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The New World of Self-Publishing

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Self-publishing, POD or print-on-demand, and vanity presses; these are all methods of taking a manuscript and getting it into print, for sale. As someone who has a vested interest in this, who published a book last year using POD, I’m still amazed at the number of people who are misinformed about what these three terms mean.

There are many writers out there with stars in their eyes– looking to self-publishing as the holy grail. I talk to many of them on a weekly basis; both locally in Rochester, NY, which is the print-on-demand hub of the world, and online, through email, or my blog at A-ha! These are writers who have a story to tell and who know they probably won’t make it through the filtering process at a big publishing house. Or, they’ve tried that route and been burned.

This post is to help explain the New World of Self-Publishing. A place where authors really do have the control– but often don’t have the knowledge– to get their book into print.

Let’s look at how the publishing world works today; a comparison of traditional publishing and POD, which has become synymous with self-publishing.

First of all, being self-published is NOT a BAD thing. Self-publishing your work does NOT mean you are unworthy of being published by the likes of Random House or MacMillan. There are numerous self-published authors who went on to become best-selling authors, who chose the self-publishing route to get their leg in the door.

Self-publishing got readers interested in their work, and attracted big name publishing companies. The stigma of being a self-published writer is placed on writers by the big publishers, to protect their image of being in charge of print publications. It’s time for self-published authors to stand up and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any longer!”

Okay, let’s dispel some myths. First, an explanation of the various forms of self-publishing is in order:

1. Self-publishing itself is a term to denote the author’s involvement in not only writing, but producing, his or her book. When an author chooses to bypass the traditional publishing route (a route that could take years to make it to bookstores, and is fraught with disappointment because traditional publishers want ALL rights, or as many rights as they can get, and then…may or may not publish the book– it happens, you get to the end of the contract, book is done, even printed, and the publisher has found a new darling, so…you’re left out in the cold. The book sits in the publishers warehouse– and gathers dust), he or she is considered a self-published author. This means she or he went to Kinkos and had the book printed, and paid a pretty price for however many copies she or he desired (or had enough cash for), or he or she went to a printer and had the printer handle the job. In the end, the author is left with numerous boxes of books…to sell.

2. Vanity Presses– are still in operation today. These are companies that purport to aid authors by doing the printing of their book. An author submits a proposal of their manuscript, the vanity press acts like a traditional publisher (sometimes, not always) and accepts or rejects the manuscript. Few manuscripts get rejected. Once accepted, the vanity press requires an upfront fee, usually in the thousands of dollars, to handle the printing of the book. Generally, again, these books will be hardcover. The author has, essentially, bought hundreds of copies of his or her book, and now has the onerous task of selling them. Vanity presses are never a good choice. IMHO

3. Subsidy publishers– as close to a vanity press as you can get. They want a large cash outlay up front, for very little return.

4. Print-on-demand: POD is a new form of self-publishing. There are a number of options available to the author, using this form of self-publishing. Xerox and Kodak have made it possible to print ONE BOOK at a time, for the same cost as printing a hundred books. (they seldom actually print ONE book, they usually print them in batches of four or more, then hold onto the extra copies until orders come in.)

Here’s how this works: in POD, the author contracts with a publishing company to print his or her book once it’s completed. Reputable companies give the author guidance in setting margins, choosing font style, and formatting the inside look of the book. They sometimes also help with cover design. For this, they require an upfront fee. It’s generally thousands less than either a subsidy publisher or a vanity press would require.

Once the author delivers a PRINT READY manuscript to the POD company, that company — for the most part — OUTSOURCES the printing to a reputable POD printer, usually, but not always, here in Rochester, NY. Lulu.com, one of the largest POD companies online, and the cheapest, outsources its printing to Lightning Source, a book distributor that deals with companies in the Rochester, NY area most of the time. Lulu gets its money from sales of the book– so the author receives 75% royalty, while Lulu only takes 25%. However, Lulu sets the price of the book. They also do not do any marketing. The book sits in their database waiting for someone to find it. The only book I know of that has reached best-seller status at Lulu is The Hardball Times, which sold 500,000 copies– because bloggers took it up and promoted it all over the Net.

Companies that offer POD have a distinct advantage both over traditional publishers and vanity presses. POD companies can publish your book for much less, they sometimes (not always) offer a marketing package, and they take a smaller royalty cut.

