Should you self-publish?
For the right project, it may be a good way to meet a need or grow a career
Published: August 27, 2010
|For years, self-published books have suffered from an industry bias—in many ways justified—that such books would never see the light of day with a “legitimate” publisher. Typically they suffered from bad writing and editing, adding to the belief that a self-published book is inferior. Those days are long gone.|
“Clearly, the Internet combined with print-on-demand (POD) technology has transformed the self-publishing industry,” says Ivory Madison, founder of the author marketing site RedRoom.com. In reference to evolving technology, she added, “In the next three years, the leading self-publishing companies will virtually perfect the software, process, and pricing models to the point where you can achieve exactly your vision for any book you want” for very little cost.
Madison thinks of self-published authors in four categories. The first three: hobbyists who want to create a book for self-expression, gifts or personal interest; indie authors who are legitimate writers who cannot find an editor at a publishing house and who believe their book could be commercially successful; and those who think they’re in the last category but whose work really is awful.
The fourth category has been statistically insignificant but will grow in coming years: authors who have an offer from a legitimate publishing house but self-publish anyway, as a creative and business decision.
When a traditional publisher accepts your book, it provides certain services, including editing, cover and content design, production, distribution to booksellers, and some—often minimal—level of promotion. The publisher not only pays you an advance of some amount, but also assumes all the costs of editing, designing, producing and distributing the book, as well as spending money marketing it. As the author, in this scenario, you are paid royalties. All other profits go to the publisher.
If you self-publish, you pay for the privilege up front but get to keep 100 percent of any sales profits. The cost, though, can range from several hundred dollars to $10,000 and up, depending on the type of self-publishing you choose. And that should be dictated by the kind of book you’ve written, your skills (or lack thereof) in producing a published work, and your goals as an author.
Why, exactly, do you want your book published? Do you seek attention? Do you want to use the book to support other work, like speaking? Is it because you want to leave a family history for your children and grandchildren? Perhaps you’re tired of banging your head against the traditional publishers’ doors, and you have a well-thought-out plan for promotion and marketing. Or you may have expertise in a field that is too narrow for a larger publisher to consider (example: how to repair electric razors).
If you write fiction, you should first exhaust all efforts to get an agent and win a traditional contract. But if all efforts fail, by all means consider self-publishing. It’s very possible you will attract the attention of a larger publisher if your self-published book takes off.
That’s what happened to N. Frank Daniels. Frustrated with the barriers to traditional book publication, Daniels posted his novel futureproof on his MySpace page and then self-published it using POD technology in 2006. Soon, futureproof was a top-five finalist for PODdy Mouth’s Needle Award, and was featured in Entertainment Weekly and the New York press. Ultimately, it caught the attention of editors at Harper Perennial, which published it in January 2009.
Another success story is Eragon, the first in Christopher Paolini’s bestselling Inheritance trilogy. He wrote the novel as a teen, self-published it with his parents, and marketed it by giving talks at high schools and selling it out of his car. His sales won attention, and he eventually sold the book to Random House.
These are wonderful stories, but rare. Self-publishing makes more sense for a nonfiction title that has a particular niche and whose author has the re-sources and ability to spend a lot of time marketing it.
So, let’s look at the options and consider when each should be used.
The newer POD companies that operate online and often refer to themselves as publishers, such as iUniverse and Lulu, offer most of the services of a traditional publisher either à la carte or in packages for which you pay a fee.
If you have a memoir or family history you want to produce in limited quantities for family and friends, this is a good option. Since you can produce one book at a time, there’s no need to print and store a large stock of books. Each book can be printed as it’s ordered online. This is also a good choice if you are a hobbyist and want to produce a limited number of informational or how-to books you wish to sell online.
But beware. “Writers have no idea what kind of damage it does to their credibility to publish through POD ‘publishers,’ ” says Ken Atchity, whose company, Atchity Entertainment International, Inc., packages books and film deals. “For novelists it almost certainly eliminates their being taken seriously by the entertainment media, who know full well the names of the POD publishers and have the attitude that the POD-published writer has a) decided to pay for his publication and b) doesn’t have the enterprise to do it professionally.”
