Until relatively recently, if you wanted to self-publish, you faced a labor-intensive and costly process.
You had to handle every aspect of producing your book yourself, including hiring and overseeing editor(s), designer, cover artist, and printer. You had to order a print run, which meant you also needed somewhere to store a lot of boxes. Then, at the end of all that work and expense, you had to find a way to get your book into readers’ hands—an uphill struggle, since bookstore and library distribution wasn’t available to individual authors, and paid publishing carried a powerful stigma.
Except for authors who had direct access to a niche audience, or were extraordinarily talented promoters, or simply caught a lucky break, it was a rare self-publisher who ever came close to recouping his or her investment.
Things began to change in the mid-1990’s, with the appearance of the first Internet-based publishing service providers. These took advantage of a new digital technology called print-on-demand, which eliminated the necessity of traditional high-volume print runs by making it possible for books to be produced one at a time or in small lots.
The new publishing service providers made self-publishing simple: all you had to do was upload your manuscript, choose an interior format and a cover, and the service turned your book into a digital file that could be printed and bound when ordered and never had to be stored or warehoused. They were also inexpensive: since the entire process was automated, and production costs could be recouped at the point of sale, the services could keep fees low and still make a profit.
The resulting books were flimsy and cheap-looking—as I recall, books from Xlibris, one of the earliest print-on-demand publishing service provider, didn’t even have cover images—and available only from the services’ websites. Building a readership did not become easier—bookstores were no more interested than before in shelving pay-to-publish books, especially when those books didn’t carry standard wholesale discounts and weren’t returnable. But for the first time ever, authors could self-publish with relative ease and at minimal cost.
Through the late 1990’s and into the early years of the new century, publishing service providers continued to evolve. Distribution expanded to include online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Many services added an ebook option–though ebooks, then, were a niche market with very limited readership, and print was still self-publishers’ primary focus. Other options expanded as well—not always to authors’ benefit, as the services realized they could make a huge profit by offering premium-priced (and dubiously effective) marketing services. Fees ballooned: some services were still cheap, and a tiny few were free, but others offered packages costing nearly as much as the old-fashioned vanity publishers.
What didn’t change: the challenge of discoverability. The pay-to-publish stigma was still alive and well–and together with high cover prices (print-on-demand is an expensive production method, and POD books must be priced higher in order to make a profit) and limited distribution (online only, with little or no shelf presence), the average self-publisher was lucky to make more than a few hundred sales over the lifetime of his or her book.
Then, in 2007, Amazon introduced the Kindle, and with it, the first exclusively electronic self-publishing platform: Kindle Direct Publishing. KDP offered a new self-publishing model: it was ebook only; it was free; and it granted self-publishers control over the pricing of their books. Even more important, it gave them access to the exact same distribution channels as traditional publishers. Self-publishers could now launch their books into a marketplace where the two biggest shortcomings of print self-publishing—high cover prices and sharply limited availability—simply didn’t exist.
Of course, none of this would have mattered much if ebooks had remained the tiny, enthusiast-only market that they were pre-Kindle. But as we all know, the Kindle was the tipping point. Ebooks took off—and electronic self-publishing with them.
Self-publishing hasn’t become easy. It’s still a difficult, demanding way to go. As with traditional publishing, major success is still an outlier event. But for the savvy, motivated, entrepreneurial author, it is now a viable alternative career choice. Today’s self-publishers are building audiences and making money; they’re receiving traditional publishing offers—and sometimes refusing them—and crafting innovative distribution and subsidiary rights deals. Self-published books represent a commanding portion of sales in certain ebook markets, particularly genre fiction. The successful self-published author can no longer be dismissed as a fluke.
There are still many pitfalls and “bewares,” however—some arising from technological and logistical issues, and others, paradoxically, from self-publishing’s explosive popularity. The sections that follow address these.
* The above is excerpted from my Introduction to Choosing a Self-Publishing Service.
A rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats. The runaway success of electronic self-publishing has not been duplicated for print self-publishing—mainly because no one has figured out how to overcome the twin challenges of price and distribution.
