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Self-Publishing FAQ
by Moira Allen

Return to DIY Publishing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

What Is Self-Publishing?

With the proliferation of inexpensive "pay-for-publication" options, this has become a confusing question. Many writers believe that "self-publication" refers to any mechanism by which the writer bears the cost of publication -- including subsidy electronic and print-on-demand publications. Many vendors encourage this belief, as "self-publishing" tends to sound more respectable than "subsidy publishing."

As a traditionalist, however, I intend to stick to long-accepted distinctions between self-publishing vs. subsidy publishing. The self-published author is responsible for a much greater range of tasks (and expenses) than a subsidy-published author -- and it is these additional tasks and challenges that will be addressed in this section (though subsidy-published authors will find much of value here as well).

To offer a quick and easy definition, therefore:

"Subsidy publishing" is a form of publication in which the author pays another publisher to produce a book.

"Self-publishing" is a form of publication in which the author becomes the publisher of the book.

This distinction is important. When you subsidy-publish your book, "author" and "publisher" are two distinct entities. If, for example, you publish through Xlibris, Xlibris will be listed as the publisher of your book. When you self-publish, author and publisher are the same entity. Your name, or the name you've chosen for your "publishing house," will be listed as the publisher of the book.

What Are Some of the Differences Between Self-Publishing and Subsidy Publishing?

At first glance, subsidy and self-publishing may appear very similar, as both involve "paying" to have your book published, and in both cases you are responsible for marketing that book. Here, however, are some key differences:

1) Control
Self-Publishing: You have complete control over every aspect of the production of your book, including interior design, graphics, typeface, cover, trim size, etc.

Subsidy Publishing: Most subsidy publishers offer standard templates for interior design, typeface, size, cover, etc. If you wish to modify any of these elements, you will generally have to pay extra (if it is permissible at all).

2) Revenues
Self-Publishing: You receive all revenues from the sales of your books. You are also able to set your own pricing and discount terms.

Subsidy Publishing: You are paid a percentage of revenues on book sales in the form of royalties. Your royalty may also be affected by where the book is sold and/or discounts offered. (For example, many POD publishers pay lower royalties on books sold through online bookstores or other locations than on books sold directly from their own website.) You may or may not be able to set the price for your book, and may have no control over discounts offered.

3) Rights
Self-publishing: You retain all rights to your book. (Self-publication, however, will generally be considered a "use" of book publishing rights; if you seek to sell your book to a commercial publisher later, the book will be considered "previously published.")

Subsidy Publishing: Many POD and electronic subsidy publishers make few or no demands on an author's rights. Others demand a limited grant of rights (e.g., the right to issue the book in that particular format). Others demand a variety of rights. Print subsidy publishers often demand the same rights as commercial publishers, while providing far fewer services.

4) Ownership
Self-Publishing: You own all books you produce. You may do whatever you wish with them, at no extra cost: Sell them, give them away, use them as furniture, destroy them.

Subsidy Publishing: Regardless of what you paid to produce your books, you do not own them. If you want additional copies over and above your free "author copies" (some POD companies provide only one), you must pay extra for them. If you wish to send copies to reviewers, or give copies away, you must purchase them, generally at an author's discount of around 40%. You do not receive any royalties on books you purchase for your own use.

5) Marketing Options
Self-publishing: You can make your own decisions about marketing, including the price of your book, discounts, giveaways, special offers, group discounts, etc. As your profit margin is higher, you can afford to invest in a variety of marketing efforts (advertising, direct mail, etc.).

Subsidy Publishing: While you are often solely responsible for "promoting" your book, you may not be able to set its price, and you may not be able to offer discounts for quantity orders. This makes it virtually impossible to market your book to groups (such as professional organizations, classes, etc., who expect a quantity discount). The profits you receive from royalties are usually not high enough to cover (or justify) the expense of direct marketing efforts.

For more information on the differences between self-publishing and subsidy publishing, see Self-Publishing vs. Subsidy Publishing: What's the Difference?.

Why Self-Publish?

Many people choose to self-publish a book because they are unable to find a commercial publisher. Often, this is because a book is tightly focused toward a specific niche market, so that it doesn't have sufficient audience to attract a commercial publisher.

Others choose self-publishing because it provides them more control of the finished product. A commercial publisher may require revisions, editing changes, cuts to a manuscript, etc., that the writer prefers not to make. A writer also has little control over a book's design or cover, or in the promotion process (e.g., making sure that the book is reviewed or advertised in publications that target its most likely readers).

If a book is particularly "timely", a writer may choose self-publishing because it provides a means of getting the book on the market immediately. Commercial print publishers may take as long as two years (or longer) to bring a book to market after it has been accepted, while a self-publisher could get that same book to the marketplace in a few weeks.

