Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin

Self publishing: why would you do it -- and how?!

If you're thinking seriously about self-publishing, your mind is probably bursting with questions. How much will it cost? Which of the many options should you take? What will be expected of you? What can you expect from your printer? How do you get the books to market? Can you hope to break even -- or make a profit?

The reasons for self-publishing are many and varied, but by far the most common one is sheer frustration. You're not a new writer. You've spent five or ten or twenty years honing your craft; you're edited to perfection; you have something to say ... and to save your life, you can't connect with an agent or publisher.

This could be because you're writing in a marginalized niche where potential sales don't warrant a full-size printrun from a publishing house. It could be because you live so far away from the locations where the appropriate publishers are that you can't "do lunch" with them, or meet them at conventions. Or because you can't afford to travel to London or New York, take an agent to lunch, dressed in the kind of glad-rags that're mandatory for such meetings.

Perhaps you're hoping to earn enough through writing to fix the car, buy the kids new jeans, get broadband, so you can work properly ... sound familiar? This describes 80% of writers -- professional writers, not just the aspiring hopefuls! Very few can afford to take plane or train to the Big Smoke, dress like a business professional and pick up the tab for an extremely expensive lunch. It would blow a large hole in five hundred dollars -- in which case, the kids are certainly not going to be getting new jeans this month! And most people put the "necessaries" before the "pie in the sky" stuff, like wooing agents into maybe representing us. The worst news is that you might have to "do lunch" a dozen times to land a proper agent who will work hard to find you a proper publisher, who'll offer a proper contract ... but results are not guaranteed. You can spend years on this treadmill, spend a great deal of money and end up holding a handful of smoke.

At some point along this road, almost every writer will consider self-publishing. The ones who have begun to find the treadmill too expensive, too infuriating, or just too long (above seven years on the hunt, you must start to consider alternatives) will begin to study the craft of self-publishing --

And the first thing you learn is ... it's not a cake walk.

Detractors and doomsayers talk about self-publishing as if anyone can do it. They run down the craft as if it's so easy, and in fact -- it's not!

At least, not if you want to do it properly, with the object in mind of building a business and a career as a writer.

It is true that if you're largely without talent, and wholly without the commitment and integrity necessary to learn the writer's trade, you can self-publish at or, click a button and -- wham! You're on ... that easy.

It is also true that your book will be among the Greatest Literary Disasters of this century (and the century has already seen some horrors; you're in nasty company here).

Few readers are stupid. In fact, most are getting extremely savvy. To get a sale, you'll have to make a chapter or three available for free (10% of the whole work as a sample is a good idea), and in those pages you'll give away every secret. If you don't know how to spell or punctuate; if you don't know how to copy edit for repetitions and a blizzard of confusing pronouns -- all this will be apparent to the reader. You won't get a sale.

Here is the inescapable fact: your job is to become an excellent writer before you pick up the publishing challenge. If you're good enough as a writer, and after years trying to connect with an agent or publisher you're still working alone, going broke on the hunt, and getting gray hairs as five years turns into ten --

It's time. Pick up the gauntlet.

Self-publishing offers so many options these days, it's confusing. The first thing we're going to do is take some of the confusion out of the field.

Right here, we’ll assume your book is finished, and exhaustively edited. Think about this! It’s too late to find the grammatical and typographical errors, once the book has been printed, bookbound and delivered, ready for transshipment (forwarding though to your associate bookstores). If you’re not 100% sure of your editing and proofing, the time to fix the problems is now. Remember, the printer won’t proofread for you!

It’s a wise idea to look at the difference between all the various printers and publishers you’re likely to meet in your endeavors. Today’s market is a complex place, and it’s going to become more complicated as the traditional kinds of printers and publishers are joined by the electronic, digital and e-versions.

When most people think “publisher,” they have in mind a company such as Harper Collins or Random House, but this is far from the only option; and when most people think “printer,” they have in mind a massive workshop churning out tabloid printing — but once again, this image is becoming increasingly stereotypical.

Let’s take a quick look at who printers and publishers are likely to be in this century ... at what they do, and what they don’t do!