Many self-publishers are choosing to forgo print entirely and publish only in ebook form. But there are still good reasons to self-publish in print (though never only in print):
– To give readers alternatives. The more formats you can offer, the more readers you can satisfy.
– To exploit real-world sales opportunities, if you’ve got them. You may have a way of selling directly to your audience (a restauranteur who wants to make a cookbook available to his or her customers, for instance), or of exploiting “back of the room” situations (someone who lectures or conducts workshops and can sell books at these occasions).
The easiest–and potentially least expensive–route to print self-publishing is through one of the many print-on-demand-based publishing service providers. There are a number of issues to consider with these.
The best print publishing service providers, such as CreateSpace and IngramSpark, are free, or cost no more than a few hundred dollars. Others are much, much more expensive. What you get for those very large amounts of money may not be worth what you’re paying—especially considering the issues outlined below.
Many authors choose to self-publish in print because they hope to gain brick-and-mortar bookstore and/or library presence. However, limited distribution and nonstandard sales practices make that unlikely, or at best, very difficult.
Most publishing service providers claim to provide “worldwide distribution”–and generally they do, through wholesalers such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Bertram. But wholesalers are only half the distribution picture. The other half is a distributor with a sales team that sells books directly into bookstores and libraries. (For a more detailed discussion of the differences between wholesalers and distributors, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog.)
Without that direct sales component, libraries and booksellers will never know your book exists, unless you tell them yourself. This is a frequent source of disappointment for authors, who often assume that wholesale distribution equals bookstore presence.
Another reason booksellers may not want to deal with print self-published books: by long tradition, they’re accustomed to a particular set of buying protocols, which include discounts of 40% or more, 60- or 90-day billing, and full returnability. Many print publishing service providers don’t offer industry-standard discounts, and most require that orders be pre-paid. And while some services do offer returnability if you pay an extra fee, it may be a restrictive policy that booksellers won’t find attractive.
Libraries may be willing to accept donations of books, especially from local authors, and authors who are willing to go door-to-door can be successful in persuading local bookstores to stock their books (though usually they must sell on consignment, or agree to buy back unsold copies). Some bookstores have special programs for self-published authors (though there may be a fee for service). By and large, however, self-published print books don’t see the inside of bookstores or libraries.
Publishing service providers use print-on-demand technology to produce books (POD allows books to be printed one at a time or in small lots, rather than in larger print runs of several hundred or several thousand). Because it can’t take advantage of economies of scale, POD is a more expensive per-unit printing process than traditional offset printing.
Publishing service providers recoup their production costs and overhead at the point of sale by including them in a book’s retail price. The more material it takes to produce the book, the more expensive it will be; at longer page counts, POD-produced books can cost more than twice as much as their offset-printed counterparts. Even where the author (rather than the service) determines the retail price, they must do so on top of a fixed production cost.
In other words, your self-published print book may cost more–possibly a lot more–than a similar book from a traditional publisher. A price tag of $25 or $30 for a trade paperback-size book is a major disincentive for readers.
POD-produced books can be almost indistinguishable from traditionally-printed trade paperbacks. But some publishing service providers skimp on paper and cover stock, and don’t pay enough attention to production standards. Books from these companies can be shoddy in appearance, with covers that curl and pages that fall out as you’re reading them (a good reason to order a book or two from any publishing service provider you’re thinking of using). Also, POD-produced books are often bound with a narrow spine, so that they look more like pamphlets than books.
For most authors, the corollary of all of the above is low sales. It’s estimated that the average self-published print book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime (for a look at some old but still meaningful statistics, see here). This may not matter much to self-publishers who are focusing primarily on ebooks, and making print books available only as an adjunct. But if you’re self-publishing in print, you need to be aware that ebooks will likely be your main source of sales.
There are a number of options for electronic self-publishing.
– Epublishing distributors or aggregators. These services allow you to publish simultaneously to a variety of platforms, and will often provide conversion and formatting as well. The best ones charge no upfront fees, making their money by taking a cut of your earnings. Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Bookbaby are examples.
– Publishing service providers. Many publishing service providers offer electronic publishing across a variety of platforms, usually in tandem with print self-publishing. The downside is an often-hefty fee and less flexibility and control.
