Is Self-Publishing a Scam?

First, terminology. Traditional publishing means someone chose to publish an author’s book with the intention of making money from sales of it. Self-publishing means that an author is publishing the book at his or her own expense.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is where a company takes a look at your book, says, Why, yes, we can make this puppy part of our forthcoming catalog and distribute it so that we can make some money from people buying it. Within traditional publishing, there are the Big Houses (bigger and fewer of them all the time) and the small presses. In traditional publishing, a book will be edited and copyedited, turned into galleys (test pages, or proofs) and proofread before going to the printer. The printer will supply a copy (bluelines) of what the book will look like when the presses roll, which the publisher will review for final approval. Then the printed books are either warehoused or distributed to sales outlets. Marketing includes providing the book cover (aimed at capturing the attention of the target customer)—artwork, jacket blurbs, quotes, and a sexy author picture and bio—sending out review copies; ensuring placement in stores; booking tours and interviews; and advertising. The Big Houses can provide more of everything, but even they concentrate their resources where they expect the greatest return on their investment. For an author without name recognition and a large readership, the process may not be much different from that of a small press.

Small presses range widely in mission, quality of product, and contractual arrangements. Book tours and signings, interviews, social media hustling, and even advertising may fall on the author to provide. A small press will provide at least a copyedit and the design stuff and arrange for printing and/or ebook uploading. Some small presses pay only a royalty and some expect the author to pay for any copies they want. Like large publishers, however, they expect to make money from sales of your books—not from fees charged to you.

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing means that the decision to publish and the costs involved are all on the author. Before ebooks and publishing on demand (POD), companies existed that would lay out and print books for an author for a fee. There are still companies, such as XLibris, who provide this service. It is costly, and sales are entirely author driven. It has derisively been called vanity publishing, because these companies make their money on the “vain” hopes of writers who had been rejected by traditional publishers.

It is still difficult for authors to generate large sales numbers on their own, but the cost of self-publishing has substantially decreased. Uploading an ebook to the major distributors of ebooks costs nothing, and the percentage on sales is greater than the average royalty from a press. Therefore, an author who invests nothing, loses nothing and may even make something.

For the self-publisher who wants a print book, there are POD services, such as CreateSpace and LuLu, that substantially reduce the cost of printing a small number of books. This is a huge advantage over the 1,000 copy print runs that used to be required.

There is, however, a catch. Publishing houses employ people, and these people all do something of value in delivering a book to market. An author who writes a book and then uploads it for distribution takes a shortcut to an unfinished product. So what does a self-published book need to match the quality of traditional releases?

High Quality Self-Publishing

Development. Fiction or nonfiction, a book needs a steely-eyed once over to make sure that it will hold the reader’s attention, not embarrass the author, and be worth further time and money. For the writer on a tight budget, this can be accomplished to some extent with manuscript appraisals or beta reads (and not by people who have to face you at Thanksgiving) or workshops. Working with a writing coach is another way to get helpful feedback. A development editor (also called a substantive editor) can really tighten a book up and bring out the best in it. This is a highly skilled editor with a big toolbox. A development editor will tell you when and how to pick up the pace, excise fluff, make your characters more compelling.

Copyediting. This is where a book gets spiffed up. A development editor will probably mark an obvious error, such as a misspelling, but there is an expectation (an inevitability, actually) that rewrites and revisions will introduce a whole ‘nother round of errors. A copyedit is done after the manuscript has taken its final shape.

Cover design. Covers need artwork and typography that will capture eyeballs. A pretty picture is all well and good, but an effective cover design is the sum of all kinds of parts. It must appeal to readers interested in the book’s subject or genre, and it must be easy to make out as a thumbnail.

Layout. E-readers accommodate book formatting only up to a point and will default to the format seen most often with ebooks. There are good reasons for this, though it is extremely restricting for page designers. It is still important, however, to upload a book file that will look polished and attractive. Look at an ebook from a large publisher, then cruise through the indies. The difference can be dramatic. Amateurish looking pages undermine credibility and kill sales.

Proofreading. Even ebooks should get one last review from a fresh pair of eyes before the reading public gets its hands on it. No single pass will catch every error, no matter how good the editor. Complaints about typos and spelling errors arise not so much from careless copyediting but from the reduced number of passes the text gets before release to the public. Best case scenario is to have an entirely fresh pair of eyes proofread the book. Professional proofreaders can be hired. In a pinch, a beta editor can sometimes be recruited at this stage and may even provide a review or blurb if they like the book.

QA. When your book is formatted and uploaded to an ebook platform, the author and the formatter should check through every page, cover to last page, before making the book available to the public.  This is the ebook equivalent of checking printers’ bluelines. Weird stuff can happen, even to a well-formatted book, or you may want to tweak some things to make the book more attractive or easier to navigate.

Self-Publisher as Indie

So, what is the difference between paying for all these “extras” through a company like XLibris and hiring people to do them yourself? Simply, control and price. The more active the “self” in self-publishing, the more control you have over the end result and the cost for it. Hiring your own contractors means selecting them personally based on criteria you believe is important. Arriving at the cost and the services that will answer your book’s needs comes after a process of negotiation and consultation.

Is self-publishing a scam? That depends on whether an author has been deliberately led to believe that he or she has paid for something they will not receive. The dismal reputation of vanity publishing arose because hopeful writers naively believed that simply by printing their book, it would automatically appear on store shelves and readers would naturally discover it through browsing. The invisible process by which books were (and are still) distributed to stores, however, posed a far greater hurdle than any self-published author could surmount—this was obscured by the sales pitch. The company never expected the books to sell, but the dreams of authors were a lucrative source of upfront cash. Caveat emptor.

That doesn’t mean that self-publishing—or “independent publishing,” as many dedicated self-publishing authors prefer—is a waste of time and resources. There are more worthy manuscripts written than all the publishers in the country can take on. Additionally, there are writers with talent and vision that need help bringing their works up to their potential. Many writers don’t care if their books never turn a profit, but only wish to see them realized as finished works. Others are willing to quit their day job and make cold calls, spend hours on social media, schedule book signings, fill their trunk with books, and crisscross the country on a promotional junket.

Self-publishing enables the release of literally millions of works, and sales of these indie titles are a growing share of the ebook market. Successful indies argue that they make more money with the 70% royalty from Kindle sales than from the 12-25% royalty they might earn at a traditional house. Competition with millions of other titles, however, means that sales are hard earned. An indie makes all the decisions but makes all the investments, as well, and takes all the risks.

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