The major publishing house... a multi-million dollar corporation with offices in London and New York, and other centers around the globe. These are the top-end, mass-market publishing houses. They don’t usually look at work which is not first ‘screened’ by an agency. If they accept your work, they do everything for you: even if you’ve already edited it to your satisfaction, the chances are they’ll edit it again. Everyone has a different opinion about what passages are critical and which inspire yawns, and when they’re paying you (which is to say, you’re on contract), they call the shots. They’ll do the layout and design, the printing and binding, and the marketing.

You get royalties at the end of the day. Accounts are settled every three or six months (depending on the publisher), and you usually get paid after a further six months, for copies which were sold in the “accounting period.”

How much you get paid depends on the publisher. A standard royalty contract is something like 10% Net. Net Price is the part of the retail price which is returned to the publisher, and is a fraction of the Gross, or RRP, Price. Net Price is largely what the publisher negotiates for. It can be as little as 10% of the gross price, if the book is proving hard to market ... it can be as much as 40%, if the publisher owns the distribution company too! If you sign with a small press (as many new writers do), a safe bet is, Net Price = 25%. So your royalty will be 10% of one fourth of the RRP.

If the book retails for A$19.95, Net is about $5 and your royalty will be in the order of 50c. You might get paid an advance of up to two-thirds of the book’s expected income ... but remember, the book then has to sell enough copies to recover the advance before you get paid again. You’ll only get paid for sold copies. Shop soiled returns, review copies and remainder copies don’t earn royalties. If you’re with a major publisher and the printrun is 20,000+, you can do quite nicely. If you’re with a small publisher, and the printrun is 3,000 - 5,000 it’s not quite so lucrative, even though the thrill of being in print remains the same.

The small publisher, or small press... a small business, or perhaps even an individual who can be publishing out of a home office. By far the largest body of listings in any of your Writers’ Marketplace-type directories are small publishers. The downside is, they sometimes only do two books in any one year, and their printruns can be under 2,000. The upside is, they’ll look at your work when the big companies at the high end of the industry won’t. The small press is still a fully professional publishing house: they don’t charge you a penny in fees or commissions ... they do pay royalties. And most importantly, they’ll give you a start when no one else will. Many writers start here, though it remains a minefield. Small publishers begin to grow and are often taken over, “absorbed” by bigger publishing houses. This is not good news for the small publisher’s writers, who usually get dropped. The whole reason for the big publisher taking over the small fry was only to get rid of competition on the battlefield: the bookstore

The so-called “vanity publisher”... a different genus, with a number of species! The rabid hyenas of this part of the market get the most coverage, because they charge the writer for everything, from the editing to the layout, and even some or all of the copies to be printed. In fact ... you have just self-published your book, they didn’t do anything for you, except take the credit for it, publish under their label — and, to be fair, if they’re a good vanity press, they’ll market the hell out of the work for you.

Some (most?) people get ripped off royally by the hyenas. The bad vanity press never rejects any book. No work is so poorly conceived of or crafted that they won’t take a few thousand dollars from the writer to lick it into something faintly resembling shape, put covers around it and get it into some bookstore, somewhere. But selling copies is another question ... and you won’t get paid until, or unless, you start to sell copies.

Yet, every vanity press probably dreams of the day when a potentially major writer comes to them ... this writer, having been rejected by every literary agency in the accessible universe, is ready to invest in the publishing venture. The saying used to go that if you had a good book, it would find a publisher. In today’s flooded, top-heavy marketplace, this is no longer true. Great books get rejected. Lesser works (read: rubbish) quite often get printed ... because they’re commercial ... or they were written by the publisher’s friend or relative and are printed as a favour ... or because a foolish writer, who in fact should know he or she is not-ready-yet, sluiced money into the hands of a vanity publisher.

Focus on the italic sentence, above. Great books get rejected. Not every book produced by a vanity press is rubbish; not every vanity publisher is a conman. When great books have been tossed out by literary agencies who are “not reading at this time,” and therefore did not even read the cover letter or synopsis, many of these books filter down to the vanity presses. The honest vanity press should tell a writer when a book isn’t good enough to warrant the investment ... and they should be there like a safety net, to catch the good books, which would otherwise be consigned to the desk drawer.

