Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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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.
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:
For more information on the differences between self-publishing and subsidy publishing, see Self-Publishing vs. Subsidy Publishing: What's the Difference?.
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
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:
What Are the Primary Disadvantages of Self-Publishing?
Unfortunately, the disadvantages of self-publishing are also numerous!
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:
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:
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.
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.