• Veena Maheshwari

Self Publishing 101

What Is Self-Publishing?

With the proliferation of inexpensive "pay-for-publication" options, this has become a confusing question. Many writers believe that "self-publication" refers to any mechanism by which the writer bears the cost of publication -- including subsidy electronic and print-on-demand publications. Many vendors encourage this belief, as "self-publishing" tends to sound more respectable than "subsidy publishing."

The self-published author is responsible for a much greater range of tasks (and expenses) than a subsidy-published author -- and it is these additional tasks and challenges that will be addressed in this section (though subsidy-published authors will find much of value here as well).

To offer a quick and easy definition, therefore:

"Subsidy publishing" is a form of publication in which the author pays another publisher to produce a book.
"Self-publishing" is a form of publication in which the author becomes the publisher of the book.

This distinction is important. When you subsidy-publish your book, "author" and "publisher" are two distinct entities.

What Are Some of the Differences Between Self-Publishing and Subsidy Publishing?

At first glance, subsidy and self-publishing may appear very similar, as both involve "paying" to have your book published, and in both cases you are responsible for marketing that book. Here, however, are some key differences:

1) Control

Self-Publishing: You have complete control over every aspect of the production of your book, including interior design, graphics, typeface, cover, trim size, etc.

Subsidy Publishing: Most subsidy publishers offer standard templates for interior design, typeface, size, cover, etc. If you wish to modify any of these elements, you will generally have to pay extra (if it is permissible at all).

2) Revenues

Self-Publishing: You receive all revenues from the sales of your books. You are also able to set your own pricing and discount terms.

Subsidy Publishing: You are paid a percentage of revenues on book sales in the form of royalties. Your royalty may also be affected by where the book is sold and/or discounts offered. (For example, many POD publishers pay lower royalties on books sold through online bookstores or other locations than on books sold directly from their own website.) You may or may not be able to set the price for your book, and may have no control over discounts offered.

3) Rights

Self-publishing: You retain all rights to your book. (Self-publication, however, will generally be considered a "use" of book publishing rights; if you seek to sell your book to a commercial publisher later, the book will be considered "previously published.")

Subsidy Publishing: Many POD and electronic subsidy publishers make few or no demands on an author's rights. Others demand a limited grant of rights (e.g., the right to issue the book in that particular format). Others demand a variety of rights. Print subsidy publishers often demand the same rights as commercial publishers, while providing far fewer services.

4) Ownership

Self-Publishing: You own all books you produce. You may do whatever you wish with them, at no extra cost: Sell them, give them away, use them as furniture, destroy them.

Subsidy Publishing: Regardless of what you paid to produce your books, you do not own them. If you want additional copies over and above your free "author copies" (some POD companies provide only one), you must pay extra for them. If you wish to send copies to reviewers, or give copies away, you must purchase them, generally at an author's discount of around 40%. You do not receive any royalties on books you purchase for your own use.

5) Marketing Options

Self-publishing: You can make your own decisions about marketing, including the price of your book, discounts, giveaways, special offers, group discounts, etc. As your profit margin is higher, you can afford to invest in a variety of marketing efforts (advertising, direct mail, etc.).

Subsidy Publishing: While you are often solely responsible for "promoting" your book, you may not be able to set its price, and you may not be able to offer discounts for quantity orders. This makes it virtually impossible to market your book to groups (such as professional organizations, classes, etc., who expect a quantity discount). The profits you receive from royalties are usually not high enough to cover (or justify) the expense of direct marketing efforts.

Why Self-Publish?

Many people choose to self-publish a book because they are unable to find a commercial publisher. Often, this is because a book is tightly focused toward a specific niche market, so that it doesn't have sufficient audience to attract a commercial publisher.

Others choose self-publishing because it provides them more control of the finished product. A commercial publisher may require revisions, editing changes, cuts to a manuscript, etc., that the writer prefers not to make. A writer also has little control over a book's design or cover, or in the promotion process (e.g., making sure that the book is reviewed or advertised in publications that target its most likely readers).

If a book is particularly "timely", a writer may choose self-publishing because it provides a means of getting the book on the market immediately. Commercial print publishers may take as long as two years (or longer) to bring a book to market after it has been accepted, while a self-publisher could get that same book to the marketplace in a few weeks.

What Are the Primary Advantages of Self-Publishing?

The advantages of self-publishing are numerous:

  • You retain full control over the content, design, and marketing of your book.

  • You retain all rights to your manuscript (with the exception that self-publishing is itself a use of "publication" rights; you cannot then sell a book to a publisher as a "new," unpublished work.)

  • You retain all revenues earned from the sale of your books.

  • You may be able to exploit markets that a larger commercial publisher would overlook or ignore, because of your special expertise in a particular area or simply because of your commitment to your book.

  • Your book may have a greater chance of success simply because you're more committed to the process of promoting it than a publisher who has hundreds of other titles.

What Are the Primary Disadvantages of Self-Publishing?