Not all vanity presses are rabid hyenas. Not all books churned out by them are dross, and not all writers get ripped off this way ... but you should be aware that enough people do get conned for the very term “vanity press” to have earned a muddy reputation. No one could recommend that you publish with them -- but on the other hand (and this is rarely mentioned!) no one can guarantee that you’ll be another victim! If you choose an honest vanity publisher, and you've learned your craft, and they market the heck out of your book, and your book is as good as you think it is, you could actually fare better with a reputable vanity press than with a small publisher. (The small press might have too-limited distribution, whereas the vanity press pushed you into online book clubs and so forth.) But no matter which vanity press you choose, the bottom line remains the same: the key word is vanity.

They will charge you ... you will pay for every part of the process; and it won't be cheap.

However, keep in mind one thing: a good vanity press should have a distribution network. If your book is good, and they’re tigers rather than hyenas, there’s no reason for you to be a victim, though the risk remains and this fact is inescapable: when a book fails at market, and it was published by a “real publisher” ... the writer is never asked to pay back any advances. The publisher deems the exercise to have been a tax-writeoff and drives on. But when a book fails at market, and it was published by a vanity press, the company loses nothing. The writer loses everything. Which begs the question, where's the impetus for the press to work marketing miracles?

In fact, the impetus is there, because vanity publishers with great integrity are dying to find the next Wilbur Smith or Greg Bear or Maeve Binchy or J.K. Rowling. They can retire on the discovery! But the downside to all the remains the same -- they can't lose money, no matter if you lose your house!

The joint venture, or subsidy publisher... not a thousand miles from the vanity press, but at least the costs are shared. You put up some of the float, so does the company. The risk is shared and all parties have a vested interest in the project, so, in theory, all parties will get out there and market as hard as they can!

There are no guarantees of sales, and when a book fails, everyone loses. However, a company will carry a four-figure loss a great deal better than the writer. Once again, the words “tax-writeoff” leap to mind! Also, the subsidy publisher can spread his interests around: if he can publish 20 books in a year and only 15 succeed, while the other 5 lose money, he’s doing well. The failures cut his tax bill and five doomed writers had all shared in his investment.

But if you place yourself in the position of one of the failed writers, the picture is no more rosy than it would be for the writer who chose to go with a vanity press: you lost your investment. Subsidy publishing can work for you ... or not. It’s a gamble, and as the saying goes, ‘Only gamble with what you can afford to lose.”

POD -- what is it?
... The acronym stands for publish on demand, or print on demand, which are two very different things.

Print on demand is used by a publisher to minimize risk. It's also called "empty warehouse," because books are physically produced only if, and when, they're ordered. A printrun can be 1,000, 100 or 1. The books have been properly edited, designed and published -- they're just waiting for print orders. Hence -- print.

Publish on demand is used by a writer who is genuinely self-publishing. There's no publisher involved, just the writer, the printshop and the customer. In this case, a printshop like will actually be quoted as the publisher! This is the "iffy and dodgy" end of the POD trade. When absolute rubbish finds its way into publication, this is usually where, and how, it happens, because no one at a printshop (like or is watchdogging the process. Spelling mistakes, bad grammar, hopeless storytelling and all, the book is just "published." (And this, unfortunately, is where POD has earned a bad reputation which is actually far from warranted.)

The Print on Demand (empty warehouse) publisher... a newcomer to the field, and not to be confused with the vanity or subsidy press. The Print on Demand publisher is a real publisher ... in a thimble. And that’s an accolade, not a criticism! The warehouse is empty, if it even exists at all. Every book in the catalog is in software form ... and so is the catalog. The brochure is more than likely a webpage. Readers find the book in which they’re interested either by performing a search with an engine, or via links pages.

Let's say you wanted a book teaching you how to write shorthand. You’d go to Google and type in the search field something like “shorthand tutorial” ... click GO. Everything from tertiary courses to manuals will be offered to you. You can start there and surf online bookstores for the next fifteen minutes. Many of the books they will ship to you will have been mass-published ... many will have come from POD publishers instead.

When a POD publisher gets an order via its webpage, the computer sends a message to another computer in a printshop across the country, even across the world. One copy is send to the laser printer, and then bound, all completely by automatic.

