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The Evolution of Self-Publishing

As technology improves, so do your publishing options. Here's a guide to what's new, what's available and why it's easier than ever to publish yourself.

Self-publishing books has become faster, easier and cheaper. Back in the 1970s, after your manuscript was completed, the printer would punch your manuscript out on tape and make corrections, and then run the punched tape through a type-setting machine—which was extremely time-consuming and expensive. When the bill arrived in your mailbox, you'd have a difficult time deciphering whether you'd published a book or purchased South Dakota. And without Amazon or eBay, it wouldn't be easy to sell, either.

Today, with the advancement of desktop computers and printing technology, it's quick and affordable. You can send your book off and have copies in 30 days for a few hundred dollars. But can it lead to commercial success?


Dan Poynter, author of The Self-Publishing Manual (Para Publishing), contends: "It's virtually impossible to land a publisher unless you can bring an audience with you. They're publishing only books that'll sell based on name recognition, which is why they're publishing great literature like Madonna's children's books and the book supposedly written by Paris Hilton's dog."

There are about 81,000 small and self-publishers, compared to six large publishers and about 400 medium-sized publishers, according to Poynter. And the Independent Book Publishers Association reports that small and self-publishers produce 78 percent of all the titles. The Book Industry Study Group's Under the Radar says that the smallest publishers (including self-publishers) generated nearly $3 billion in aggregate annual revenue last year. That slice of the revenue is growing because of the record number of people publishing their own work, but also because traditional publishers don't have the time or resources to read all the submissions.

"If you get turned down by a publisher, it simply means that this extremely busy person didn't `get' it," Poynter says. "There are more than 40 people who didn't 'get' Chicken Soup 14 years ago, and they're much poorer for it."

"Self-published books are becoming more accepted by agents and publishers," says Michael Mancilla, literary agent for Greystone Literary Agency. "Someone who goes through the process will learn and realize how difficult it is, which means the author has determination and will do what it takes to make his book a success."

Mancilla, who's signed and sold two Writer's Digest self-published contest winners to traditional publishers (The Tragedy of Miss Geneva Flowers, Caroll & Graf, by Joe Babcock and The Everything Seed, Beaver's Pond Press, by Carol Martignacco), says that self-publishing can open doors. "If the book gets recognition and has solid sales, agents and publishers can see that it's a proven item and not just a risky proposal."

While some agents and editors still stigmatize self-published books as mere vanity projects, others (like Mancilla) have begun to take a broader view. Sometimes, the reasons behind that may be surprising.

"I've had one editor tell me the reason she likes self-published books is that she can carry them on the train with her," Mancilla says. "It's all these kinds of unlikely things that can come together."


Print-on-demand (POD) publishing has gained popularity since its inception in the mid-'90s. It's quick, easy and very affordable. Once your manuscript is finished, you can e-mail it off to a POD publisher, and they do all the tactical work for you—format it, assign it an International Standard Book Number (ISBN; a unique number that allows sellers like Amazon to track it) and produce it.

"We find that authors write for many different reasons, and there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all publishing," says Susan Driscoll, president and CEO of iUniverse, a POD publisher. "If you're writing a book for your family, we have a package that will guarantee the book will be done in 30 days. If you're looking for commercial success, we have a package that includes an editorial review that'll tell you how your book stacks up with traditionally published books and what you can do to improve it."

Most POD publishers offer a wide range of fee-based options, from cover design to editing services to marketing material. As the print-on-demand technology advances, it continually becomes more affordable to more people.

"The idea of authors having complete control and freedom is gaining more acceptance, just like it is with independent films and music," Driscoll says. "There are many talented authors who just don't fit into the industry's business structure, so this is a way for those writers to still hit the marketplace."

The are three major differences between POD and true self-publishing: The ISBN is in the POD publisher's name, not the author's; the company pays royalties to the author instead of the author taking all of the profits; and the POD publisher takes some of the risk off the shoulders of the author.

"One major downfall of POD publishing is that you're going to pay too much for the book—typically $5 to $8 per book," says Marilyn Ross, co-author of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing (Writer's Digest Books). "Your book is your best marketing tool, and, to be successful, you need to give away 200 to 300 copies to reviewers. At $5 to $8 per book, you probably can't afford to."

Another potential problem, Ross says, is that some POD publishers put their name on the book—and POD publishers have less clout in the industry. Many reviewers won't even look at POD books; but even true self-published books are hard to get into reviewers' hands.

"If you're truly self-publishing, you've got all the expense and all the risk yourself," Driscoll says. "You can make a lot more money in the long run, but it's difficult to get started, and you may make lots of mistakes and spend a lot of money. Companies like ours try to ease that burden on you."


What's POD? Is it different from vanity publishing? Click here for our list of self-publishing definitions.

While POD publishers provide ISBNs for you and come at a cheaper price, some also keep the copyrights to the books they produce. This can be a downfall, Poynter says, which is why he recommends using digital printers.

"If you're doing a family history and you need 32 copies for your children and grandchildren, you can't beat the price of a POD publisher," Poynter says. "But if you want to try for commercial success, you really want to go to a digital printer. They're a printer, not a publisher. They just manufacture, so you keep complete control."

