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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Publishing Myths, Part 3: Self-Publishing is Great! (Except When it Isn't)

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


(Update at the bottom.)

I hadn't planned to get into self-publishing this early, but this article in the New York Times (subscription may be required, sorry), brought it to the fore. For those who can't get to the article, it's titled,"Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab," and examines the current phenomenon of self-publishing. One figure that struck me was provided by Author Solutions (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris): Their average title sells 150 copies. Ouch.

Before you get the wrong idea, let me emphatically state that I'm not against self-publishing. If your book fits in a niche that isn't profitable for a commercial publisher, then self-publishing may be for you. If you just want to give a few copies of a book to friends and family, you can do it at very little cost. The trick is in making money.

True self-publishing is a business venture. You have to know your market. You are responsible for everything from writing to editing to layout and typesetting to working with the printer. You pay for it all. The name of the publisher is - you! (Or whatever you want to call your venture.) This is all heady and exciting stuff, but you have to understand everything involved before you get into it. How do you get your book into bookstores? Do you even want to sell it through bookstores? How do you get the book reviewed? How do you market your book? What's the best way to ship your book? How do you manage the bookkeeping for the book?

Woah! That's a lot of stuff! Well, yes. You can certainly farm out some of the work (hire an artist, a designer, a publicist, contract with a book distributor), but it's all ultimately on your shoulders.

The myth is that all self-published books are crap. This is not true, but the onslaught of inexpensive self-publishing services certainly brings Sturgeon's Law to the forefront. It's your job to make your book rise above the muck.

Read through the comments on that article. Sadly, about half of them are from people pushing their self-published books or services to self-published authors, or people blasting mainstream publishing or self-publishing. Discount them, and you'll see two distinct types of stories emerge. One is the people who did it right and found modest success. The other take involves people who paid a self-publishing company and had their hopes dashed. The success stories seem to outweigh the disappointments, though that's obviously not a scientific sampling.

What does that tell you? It tells me that there are darned good reasons to self-publish, but those who make a go of it work their tails off. There's nothing wrong with working your tail off. However, if you'd rather spend your days pumping out new material, you might be frustrated at the amount of time and effort (not to mention money) you have to spend to make a profit.

Ah, you say, there's this company that will take my book and print it on demand. All I have to do is take a cut of the profits. Please think long and hard before you do that, because not all self-publishing companies are created equal. Ask some questions. How much does it cost, and what do I get in return for that money? Who owns the ISBN? Is the quality of the books acceptable? Do they fill orders in a timely manner and at a fair price? What profit (or royalty) can I make from each sale, and if they pay royalties, how are they calculated? Can I set my own price? What rights do I need to assign and for how long? Can I get my rights back easily if I'm not happy or if a commercial publisher wants the book? What services do they offer, and what do they cost? Some people put more thought into buying a toaster than selecting a self-publising company, and often end up getting burned.

The entity that owns the ISBN is the publisher. You can pick up an ISBN for cheap (sometimes free) through Lulu, but they will be listed on the copyright page as the publisher. If you're truly self-publishing it'll be worth the extra money to have your own ISBN. You can still use their services to produce and print your book, but you get your name on the copyright page. And if you're going to self-publish, doesn't that look better?

Will your self-published book be a best seller? What are your expectations? If you're expecting a blockbuster, you'll probably be disappointed. If you've done your market research and do a good job with your business, you could be pleasantly surprised at your success. I know people who are doing quite well in specific niches. And yes, some self-published authors do get picked up by commercial houses. Those success stories are few and far between. Remember the statistics I quoted in the opening paragraph. They're disheartening, but if you go into the process the right way, you can beat those figures.

Update: And just so you know self-publishing isn't a new thing, check out today's Holt Uncensored.

Update (3/12/2015): Kindle, Smashwords, and other services are making it very easy for authors to self-publish now. This is good for writers, but the above advice still applies, in spades. As of this date there is also a suit ongoing against Author Solutions.)

Also see:
Part 1
Part 2

Filed under: Publishing Myths            
1/29/2009 1:09:44 PM
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