The 3 Self-Publishing Paths You Should Understand

Since Monday’s post, a few writers have been informing me that self-publishing ought to be free, or close to it. To underscore their point, they point to services like Lulu (no upfront cost for uploading and selling an e-book if it’s completely ready to go), or Lightning Source, which the traditional publishing industry often uses for print-on-demand books.

Yes, those are wonderful services anyone can use, and I encourage writers to look into them. They’re basically turnkey services/tools. They do not assist in what is normally more confusing for the average person: creating and designing print-ready or online-ready files, and in some cases, distribution/fulfillment and eCommerce.

Here are the 3 major paths to consider.

Do It All Yourself

Upfront cost: $0 if the book is digital only; around $100 set-up fee if you contract with a print-on-demand printer like Lightning Source for physical copies, plus production/unit cost when you order physical books

You keep: All money earned off the sale of each book if you sell direct off your own website, or in-person at events

Requirements: Know how to prepare book files (cover and interior)—preferably with industry-standard programs like InDesign and Illustrator, but Word works in a pinch. Ability to create PDFs. Ability to create and re-size images.

Risks: Incorrect file formatting, poor book design (unless you contract it out), no shipping/fulfillment support for physical product, non-standard elements/layout

Who this option works best for: Writers comfortable with computers and technology; writers with an entrepreneurial spirit

Do It Yourself + Retail/Distribution Partners

Upfront cost: Same as Do It Yourself

You keep: A pre-determined percentage of the book’s retail price. When a customer makes a purchase, your retail/distribution partner takes its cut before passing on the rest to you. Popular partners: Lulu, Amazon DTP, Scribd, Smashwords

Requirements: Same as above; retail/distribution partners often ask for very specific file formatting, so be prepared to adapt/edit files as needed. For print-on-demand retail partners like Lulu, there is often a set-up fee.

Risks: Sometimes it takes a long time to get paid by these retail/distribution partners. For e-books, it can be difficult to format just perfectly so that it displays correctly no matter what reading device is being used.

Who this option works best for: People who don’t want to mess with e-retailing/fulfillment on their own site, and/or see a benefit to their book being distributed across the biggest online retail stores.

Before I move onto the next option, clearly you can see it’s possible to self-publish for next to nothing, if you feel you don’t need any assistance whatsoever.

When people do need assistance, it’s usually with:

  • Cover design (front/back—and spine if not digital)
  • Interior design and layout
  • Image preparation (resolution and reproduction quality)
  • Back cover copy & other marketing copy
  • Copyediting, proofreading, indexing
  • ISBN / barcodes (see note below)
  • Library of Congress & copyright registration
  • eCommerce setup (if selling off your own site)
  • Fulfillment/shipping of orders (whether digital or print)

Starting to sound like a small business, isn’t it?

But these are all things you can manage on your own if you have a bit of tech savvy, and decent software. While I don’t consider it rocket science, some writers would rather pay someone else to figure it out. You can pay a private consultant to help you, or you can pay a service to help you. And so we come to the 3rd path.

Pay Someone Else to Do It (e.g., Author Solutions)

Note: This route makes the most sense when you are absolutely sure you need & want physical copies of your book. Otherwise, there’s not much point.

Upfront cost
: Widely varies, since each service offers many packages and tiers, but anywhere from several hundred dollars to thousands. You can also buy just the services you need a la carte.

You keep: A royalty on sales. This royalty will be better than a traditional publishing deal, but much less than what you’d earn with a straight-up retail partner or turnkey service like Lulu.

Requirements: You hand over the Word document, they take care of the rest.

Risks: The more service you want, the more you pay. At its simplest level, you’re paying a service to do what a traditional publisher would do, but if you want the editing and development a traditional publisher would provide, you have to pay extra for it (or have it done yourself before you approach them). They also cannot sell physical copies of your book into bricks-and-mortar bookstores, no matter how much you are willing to pay. (But your book will be available to order from any bookstore as long as it’s listed in Ingram.)

As with all services you pay for, know the value of what you’re paying for, and make sure you’re not paying for stuff you don’t need—or that you could easily manage or contract out yourself.

Who this option works best for: Low-tech writers, as well as writers who don’t mind paying someone else to manage/execute the project—while giving up a chunk of future earnings should the book sell well. (Giving up future earnings can be avoided if you hire an independent publishing consultant rather than a publishing service like Author Solutions.)

