The Self-Publishing Path: It’s Often Anything But “Self”

The best approach to self-publishing depends on your goals and available resources. Jane Friedman notes the key considerations authors must make when deciding on the right path for themselves.
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The best approach to self-publishing depends on your goals and available resources. Jane Friedman notes the key considerations authors must make when deciding on the right path for themselves.

For the new author, it can be a big (and confusing) decision to decide between traditional publishing and self-publishing. But doubly confusing are the choices faced once you settle on the self-publishing path. There is growing complexity in the market and service options—and most authors, unless they have background in the book publishing industry, require some assistance to self-publish successfully.

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As with so many things in the publishing world, the best approach to self-publishing depends on your goals and available resources. There isn’t really a right or wrong way as long as you’re dealing with transparent and honest service providers and retailers. But here are the key considerations I always bring to the table in conversations with authors when deciding on the right self-publishing path for them.

The service landscape breaks down into roughly three categories.

1. Full-service publishing providers.

This is a company that sells you a package of services that include editorial, design, and production help, and likely handles distribution, marketing, and sales as part of that package. Sometimes these companies will describe themselves as “hybrids” because of how much they follow traditional publishing practices and may even reject some projects. They tend to be quite expensive (tens of thousands of dollars).

2. Book distributors that offer economical publishing services.

Some service providers that act as book distributors may offer package or à la carte services to help authors with various aspects of the publishing and marketing process. Usually these packages are affordably priced for the average author.

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3. Distributors and retailers without any service component.

Many of the same distributors and retailers that traditional publishers use are also open to self-published authors. These services are typically free to use upfront and take a cut of sales, but you need to come ready with your book files ready to go.

The first category is what I call “write a check and make the headache go away.” It’s suitable for authors with more money than time, and probably those who only have one book to publish in the foreseeable future. It’s also good for authors who would like to feel as if they are going through a more “traditional” publishing process, with a team of people working on their book.

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The second category is useful for authors with a limited budget who need some amount of help, but don’t want the stress or confusion of figuring out how to hire the right freelancers—or how to navigate the technical aspects of the book publishing process.

The final category is best for more experienced authors who are not intimidated by the publishing landscape, and have a decent understanding of the various steps in the publishing process. It is possible for first-time authors to be successful with this category as well, especially if they have an entrepreneurial spirit and are willing to read up on self-publishing best practices.

You do not have to invest in a full-service publishing provider to be successful or produce a professional product. In fact, established indie authors often warn against full-service providers and consider it against the ethos of indie authorship to pay a company to publish you. That said, some provide high value and quality, and are needed by authors who have little or no knowledge of book publishing. Here are some issues to be aware of.

If you are asked to sign a publishing contract with a grant of rights clause, it’s a red flag. Part of the point of self-publishing your work is that you retain control over every aspect of it and not enter into another publishing agreement. While you may be asked to sign a service contract or agree to terms of service, that shouldn’t involve a rights grab or license to your work beyond what’s required for distributing or selling it.

If the self-publishing service is operating according to current standards, then you should be working with them on an at-will basis. If you realize you’ve made a mistake at any point in the process, you should be able to back away, and remove a book from availability as quickly as you published it. You should act as the publisher and make all the choices associated with the publication of your book, no one else.

You should always be able to find clear information about how much money you’ll earn on each book sale. It may seem obvious, but closely review the fine print on pricing and payment for each service you’re doing business with.

Understand how much freedom you have to make changes to your book after it goes on sale. If you’re working directly with retailers, such as Amazon, you can upload new and revised files as often as you like. It’s a self-service system, and they don’t care about the volume of changes you make. However, with some distributors or services, you might incur fees with every single change, no matter how small.

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Parting Advice

No publishing service package can guarantee or promise specific sales results or success. However, some services will make you feel as if your book will fail if you don’t invest at a certain level. Marketing and selling a book is probably the hardest part of self-publishing, but you can’t make that challenge go away by writing a check to a service company. Be wary when services appeal to your ego or make it sound like you or your book will appear in lights. It is not easy to get attention for a book, no matter how much you’re willing to pay.

The best self-publishing services focus on helping you produce a high-quality book that will compete in the market. They are staffed by people who have a background in book publishing and understand the market challenges you will face. They don’t promise, but they do guide.

For more on publishing paths for today's author, check out Jane's 2018 Key Book Publishing Paths.

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