The Basics of Self-Publishing
The Definition of Self-Publishing
Self-publishing can have several meanings depending on who you ask. People who work in traditional publishing say that if an author paid any money to publish his book, the book is self-published. But, the snooty world of traditional publishing uses that definition only when it suits its needs. Traditional publishers often make new, unknown authors pay most, if not all, marketing expenses associated with the author's book. So, to those in the hallowed (and increasingly empty) corridors of "Grey Poupon" publishers, a book is self-published if the author pays for editing, formatting, or cover design. But the book is not considered to be self-published if those expenses are covered by the publisher (and the author is made to pay marketing expenses). The hypocrisy is almost insulting. In its purest form, self-publishing is when an author handles all of the book production processes, printing, distribution, and marketing (also called independent publishing). Under this definition, the author either has the skill set to carryout these processes (i.e., format a book) or hires out the various tasks to someone else. The author is essentially her own general contractor. Authors who use self-publishing companies (sometimes called subsidy publishers) are obviously self-publishing, too. Under this definition, since the author is paying up front for services and/or publishing packages and is getting published because she is paying, the book is self-published. Even when the ISBN is in the name of a publisher, the book is still considered self-published because the author has paid a fee for publishing services.
The Difference between Self-Publishing and Vanity Publishing
The snooty folks inside the imploding walls of Grey Poupon publishing houses still insist that an author who pays a penny in publishing costs is engaged in "vanity" publishing. However, those same people have determined that authors paying for marketing costs are not considered to be vanity publishing. Depending on who you ask, you'll hear a variety of answers as to what the difference is between self-publishing and vanity publishing. If you are talked into purchasing ten thousand copies of your book even though you have no real marketing plan or dollars to spend, then, in addition to being a sucker, you've engagedin vanity publishing. If you are planning to publish a book just to tell people that you've published a book, you're vanity publishing. If you go into debt to publish a book because you "just know it will sell," you're crazy andengaged in vanity publishing. If you don't plan on spending any significant time or money to properly edit and design your book, you're engaged in vanity publishing. If you don't plan to spend any time or money to market your book but instead are waiting for sales to magically come pouring in once the book is released, you're definitely vanity publishing (and somewhat delusional to boot). Basically, the "vanity" part comes in if you believe that your book is so amazing that you can put out whatever you want and readers will flock to buy it, even though you've done little to promote it.
What makes self-publishing different from vanity publishing is that, in self-publishing, the author is publishing a book in a strategic, well-thought-out, and well-informed way. Strategic means that the author has the book professionally edited by a real book editor who is familiar with the appropriate style manuals (friends who teach high school English don't count), has the cover and interior professionally designed, has a realistic approach to the process, plans to spend hundreds of hours of his time spreading the word about his book, has a marketing plan and some kind of marketing budget (regardless of size),
and intends to work hard to make sales. Those who sit around all day admiring themselves for having published a book are the vanity publishing crowd. Those who spend quality time marketing their book, and understand that sales opportunities down the road may be hatched by marketing ideas today, are what the spirit of self-publishing is all about.
The Difference between Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing
A traditional book publisher (at least until recently) paid all of the expenses incurred in the publishing process: editing, cover design, formatting, printing, distribution, marketing, and so on. Under this traditional publishing model, authors didn't pay a dime toward any publishing or marketing cost. In exchange, they got their books published for "free." However, publishing is just like anything else—there is no such thing as a free lunch. Assume for the purpose of this section that the author being discussed is a typical first-time author getting a shot with a traditional publisher. This author gives away the rights to the book for some period of time (five to seven years) and receives a puny royalty (typically 5—8 percent of the retail price). In some cases, authors may receive advances against royalties. A typical advance might be $2,000—$5,000.
Traditional publishing houses don't make it easy to get your work in front of them. So, the first step in getting a traditional publisher to even think about your book is to write a query letter that gets an agent or publisher to notice you. The "old guard" is still in place. In almost every case, you (the author) must write a query letter that explains who you are, what your book is about, who the intended audience is, and how you intend to market the book so that this audience will know that your book exists. Some helpful links about query letter writing can be found athttp://www.charlottedillon.com/query.html.
As you probably know by now, sending query letters to agents and publishers often amounts to tossing these letters into a black hole in the middle of a remote galaxy. Sometimes an agent or publisher will contact you and ask for more material, which is a good sign. Sometimes they never write you back at all or send you a form rejection letter. Even if they ask for more material, it doesn't mean that you're getting a contract. It means that they are going to think about reading more of your submitted material whenever they feel like it—hence the black hole analogy. Remember, as the traditional publishing industry continues to contract, agents have fewer and fewer places they can go to pitch a new book. Similarly, getting your query letter to be read or acted upon by a traditional publisher (which is probably right now shedding mid-list authors and not
taking on many newbies) is almost impossible.
Of course, every year a few authors break into this virtually locked-down universe. Let's assume for the sake of argument that you are one of them. Presumably, authors lucky enough to get a contract from a traditional publisher choose that route because the publisher brings years of design, marketing, PR contacts, and other important relationships to the table. How many of those relationships will be leveraged for the release of a book by a little-known author? Probably not many. More typically, the traditional publisher eventually breaks the bad news to the author that it doesn't have the budget for a marketing campaign or book tour. However, the publisher offers names of people to call who provide those services to the author for a fee, since the author is now under contract— enter the double-edged sword. The author got the contract she worked so hard to get only to learn that the chance of making significant book sales rests solely on her shoulders (and wallet). If the author doesn't spend the marketing money required to help launch the book, the book will likely fade away in the publisher's warehouse and eventually become back-listed (the publishing world's purgatory). If the author spends money to market her book, she's now spending money to make her publisher the lion's share of profit for each book sold.
Often, marketing is the most expensive part of the
publishing process, so while not having to pay for up-front production expenses is attractive, that alone may not be a good enough reason to sign with a traditional publisher. The author will likely give away a lot (rights, control, subsidiary rights, most of the earnings) and end up paying for the marketing expenses, putting herself in the very financial position she may have been in had she self-published. If the book sells decently, the publisher becomes the big winner. Yes, the publisher spent some money up front, but it is taking little to no risk where it matters most—marketing the book. For such a minimal up-front risk, is the traditional publisher entitled to reap the rewards if said rewards fall into its lap as a result of the author's marketing efforts and money? The answer to this question will vary depending upon whom you ask. If you ask the publisher that put up money for an unknown writer to put his book out there, you'll hear one opinion. If you ask the author who had to pay a publicist $6,000 to run a PR campaign, you'll hear another.
The one way to avoid the question altogether is to self-publish your book. If you're going to spend money either way, you might as well control the process and the result.
Excerpted from "The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, Fourth Edition - Everything You Need to Know About the Costs, Contracts, and Process of Self-Publishing" by Mark Levine. Copyright © 0 by Mark Levine. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.