4 Key Categories of Self-Publishing

Let’s start with the obvious.

The self-publishing landscape is changing rapidly.

It’s becoming more difficult to explain the options available not just because there ARE more options, but because there are subtle shades of differences between the options that aren’t immediately clear or apparent—even to people inside the industry.

With this post, I hope to establish some categories to help us talk about the different options now available.

First, let me emphasize: There is no one-size-fits-all self-publishing option. It all depends on your goals, your skill level, and the audience you’re trying to reach.

I would classify most self-publishing options into these 4 categories:

  1. Print-on-Demand (POD) “Full Service”
  2. Print-on-Demand (POD) “Free Service”
  3. E-Book Single Channel
  4. E-Book Multiple Channel

1. Print-on-Demand (POD) “Full Service”
This is the self-publishing option that became very popular in the early 2000s, because it made self-publishing more affordable than ever. Print-on-demand technology allowed for books to be printed one at a time, only after an order was placed, avoiding the necessity for authors to pay for a traditional print run that would most likely sit in a warehouse somewhere, unsold.

There were many players in this arena at first, but consolidation took hold, and AuthorHouse bought up the key players but retained their branding, including iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford.

AuthorHouse is now seeking partnerships with traditional publishers to form branded self-publishing imprints that they service. This has happened so far with Thomas Nelson’s West Bow, Harlequin’s Horizons, Hay House, Writer’s Digest’s Abbott Press (see new contest here to promote its launch), and also, just recently, Berrett-Koehler.

Key characteristics of this option

  • Highest priced option for self-publishing since you’re paying for “full service” publishing, which usually includes solid customer service. For better service (e.g., content editing or copyediting), you have to pay for a higher priced package. It can cost thousands of dollars, or hundreds, depending on the package you choose.
  • You have to do nothing, aside from hand over your Microsoft Word document and write a check.
  • You have very little control over pricing. (The common complaint is that you can’t price to reasonably compete against a traditionally published paperback.)
  • You are responsible for all marketing, though of course you can pay for a marketing package that may or may not be helpful in selling books.
  • You usually receive the lowest royalty of all options covered here, but it’s still a higher royalty than what a traditional publisher would pay.

2. Print-on-Demand “Free Service”
There are some print-on-demand services that will charge you very little (and who often advertise “free” versions of the service) as long as you do all the work.

Like full service companies, they do offer “package deals” that help you with cover design, interior design, etc. But you can avoid these services and pay a very low fee if you do the work yourself.

Key characteristics of this option

  • Similar to above—but you buy only the services you need, either by the package or a la carte; you can save money if you don’t need the “full service” POD option. Again, it can cost thousands of dollars, or
    hundreds, depending on the package you choose.
  • You
    usually receive a lower royalty than other options covered here (with exception of “full service”), but
    it’s still a higher royalty than what a traditional publisher would pay.

Here is an overview of these first two options and the companies affiliated with each. Please note: This is NOT an exhaustive list; it’s merely to help you understand where I would place some of the major players.

I’ve listed Lightning Source in its own corner, because it is not a self-publishing service, but can be effectively used by self-publishing authors. Lightning Source is used by traditional publishers to produce POD books.

If you have the skill and ability to act like a publishing professional—that is, act as a BUSINESS—this can be the cheapest option and highest royalty option for producing a print-on-demand book, and you would avoid any connection or branding with a known self-publishing service company.

3. E-Book Single Channel
When you self-publish through Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble PubIt! (Nook), Scribd, or Google’s eBookstore, you’re publishing through a single channel. Your book isn’t purchased anywhere except through those particular devices or stores, or their affiliates.

Key characteristics of this option

  • These services are absolutely free. You pay nothing to play. That’s because these services are not providing you with any service except making your work available for sale in their online store.
  • Your royalty is typically 70-85% of the retail price—which YOU set.
  • You have to do all the work of formatting/converting files to meet the requirements of the channel. (They all have unique requirements.) You have to design your own cover.
  • You can pull your work off these sites at any time if you get a deal with a traditional publisher—or if you just decide to do something different.
  • There is no exclusivity agreement. You can publish your work in one or all of these places.

4. E-Book Multiple Channel
This situation is exactly like single channel, only you’re dealing with a service that will push your book out to multiple book retail outlets. You can use single and multiple channel services at the same time.

Here is a chart that helps you understand the division of players. This is NOT an exhaustive list.

So, there are the four categories.

