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An Overview Of Self-Publishing Your Book

Did you know that some of our most famous authors, including Sam Clemens (Mark Twain), Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit), Irma Rombauer (The Joy of Cooking), Ben Franklin, and many more published their own books?

Self-publishing, correctly done, has always an honorable, and profitable, way to get their works in front of the public.

Self-Publishing, Not Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy publishing or vanity publishing is another game entirely. Often a scam, the subsidy publisher will, for a sizable fee, publish almost anything, regardless of its quality or value. They print maybe a hundred or so copies of a manuscript into book form, and the writers paying the fee could consider themselves ‘published.’


As a rule, it was the author who not only paid but who also  ended up with boxes of unsold books. While there may be a legitimate place for this business model, I’m not sure what it is. Unfortunately subsidy publishing hasn’t disappeared.

Technology Has (Sort Of) Legitimized Self-Publishing

Today, technology means we again have legitimate self-publishing, although it’s getting muddy again.

Legitimate self-publishing has grown out of four market forces:

  • The first market force is the purchase of many trade publishers by conglomerates and mega-corporations. As a result, publishers now have to focus more on profits than ever before, and the result is, among other things, fewer new authors published,  fewer truly thoughtful books released, and fewer books that don’t fit in to typical categories that marketers understand easily.
  • The second force is the personal computer. As computer memory has grown and software improved, it’s become possible for almost anyone to design and ‘typeset’ a book. The same is true of paper back cover design. Almost anyone can create a book that at least looks presentable.
  • The third market force comes from changes in printing, including high-speed copiers that come close to looking like the printed page. These presses mean that runs as short as a single book are now economically possible – hence POD or Print on Demand. Even the term, POD, is broadening as more and more trade publishers also make use of the technology.
  • The final market force, and arguably the most important, is the Internet. The ‘net gives individuals a way to reach a world-around market. With their own web sites, and by working with online booksellers like Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel (Bn.com) and others, it’s possible for a writer to publish her own books and actually make a profit.
It’s now possible for an author to publish their own works, perhaps even setting up their own mini-publishing company to do so. Production set-up costs are often under $500.

Scams Haven’t Gone Away

Self-publishing scams, however, haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve only increased. Because POD technology is cheap and simple, a whole slew of service burears have sprung up, often calling themselves publishers.

Of course, exactly where service ends and scams begin is often in the eye of the user. It has been my observation, however, that some of the most easily recognizable names in self-publishing make their money off fees charged writers rather than off book sales as trade publishers must do.

They  promise to evaluate books suitable for publishing, edit books, design books and book covers and the market books, charging fees all along the way. Rarely do their results come even close to their promises. The evaluations tend to set the stage for upselling editorial services rather than an honest appraisal of the book. Editorial services are often more expensive than they need to be.

But the worst problem is the promises made about how the books will be marketed. These companies are awfully good at making you believe that a web page and listing on Amazon and BN is all you need to make a profit. They don’t put it quite that way, but that’s often the bottom line, and it just isn’t true. A web page or site, and listings at online booksellers is a necessary step, but it’s only a tiny bit of what the author needs to do to really make money.

Of course, not every self-publishing services company is a scam. You need to read the contracts they send you carefully and ask questions until you’re sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. You should also talk with others who have used the same company and see how happy they are.

If the company won’t give you their names, be extra careful and see if you can’t find at least some of their authors from their sales pages. Google the book title and/or the author’s name and you’re likely to find a web page put up by the author, complete with contact information. Give them a call and ask. You’ll be glad you did.

Requirements for a Profitable Self Published Book

There are ways to self-publish and make money. It’s a business all of it’s own, and it starts with the book. Everything that applies to a profitable trade book also applies to you, including:

  • A book with a truly marketable subject.
  • Knowledge of your market an how to reach it.
  • A well written, well edited (including copy editing) book.
  • A great cover
  • A well produced book
  • Distribution and Marketing
Marketing is the most difficult and it’s absolutely required if your book is to sell well. That’s true if you self-publish or if your book is picked up by a trade publisher.

Probably the very first thing you should do is read Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living. Peter’s made a decent or better living from self-publishing his own books so you can believe what he tells you. Even if you decide you don’t want to self-publish, the overview he gives of trade publishing is worth the price of the book alone.

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Image from http://www.sxc.hu – By the way, that’s an image of an old old press.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Thanks for the comprehensive overview.

    What is the best option for publishing an ebook?

    I plan to publish an e-book and can’t decide whether to choose Smashwords, Lulu.com, or some other option. Which is the best among the free options? I am reluctant to use Clickbank and other publishers where I have to pay charges upfront.

    Thanks for your advice.
    Rohi recently posted..Lose Weight Easily and Permanently Using Six Simple StrategiesMy Profile

    • I’ve used Lulu and I like them. I plan to try Smashwords soon. Clickbank isn’t a place to publish so much as a way to market – you can market your Lulu and I assume Smashwords, ebooks there and if you market, other may also market your book – I think the fee – $50 – is worth it.

  • admin

    Lou, we’re in agreement except I would put most of the weight on the decision about how much marketing/distribution the author is willing/able to do. Unfortunately, more and more all but the best known authors have to promote themselves even with a trade publisher.

    You’re on to something with subsidiary rights – also foreign rights – both can add up nicely.

  • Lou

    I agree that self-publishing is legitimate and that it can be profitable (thank goodness for print on demand!)

    I still tend to favor traditional publishers because of their preexisting marketing and distribution mechanisms.

    When a major publisher brings out a book, it will be reviewed in all the major journals – and most institutions (like libraries) base their purchasing on those reviews. It’s difficult to get reviews from major journals for self-published work.

    Major publishers have an extensive sales force that will present the book to almost every bookseller in the country, as well as listing it on Amazon. It’s really difficult for one author to have that kind of blanket coverage alone. Online sales have grown dramatically, but bookstore sales are still substantial, as are sales to other brick-and-mortar outlets.

    Publishers have an established distribution mechanism that will physically move the book from the printer to the point of sale, wherever it may be. This is really labor-intensive.

    Major publishers have entire departments focused on subsidiary rights. Secondary sales may not be tremendously profitable, but every bit helps.

    Authors make only a small percentage on the sale price of each book, but publishers do offer a lot of services for their percentage. I think the decision should be based partly on the target market and partly on the amount of marketing and distribution the author wants to do.

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