A few online tools to know about

Here are a couple sites offering lots of good information and resources:

  • Self-Publishing Review.
  • Publetariat & Indie Author. These sites are both by April Hamilton, who shows you the financial breakdown of using some of the turnkey services mentioned above, and also offers technical advice on the design and preparation of files.

Also, from Writer’s Digest:

For those who have self-published, using any of the methods above, I
hope you’ll share any tips or resources that have been helpful for you in the comments.

Photo credit: ‘Lil

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0 thoughts on “The 3 Self-Publishing Paths You Should Understand

  1. Patricia Hilliard

    I published two books with a POD publisher. I got to publish what I wanted, designed the way I wanted and market it my way. I made no money. But the process was educational.

    First thing I learned: a book is more than a writer and the content. A book is a social process.

    Second: I got the "I want it my way" stuff out of my system. Now I write for others and hope to provide something they need or want while earning a living. But it was all worth the experience.

  2. Jane Friedman

    @Clive / @NJ – Of course I would put editing at the top of any must-have list, which was somewhat encompassed by copyediting/proofreading/indexing in the post.

    One of the reasons self-published books have such a bad reputation is because many are poorly edited or not edited at all. But let’s be honest: Many times, the people who self-publish are not patient enough to develop and edit their work (or don’t have the resource) – or else they do not wish to be edited and cannot work with constructive feedback.

    Writing is rewriting, and often that separates the professionals from the dreamers.

  3. Jane Friedman

    @Joel – Thanks for much for the additional comment. I believe your facts are incorrect, though. Just because Lulu (or any other company) is the company behind the ISBN doesn’t mean you forfeit the rights to your work, including the right to take it elsewhere, or sell it to a traditional publisher.

    With all service contracts I’ve seen, you can sever your agreement at any time. If this were NOT the case, I would recommend writers NEVER use these services.

    Of course, your 1st edition and that 1st edition ISBN will be catalogued as you indicate, and you’ll have a publication record affiliated with that service, but this doesn’t infringe on the right of the author to take the work elsewhere, or terminate the agreement. While authors would have to look at getting a new ISBN to avoid confusion if they re-published on their own – or elsewhere – these companies do not have the right to publish your work in perpetuity because they are publisher of record on the ISBN.

    On a final note – I checked Lulu’s site, and they do allow you to bring your own ISBN to products you distribute through them.

  4. Clive Warner

    I didn’t see the word EDITING mentioned above as one of the essential things to do!
    That’s the biggest problem of all. Unfortunately most authors seem to think their prose is perfect, when a cursory glance shows it to be riddled with errors as well as badly written. That’s why the vast majority of self published books never sell or get reviews.

  5. Anna Lewis

    This is a really good post – I think it particularly highlights the need for authors to find a service that matches their skill set. There are a few cases where authors will need the full support of services like Authorhouse but I would always encourage authors to invest a bit of time in learning a few technical skills as these will prove invaluable as we move further into a digital age.

    My website (offering self-publishing services to UK writers, soon to expand into US) offers a service which makes it very easy to create a book and market it both within the community of readers we have within CompletelyNovel and further afield.

    We now have literary agents using the success of writers on CompletelyNovel as a selling point when they approach publishers.

    We are very keen to offer extra help for writers where they need it e.g. for cover design and editing and will be doing so in the future, but I think it’s important to try and help people as much as possible so they can do things themselves.

    So we also want to spend a good amount of time putting together helpful information so people can avoid spending extra where it’s not neccesary.

    @Joel Friedlander I’d agree with you that some non-fiction there are a lot more success stories on the self-pub front, but I think that may be partly due to the fact that non-fic is often published in line with a particular business interest on the part of the author, so they invest their time in learning relevant skills. It would be great if more fiction writers took this approach – that after putting all that effort into writing something, you should be able to give it the best chance!



  6. Joel Friedlander

    @Jim, "With such a good chance of losing out on the investment, it does not seem worth getting into unless you do it with the mindset that you will be losing money."

    Well, I would probably agree with that if you are a novelist or a poet. But it’s just not accurate when it comes to intelligently planned and executed nonfiction. Many people have proved this for many years. With digital printing and print on demand distribution, it is actually easier than ever to show a profit on these books, assuming you have done your homework and prepared a book that meets the needs of your target audience. Thousands of authors have done it, including me.