Unfortunately, the disadvantages of self-publishing are also numerous!

  • Print self-publishing (which is still the method by which you are most likely to sell the greatest number of books) is expensive. You will probably need to invest a minimum of $3000 to $5000 to get your book into print.

  • Self-publishing requires a huge investment in effort. You must be aware that you are setting up a business -- and what you get out of it will be directly proportional to the time and effort you are willing to put into it. (See "Tasks," below.)

  • Self-publishing requires an ongoing investment of funds. While it is possible to accomplish a great deal of marketing online today, you may still find that you need to fund advertising and direct-mail campaigns, as well as pay to ship books to reviewers. It is these ongoing expenses that make it difficult to "break even" in the self-publishing business.

  • It can be very difficult to get self-published books into bookstores and libraries, or accepted by wholesalers and distributors. Most bookstores and libraries prefer to deal with distributors who can provide hundreds of titles, rather than small presses that can supply only one. This means that most of your marketing efforts will be focused on reaching the consumer through other channels, such as space advertising, direct-mail advertising, web promotions, online bookstores, non-traditional markets, etc.

What Is Involved in Self-Publishing?

Self-publishing involves an extensive list of tasks. Before you embark on a self-publishing project, be sure that you're willing to take on the following:


  • Edit or obtain editing for your manuscript

  • Proofread or obtain proofreading for your manuscript

  • Obtain any artwork or illustrations you wish to include

  • Take any necessary steps to establish yourself as a legal retail business (see below), including choosing and registering the name of your "press."

  • Obtain ISBN, Library of Congress "Cataloging in Publication" number, Bookland EAN/UPC code, etc.

Publication Process:

  • Format manuscript (design interior layout, including appropriate margins, headers/footers, typeface, interior art/graphics, etc.)

  • Provide "front matter" (e.g., table of contents, copyright page, etc.) and back matter, if any.

  • Provide or obtain cover art; design front and back covers (including "cover blurbs" or reviews) and spine.

  • Obtain printing quotes (including trim size, number of pages, binding, paper quality, etc.) for print books.

  • Determine how manuscript must be delivered to printer (often in a specific electronic format).Arrange/pay for printing and delivery of finished books.


  • Continue with ongoing market campaign.

  • Send books to reviewers.

  • Receive and store finished books, if print. (Clear out your garage!)

  • Handle order fulfillment: Receive orders, process payments, invoice customers for amounts due, package and ship books.

  • For electronic books: Handle order fulfillment: Receive orders, process payments, invoice customers for amounts due, ship or transmit books.

Marketing (Ongoing):

  • Prepare press releases and PR package for reviewers, press

  • Determine list of relevant reviewers; mail or transmit books

  • Determine whether to pursue print/"space" advertising in appropriate magazines (especially for targeted niche markets)

  • Develop website from which to market and sell books

  • Develop Internet promotion campaign (e.g., chats, e-mail, groups, reciprocal links, etc.)

  • Develop direct mail campaign: Locate appropriate mailing lists, develop mailer and associated materials, stuff envelopes, etc.

  • Promote book through online bookstores. (If your book is listed in Books in Print and available in tangible form, e.g., print or disk, it will generally be listed automatically by online bookstores; however, you can add to the listing by providing summaries, table of contents, review excerpts, etc.) Consider joining Amazon's "Advantage" program for small presses.

  • Take steps to place book in bookstores and libraries, and/or to obtain outside distribution.

Bookkeeping (Ongoing):

  • Develop a system of tracking expenses and income related to your press.

  • Keep these records separate from personal finances and any other "business" finances (such as freelance writing).

  • Open a separate business bank account. (You may have to obtain a business license and other forms, in order to process payments that are made out to your business name rather than your own name; see below.)

  • Find a means of accepting credit card purchases. (PayPal is one option, but offers limited access for international customers.)

  • Develop an invoicing system. If you are selling print books to bookstores, libraries, etc., you will need to sell "on credit," and be able to invoice those markets professionally.Know what will be required for income-tax reporting.

Do I Have to Do This All Myself?

The good news is that you don't have to do everything yourself -- and you probably shouldn't. One key to running a successful business is knowing what you can do effectively yourself -- and what you should delegate to others. Many writers, for example, are not skilled at graphic design or artwork. Many prefer to hire an editor or proofreader for the final stages of manuscript development. You can also hire a fulfillment service to warehouse and ship your books (and, in some cases, accept credit card orders). You may be able to hire an 800-number service to accept telephone orders. And since self-publishing involves some complex bookkeeping tasks, using an accountant to prepare your taxes is always a good idea.

The bad news is that professional help increases your costs. When you calculate the per-book cost of printing a book, be sure to include any costs incurred in hiring a graphic designer, illustrator, or cover artist. Even though these services add to your costs, however, they also add to the overall quality of your product -- making it much more marketable. Otherwise, you may save money but end up with a book that no one wants to buy.

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