IS SELF-PUBLISHING FOR YOU?

by Joelle Steele

Writing Logo

Self-publishing a print book seems so tempting! How great it would be to have complete control over selling your own books. Sure, it means you'll have to plop down a chunk of change to get it printed and marketed, but then the book is all yours and you get to keep all the profits.

The profits. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, there are a few other expenses before you can start wallowing in the big bucks. But first, let's start with some general basics about publishing for those of you who have not really studied up on the process just yet.

Royalty publishing. Most authors seek royalty publishers when they want to get their books published. Royalty publishers pay a small percentage to authors on sales of the author's book. They may also pay an advance against royalties on signing the publishing contract. The royalty publisher pays for everything in full and is in charge of every aspect of the book, all the way through to getting it into the bookstores. The author is expected to help with a good portion of the marketing and promotion.

Self-publishing. This is a somewhat nebulous term that pretty much refers to any author who pays to have his or her own book published. However, there are different ways to self-publish. You can do it all yourself, like I do — write the book, have it edited, format the book, get it printed, create the ebook and audiobook versions, publicize and market the book, etc. It can be very time-consuming and costly, especially if you can't do all those things or have no background in publishing.

Vanity presses. These are also known as book producers (although they often masquerade as "publishers" when they are really just printing services). They take your already-edited manuscript and turn it into a book, and you pay the entire expense. And, after the book is printed, you must do all of the marketing and promotion of the book. Don't be misled when they say they'll put your book up on amazon.com or on their Web site — anyone can do that!

Subsidy publishers. These do much the same as the book producers do; however, they bear some of the costs as well, and they may additionally offer marketing and distribution or other services such as editing or illustration. As for who owns the rights to a book and how proceeds from the sale of a book are divided when a subsidy press is involved, all of this — and more — should be clearly stated in a contract.

Now let's assume that you've already completed your manuscript and are seeking a publisher. I say completed manuscript because most royalty publishers these days only want completed manuscripts. They've been burned too many times by paying advances to new authors, as well as a few published authors who should know better than to take the money and run, never delivering a publishable manuscript — if they deliver any finished manuscript at all. As a result, most publishers pay only meager advances to new authors, if they pay an advance at all — which is unlikely in most cases. So, without digressing further, if your manuscript is not finished, stop reading right now; you have a lot of work left to do.

For those who have put nose to the grindstone and cranked out a completed manuscript, you're not out of the woods yet either. You still have to get your work edited. Oh, I know, I can hear you complaining already, whining about how you know how to write and all your manuscript really needs is a quick proofing by your neighbor who is always catching typos in the morning paper. No, you need to get your manuscript professionally edited by a reputable editor, whether you seek out a royalty publisher or decide to self-publish. Up until October of 2010, I spent 30+ years editing book manuscripts — many written by people who were English majors, even English teachers - who couldn't write sufficiently well to submit their manuscript unedited. You might want to check out my articles, "Preparing Your Manuscript For Editing" and "Why Is Editing So Expensive?" to get an idea of how the editing process works and what I'm talking about.

If you've already had your manuscript edited, then you have probably already tried to sell it to a variety of royalty publishers who turned you down — that's the most common scenario for most authors who ultimately self-publish. But does getting turned down mean your manuscript isn't any good? Not necessarily. You could have written a very good manuscript but crafted a lousy query letter — the sales pitch for your manuscript that is critical to getting a publisher to take the time to read it. You also could have queried the wrong publishers or, worse yet, given up on the query process way too soon. Instant gratification is not common in the publishing trade; everything takes time, and you may have to query literally a hundred publishers to find one who wants to take on your manuscript. Last but not least, you could just be that rare bird who has written something so different or so off-the-beaten-track publishing-wise that no royalty publisher really knows just what to do with you, so they just pass you over in favor of something a little more predictable, i.e., marketable.

Whatever the case, you have somehow decided that you want to self-publish. So what do you need to do to make that happen? Almost everything that a royal publisher would expect you to do, starting with finishing the manuscript and having it professionally edited. However, instead of querying royalty publishers, you will be contacting vanity presses and subsidy publishers to find out what it is going to cost to turn your manuscript into a book. You will need to know exactly how long your manuscript is based on standard editing format (8-1/2 x 11, 1" margins all around, double-spaced — not one and a half spaced — and 12 pt Arial or Times New Roman font) and you will need to know exactly how many images (photos, drawing, charts, tables, etc.), if any, will be included in the book. Every printer that does typesetting/formatting needs this information in order to give you the most basic price quote.

A word about printing here. Almost everything is digital printing these days, and so the quality of the print is fairly standard, but paper selection and binding are not. Make sure your printer provides the best quality paper and binding for your book so that it looks great and doesn't fall apart when it is read. Ask them to send you a couple samples of books they produced. If the binding "cracks" when you open the book, that's a sign of poor bindery. Find another printer.

How much does it all cost — so far? Editing runs anywhere from $1 per page (in standard editing format) to $8 per page. It all depends on how much time it takes per page to correct whatever it is that is wrong and how many pages are in your manuscript. Good cover art starts at a minimum of about $300, and the quality is critical to selling books in bookstores. Inside illustrations or photos are also a variable for many books, and there is no way to give you even a rough estimate of those costs as they vary so greatly from one book to the next and one artist to the next. If you want to use your own photos or artwork, you will have to get everything into electronic file format, and in some cases that may not be something you can do with your digital camera or with an ordinary scanner — assuming you have such equipment. Scanning costs anywhere from $5 and up per image. Printing quotes for books, like illustrations, vary greatly, especially between offset printing and digital printing. You can often find print-on-demand Web sites that offer instant quotes on digital printing with a per book price. Check those out to see what you're looking at cost-wise. In general, to self-publish your book, you are looking at a minimum of about $5,000. The more sophisticated the book and the more copies you want, the greater the cost.

But wait, it's not over yet! Even if you pull together the $5,000 and have 1,500 copies of your book printed, you have to get them sold. And who's going to sell them? Well, that would be ... let's see ... oh yeah, that would be YOU! Yes, you have to send out all the press releases, send out about 400 or so promotional copies (that means you give them away and have to pay for the postage to do it), and set up distribution, an amazon.com account, a Web site, create advertisements, place advertisements in publications, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. This is a whole lot of work, Shakespeare. It is extremely time-consuming and there are a lot of out-of-pocket expenses involved. You can expect to be well into your second print run before you even start to break even on your initial $5,000 outlay.

You may be asking yourself, if it's so expensive, how do publishers make any money? Easy. They do what I do: They have multiple titles within certain genres, and it costs them as much to market 1,000 titles in a single genre as it takes to market just one single title! In other words, they spread the marketing costs over all those titles instead of sinking all their money into one book.

Am I trying to discourage you from self-publishing? Yes and no. If you have the money and you have the time, do it; by all means, go for it. But, if you have trouble just squeezing out the $5,000, you're not going to be too thrilled when you don't make it back right away — or at all — and have to spend more in the process. I'm only trying to give you an idea of what it is like to self-publish. As with all other things in this world, only you can make a decision as to whether it is the right choice for you. My advice: make sure you have done everything you possibly can to find a good royalty publisher before you decide to self-publish. Self-publishing might be just right for you, but it is certainly not for everyone. And with technology going where it is today, you might be better self-publishing an ebook and praying someone buys it..

This article last updated: 08/18/2016.