Issues to consider:
Epub only, or epub plus print?
As noted above, publishing a print book as well as an ebook gives readers alternatives, and that’s always a good thing. Even so, many authors choose to forgo what’s typically a low-selling option for self-publishers, and publish exclusively in ebook form. There’s no right or wrong here—but it is something you need to think about.
Platform or package?
If you decide to go with both an ebook and a pbook, should you publish them individually to separate platforms (for example, ebook to Smashwords and KDP, pbook to CreateSpace), or buy a package from publishing service provider that will produce both formats for you? Publishing to separate platforms is more work but gives you far more control; buying a package may be easier but can be expensive (see the Cautions section, below). Again, there’s no right or wrong, but you do need to carefully investigate your options.
These days, the best self-publishing platforms are free of charge. You don’t have to spend any money to self-publish.
That’s probably fine if writing is just a hobby. But if you’re serious about launching a career, you do need to consider investing in the services necessary to produce a professional, high-quality book. Today’s self-publishing is an extremely competitive field, in which authors have to work hard to stand out. Quality editing, design, cover art, and publicity are no longer optional.
It’s not hard to find freelancers who are offering these services, often at very reasonable prices that will cost you far less than the inflated packages provided by publishing service providers. However, hiring freelancers is an area in which you really need to be careful. See the Cautions section, below.
Terms and Conditions
Some examples: the Great Erotica Panic of 2013, in which Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers deleted hundreds of self-published ebooks over content guideline violations; and Amazon’s 2014 reduction in royalty rates for self-published audiobooks.
Format and Genre
For most authors, self-publishing success depends heavily on what kinds of books they write, as well as the number of books they have on offer and how fast they can produce them.
For instance, this chart from Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings Report indicates that in 2014, romance and science fiction/fantasy–in that order–brought in the most revenue for self-publishers on Amazon (which then and now commands by far the largest share of the self-publishing market).
That’s still the case, according to Smashwords’ 2016-17 survey. Of best-selling titles, romance accounted for 73%, with fantasy next at 9%, and YA following at 5%. Over 87% of Smashwords’ sales are fiction, and series titles sell better than standalones, especially if the first book is free.
See also this analysis of a 2012 survey of self-published authors–it’s several years old, but there’s still some interesting information about who self-publishes, how they do it, and what makes them successful.
As already noted, the explosive success of electronic self-publishing has attracted legions of authors, creating an intensely crowded marketplace where it’s harder than ever to stand out. Be aware that you’re launching yourself into a crowded and highly competitive field.
Whether to self-publish or publish traditionally is currently one of the most polarized areas of discussion in all of publishing.
Many self-publishing advocates portray traditional publishing as backward, elitist, and abusive. Traditional publishers, they say, hold writers’ rights captive and add no value beyond, possibly, print distribution. Self-publishing, on the other hand, is at the forefront of digital innovation, offers unlimited freedom and control, and pays better (at least, on a per-book basis). Self-publishing is the best way to start a writing career, regardless of what kind of writer you are or what kinds of books you write.
In the traditional publishing community, there are still those who see self-publishing as a gigantic slush pile, a realm of narcissistic losers unleashing a tsunami of bad writing on the world. They decry the cheapening of literature and the loss of traditional values. They dismiss self-publishing successes as flukes and outliers.
These highly biased views miss the point of the self-publishing revolution—that writers now have options. Where once it was traditional publishing or nothing, now there are multiple paths to publication and success. The great thing about being an author in the twenty-first century is that you get to choose.
Both self-publishing and traditional publishing offer benefits and disadvantages. Which is best for you depends on your needs and goals. They’re also not mutually exclusive–plenty of writers are choosing to become hybrid authors, self-publishing some books and traditionally publishing others.
Some tips for making this very important decision–especially for first-time authors:
– Understand your options. Invest some time in learning and research, to make sure that you have a solid basic knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. Unless you are familiar with the whole range of options available to you, you can’t truly make an informed decision.
– Think about what kind of writer you are. What you write, how you write, and where you are in your writing journey all should factor into your choice. For instance, are you prolific or slow? Self-publishing can be a good choice for prolific writers, but is less certain for slow ones. Do you write genre fiction or literary fiction? Self-publishing can work well for genre writers, but for literary fiction, the traditional publishing route may be a better way to go.