Questions to ask yourself before choosing any path

  1. What are my goals? (Does it require a print edition?)
  2. How much help do I need to create a product that will meet my goals?
  3. Does my audience prefer print or digital?
  4. Is price point critical for my audience or genre?
  5. Once you have a product—no matter which path you choose—how will you make people aware it exists? (Don’t expect any of these 4 options, no matter how much money you pay, to do your marketing for you.)
  6. You can subscribe to my newsletter for access to more in-depth handouts on these questions/issues.

People in the industry are saying that e-books are becoming the new mass-market outlet. New authors such as Amanda Hocking, as well as midlist authors such as JA Konrath, are using e-book channels to get on bestseller lists and make good money—not publishing service companies.

But that’s a whole other post.

What have I missed? Would you add new or different categories? What are some of the most important things authors need to know before using any of these options?

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29 thoughts on “4 Key Categories of Self-Publishing

  1. Nancy Curteman

    Hello Jane,
    I would like to use some of your post on self publishing on our website. Of course I would credit you. How would you like to be credited?
    Nancy Curteman

  2. Jeffrey Koconis

    I’ve been devouring your posts trying to learn what I can about this subject, along with others who also have an urge to help aspiring authors and artists. I am grateful to all, it’s been immensely helpful, while quite daunting, thank you.

  3. Dana

    Great post, Jane. Lot’s of exciting resources for authors. What about ‘zines? Do people still do ‘zines? I think they do. I’ve always liked them. Kinda old-skool DIY. Run that copier, man!

  4. Jack W Perry

    Thanks for the informative piece. One thing I do see emerging in the "multiple channels" area is companies like INscribe (division of INgrooves) and BookBaby (of CDBaby). These companies were originally set up to deliver digital music to Apple. They have branched out to eBooks. They will convert, store, distribute and collect on behalf of the author (or publisher). They bring a digital distribution background to this issue.

  5. Roberta

    Useful information, thanks, Jane. Author’s might also be interested to check out XinXii.com (-> eBook single channel, #1 in Europe). They allow to upload and sell eBooks at no cost with a 70/30 revenue share.

  6. Roberta

    Useful information, thanks, Jane. Author’s might also be interested to check out XinXii.com (-> eBook single channel, No.1 in Europe). They allow to upload and sell eBooks at no cost with a 70/30 revenue share.

  7. Larry Jacobson

    Thank you Jane. I would like to add information about self-publishing without POD. My recent blog that was posted on Joel Friedlander’s, TheBookDesigner.com called 8 Keys to Self Publishing Success may significantly help your readers.
    My new hard cover book with 4-color photos could not be produced by a POD company at a reasonable cost, so I started a new publishing company to get the job done. I hope your readers will glean some insight from my blog. (hey, perhaps some might even like to read my book about my six-year sailing trip around the world!)
    Thank you
    Larry Jacobson
    Author of,
    The Boy Behind the Gate–How his dream of sailing around the world became a six-year odyssey of adventure, fear, discovery, and love
    Published by Buoy Press

  8. Keri Knutson

    Really nice and concise article. Put together everything it took me a week to track down in one spot. I think what authors need to think about is the way they view their work. Are they not going to be happy until they have a physical book in their hands? From conversations I have with people, that seems to be the big sticking point. There’s a little voice inside their heads telling them they’re not really published unless they can flip the pages. Of course, POD is erasing the distinction.

  9. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane!
    In order to make your list complete I would add Infinity Publishing, which has both the eBook and pBook options. I have had excellent results with them and not so excellent with Xlibris (POD only). I don’t know where Infinity falls in your classification scheme–the author’s MS has to follow their formatting for trade paperbacks, for example, but Infinity can take that and map it into the various eBook formats. However, they have been slow to put the eBooks in their bookstore BuyBooksOnTheWeb.
    While I encourage authors to get published and try to promote POD by focusing my reviews at Book Pleasures on them, I personally know that the marketing–making your name known–is the real battle, especially for fiction writers. My experience is that the marketing packages that are sold are not really effective. The best bet is a good website and a slow build-up of an audience. One should carry no delusions–marketing is hard, and the increasing number of pBooks and eBooks out there only makes it more difficult.

  10. Bruce H. Johnson

    We could combine print and ebook channels, too. I have a four-novel series available on Lulu.com and also as ebooks on my site. Most people buy the ebooks (less expensive), but every quarter so far Lulu has sent me a check showing someone bought the paper editions too.

