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21 July, 2008

Passing: Part I - What Is Self-Publishing?

I've encountered several new authors who classify themselves as self-published authors, and a few of them have been a little off the mark. The common misconception that, if you pay to have your book published, you're self-published isn't quite that cut and dried. You have to consider who you're paying and what you're paying them for.

If you're publishing your book through a publisher who charges a fee for bringing your book to fruition (i.e.: cover design, printing, etc.), then you aren't the publisher, the company is. Your book will have that company's name on the cover as the publisher; it will be assigned an ISBN [number] belonging to that company and that company will likely receive a cut of your book sale profits for their time and effort. These publishing companies are commonly called "vanity publishers," and if you use a vanity publisher, you are not self-publishing. You are paying someone to publish your work.

Some people believe vanity publishers place little to no limitations on what they will publish for a fee, and they often cite editorial issues, overall packaging and content deficits as supporting reasons. I'm not weighing in one way or the other on the issue, but I feel it important to suggest that, as with anything, you do your research before shelling out your hard-earned money. A badly edited project or a project that isn't edited at all, will do you no good, both personally and professionally. This is part, if not all, of the reason a lot of reviewing services will not review self-published books.

Your challenge is to overcome the stigma that's been associated with self-publishing, because of a few bad apples.

Now that we know what self-publishing isn't, let's get into what it is...

When you truly self-publish your work, you are both author and publisher. Some authors opt to set up a formal business entity, such as a sole proprietor-ship, a limited liability company, or, if called for, a corporation, for which they give a name (i.e.: Acme Books). I've also seen "DBA" situations, where authors opt not to go the route of setting up formal companies, but rather, to file paperwork simply linking them to a certain name. I'll leave off with this topic here and suggest that you consult a publishing attorney about your options and which is best for you. You might also consult the business section of your state's official website. Often, there is extensive information about business formations, their uses and the requirements for setting up shop. You should also be able to find the necessary forms and instructions there, as well.

The end result here is that you are preparing to publish your own work and you will not be paying someone else to do it. Your company or business entity will be publishing your book. Thus, the profits (and, unfortunately, the expenses) are all yours.

When I decided to self-publish the first edition of Running from Mercy, I set up a limited liability company. Then I went out and got a second job to finance the company and started my journey right here, by getting a clear understanding of what self-publishing is. I was in talks with a vanity publisher, before an author said to me via email, "No. You are the company. Self-publish your own book. Why pay a vanity publisher to do what you can do yourself?"

That made sense to me, especially when I learned that my vanity published books would probably not find their way into brick & mortar bookstores (and maybe not online bookstores), because they'd be printed on demand (one at a time, as orders were received) and would not be refundable. That's usually a big no-no for bookstores. Also, the primary destination for obtaining my book would be on that company's website, in their own bookstore.

I don't mean to give the impression that all vanity publishers are "bad" or that all books published by vanity publishers are lacking in some way, because those would be generalizations and I try to stay away from generalizations. I'm just passing along the information I was given and setting the foundation for what's to come.

So far, we've covered the difference(s) between vanity publishing and self-publishing. Questions? Shoot me an email. Meanwhile, prime yourself for part two of The Passing Series. You love me, don't you? LOL.

This ain't over...


Genesis said...

Great post and thanks for passing!

Terra Little said...

Thanks! Stay tuned, more to come.

JC Martin said...

I almost fell for a vanity publisher, until I saw the price that was so outlandish. I had to pass. The whole package allowed them to get more money than me.

Thanks for the information.

Emanuel Carpenter said...

Well, here's the deal Terra. Just when you think everything is in black and white the exceptions start rolling in.

In regards to non-traditional publishing, traditional publishers view true self publishing and vanity publishing equally (and usually negatively). If you approach a traditional publisher after selling 5000 copies of your vanity-published book versus someone who may have sold 200 copies of her truly-self published book, which one do you think will gain interest?

Avoiding vanity presses doesn't guarantee acceptance into the major chains. As a self publisher, you may gain entry to a few Barnes and Noble or Borders stores (usually on consignment) but getting in on a national level is still relatively difficult (although not impossible).

Also, there are some older vanity presses that actually have no problem getting their books into the major chains. Of course, you might have to drop $2000.00 or more to buy copies of your own book and still only expect a percentage of royalties instead of all profits.

The thing with vanity presses, especially ones that have appeared within the last five years, is that they are merely glorified printers. They'll print anything you call a book, slap a cover on it, and give it an ISBN #. The negative stigma associated with them has caused them to be shunned at bookstores and traditional media so books can't get reviewed. Plus they overprice their books. I mean would you buy a book by an unknown author for $20.00 or a book by a best-selling author of the same genre for $13.99? Of course, there is always an exception to the rule.