– Decide how comfortable you are with DIY. Successful self-publishing is entrepreneurship. It’s also a lot of work: self-publishers must not only do everything an author does, they must do everything a publisher does. For authors who like being their own bosses, that may be ideal. For those who aren’t comfortable with the idea of running their own businesses, traditional publishing may be a better option.
– Be skeptical of the hype. There’s a tremendous amount of hype and proselytizing around self-publishing. Cults of personality surround prominent self-publishing pundits, and not all the information you may find is accurate, complete, or representative. Beware of self-publishing evangelists who claim that any author can make a living by self-publishing, or who present self-publishing as the only viable (or honorable) route to success, or who spend a lot of time decrying the horrors of the traditional publishing model and insulting authors who aspire or choose to publish traditionally.
Self-publishing is an option and a choice. Like traditional publishing, it isn’t right for everyone. Which you select should depend on your abilities, your goals, and your writing, not on someone else’s word for what’s “right” or “best”. There’s only what’s right or best for you.
There are good reasons to choose self-publishing. There are also bad ones.
– Because you think traditional publishers aren’t interested in new writers. This is false. Every publisher is looking for the next big thing, and they are well aware that breakout authors often come from the ranks of the previously unpublished. If you have a marketable manuscript (which really is the biggest “if” for any author), never having been published won’t prejudice your chances.
– Because someone told you that self-publishing is the best route to success. Also false. It may be the best route for some authors, but not for all, and not necessarily for you. Make your own decisions.
– Because you think it’s easier. If you just want to slap your unedited manuscript up on Amazon, self-publishing is indeed pretty easy. If you want to produce a professional product, however, there’s a lot of work involved. From hiring editors and copy editors, to procuring cover art, to marketing and promotion, you must take on the entire burden–and expense–of the services that a traditional publisher would provide for you.
– Because you’re impatient. Self-publishing will get your work on the market a lot faster than traditional publishing will. But it still requires time and care to create and market a quality product. Rushing a book into the world doesn’t benefit you–or your readers.
– Because you don’t want an editor tampering with your golden prose. Every writer needs an editor. If you want your self-published book to stand out in an extremely competitive market, hiring a competent editor is one of the best investments you can make. (There’s more on editing, along with tips on vetting freelance editors, at Writer Beware’s Editors page.)
– Because you want to make a living. Many authors are making a living wage–or even getting rich–from their self-published books. Will you be one of them? Maybe–but there are no guarantees. Bear in mind this important fact gleaned from a recent sales survey by Smashwords: “The ebook sales power curve is extremely steep…A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly.” In other words, as with traditional publishing, self-publishing is not a golden ticket, and is unlikely to make you rich. The battle against obscurity must be fought by all writers, no matter how they decide to publish.
– Because you think it will make you totally independent. Self-publishing gives you far more control than traditional publishing does. But you’re still subject to the policies and content guidelines of whatever service or platform you use. You’re only as independent as your service provider will allow you to be.
The growth of self-publishing options has spawned an explosion of services aimed at self-publishers. Problem is, not all of them are worthwhile or legit.
Always check the reputations of any platform or service provider you’re thinking of using. Good resources for doing that: the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum at Absolute Write, and the Kboards.
They’re out there. Some examples, drawn from Writer Beware’s files:
Bait and switch editing schemes, where someone posing as a reader contacts a writer about (sometimes imaginary) errors in his or her book.
Fake PR services, charging a premium for, basically, junk mail.
Conman publicists, soliciting successful self-publishers, taking the money and running.
Fake blog tour companies. One Writer Beware knows of of took authors’ money and vanished without ever arranging the tours. Another created a closed loop: dozens of fake book blogs posting identical material.
Unqualified/inexperienced service providers
Far more common than scams, but just as bad. Like unqualified literary agents, unqualified editors, publicists, designers, and artists are often entirely well-intentioned, but just don’t have the skills to do a professional job. They may seem appealing because their fees are often lower than the professionals’, but don’t be tempted–you get what you pay for.