4. Author Services: another arm of POD. An author services company works with the author to make sure the book is exactly what the author wants. An author services company combines the power and ease of POD, with the expertise and insight of traditional publishing. An author gets personal assistance in the writing and editing of her book, as well as the design of the cover– both front and back– and has an experienced professional to interface with the POD printer, to make sure everything is done properly, and on time.

An author services company does not abandon the author once the book goes to print. They offer marketing plans, which the author may purchase upfront or negotiate after the book is printed, and they also have a bookstore associated with their company. A bookstore that can’t rival Amazon, but, which pays the author a much higher royalty than Amazon, which should encourage authors to send family and friends to their publisher’s site to buy their book.

Amazon, by the way, takes a big cut out of the set price of the book, and even lowers the price at whim. One wishes Amazon would open a dialogue to explain the purpose of this– well, we know it’s to sell more books– but it undercuts the Author Services ability to sell the book at retail, and doesn’t do the author any good. Of course, this is America. That’s business, I guess.

In conclusion, self-publishing today isn’t the same game it was back in those old Dick and Jane days of the previous century. Self-publishing using POD is a respectable way to get into print, pays better royalties, and comes with marketing help, if one is willing to invest some cash upfront. Self-publishing using just a POD company is still better than a vanity press, but has numerous pitfalls. Lack of communication is one, lack of expertise is another. By choosing an author’s services company, you get the best of both worlds because unlike a POD company, an author services company makes its money on more sales of the book. The upfront cost merely helps keep the doors open. Author services’ companies rely on their ability to market and sell your book, to make their profit.

Let’s look at a few famous folk who started their writing careers by self-publishing:

Beatrix Potter: The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Edgar Allan Poe: anything, he was totally self-published and did not receive renown for his work until after his untimely death.
Tom Peters: In Search of Excellence
John Grisham: A Time to Kill

The list could go on for pages. You get the drift.

So, don’t whine and wail if your book gets turned down by a big NY publisher. In fact, unless you’re willing to wait a year or longer for your book to get into print, don’t waste time on them. They’ll come calling…if you choose an author’s services group to help you get noticed by the buying public. It’s not a matter of luck– it’s a matter of professionalism and expertise and marketing.

Get published when you want– by investing in a good author services company that understands print-on-demand. You won’t be sorry. You may get rich. You may just get famous. But, you won’t get taken to the cleaners.

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About Jane

  • a very helpful review – thank you. the full list of self-published authors does indeed include some of the best.
    I was wondering what you thought of cafepress.com, another site offering print on demand for books. are you familiar with them?
    i’ll check out LULU etc in the meantime, thank you!

  • Hi! I’d like to correct a couple of inaccuracies in your post. I work at Lulu, so this is from the horse’s mouth :-). First, we only print through Lightning Source when books are bought from Amazon or other online retailers. Books bought at our site are printed by ColorCentric (in Rochester!). We don’t set the book prices, the author does, though there is a base cost for printing a book. Also, when the author sets a royalty, we mark it up by 25%, which means we get 20% of the royalty on a sale. The Hardball Times has done very well, but its worth noting that it ranks #8 in our all time best seller list. Thanks for the interesting article!

  • Last month, bookofjoe posted about an online service that lets readers “book this blog”, essentially POD-print the content of a blog for their personal use.

  • Thanks for an interesting article. There was a time it was hard to copy a thesis let alone POD. Amazing. How do they (or do they?) deal with photography reproduction in the POD industry? Price vs. quality.

  • Amazing article! POD is the future, I work at Publidisa in Europe, I would like to give our web adress to all of you interested in publishing in Europe:www.publidisa.com. Thanks!

  • Great article, I only wish you had mentioned our company: BookSurge. We offer POD and Author Services (as well as Publisher Services … yes, some traditional publishers are adopting POD). Books placed in our GPS (Global Publishing System) software application are made available through both e-tailers (i.e. Amazon, alibris, Abe Books, etc.) and bookstore and library distributors (i.e. Baker and Taylor). Even if you don’t need our Author Services (formatting, editing, graphic design), for a nominal fee you can place your book in our system and book orders can be fulfilled worldwide (currently 12 countries, 4 continents — 50 within 3 years) so delivery is faster and cheaper. Other advantages we offer:

    * Books are usually printed with 2 business days, wholesale orders are guaranteed or free
    * Super high quality half tones
    * Color inserts
    * Product or promotional inserts
    * Soft covers semi-gloss UV coating
    * Various binding options: perfect bound, library quality hard cover, saddle stitch, spiral bound, case bound laminate, etc.