Several vanity-published authors have been on the Essence Bestseller list and have been offered traditional book deals. Many of the vanity publishers have out-clauses so that authors have the freedom of doing just that. I still don't think it's as smart as true self publishing but some authors choose this route because it can be less expensive than doing it yourself (hiring a graphic designer, paying an editor, buying ISBN#s, and paying a printer). Many choose to send a company like iUniverse $500 versus spending at least double that on truly self publishing.

I think ANY form of non-traditional publishing should be a last resort (especially for fiction writers). Authors should master writing query letters, buy books like The Writers Market to find publishers, attend writers conference to meet literary agents in person, and spend their money on developing their craft. Self publishing is extremely glorified because the general public thinks you're going to be raking in all those profits. But without distribution and sound marketing, there are no profits to reap.

But if you must self publish, like I did, you should make sure you have a marketing budget and a marketing plan before you release your book. Otherwise, you will only lose money or barely break even in exchange for your 15 seconds of fame.

You can find more of my rants regarding non-traditional publishing at www.blogginginblack.com and at www.thumperscorner.com.

Take care,


P.S. Sorry I had no time to spellcheck.

Terra Little said...

I did, too.

In my line of work, I once encountered this guy who was CLEARLY mentally unstable. He wrote poetry and I could make sense of very little of it. It was THAT confusing. He brought in a letter he'd gotten from a vanity publisher and in it they were praising his work and offering to publish it for several thousand dollars payment on his part. I guess he approached the company, but all I kept thinking was, "Did they read his stuff?"

I hurried up and explained to his supervising officer what the deal was, so she could convey the info to him in such a way that he could understand the message.

Terra Little said...

Alright, Mr. Emanuel! You've given us all some things to chew on here. Thanks for giving us a little more insight into vanity publishing possibilities. I also like your suggestions for alternate ways writers can invest in their careers.

What are your thoughts on the supposition that more and more authors opt to self-publish? Do you think this is the case and, if so, why do you think its the case? Go a little deeper with me... If this is the case, is it indicative of industry changes or what?

Terra Little said...

Emanuel's Response folks...

Hmm, I can't speak for all self publishers but here are some reasons I self published. (I have two self-pubbed books but for now I will stick with the reasons I published my novel. Not all of them are sound reason either.)

1. Detered by rejection letters...I only received a couple of handfuls of rejection letters before I said enough is enough. Not only should I have waited it out but I should have been willing to re-write my work. I ended up getting some helpful feedback from a literary agent AFTER I had already self published.

2. Impatience...I wanted my book out yesterday. I didn't want to wait up to a year to find a literary agent and then that long or longer to get published.

3. Overzealous Expectations...I just knew I would sell thousands and thousands of copies of my novel. It didn't really occur to be that Borders and Barnes and Nobles would reject putting the book on the shelf at a national level even though I had wholesale distribution through Ingram and Baker & Taylor (because I used Lightning Source as my printer).

4. Reliance on Unpaid Advertising...I figured my byline at places I review books, my website, my blog, some signings, and a sprinkle of web advertising here and there would be enough to create word-of-mouth buzz. After I depleted what little marketing budget I had, the blip on the screen became a flatline. I made a very small profit but still nobody really knows who I am.

There are some valid reasons to self publish a novel though. Here's my opinion:

1. Previous Bad Experiences...I'm sure you've heard of authors who's publishers never paid their royalties. If I was burned like that, I think I wouldn't be able to trust another publisher with my work again.

2. You're Already Rich...Rich people can pay for traditional advertising, commissioned book reviews, and distribution. Plus, what's a small financial risk to a rich person?

3. You're Already Famous...If you already have a ready-made audience, you should have no problem selling books.

The reality is, everyone is not going to get a traditional publishing deal. What they do after the rejection is up to them. Perhaps they can go back to the drawing board and write something different they can sell. Maybe a few courses at the local university would do the trick. How about joining a writers group to get instant feedback? You can even hire an independent editor to help you with plot, characterization, grammar, and punctuation. OR you can take out your wallet and go the non-traditional route. (What really saved me was the library market that bought my book in bulk.)

Like I said, I'm not dead set against non-traditional publishing but I am against non-traditional publishing without a plan and a budget to promote yourself and your book.

Marketing/Promotion of your books is a fairly exhaustive topic, or at least it can be. We can always toss around some ideas about that, as well, as we move along with our discussion on self-publishing and me passing along the chunks of information that were passed to me.

Trust me, I'm by no means an expert on any one topic. I may know a little something about lots of different stuff, which always makes for interesting conversation, but here on my blog your two cents are always welcome. Thanks Emanuel!

So let's hear it. Anyone else have something to add? Self-published authors, let's hear from you. Why did you self-publish and how are you feeling about it now?