by Paul Waak,
NTRLS Consultant

People turn to self-publishing for many reasons, like producing books with small or limited distribution or retaining a higher percentage of the profit. Self publishing offers many new and interesting opportunities. But, it is important to understand what publishers do that self-published authors must do for themselves. And it is even more important to understand how businesses can take advantage of inexperienced, and even experienced, self-publishing authors.

The model for self-publishing that comes closest to traditional publishing is Print-On-Demand (POD) publishing. Amazon’s CreateSpace (createspace.com) service is an example of this. They will advertise your book on Amazon and print copies one at a time as people purchase them. This protects the author from having to purchase and manage an inventory, which relates to one of the things to avoid described later in this article. Some other good POD companies are lulu.com and iuniverse.com.

Another option is to focus on electronic access. Scribd (scribd.com) is a popular eBook distributor who also offers several softcover printing options at the purchaser’s discretion. An interesting variation on this model are author-owned web sites like the self-published news journal Vermont Commons (vtcommons.org, yes, this really is credible news journalism). The Internet allows authors to sell access directly to readers in the form of downloads, reduced or no advertising, and reading stories past chapter three. It also allows for both one-time purchases (good with downloads) and membership based access (good with reduced advertising).

Self-publishing with the Internet is still evolving and many new models are being explored. Cory Doctorow’s publishing experiment is one extreme. He is releasing a book for free in eBook form and expects to make his money from royalties on print distributions (sold on lulu.com), translations, movie adaptations, and so on.

Another model is prepaid writing, a practice that is already in practice within the open source software community where authors offer to write something when a certain amount of money has been offered (usually held in escrow). This is like a practice in traditional publishing where an author writes an idea and a representative sample, then secures a contract from a publisher before writing the rest. Orson Scott Card has used this technique since the beginning of his career to avoid large investments of time that never pay out.

Once a model for self-publishing is selected, the hard work begins. Any self-publishing author needs to understand that publishers do not just print books. A good publisher also provides proofreading, editing (editing is not proofreading), book design (including cover art), sales, marketing (marketing is not sales), advertising (advertising is not marketing), distribution; all of which become the responsibility of a self-published author.

The most common problems for self-published authors are a lack of editing and the whole marketing to advertising to sales chain. The problem with editing is that most people mistake proofreading for editing. Editing goes beyond the basic mechanics of writing and checks the plot and story flow. If a character is renamed, is the name changed everywhere? Does the story stall in a sidetrack? A good editor has to know how to give constructive criticism. Also, authors cannot self edit effectively beyond a thousand words or so. Beyond that point, the author’s familiarity with the work is a liability and the purpose of an editor.

The sales chain (which includes marketing and advertising) catches almost every self-published author by surprise. If you think of writing as a full-time job, writing takes 20 hours per week, working with an editor takes another 20 hours per week, and the sales chain is 20-30 hours of overtime. The problem is that good books do not sell themselves. People only buy books they know about, and someone has to tell them. Self-published books rarely get reviewed in the trade journals that retailers and libraries rely on. Reviews written by the author or a friend of the author get promptly ignored. Successful authors must find their own audience and arrange their own independent reviews, author events, advertising campaigns, and distribution channels to reach them. Expect to travel to generate recognition.

Lastly, self-published authors need to be aware of the companies they deal with. There are many price and royalty models, and some work better than others depending on how the book will be sold and distributed. Authors who are not good with math and contracts need to find people who can help. Many companies offer author services. Even the completely legitimate companies can have surprises, like charging extra for the book jacket to have artwork and extra again for the cover art to be in color.

There are also a distressing number of scam companies hunting for unsuspecting authors. Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (sfwa.org) has a section called Writer Beware dedicated to this problem. The advice found here is directed to all authors, regardless of publishing or genre. They also maintain a database of businesses that have complaints filed against them or are currently under criminal investigation. Probably the most important advice they offer is to remember that the readers are the end customers, not the authors. If the author has to purchase the books and then resell them, that makes the author the end customer for the business. There are many ways to stick an unwary author with excessive costs. Beware.

If the challenges of self-publishing are not too daunting, there is room for success. More than one self-published book has hit the New York Best Sellers list, and that seems to be happening more often each year. There are also many people earning extra vacation money or even paying for college through self-publishing. It is work, but that work comes with opportunity.

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Original Publication Date: 
June 1, 2010
Legacy Article Number: 
387