  11. Judy Croome (South Africa)

    Great info thanks Jane. I’m on a steep learning curve at present. Have outsourced the cover design and conversion to ebook. Will be selling through Amaxzon, Smashwords and Scribd. As this is, as we say here, my "skoolgeldboek" (literally: school money book, meaning the price I pay to learn about independent publishing)I’m not expecting a great success, but if I get hit my target e-book sales within a short period of time, I’ll go to print, but costwise it’s cheaper for me to use a local printer who specialises in independent publishing and offers full services (editing, maketing, printing, etc) (for anyone in Africa – go to http://www.mousehands.co.za)

  12. Jim Hamlett

    As always, Jane, you deliver. I see in your response to Michael that you recognize a "fifth" category. That is probably where I belong, but with a twist that may suggest a sixth category. Early in the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and one other I can’t remember, formed United Artists in order to have greater control over their craft and a better reward for their efforts. I have launched Graceful Word, which I hope will become a fellowship of writers who will work together much like a critique group, then publish under the same name. Unfortunately at the moment, I’m the only writer. As soon as I can achieve a measure of success, I’ll be in the hunt for the next writer. Thanks for all your efforts. I live for your Best Tweets of the Week.

    Jim Hamlett

  13. Jane Friedman

    @Joel – Thanks for the heads up on yet another model!

    @Michael – Great perspective. I did leave off a "fifth" category, which are those authors who choose to be 100% independent, and contract out services as needed, to whomever they see fit for the job. There can be a significant learning curve to this path, but the rewards are often much greater.

  14. Michael N. Marcus

    Categorization of self-publishing paths based on service vendors rather than on self-publishing authors’ business models can be misleading.

    I classify myself as an "independent" self-publisher. I formed my own publishing company (Silver Sands books, with about 15 books since 2008). I own ISBNs, hire designers and editors, get LCCNs and copyrights, conduct promotion, etc.

    I also choose printers. Most of the time I use Lightning Source, but sometimes I use CreateSpace (for a less-important book that will use a modification of one of their free cover templates instead of paying an artist for an original design). Sometimes I use Lulu (better photographic reproduction than LS or CS can achieve, and for PDF eBooks). I also use eBookit.com for multiple-format eBooks going to multiple booksellers.

    The variety of vendors of author services is large and growing. Some self-publishing companies are now offering a la carte services in addition to full-service packages. For example, I could use ArborHouse for ghostwriting, Outskirts Press for eBook production, and AuthorHouse’s AuthorHive for marketing.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — "Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults)," http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

  15. Joel Friedlander

    Excellent summary of options, Jane, this will be useful to many people. One of the recent developments in the "ebook multi channel" option is Bookbaby.com, an offshoot of CDbaby.com, the long-time distributor of indie music. Bookbaby’s unusual feature is that they take NO discount at all. Instead they charge a fee up front and then distribute to all major retailers including Apple’s iBookstore and return 100% of sales revenue to the publisher. And they also provide ebook conversions.

    This represents a really good option for people with heavily formatted books who want to publish on Kindle or ePub, since Smashwords will not accept a third-party file, instead running everything through their "meatgrinder" conversion engine. I’ll be running an interview about this new service very soon on my blog.

  16. John Sundman

    The only significant option I see omitted is traditional offset printing of paper books. As the quality of POD books has gone up (even as the price per book has gone down), offset printing has become less and less attractive (big ‘up front’ cost, plus all the hassle of storing and shipping books). However, for some kinds of books POD just isn’t an option.

    In certain circumstances offset can be the way to go and offers the highest return on investment. However, the risks are much greater than with POD. Many a self-publisher has ended up with a garage full of books paid for at great expense with no hope of "earning out" their cost.

  17. Megs

    Another eBook Multiple Channel source is distribution through Ingram Digital. It’s a distributor that is used by traditional publishers but is completely an option for the self-pub author treating his business like a small publisher business.

  18. Jane Friedman

    More info on CreateSpace (owned/operated by Amazon): They have a totally free POD service for uploading if you have formatted and designed your interior and cover in PDF. You can set your sell price as well. Most people agree that distribution is better through CreateSpace than Lulu, though for "pro" distribution, you do have to pay a fee.

  19. Linda Joy Myers

    Thank you Jane, it’s so helpful to have these resources gathered and researched and all in one place! Everyone is asking about this, so it’s important to have an intelligent and well thought out plan, where somewhat naive writers are not taken for a ride because they don’t have enough information.
    As always, you have the most up to date information!
    Linda Joy

  20. Robert J. Bannon

    thanks Jane

    It’s great to have this information concisely presented without all of the marketing hype when you do a simple search. I hope you don’t mind if I make it available to my own followers.

    Once again, thanks – great job.


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