Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What self-publishing is--and what it isn't...revisited

I received an email over the weekend, requesting that SPR get in touch with GLAWS (Greater Los Angeles Writers Society--http://www.glaws.org/). Apparently, the group had a meeting on self-publishing a while back, and they had people from iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and Xlibris there.

Here's a little bit of what the email said: "I almost fell down. I kindly mentioned that a lot of people don't consider authors going through those POD companies to be self-publishers. While keeping it simple, I mentioned a few of the reasons why, and the difference between them and digital printing and CreateSpace and offset printing and fulfillment companies vs. distribution companies and wholesalers. I'm not sure how much he understood. I told him that Xlibris, AuthorHouse, and iUniverse are rip-offs for authors, and that athours should not settle for not owning their ISBNs."

Unlike the writer of the email, I am not shocked at all. Based on what I see online daily, there is still a HUGE misunderstanding as to what constitutes "true" self-publishing. In yet another attempt to clarify the differences in publishing options--I am one of many who is trying to educated people--let me explain what means what.

Traditional Publishers
An author who signs a contract with a traditional publisher usually receives an advance of a few thousand dollars against future royalties. The publisher owns the ISBN, but the copyright is in the author’s name. The publisher pays for and makes decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and production. Sales channels generally include book wholesalers and retailers, as well as inclusion in the company’s catalog. Authors are expected to do a good deal of book promotion and publicity—although they are often not aware of this until it’s too late.

True self-publishing authors assume all responsibility for all aspects of their books—and they keep 100 percent of the profits. They also own their book’s ISBN and copyright; they pay for and make decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and printing, and they can use a wide variety of sales channels, including the Internet as well as all routes available to traditional publishers. Self-publishers know up front that they will be responsible for marketing, promotions, and publicity. Self-published books that sell extremely well may be noticed by traditional publishers, who might want to buy the rights from the author/publisher. (This has been the case with four of Marilyn Ross’s self-published titles. Marilyn is the founder of SPR and my co-author of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition--one of the titles that was picked up by a traditional publisher.)

POD “Self-Publishers”—Another Twist
Today there is a popular player on the field—a hybrid of the typical “subsidy” press and POD. These companies call themselves “self-publishing companies” or “POD self-publishers,” and they offer more choices to authors at better prices than the typical subsidy companies. They might advertise that customers can use their own cover designs or set their own price. And they are usually inexpensive. What that means, unfortunately, is that they frequently attract bottom-of-the-barrel literary talent. Plus, with such low up-front investment, the authors themselves dive in head first, often without professional editing, typesetting, and cover design. Although these hybrids sometimes offer these services, they may be less than satisfactory. The result of this low-cost approach is frequently a poor quality book that sells few copies.

Typically, these companies issue one of their own ISBNs for your book. With this approach to POD, you are not the publisher. (There goes that control we wanted.)

The reality is that many of these companies are vanity publishers calling themselves “self-publishing” or “self-publishing POD” companies. In reality, though, they are often trading on the good name of self-publishing to make their companies appear to be a legitimate option for authors.

If you decide to go the route of one of these POD outfits, do your research! And keep in mind that since the digital landscape changes so rapidly, you should consult current Web sites of any companies that interest you. Also read industry magazines and newsletters to find out about new firms that have hung out their virtual shingles.

It’s also worth noting here that there are many digital (POD) printing companies that offer excellent service, prices, and quality. They should start calling themselves what they truly are: book printers.

Is POD “self-publishing” ever a good idea? Absolutely! Suppose you have no time or inclination to go the self-publishing route, yet have a book of poems you want to distribute to friends or relatives at Christmas. Or perhaps a beloved family member just died, and you want to preserve her writing for posterity. Maybe you’ve just finished tracing your ancestry and choose to distribute these genealogical findings to a wide circle of relatives. These circumstances, and any others where profit is not your motive, might be justification for subsidy publishing.
Subsidy/Vanity Publishers
A subsidy publisher (which was more frequently called a “vanity” publisher in the past) takes payment from the author to print and bind a book. With subsidy publishers, it’s the writer’s cash, not the quality of his or her work, that counts. They publish anyone who can pay. Typically, they provide little or no book editing, marketing/promotion, or warehousing services. It has become more and more common in the past couple years for these subsidy presses to refer to themselves as a “self-publishing company.”