Always check the credentials of any service provider you’re thinking of hiring (and those of their staff). People who offer a service should have relevant work experience; a love of reading, a degree in English, or a career as a teacher doesn’t necessarily qualify someone to be an editor, for example. If you can’t find information on a provider’s background, or you request it and encounter resistance or refusal, walk away.
Look for samples of their work (book covers they’ve designed, books they’ve edited, etc.; a reputable provider should be glad to share this information). Ask for references. Plug their names into search engines to see if you can find recommendations or complaints. Check Absolute Write.
Many companies, and almost all publishing service providers, sell marketing packages. These are typically heavily based on ineffective methods (“search engine-optimized” press releases, email campaigns, book trailers, book fair presence, print and online advertisements) or things you could do yourself (setting up social media accounts, creating websites). They are rarely worth the money.
Other marketing strategies to avoid range from the pointless (posting your book and/or information about you on websites the marketer owns–the odds that such websites will get much traffic is slim) to the exploitative (offering you vanity radio spots, or interviewing you for the marketer’s own radio and TV shows–these shows are usually on public access channels or pay-to-play stations, and have tiny audiences) to the downright deceptive (claiming to pitch your book to Hollywood producers or market it to traditional publishers–this may a spam-style mass-mail approach or a listing in a catalog-style publication, but either way it will be ignored). And they can be eye-poppingly expensive. For instance, Outskirts Press (one of the larger publishing service providers) charges over $15,000 for its “Book Your Trip to Hollywood” service. AuthorHouse charges nearly $7,000 to produce a TV infomercial and book video.
Deceptive publishing service providers
Publishing service providers can be quite deceptive in the way they present themselves, implying a greater potential for success than actually exists, glossing over the challenges of self-publishing, and overstating the value of the overpriced, ineffective marketing services they sell. When evaluating publishing service providers, it’s important to remember that you are a customer purchasing a product. Sales pitches are not intended to benefit you, but to motivate you to pull out your credit card. Be skeptical of promises. Investigate before you buy.
A special case: self-publishing imprints associated with traditional publishers. These include West Bow Press (Thomas Nelson/Zondervan), Balboa Press (Hay House), Archway Publishing (Simon & Schuster), LifeRich Publishing (Reader’s Digest Association), and Inspiring Voices (Guideposts).
All of these imprints emphasize their connection with their parent publishers. However, they aren’t actually run by the publishers, but by Author Solutions, the publishing service conglomerate that also owns iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford, AuthorHouse, and several others. Writer Beware often hears from writers who believe that choosing Balboa Press will give them access to Hay House’s marketing department, or that their books will become part of Simon & Schuster’s distribution network if they use Archway Publishing. In fact, all they’re getting is an Author Solutions publishing package plus the glamour of a famous name.
Author Solutions itself was once owned by another major publisher, Penguin Random House (Penguin sold it to a venture capital firm in late 2015). Author Solutions aggressively used the Penguin connection to promote itself, leading many authors to believe that using an Author Solutions imprint would somehow get them closer to a Big 5 publisher.
Finding a Publishing Service Provider or Platform, Checking Reputations
- Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine provides detailed reviews of many publishing services, as well as news and commentary on the world of digital publishing. Mick also maintains an extensive index of publishing service providers.
- Choosing a Self-Publishing Service is the Alliance of Independent Authors’ guide to publishing service providers and platforms; it also offers helpful advice for self-publishers. (Full disclosure: I’m one of ALLi’s advisors, and I wrote the introduction to this book. I don’t receive any remuneration or other benefit from sales.)
- ALLi also provides this excellent annotated list of publishing service providers (including not just publishing services, but ebook discovery services, editorial and design services, and more) with advisories about those that are the subject of complaints.
- Another excellent guide: Joel Friedlander’s A Self-Publisher’s Companion.
- Good advice from editor and author Jane Friedman: 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any Epublishing Service.
- From author and attorney Helen Sedwick, 7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Self-Publishing Service.
- Successful novelist Piers Anthony maintains an internet publishing resource that lists and describes publishers and publishing service providers, and flags those that have problems or are the focus of complaints.
