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Thinking About Self-Publishing

There are real pros and cons to self-publishing and no single answer for any author. That said, I not only have done some self-publishing, I’ve given it more than a bit of thought.

Publishing History – Brief

It’s surprising, but books haven’t been in existence all that long, at least not in the form we think of them today. It wasn’t until Johann Gutenberg invented letterpress printing that books became, gradually, available first to the wealthy and clergy and then to the general public. The first was the Gutenberg Bible, which was printed in 1454. Until then books, when they did exist, were written or copied by hand, one at a time. It was a laborious process. (The Chinese used wooden blocks to print Buddhist writings by hand on scrolls – sort of a precursor to printing as we think of it.)

Once printing became relatively easy, it wasn’t long before presses were established to print books to sell to the public. This created great controversy between the printers and the Church of Rome, which wasn’t sure laypeople should be allowed to read the Bible. In fact, it can be argued that the printing press and the subsequent distribution of books and ideas is what led to the reformation, to science as we know it today and to almost every element of our modern society. Hence I speak about The Power of Words; but that’s another subject.

The letter press and other printing development rapidly led to economies of scale; the 1,000th copy is much cheaper to print than the first one. It’s that economy of scale that led to publishing houses (aka trade publishers) who could make serious money manufacturing and selling books.

Trade Publishing

It’s difficult to say when trade publishing got started – perhaps as early as early as the 1450s, when a printer in St. Albins, printed eight books, each identical to the other. But what it means today is a company that publishes books for sale and distribution to bookstores, libraries, book clubs and other special markets, assuming all costs of production and paying authors a royalty on sales. The key is the phrase assuming all costs of production. If you’re paying any for the design, printing or other production costs, your self-publishing or have gotten trapped in vanity publishing.

You get a trade publisher when a trade publisher offers you a contract for your book. The contract will, among other things, spell out the royalties (percentage of sales) you will receive. The key to making money with a trade published book is, of course, is the marketing.

Note that even if you’re working with a trade publisher, you may end up paying marketing costs – unless you’re already a famous author, much, if not most, of the marketing of your book will fall to you, even when you’re published by a trade publisher.

Generally, when someone says they want to get their book published they are thinking of trade publishing.

Note too, that with Print On Demand technology, publishing definitions tend to blur a bit. POD technology means small companies can get into legitimate trade publishing; so can authors, although now their moving into the self-publishing arena.

Vanity or Subsidy Press

Vanity or subsidy publishers are scams, pure and simple. Oh, before POD, a case could be made for these short run books, but POD is so inexpensive that there’s no reason to pay someone thousands of dollars to publish your book.

How do you tell the difference between a vanity publisher and a legitimate print on demand service? It’s getting more and more difficult, but the real clue is the high cost. Anthologies of essays or poetry that you have to pay to be included, or buy an expensive book are also rip-offs. A vanity press will take anyone; a good pod publisher has at least some discretion.

Even if you only want 10 copies of your aged aunt’s rather poor poetry for the family archive, you’ll save money using a reputable POD or publisher or publishing services company.


Today, typesetting, printing and copying technology has progressed to the point where it’s realitively inexpensive to manufacture a single book.

Self-publishing is when an author pays the production costs of a book. Until the 1990s, the cost of printing prohibited anyone but trade publishing houses and vanity presses from successfully publishing books. Now, technology means that it can make economic sense to print one book at a time.

Today it’s possible to contract with a Print On Demand publishing company (also known as a publishing services company) to publish your book yourself. You will pay all the production costs. But they are low enough now so it may make sense for you to do so. If you are successful at marketing your self-published book well, you can actually earn a great deal more money than you would if the book had been put out by a trade publisher.

Or you can self-publish using short-run printing. Short run printing lets you take advantage of economies of scale but it also means you’ll have to store the books as you sell them or pay for storage.

But it’s not easy money. The marketing of a book is no small task. Some people self-publish in order to get the attention of a trade publisher; some because they believe passionately in their book. While there are success stories in self-publishing, there are also lots of failures.

As you probably guessed, I’m in favor of self-publishing. Not for everything of course. But if you’ve got a book you believe in and you haven’t been able to sell it to a trade publisher, self-publishing can be a wonderful option.

Write well and often,

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Abundant Freelance Writing – a resource for freelance writers including 3x a week job postings.
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