If you make a living writing for other publications but want to produce a nonfiction title to either subsidize your primary work or establish credibility as an expert in a particular area, subsidy-press publishing is a good option. This is also a good choice for business and inspirational speakers. A book confers instant credibility on speakers, who then can sell the title “from the back of the room” at speaking engagements.
Ernie Witham has been writing a humor column for newspapers for more than 10 years and is anthologized in a number of Chicken Soup for the Soul books. He recently self-published a second collection of stories based on his columns using Fithian Press, a quality subsidy press owned by John Daniel.
Daniel describes Fithian as a small-press co-publisher. Under a typical co-publisher agreement, the author pays all the major production costs, including typesetting, printing and binding. The publisher provides editorial services like editing, proofreading and jacket copy; production services like design and typesetting; marketing services like producing press releases and brochures, sending out review copies, and providing sales and fulfillment; and distribution to bookstores and online retailers.
The print run is typically short, in the 500- to 2,000-copy range. All copies are the property of the author, who gets a royalty of 60 percent of all net receipts on book and subsidiary-rights sales.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll quickly see this rarely turns out to be a money-making venture for authors. So, as Daniel says, you have to have a very good reason to see your book in print.
Witham wanted to publish the collections for his fans, but also to establish credibility as a humor-writing teacher. A book lets him market himself as an author, not just a columnist or contributing writer. It helps in marketing his work overall, it got him invited to speak at writers conferences, and it opened the door to write for some magazines.
“Because I write about everyday family experiences, it is also a family history of sorts,” Witham says.
Before online POD publishers appeared, self-publishing truly meant authors published the books on their own, from typesetting to arranging for printing and distribution.
This is a good choice for writers who produce how-to and self-help books, histories of obscure people or widgets, or books that have a very narrow but perhaps healthy following (example: people who collect antique clocks).
It’s also a good option for writers who publish in newspapers and magazines but want a book to increase visibility. The key is know-how.
Starshine Roshell, a newspaper columnist, self-published a collection of her columns in 2008 titled Keep Your Skirt On: Kicky Columns With Legs. Her husband, John Roshell, is a book and Web designer, so he had the skill needed to design and produce the book.
They launched the book with a big party and sold enough books that night to cover all their up-front publishing costs. Every book ordered now is printed on demand, and the profit goes directly to the bottom line.
If you decide true self-publishing is for you, read Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual, Vol. 2. Poynter believes the current revolution in publishing will permanently alter the playing field, empowering writers and allowing them to put their work directly into the hands of the reading public.
But this kind of self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. If you have the experience and knowledge, as the Roshells did, go for it. You should also read Morris Rosenthal’s Print-on-Demand Book Publishing: A New Approach to Printing and Marketing Books for Publishers and Authors, which provides exhaustive information on POD publishing, and Aaron Shepard’s Aiming at Amazon: The New Business of Self Publishing, or How to Publish Your Books With Print on Demand and Online Book Marketing on Amazon.com, which explains in detail how to use Amazon to sell and distribute a book.
Whether you self-publish fiction or nonfiction, be careful with whom you do business. Mark Levine’s The Fine Print of Self-Publishing compares 45 self-publishing companies, from online services to lesser-known quality subsidy presses. It also tells you what to look for in a self-publisher, explains contracts, and pinpoints companies to avoid.
Unless you have a good understanding of the entire process of book production and can do your own marketing, self-publishing is probably not for you. But particularly if you have a nonfiction book project and already have some publishing savvy—or are willing to put a lot of time into learning—it just might be the perfect choice.
Award-winning writer Marcia Meier’s latest book is Navigating the Rough Waters of Today’s Publishing World: Critical Advice for Writers From Industry Insiders (Quill Driver Books).||