  7. Joel Friedlander

    @Jane, it really depends on your intent. Technically, if you don’t "own" the ISBN you are not really a self-publisher. But more important than technicalities is that you do not, in fact, control your book. With another company’s ISBN you cannot decide you do not like Lulu (let’s say, they are interchangeable here) and take your book elsewhere. It is cataloged everywhere under the ISBN, and that ISBN leads back to Lulu, who could not "give" it to you even if they wanted to, which they most assuredly do not.

    Consider the author who publishes with one of the even less savory companies, and then can never extricate their book to go elsewhere. The problem is compounded when these companies set the price on your book and, due to your having gotten all those goodies for free up front, your softcover of, let’s say, 120 pages is now retailing for $25 or close to it. From a sales point of view, you are doomed.

    Even your suggested resource, Publishers Services, says on their ISBN page that if you buy their $55 ISBN, it will show "’Independent Publisher’ as the listed publisher within the major bibliographic databases." At least they are up front about this. If people want to go that route, they should buy the $129 version (same price direct from Bowker, by the way) and eliminate the problem completely.

  8. N. J. Lindquist

    This is from a blog I wrote recently regarding one of my key concerns about publishing – especially, but not only self-publishing.

    As more and more books are self-published or published by companies who want the manuscript to be near-perfect when it arrives, the one thing that is less likely to happen is good editing. I’m talking about the kind of editing where someone who is an expert in the genre takes apart the manuscript and points out every single flaw and potential problem so that the author can hone it and mold it. It’s called crafting.

    In my opinion, writing has four aspects: art, craft, business, and ministry.It’s very easy to focus on only one of those aspects. But the really great book will have all four in balance.

    * You need the art – the concepts and nuances that make it unique.

    * You need the crafting – the refining, tine-tuning, checks and balances that make it great.

    * Then you need the business side – the marketing, distribution, and everything that ensures the book has its own place and that it reaches the people you want to reach.

    * Finally, there is the ministry, where the book leaves the reader entertained, enriched, challenged, and satisfied.

    What is most likely to be missing these days – especially when the book is self-published, but even in some books that are royalty published, is the crafting. Fewer and fewer books I read have been edited as well as they might have been. And I don’t simply mean making sure there aren’t any mistakes in spelling or punctuation.

    Many writers don’t realize that editing is more than one thing.

    You have concept editing. Does this idea work? Is there a need for it? How can it find a niche?

    Then there is substantive editing. This is the big picture stuff. Does the plot work? Do the ideas flow? Should there be major changes in the structure of the book?

    Only after the substantive editing (which can feel like major surgery to the author) should the copy-editing and fact-checking come in to ensure that every detail is accurate and every subtle nuance is perfected, and there is flow, and the tension builds or ideas grow into a resounding climax.

    And then there is the final proof-reading that catches every little misplaced comma and out-of-place word.

    Unfortunately, as self-published authors are given total control of their work, and royalty publishers employ fewer editors, expecting the authors to send them near-perfect manuscripts, the role of the really great editor – especially the substantive editor – is gradually being phased out.

    Which means the role of freelance editors becomes more and more important. But that is a difficulty in itself – how does the author know which editor will be the right one for his or her particular manuscript? What isn’t needed is a "yes" editor who will basically just you what you want to hear. You want and need an expert who knows the genre you are writing in backwards and forward and can really direct and guide you – even tear apart your work so you can rebuild it from a stronger foundation.

    Unfortunately, there are too many authors who either don’t want their work touched or who don’t want to pay for substantive editing. The ones who want their ideas untouched apparently believe they are God-given, and refuse to even look at the possibility that the ideas themselves or the way the ideas are presented might need some more work. I think some writers feel that the editor will cloud their writing with other ideas or overshadow it with another voice. In reality, a good editor will actually make the author’s ideas more substantial and his or her voice stronger.

    As to paying for quality substantive editing, that’s a decision each person has to make. But the old saw that you get what you pay for is frequently true.

    Think about this quotation from "The Joy of Writing" by Pierre Berton, one of Canada’s most successful authors. He had hired a free-lance editor to go over his book before he sent it to the publisher. But after writing the book, he felt "My book didn’t need an editor; it was perfect as it was! She’d hardly have to take a pencil to it. As a courtesy, I sent it along to her."

    "Her assessment came back a week or so later in an eight-page letter, accompanied by notes throughout the manuscript." Yes, much more work was required.