    In short, we offer authors and publishers access to a high quality, competitively priced global inventory-free book fulfillment network.

  • Wow! What great insight! Dr. Pat, thanks for the clarification on Lulu. Lulu is a GREAT resource for new writers. I know they print at Colorcentric…so do we! They also have a partnership with RIT– it’s so great to have so many companies working hand in hand to help writers get published. Andrew, I’m going to check out your company. Looks like a good place to know about. Thanks to all who wrote a comment. Every little bit of notice is important– to all writers, everywhere. I’m so happy I have met all of you, now.

  • Oops…that was Hugh from Lulu. Sorry, Hugh! Since I made that mistake, though…here’s a question– your CEO spoke here in Rochester recently. He was terrific! He said Lulu was (is) going to be offering a section for small publishers, such as WMEBooks.com to partner with Lulu and offer writers the support services Lulu doesn’t. I can’t find a link or contact place on the Lulu site to ask about that. Can you help? It would be giving authors the best of both worlds. Thanks!

  • Interesting post, Yvonne. Interesting, too, how technology is transforming what publishing “means” and transforming what being a “published writer” means as well.

    Very interesing, too, about “A Time to Kill.” Grisham’s best, in my opinion.

  • You all have made good comments and I think the explanations of the different types of publishing is excellent. Yes the small author/publisher does have to say the the big guys, we are here to stay and we can and do produce books that are of equal quality. I just want to introduce our firm, we have been doing short run documentation for longer than any of these new terms have been around. We have been producing short run books since the mid eighties. Check our our web site and I am sure we can be of service to you. http://www.netpub.net Too many would be authors/publichers go to unpoven manufacturers and have a bad experience, be sure to use an organizaiton that has been in business for sometime and does book/manual production on a daily bases. You will be much happier with the end product and it will be much easier for you to market a good looking product.

  • Yes, POD, all good, all good… except, if your book is POD pubplished, no reputable review journal or newspaper will look at it, no matter how brilliant or beautiful it is. I know cause I went this route. POD is still suffering from the fact that your Uncle Jack published his “Fishing Tales: the ones that got away,” and Aunt Mary published her cookbook that 13 family members bought over the last three years called, “One Hundred and Thirteen Ways to Prepare Zuchina.”

    The internet is a hive. Your book is located in one cell among the 4,000,383 other books in cells in the hive. And with POD, that number will probably double in two years. How do you get people other than your relatives and friends to that one tiny cell in the hive to find your book? That is the question. I haven’t figured it out yet. In publishing, everyone makes money except the writer. Go figure.
    (But don’t let that stop you. Keep on writing! What else is there besides I Love Lucy reruns?)
    Paul Clayton
    Paul Clayton

  • Hi,

    You’ve written an interesting and thoughtful article. While I agree with a lot of what you say, I would like to comment on being published traditionally and via POD since I’ve done both. I’ve contracted with Awe-Struck, an e-publishing company, who offers some of their authors the opportunity to have their books in print format, too. They use Booksurge and the print books are POD. First, let me say that the quality of the Booksurge POD book is exceptional. I’ve been very happy as have the booksellers who carry the book. I also have co-authored travel books that have been traditionally published, first by a top regional publisher and now by a much larger nonfiction group.

    The absolute major difference that is a huge part of the bookselling process that has to be considered when a writer determines which publishing route he or she decides to take is that of distribution. The distribution process of the traditional publishers is set and is working and the authors don’t have to work nearly as hard to get their books into the distribution delivery system as self-published and, in particular, POD authors do. That is a fact. It’s a huge, huge thing that has to be understood before you sign on any dotted line.

    If you don’t have a speaker’s platform or some kind of ready distribution, you’ll have to do a lot of work to get your books in the stores. You have to be willing to go out and find creative ways of getting your book out there to be bought. So it’s important to understand what you are trying to do with your book, what your expectations are, and then learn about the various ways of publishing and how they distribute the books so you can identify the best way for you to publish your book.

    I spent four years as a community relations coordinator for a local Borders Books in Houston and handled all the store publicity and booksignings. There are a lot of other issues that come into play when it comes to getting your books into bookstores–which many authors expect to be able to do when they publish a book. I write a blog, Down the Writer’s Path, at http://www.thewriterspath.com where I discuss these issues and many more that plague writers. The biggest problem I’ve seen over the years is that many writers simply don’t do enough due diligence when it comes to publishing their work.

    Good luck with all your projects!