker. Somebody else could gamble on a longshot and pull it off at the last second. And no amount of smart positioning is going to let you win every hand every time. But the point (and the reason I personally love to play poker) is that there are parts of the game that you, the player, are in control of. That control, combined with the somewhat predictable human element, makes poker a game you’re playing rather than a game that’s playing you.

So how is self-publishing like poker? Because even though you can’t guarantee a win, there are ways to position yourself that will make winning much more likely. You take the parts of the game you do control and leverage them against the parts you don’t in ways that make you more likely to hit that jackpot.

It May Be a Gamble, but Play to Win

But what’s that look like in self-publishing? It looks like hiring a good editor so that you have a professional outside opinion telling you if your story works and helping you fix those annoying grammar or punctuation mistakes. It’s a cover designer wrapping your story in images that tell readers this is something they’ll want to read. It’s going wide in your distribution so as to give the most readers a chance to find it. It’s managing your metadata or search terms properly. It’s branding your work effectively and even branding yourself as an author. It’s making sure your endmatter links to more of your books so that a reader who finishes one story instantly has access to another.

And, truth be told, it’s a lot more than that. Some of those things Draft2Digital does for you, or will with the click of a button. Some of those things are going to cost you a little extra money and effort from a qualified freelancer. But every one of them you do makes it that much more likely you’ll succeed in self-publishing.

It’s still a gamble. Every day there are royal flush stories that get lost in the shuffle and there are small-pair stories that bluff their way into a big win. But if you take control of the parts of the self-publishing game that you can control, you’ll know you’re maximizing your chances at taking the pot. And if you watch this blog, we’ll teach you some of the tricks the pros use.