Bad Reasons to Self-Publish

  • Greed. Never go into self-publishing because you want to get rich. If you discover that you can produce your book for a per-book cost of, say, $3, and market it for $14.95 retail, it's easy to envision huge profits from that $11.95 profit margin. Unfortunately, self-publishing involves many costs besides the actual production cost of the book itself; if you're not investing in ongoing marketing efforts, for example, you won't be selling books (or making profits). In addition, a large number of your books may be sold at deep discounts (up to 60%), which seriously reduces the profit-per-book.

  • Laziness. Some people actually believe that self-publishing is the "easy" way to get a book on the market -- that, for example, it's "easier" than trying to find a commercial publisher or agent. It isn't. You may be able to get your book published faster -- but your work is only beginning. Keep in mind that when you self-publish, you're taking on all the tasks that would normally be handled by the staff of a commercial publishing house. Unless you're willing to invest significant time and effort (as well as money) into the business, you're going to be disappointed.

  • Arrogance. Many writers self-publish because they are convinced that they are beyond the need of editing or "tampering" on behalf of a publisher. Others assume that the only reason commercial publishers keep rejecting their books is simply because their books are "too edgy," too "unique," etc., for the "mainstream" market. Unfortunately, this is rarely true -- and this attitude accounts for the proliferation of badly written, poorly edited self-published books on the market (books that, sadly, give the entire self-publishing business a bad name).

What Types of Books Are Best-Suited for Self-Publishing?

Tightly targeted nonfiction books are still the best bet for self-publishing. The most successful self-publishers are those who (a) are experts in their field and (b) are familiar with the target audience for their books. It can be more difficult to persuade a commercial publisher to accept a book that has a relatively small target audience -- which makes self-publishing the ideal venue for this type of book.

Books for which the author has a "built-in" market or audience (which often fall into the previous category) are also likely to do well. If, for example, you regularly speak or teach on a particular topic, you may be able to take advantage of that audience by self-publishing a book that you can market at your talks or seminars. You might even be able to self-publish a book that you can use as a "required text" in your classes. If you belong to a particular professional organization, this can also provide you with a built-in "market".

Self-published fiction still has a low success rate overall. Most fiction is still purchased through real-world bookstores, where one can browse the shelves for titles that look "interesting" (and then flip through the book itself to review a few sample pages). The fiction "readership" is also too vast and diverse a market to target effectively with a direct-mail campaign -- and the competition with other titles is too fierce. There are, of course, notable exceptions that are often cited as "proof" that self-published fiction does sell -- e.g., Richard Paul Evans' The Christmas Box or M.J. Rose's Lip Service -- but the reality is that these books stand out because they are exceptions to the rule, not because they are representative of the success of self-published fiction as a whole.

Children's books and collections of poetry are also poor candidates for self-publishing. Buyers of children's books, like buyers of fiction, tend to prefer to browse the selection at bookstores, where they can easily review a book before purchasing it. In addition, many children's books are illustrated and/or produced in special large editions with high-quality paper (or added features such as pop-ups), which are extremely expensive for the self-publisher. As for poetry, its market is limited at best, especially if a poet does not already have an established reputation.

This doesn't mean that you can't succeed in self-publishing with a work of fiction, a children's book, or even a collection of poetry. It simply means that to be successful, you must have an exceptional product and the willingness to make a major investment in promoting that product.

What Are the Primary Advantages of Self-Publishing?

The advantages of self-publishing are numerous:

  • You retain full control over the content, design, and marketing of your book.

  • You retain all rights to your manuscript (with the exception that self-publishing is itself a use of "publication" rights; you cannot then sell a book to a publisher as a "new," unpublished work.)

  • You retain all revenues earned from the sale of your books.

  • You may be able to exploit markets that a larger commercial publisher would overlook or ignore, because of your special expertise in a particular area or simply because of your commitment to your book.

  • Your book may have a greater chance of success simply because you're more committed to the process of promoting it than a publisher who has hundreds of other titles.

What Are the Primary Disadvantages of Self-Publishing?

Unfortunately, the disadvantages of self-publishing are also numerous!

  • Print self-publishing (which is still the method by which you are most likely to sell the greatest number of books) is expensive. You will probably need to invest a minimum of $3000 to $5000 to get your book into print.

  • Self-publishing requires a huge investment in effort. You must be aware that you are setting up a business -- and what you get out of it will be directly proportional to the time and effort you are willing to put into it. (See "Tasks," below.)

  • Self-publishing requires an ongoing investment of funds. While it is possible to accomplish a great deal of marketing online today, you may still find that you need to fund advertising and direct-mail campaigns, as well as pay to ship books to reviewers. It is these ongoing expenses that make it difficult to "break even" in the self-publishing business.

  • Self-published books still lack respect in many areas. Many reviewers will not review self-published books; many bookstores and libraries will not deal directly with a small press; and many professional organizations will not consider a self-published book as "published."