These are top of the line digital systems. The book is finished as it comes off the printer. The whole thing then goes into some form of binding machine (there are numerous kinds; and they fall into the realm of the printer, not the publisher, so we’re not concerned about them here). The book is bound, and guillotined on three open edges, and it’s ready to ship, in an issue of ONE.

Is a POD publisher a “real” publisher? Most certainly. The author was charged nothing to get the book into shape. The publisher marketed the heck out of it (on the Internet, which is where these books are sold in their largest numbers. Which writer could possibly object to where sales are generated, so long as copies are shipped and all parties get paid?) ... and at the end of the day the writer was paid royalties. The risks of publishing were minimized because the big investment in printing was not made. Every copy manufactured was pre-sold.

And these are real books: glossy color covers, top-quality paper, indestructible binding. The only differences between them and bookstore books is, they were laser printed on bond paper, rather than on Bog (newspaper) stock. In twenty years, the laser printed book will not have aged ... the book done on newspaper will be yellow. And of course, the printrun was small.

The main downside to POD publishers is still the price. POD books are expensive because they're printed, bound and shipped one at a time. Whereas a mass-printer would get the price down to $5, the POD printshop will charge $8 - $10 for the same item, which means they're also going to be correspondingly expensive at the checkout.

Also ... and maybe this is important to you! ... you don’t often find those books in stores; you’ll seldom be asked to meet the people, shake hands and sign books. In other words, there's little opportunity for the writer to show off!

The upside is, the risk is minimal for all concerned, so the books happen, and you will get royalties.

The eBook publisher... a little like a POD publisher, but different insofar as no physical books are produced. Any book, from a novel to an encyclopedia, is generated in software, and published to software, and it’s made available to the reader as a download. If it’s too large to be downloaded ... say, 20MB or more ... it can be sold on CD-Rom, but broadband access has made files up to 50MB downloadable. There is no printing process whatsoever -- but the publishing process should be just as stringent as if the book were about to be mass produced by a major New York company.

Today, eBooks are being made in many formats, not all of which suit all readers (in this context, “readers” being the screen device displaying them, not the human doing the reading). The format which still reaches the most people is probably Adobe Acrobat, which can be read on any PC or Mac, desktop or laptop, and a Palm device can be “synchronised” to the main computer (meaning, eBooks can be downloaded from the computer to the Palm handheld device). But the Adobe format is being challenged by Mobipocket, Kindle, Stanza, and many more. The field is expanding fast.

The most important aspect of eBooks is security; writers are naturally concerned about having their works out there, copied willy-nilly and printed out in batches of hundreds, for sale on the other side of the world, without the behest, or even the knowledge of the originating author! This can happen, and there will always be ways to get around a document’s security ... but good encryption settings on the eBook file will handicap thieves.

The eBook is sold via an online point of sale, and royalties are sent back from the publisher to the writer on a regular basis, usually on a "delay 30" or "delay 60" agreement. This means that the writer will be paid at the end of March for books sold the month, or two months, previously.

Or, the eBook can easily be hosted on the writer’s own website, and the writer then receives the money directly via an “e-commerce solution.” However, the key to selling eBooks is the same as the keys to selling any other kind of books: marketing. It’s very possible to have a glorious website which attracts no visitors at all. You have to market hard, but if you have a website, you at least have something to market; and since eBooks involve no physical printing, your investment is almost all about time, not money.

Do get a reputable website designer to build your website. They know tricks of the trade you couldn’t possibly know. (How will your site look in other browsers, such as Opera, Firefox and Netscape? What’s stopping your Javascript from working? Why are some people “whitescreening” on your pages? Some visitors can’t download things at all, what’s going on? You set out to be a writer, not a programmer! Stick to your job.)

If you intend to self-publish eBooks, do your homework. Learn how to do it properly -- don't just throw the project together. You'll need a beautiful cover for catalog pictures, proper interior design, and bookmarking. In short, you'll need to know your DTP program inside and out, even if you don't intend to print anything.

DTP for book design is a whole 'nother topic, and one we'll get to very soon! Be on the mailing list and keep up with this blog; we'll keep you posted when new items go online.

Turn page to:
Self publishing: where do you begin?

No comments:

Post a Comment

The commercial break ... there has to be a commercial break!