    And then Berton says, "I should have been devastated, but in fact I was grateful. She had brought me up short. I had been too close to the book, and had needed an outsider’s view to sober me up."

    I was speaking recently with a long-time Canadian publisher who said, "The more professional the writer, the more they value the editing process, and the easier they are to work with."

  9. jim duncan

    The most important aspects of this kind of venture to me as a writer are the following:

    1. It’s a business. This takes a great deal of time, money of varying amounts, and effort, which the writer has to be willing to invest at the expense of being able to work on their next book. This is a serious tradeoff in my opinion.
    2. These options will fail to work for the vast majority of writers. For every success there are a 1000 that fail to get anywhere with it. With such a good chance of losing out on the investment, it does not seem worth getting into unless you do it with the mindset that you will be losing money. For some this isn’t an issue.
    3. Readership. Success as a writer seeking publication for me is reaching readers and having them enjoy my story. The average self-pubbed book, with whatever method is around 200 copies. To me this is a failure. As I am wanting a career in writing for publication, I want to reach thousands, not hundreds. With rare exception, these avenues just don’t provide it, and the current structure of the system doesn’t allow for it to happen.

    High probability of losing money (which I can’t afford), loss of time to write, and an inability to find readership in any meaningful way. This is why I would never pursue this as a career minded author, and would never recommend it to anyone else who wants the same.

  10. Jane Friedman

    @Joel – Thanks so much for the clarification on all points. The Lightning Source connection to Ingram/Amazon is understandably a valuable one for anyone looking at POD options.

    Regarding ownership of ISBN – I’ve heard writers talk about this issue, and the argument to "own" your book ISBN is odd to me. Traditionally published authors have never worried about their publisher owning the ISBN, plus the copyright is always in the author’s name.

    What important rights is an author giving up by purchasing an ISBN through Lulu (or another service)? I’ve always perceived it more as a psychological issue (I, the author, really OWN this project and am beholden to no other), rather than something that would affect success, sales, or image.

    Any examples of how non-ownership of ISBN can be detrimental?

  11. Joel Friedlander

    Jane, thanks for your resource-filled post. I think it’s a real help to authors considering self-publishing to lay out their options here.

    To me, the biggest hurdle an author has to negotiate on this path is to really understand that they have become a publisher, and must take on all the duties usually taken care of by the publisher (as in your list). Simply by self-publishing, you are starting a business, with all that entails.

    Also good to note that books printed at LSI will be automatically listed with Ingram and placed on without your intervention, so they are not really the equivalent of Lulu etc.

    Also note that although Haystack is a fantastic resource, it is singularly aimed at web design, not ebooks and not print.

    The most successful self-publishers I know are those who have contracted with professionals, formed a "publishing team" and put out a book that is in almost every way the equivalent of a book from a traditional publisher. They market aggressively, and may have done actual market research before even sitting down to write. This paradigm has been working, and working well, for many decades preceding the advent of digital printing and print on demand distribution.

    And as we know, true self-publishing can no longer be done at Lulu since they have eliminated the ability to use an ISBN that you own (last I checked, anyway). They will be the publisher, not the author.

    And on a final note (sorry to be so long-winded here) I might suggest another resource: my blog where I’ve been quietly amassing dozens of informative articles about self-publishing for the last few months, and will continue to do so.

    Have a great holiday, and thanks again for all your wise words, Jane.

  12. Jane Friedman

    @Erika – Thanks so much for mentioning your take on covers. Lots of writers struggle to find quality design help, and underestimate the importance of a compelling cover. It’s the No. 1 marketing tool for any book.

    Also appreciate you mentioning and TLC Book Tours as good tools.

  13. Erika Robuck

    I self-published by starting my own company so I could work directly with the printer, Lightning Source. Lightning Source is a great company, but you really do have to do everything yourself.

    The cover is extremely important. I put a lot of effort and money into it, and I’m pleased with the results. I was able to get the rights to use a painting, and had put the design together. Author Support is a great resource for self-pubd. authors. Very profession, very fast, and very high quality product.

    I’d recommend TLC Book Tours for online book review publicity. Again, it’s an investment (though much smaller than a publicist) but it hits a lot of major book bloggers.

    I’ve been able to make back my initial investment (and then some) in the book, but wide distribution is a challenge. I’m hoping to get an agent and traditional publisher soon.