- Another good spot to research the reputation of publishing service providers: the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum of the Absolute Write Water Cooler. Check the index to see if the service you’re interested in has already been discussed.
- E-mail Writer Beware. We’ve assembled a large archive of documentation on companies and services that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any company or service you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. If we have no information, we’ll let you know that too.
- The blog of author and authors’ advocate David Gaughran is an excellent information source on self-publishing and issues of interest to self-publishers.
- The Book Designer, Joel Friedlander, offers excellent practical advice for self-publishers. Especially helpful is his e-Book Cover Design Awards, which feature and analyze successful ebook overs.
- Author Joanna Penn offers advice on self-publishing, marketing, and writing at The Creative Penn.
- Author Lindsey Buroker’s blog features many posts about self-publishing.
- At the Smashwords blog, Smashwords owner Mark Coker offers valuable information and commentary on the self-publishing industry.
- Author and attorney Helen Sedwick maintains a blog focusing on legal issues for self-publishers.
Facts and Figures About Self-Publishing
- Hybrid author Hugh Howey maintains the Author Earnings website , which offers a wealth of fascinating data on ebooks and self-publishing. Howey’s methods and conclusions have been challenged–including his heavy reliance on data scraped from Amazon–and his views of publishing and self-publishing are unapologetically biased in favor of self-publishing. Nevertheless, Author Earnings is one of the few places where facts and figures relating to self-publishing can be found. Here’s its most recent report.
- In 2016, author Marie Force received survey responses from more than 2,000 self-published authors (half were exclusive self-publishers, the rest were hybrid authors). Results are summarized on her blog. Ms. Force is a romance author, and the survey seems to have self-selected for that genre–which is not as much of a distortion as you might think, since romance is the biggest-selling genre for self-publishers. There’s a lot of interesting info here, including the very wide range of income.
- Every year, Smashwords conducts a survey of its sales data, providing a wealth of facts, figures, and trend analysis to help self-publishers make informed decisions. Here’s the latest version.
- BookBaby, one of the low-cost digital distributors, conducted a survey of over 7,500 self-published authors in 2016-17. The resulting report is partly an ad for BookBaby’s services, but it includes some intriguing information on self-promotion as well as differences between low- and high-selling authors.
- In 2013, Digital Book World teamed with Writer’s Digest to survey over 9,000 published, unpublished, and self-published writers. Like Howey’s data and analysis, DBW’s has been widely challenged for bias (as has their decision to sell full survey results for nearly $300). Nevertheless, there’s intriguing data here, especially since the survey looked specifically at hybrid authors (those who alternate between self-publishing and publishing traditionally). Findings are summarized in a series of articles by author and social scientist Dana Beth Weinberg.
- Old but still instructive, since the situation for print self-publishing hasn’t changed much: a gathering of sales statistics for print-on-demand self-publishing.
- The Alliance of Independent Authors is a global professional advocacy group for self-publishers. Its Self-Publishing Advice blog covers subjects of interest to self-publishers.
- The Kboards–news and discussion from Kindle self-publishers. This is a treasure trove of information on just about every aspect of electronic self-publishing.
- Self-Publishing Basics, from author and self-publishing expert David Gaughran.
- More self-publishing basics from another self-publishing expert, Joel Friedlander.
- From author and editor Jane Friedman, an excellent overview of self-publishing resources and options.
- A professional product requires financial investment. Digital expert Miral Sattar provides an overview of the real costs of self-publishing a book.
- More on the potential costs of self-publishing from author and self-publishing expert Joanna Penn.
- TeleRead provides up-to-the-minute coverage of the latest news on ebooks, publishing, and self-publishing.
- Another extensive self-publishing resource, from the Writers and Editors blog.
- Self-Publishing Review is another information-packed resource.
- True self-publishing vs. using a publishing service: The Pitfalls of Using Self-Publishing Book Packages, from publishing consultant Carla King.
- Many self-publishing authors have unrealistic expectations of what self-publishing can accomplish, and assume that low sales indicate a scam. Here are some reasons why your publishing service provider probably didn’t cheat you.
Links checked/Page updated: 4/16/18
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