  • It can be very difficult to get self-published books into bookstores and libraries, or accepted by wholesalers and distributors. Most bookstores and libraries prefer to deal with distributors who can provide hundreds of titles, rather than small presses that can supply only one. This means that most of your marketing efforts will be focused on reaching the consumer through other channels, such as space advertising, direct-mail advertising, web promotions, online bookstores, non-traditional markets, etc.

What Is Involved in Self-Publishing?

Self-publishing involves an extensive list of tasks. Before you embark on a self-publishing project, be sure that you're willing to take on the following:

  • Edit or obtain editing for your manuscript
  • Proofread or obtain proofreading for your manuscript
  • Obtain any artwork or illustrations you wish to include
  • Take any necessary steps to establish yourself as a legal retail business (see below), including choosing and registering the name of your "press."
  • Obtain ISBN, Library of Congress "Cataloging in Publication" number, Bookland EAN/UPC code, etc.

  • Publication Process:
  • Format manuscript (design interior layout, including appropriate margins, headers/footers, typeface, interior art/graphics, etc.)
  • Provide "front matter" (e.g., table of contents, copyright page, etc.) and back matter, if any.
  • Provide or obtain cover art; design front and back covers (including "cover blurbs" or reviews) and spine.
  • Obtain printing quotes (including trim size, number of pages, binding, paper quality, etc.) for print books
  • Determine how manuscript must be delivered to printer (often in a specific electronic format).
  • Arrange/pay for printing and delivery of finished books.

  • Post-Publication:
  • Continue with ongoing market campaign.
  • Send books to reviewers.
  • Receive and store finished books, if print. (Clear out your garage!)
  • Handle order fulfillment: Receive orders, process payments, invoice customers for amounts due, package and ship books.
  • For electronic books: Handle order fulfillment: Receive orders, process payments, invoice customers for amounts due, ship or transmit books.

  • Marketing (Ongoing):
  • Prepare press releases and PR package for reviewers, press
  • Determine list of relevant reviewers; mail or transmit books
  • Determine whether to pursue print/"space" advertising in appropriate magazines (especially for targeted niche markets)
  • Develop website from which to market and sell books
  • Develop Internet promotion campaign (e.g., chats, e-mail, groups, reciprocal links, etc.)
  • Develop direct mail campaign: Locate appropriate mailing lists, develop mailer and associated materials, stuff envelopes, etc.
  • Promote book through online bookstores. (If your book is listed in Books in Print and available in tangible form, e.g., print or disk, it will generally be listed automatically by online bookstores; however, you can add to the listing by providing summaries, table of contents, review excerpts, etc.) Consider joining Amazon's "Advantage" program for small presses.
  • Take steps to place book in bookstores and libraries, and/or to obtain outside distribution.

  • Bookkeeping (Ongoing):
  • Develop a system of tracking expenses and income related to your press. Keep these records separate from personal finances and any other "business" finances (such as freelance writing). (For more information on setting up a bookkeeping system, see Handling Writing Income and Expenses.)
  • Open a separate business bank account. (You may have to obtain a business license and other forms, in order to process payments that are made out to your business name rather than your own name; see below.)
  • Find a means of accepting credit card purchases. (PayPal is one option, but offers limited access for international customers.)
  • Develop an invoicing system. If you are selling print books to bookstores, libraries, etc., you will need to sell "on credit," and be able to invoice those markets professionally.
  • Know what will be required for income-tax reporting.
  • Do I Have to Do This All Myself?

    The good news is that you don't have to do everything yourself -- and you probably shouldn't. One key to running a successful business is knowing what you can do effectively yourself -- and what you should delegate to others. Many writers, for example, are not skilled at graphic design or artwork. Many prefer to hire an editor or proofreader for the final stages of manuscript development. You can also hire a fulfillment service to warehouse and ship your books (and, in some cases, accept credit card orders). You may be able to hire an 800-number service to accept telephone orders. And since self-publishing involves some complex bookkeeping tasks, using an accountant to prepare your taxes is always a good idea.

    The bad news is that professional help increases your costs. When you calculate the per-book cost of printing a book, be sure to include any costs incurred in hiring a graphic designer, illustrator, or cover artist. Even though these services add to your costs, however, they also add to the overall quality of your product -- making it much more marketable. Otherwise, you may save money but end up with a book that no one wants to buy.

    Will I Have to Get a Business License?

    If you plan to self-publish your book in print form, the answer is usually "yes." You are entering the business of selling a tangible product -- and that makes you a retailer. (If you are selling your book electronically, and issuing it only via downloads rather than in disk form, you may be able to bypass some of these requirements.) "Doing business" as a publisher generally means:

    • Obtaining a business license from your city clerk or licensing office. This will also mean checking zoning regulations for your area -- and, if necessary, convincing your city that your "business" does not violate residential zoning laws. (If you have no employees and no customer traffic, you may have no problems -- but laws vary from state to state and even city to city.) This will also mean paying local fees and business taxes on your revenue.