Prices for digital printers can range anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 or more, based on page length, size and paper quality. With this option, you become the publisher. After your book is complete, you're in charge of getting your own ISBN (which are sold in minimum blocks of 10). And, most important, you're in charge of getting your title listed on online bookstores. (In both true self-publishing and POD publishing, it's your responsibility to get the book on bookstore shelves—which is still a very difficult task, as discussed later.)

"What you want to do is find a digital printer to produce 500 copies," Poynter says. "If you run out of books, you can go back, make some corrections if necessary and, based on the way they're selling and the response you're getting, you can make the decision: Do I want to make 500 more? Do I want to do 1,000 more?

"Getting a digital printer on board is easy," Poynter adds. "Gather a list of e-mail addresses from all the printers, blind copy them into an e-mail and send an RQ (request for quotation). You have to make up an RQ for your book to give the printer some guidelines to bid on." ( provides more information on RQs; see the sidebar Digital Printers on Page 8 of this booklet for a starting list of whom to contact.)

With digital printers, you keep complete control of your work. You're in charge of your book's destiny.


Gordon Kirkland used to speak out against self-publishing, particularly against POD. He had traditionally published two humor books, Justice Is Blind—And Her Dog Just Peed in my Cornflakes and Never Stand Behind a Loaded Horse, with Harbour Publishing and never imagined he'd self-publish. The main reason? Getting a self-published book onto bookstore shelves is really difficult.

According to Writer Beware, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's committee on writing scams, booksellers are accustomed to a particular set of buying protocols—discounts of 50 to 55 percent, 60- or 90-day billing and full returnability, meaning they can return unsold copies to the publisher for a full refund. Traditional publishers include this "returnability" option, have the money and warehouse space that it takes to accommodate it, and cut deals with bookstores. Most self-publishing companies and POD publishers don't.

But that's changing. Infinity Publishing is one POD company that launched a return policy in 2004. "Any bookstore ordering books directly from us at a full wholesale discount can return those books up to one year for full credit," says Tom Gregory, president and CEO of Infinity, who agrees that returnability is vitally important for any author wanting to do book-signings at a local bookstore. "Our policy applies to all Infinity Publishing titles—past, present and future—at no cost to any of our authors."

In February 2004, POD publisher AuthorHouse initiated its Booksellers Return Program to encourage booksellers to stock its authors' books by allowing them to return unsold items. AuthorHouse has contracted a third-party vendor that guarantees that the books are returnable. The vendor handles all the returns, the paperwork, payments, etc. This program, says R. Michael Johnson, communications manager at AuthorHouse, gives self-publishers a chance to compete for space on the shelves.

This option was enough to change Kirkland's mind. He self-published his latest book, When my Mind Wanders It Brings Back Souvenirs, through AuthorHouse and is very happy with the process.

Kirkland launched his book this year with a book signing in Las Vegas, and the Borders bookstores there bought 50 softcovers and 30 hardcovers. Johnson says that if the book hadn't been returnable, Borders might have bought 10 of each, or they would have told Kirkland to bring his own books for the signing.

Authors must pay for this privilege, though. The standard cost for the Booksellers Return Program is $699 (on top of all other costs) for the first year and can be renewed for $300 each year after. The package also comes with marketing tools, such as a book sales kit, a copy of AuthorHouse's Selling Your Book to Bookstores, a bookseller contact list for your area and customized, oversized postcards to promote your book.

IUniverse is also trying to make it easier for self-publishers to get their books onto bookstore shelves with its Star Program. The Star Program showcases select authors from the iUniverse family who've already proven a degree of success in the marketplace. It offers more attractive discounts to retailers and access to a fully returnable distribution model.

Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, says that having a returnability option could be beneficial to self-publishers, but it'll take time to see if it's an effective program. She also says that traditional publishers still have some big advantages, and with POD publishing, authors don't get the distribution advantage of a big publisher.

Thinking about venturing into the world of self-publishing? Click here for our self-publishing checklist.

But Kirkland and Johnson think this program will change the self-publishing industry.

"This is good for authors," Kirkland says. "You'll earn higher royalties on a self-published book and, now that you can get it into bookstores, it's a no-brain decision."


There are different opinions on where the wave of self-publishing is heading. Some believe the entire industry will head toward print-on-demand because it saves money and warehouse space.

"We may see a day where people can go into a bookstore, order a book and actually see it printed right there in front of them," Driscoll says. "Now, that's at least 10 years away, but as the technology becomes more affordable, there's no reason that can't happen. It would definitely be a benefit to self-publishers to reach their audience."

Poynter doesn't think that POD machines will be in stores anytime soon because they take up too much space and are complicated. But he does see more books moving toward an electronic medium, or "e-book."

"I think it's just a matter of economics," Poynter says. "When stores get smart, they're going to start offering e-book downloads so you can walk in with your PDA or Pocket PC, place it in a cradle, push a button and download the book. Once we move toward that technology it'll be a lot easier for self-publishers to get into bookstores. Bookstores won't have to worry about returns or wholesale discounts or large inventories. That's what the industry should be striving for."

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