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Self Publishing Versus Being Self Published

By Patricia L. Fry

The concept of self publishing has been around for as long as writers have been writing. Early self-published authors include Mark Twain, Carl Sandburg and Mary Baker Eddy. More recently, Dan Poynter, James Redfield and Deepak Chopra are among those who have experienced success publishing and promoting their own works. I have published about a dozen books since 1983 through my publishing company, Matilija Press.

Enter the twenty-first century and the parameters around the term self publishing began to blur. Authors, when discussing self-publishing, discovered that they were sometimes comparing apples to oranges. But there's only one way to self-publish, right? Well, maybe not.

Something happened during the last six or seven years to create some confusion. Enter the new breed of fee-based publishing services. While paying to be published is not a new concept, these services have never been so numerous and so obvious. And hundreds of authors are responding to their hype.

These companies cater to folks who believe they're dealing with royalty publishers, but they've also caught the attention of those who prefer thinking of themselves as self-published authors. In fact, the options provided by fee-based publishers are actually mutations of time-honored publishing standards. This isn't to say that it's a bad thing. But I believe the terms need clarification.

A traditional royalty publisher, for example, is a publisher of any size who puts up the money to produce a book and pays the author royalties for the books as they sell. A fee-based POD publisher or pay-to-be-published company or subsidy publisher requires money from the author to produce the book. They might give the author a couple of free copies of his book and he can purchase additional copies at a discount.

In all cases, the author must participate in promoting his or her book. Books will not sell by the gazillions through bookstores nationwide unless the author finds a way to attract those gazillion buyers. Except in rare cases and when working with the most prominent traditional publishing houses, your book will probably never find its way into even one mega bookstore anywhere. And this is not a bad thing. There are plenty of customers for good books outside of brick and mortar bookstores. It is important that you understand these two facts before becoming attached to unrealistic expectations:

  • In spite of what your fee-based publisher tells you, your book will probably never see the inside of a bookstore. (Read the contract carefully, folks. Does it say that your book will be sold through bookstores or does it say, "We will make your book available to bookstores?" Translated, this means that if a bookseller comes along and asks for a book like yours, they will certainly tell him about it.)
  • There are hundreds of book promotion activities that don't involve bookstores. Read my book, "Over 75 Good Ideas for Promoting Your Book," and John Kremer's books on book promotion.

What is Self Publishing?

Self-publishing means that you put up the money to produce your book and you own the publishing company. You apply for a fictitious business name for your company and file it with the county. You purchase the ISBN block and the bar code. You set the price. You hire a printing company to print and bind your book. You make all of the decisions. And, as with all methods of publishing you, the author, are responsible for promoting your book.

While this may seem like a long, complicated to-do list, in reality, you can set up your company within a few days. What about the costs? Once you've paid the one-time fees involved in starting a publishing business, you should be able to produce your book for about the same as any of the least expensive fee-based publishing services.

Let's explore the pros and cons of self-publishing versus going with a publishing service:

When you set up your own publishing company.

  • You are in charge.
  • You are responsible for quality control.
  • You reap all of the profits.
  • Your chances of publishing success are greater.
  • You could have a published book within weeks instead of months or years.
  • You are responsible for promoting your book.
  • If your book does well, you might be able to land a traditional royalty publisher.

When you sign with a fee-based publishing company.

  • You have little opportunity for input.
  • Quality control is beyond your control.
  • The average number of books sold is around 100 per title.
  • You are responsible for promoting your book
  • It is more difficult to promote your book because it is often overpriced.

As you may have noticed, publishing/promotion and writing are at opposite ends of the spectrum. A writer does not a savvy publisher make. Study is required. An open mind is necessary. Before making any publishing decisions, it is important that you take the time to learn something about the industry. Find out how books are sold. Quiz other authors—especially those who have worked with the companies you are considering. Speak with those who have self-published. Read Dan Poynter's book, "The Self-Publishing Manual." And my book, "The Successful Writer's Handbook." Learn what promotion entails.

No matter what method of publishing you choose, your ultimate success will be in direct relationship to your knowledge of the industry. And understanding the difference between self-publishing, traditional royalty publishers and the services offered by fee-based publishing services is a definite start.

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