    • Filing a "doing business as" (dba) statement with a local paper to establish your business identity (the name you've chosen for your publishing "house").

    • Setting up a separate bank account for your business, so that you can deposit checks made out to your business name. (Generally you will need a business license and dba statement to do this.)

    • Filing business taxes as a retail business on your Schedule C.

    Can I Self-Publish My Book and Then Sell it to a Commercial Publisher?

    Many writers believe that by self-publishing a book, they make it more attractive to a commercial publisher than a mere manuscript. I suspect this is because they believe that a publisher will be impressed by the sight of an actual, published book.

    The sad fact is that this is not the case. Publishers are not in the business of buying books. They are in the business of creating books from previously unpublished manuscripts. They are not impressed by a book simply because it "looks" like a book (rather than like a manuscript). They want to be the first in the market with a title, not second or last. So if you wish to self-publish primarily in hopes that a commercial publisher will want to pick up your title, you'll do much better trying to market your manuscript in the traditional fashion instead.

    However, as in all things, there are exceptions. If you can demonstrate that there is (a) a significant market for your book, and (b) that you have been successful in reaching that market, you may find that you can interest a publisher in taking over the title. The key lies in proving that the book can sell. If, as a self-publisher, you're able to sell two or three thousand copies, you will have demonstrated that the book has a market. In other words, before you can sell your self-published book to a commercial publisher, you still have to become a successful self-publisher!

    Before you race to seek a commercial publisher, however, you may want to determine whether, in fact, that publisher will be able to sell more books (or even as many) as you can. When I self-published my first book, "Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet," I sold an average of several hundred copies per year; over a period of ten years, I sold nearly 5000 copies. When I sold it to a commercial publisher, sales dropped to fewer than 200 copies per year -- and after the first year, the title was "backlisted" and relegated to a tiny blurb at the back of the publisher's catalog. Keep in mind that you will always have a greater vested interest in marketing and selling your book than most publishers.

    Which Is Better, Print or Electronic Self-Publishing?

    The answer to this question is "it depends." Each format has advantages and disadvantages.

    The primary advantage of print publication is the simple fact that print books have a much wider audience than electronic books, regardless of the topic or genre. Statistics [at time of writing] indicate that only 14% of all books sold in the U.S. are sold through electronic channels, and e-books constitute only a tiny fraction of that amount. This means that the vast majority of the book-buying public (and your potential market) still prefers physical books and buys them through non-electronic channels.

    My own experience supports this conclusion. I currently have two books available in both print and electronic editions -- the print editions through commercial publishers, the electronic editions listed through my own websites. I provide the same amount of promotion for each edition of each book, and the electronic editions are less expensive than the print editions. Yet for each book, print copies outsell electronic copies by 10 to 1. In terms of profits, therefore, I'm still making more money from the limited royalties of the print editions than from the much higher royalties of the electronic editions.

    It is also much easier to have print books reviewed (either by major publications or by special-interest magazines), accepted by libraries, and (occasionally) carried in bookstores. While it's difficult for self-publishers to persuade bookstores to carry their print titles, it's almost impossible to persuade them to carry e-books. Finally, you're more likely to find opportunities for "quantity sales" of a print book -- e.g., sales to professional organizations, groups, classes, etc.

    The downside of print publishing is the cost. Your initial investment to produce the book is high, and you will have higher ongoing marketing costs. Selling a print book also means becoming a retailer (getting a business license, collecting sales tax, etc.). Self-publishing a print book means a greater investment of time, effort, and funds -- and these factors should be considered carefully before you make a decision.

    The primary advantage of electronic books is the low cost (or, indeed, near absence of cost) to produce them. Even if you choose to pay for professional cover design (a good idea), your cost per book will be extremely low. An e-book may exist as nothing more than a computer file that can be e-mailed to the customer, or downloaded from a website. Even if you choose to distribute the book on disk or CD-ROM, your production costs are far less than for a print book (as are your shipping costs). You will also tend to sell more books at retail, as there are few avenues for "quantity sales" of e-books (which could also be considered a disadvantage!).

    So, again, the answer is "it depends" -- on what you are willing to invest and what you hope to gain from that investment. It also depends on the market -- some markets may be well-suited to electronic books, while others may contain a larger percentage of "traditional" readers who are less likely to buy an e-book. To answer this question, therefore, you'll need to conduct your own market research to determine where your readers are -- and which format will be most likely to appeal to that readership.

    Find Out More...

    Self-Publishing vs. Subsidy Publishing: What's the Difference? by Moira Allen

    Why Self-Publish? An Interview with Richard Paul Evans, by Carolyn Campbell

    Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

    This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

    Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


    Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
    All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
    without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
    For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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