Their use of the term “self-publisher,” which they and their authors are not, is misleading at best and dishonest at worst. They are even so bold as to imply that authors have only two choices: publish with a traditional house or “self-publish” with a subsidy publisher. Self-publishing your own book implies that you, yourself, are the publisher. If you use a subsidy press, they are the book publishing company, not you. They are a book publisher for hire, not a self-publishing company.

Authors who are “accepted” by subsidy publishers—and 99.9 percent of them are as long as they have the cash—pay to have these companies publish their books and get royalties on copies sold. The publisher owns the ISBN, although the author retains the copyright. The author pays for all steps in the publishing process, but the publisher makes most or all of the decisions on editing, cover, size, price, and production of the book. Sales channels are usually limited to the Web since these books are generally ignored by reviewers and others in the book trade. Authors must do their own promotion and publicity. Since they make money up front, subsidy publishers take no risks, and they have no incentive to design an outstanding book or fix typos or other problems. They likely print very few copies and stamp their company imprint on your book.

If you have visions of your book becoming the next bestseller—or if you’d simply be satisfied just turning a modest profit—a subsidy publisher may not be your best route. Books printed by subsidy presses rarely make it into bookstores. If your book does make it into a bookstore, you may find that it is not shelved in your intended genre, but rather, it has been placed in a catch-all category called “local authors.” Potential buyers often ignore this category because they perceive these books as being inferior in overall quality, which they sometimes are.

Review copies of books sent to columnists by subsidy publishers generally go directly into the trash can. Reviewers realize that very little editing has likely been done, and they also know that promotional efforts will be practically nonexistent and the book will not be available through the usual book distribution channels. A subsidy publisher’s name on a book is pretty much the kiss of death.

When you choose a subsidy publishing company, there is another issue to consider: Since they own the ISBN for your book, they usually set the price. They literally will tell you what to charge for your own book! This is more than a loss of control—it can even damage the sales of the book if they set the price too high or too low. Once an ISBN is set and printed on the back cover, and embedded in bar code, it’s almost impossible to change.

An ISBN is to a book what your Social Security number is to you. It’s your ID in the world. Consequently, all orders and inquiries will go to them. They are also listed as the publisher of record in Books In Print.

Why would this matter? Let’s take a few hypothetical situations: What if a book club discovers your book, loves it, and wants to adopt it for an alternate selection? The club will contact your Internet publisher who can’t handle the deep discounts needed and thus has no financial stake in such a transaction. What do you think will happen? Zip. Zero. Nada. Suppose a corporation is interested in purchasing 1,000 copies of your book, contacts the Internet publisher, but is turned off by the high cost of the books. You never hear about it. What if a distributor wants to take it on, but finds the economics aren’t feasible? Tough luck. Any of these scenarios can cost you thousands of dollars.

Authors choosing subsidy publishing really need to do their homework to make sure they understand exactly what they are signing. But if you intend to make money selling your book, and if you want value for your money as well as a credible product, true self-publishing is likely the best way to go. If you do self-publish, ensure your book’s quality by working with a reputable self-publishing company. Doing anything less can be a costly and career-threatening mistake.

(Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition, by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier. Coming in summer 2010 from Writer's Digest Books. For more information, contact sue@SelfPublishingResources.com; 720-344-4388.)


  1. Sue,
    Thanks for taking this on (again). Talking to other professionals about this confusion, it's apparent that the only remedy to the ability of large subsidy publishers to confuse and victimize authors is more education. A lot more. So even though all this ground has been covered, and recovered, we have to keep explaining it for the sake of people new to publishing. And your article does a great job. (I tried to cover some of the same territory at http://bit.ly/8qiBmx ) Looking forward to your new edition, too.

  2. Interesting excerpt from your book.

    "True self-publishing authors..." sounds as as judgemental as "real authors." With the exception of the ISBN (easily obtainable for a few bucks), authors who use Createspace and other POD printers can meet your definition of "true self-publishers."

    I agree that POD self-publishing "may" lead to all sorts of gibberish in print but I'm not so quick to write off works printed there.

    By including ISBN (an archaic book ID system) you've skipped e-books. Perhaps you cover those elsewhere including that some books may never see paper.

    Enjoy your posts.


  3. I agree that POD self-publishing "may" lead to all sorts of gibberish in print but I'm not so quick to write off self publishing works printed there.