Wednesday, March 13

Self Publishing

Okay, so I was off on a number of tangents on Monday.  Let’s keep the trend going, shall we? (Although I only actually have one tangent for today).

Let’s talk a little bit about publishing.

There are some crazy things going on at the “Big Six” (the big name, New York publishers—of which there are actually more than six). Although I hear Random House was pressured into making changes, for a while, their Hydra Imprint’s contract looked way too much like a vanity press scam: no advance, YOU pay for editing, art, layout, etc.—the only discernible difference was that instead of being paid for up front, you paid them out of your royalty checks (such as those were going to be, given the percentage most big publishers pay). (Source:

And I suppose before I go any further, I should define vanity press, even though truthfully, I don’t like the term—which is why I’m going to tell you exactly how I’m using it. iUniverse (  is a vanity press. They charge authors between $900 and $5000 to “publish” your book.

What do you get for that? Not much. You get an ISBN (you can buy ten for about $300—which is probably more than you need, but through folks like Lulu, you can get one for under $50. More about Lulu in a minute). You get a book, of course. Well, each book will also cost X number of dollars to print. You get copyright registration (costs about $30 to do it yourself). You get a “custom cover”—i.e. you get a stock photo image with some words slapped overtop. You get “worldwide” distribution. Please do not for one instant think you’ll get any kind of promotion or advertising, your book will simply be available on the world wide web through retailers like Amazon.

What you don’t get is any kind of editing, even copy editing (someone to look for typos, misused homonyms, bad punctuation). Some of the upper end packages offer copy editing, bookmarks, and other promotional material. You don’t really want to know how little I pay for bookmarks (which I hardly ever use, by the way) from Overnight Prints.

Some vanity presses don’t even tell you how much it will cost until you give them your contact information.  

Others, like Dog Ear Press, try to make themselves look good by comparing themselves to the competition—when in reality, they offer the same set of high priced “packages” and in return give you… well, not much.  (

So in my world, Vanity Presses are printers that pass themselves the answer to every author’s prayer. They’re snake oil salesmen. For just $1999, you too can be a published author (and you, and you, and you!) AND, you, good citizen, will get to keep 100% of your royalty check, unlike those other chumps who get their books published the old fashioned way!

Right. Grandma always said: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The chances of ever recouping that kind of money on a self-published book are slim. The average self-published book sells fewer than 200 copies—and that’s including the three your Aunt Jenny will buy. ( And before you start multiplying $15.95 by 200 and thinking that’s not such a bad deal, you need to remember that you still have to pay for the actual COST OF THE BOOK. Ergo, your “royalty” is going to be retail sans printing cost (which can be as much as $12, depending on the length of your book and trim size). Ebooks have made things better, but remember, for $1999 you’re not getting any kind of editorial service of which to speak.

So let’s break it down. Say you have a book that you’re having a hard time finding a publisher for. There are lots of reasons to be declined that have nothing to do with how good or bad your book is. Let’s say you have a "general fiction" novel (notoriously hard to sell without an agent) or maybe you’re a well-respected short story writer who just can’t seem to get her foot in the door with that novel (I met one such woman at Dragon*Con--but see, her agent kept telling her to "hang in there, we'll get it published someday. Right. If you've already got fans, for crying out loud, self-publish!) Maybe you’re writing for a market that is closed to new authors unless they have an agent (and getting an agent can be just as frustrating and difficult as getting a publisher). So you decide to publish the thing yourself. You know you’re going to have to do a lot of legwork to even sell 200 copies, but you’re committed.

First, you need a good beta reader. You can find one or two of those for the cost of beta reading their manuscripts. You also need to take their critiques and put them to good use.

You need professional editing. This can run from $200-$600 (or more, but that’s about as much as I’d be willing to pay).

You need a copy editor—someone to go through and look for typos. Often a friend or family member (maybe Aunt Jenny who just happens to teach high school English will help). This person is just looking for all those last minute mistakes.

You need professional cover art. I found a professional artist who will make a kick ass cover for about $250.  (She happens to be one of the artists my publisher uses. Remember a lot of artists work freelance. You don't have to be a big company to hire somebody!)

You can hire people through Elance, by asking around, through Craigslist, etc. At this point, remember, you’re doing the hiring—YOU set the standards (and the budget) and you have the freedom to hire the best talent you can afford. Remember: you get what you pay for.

So at this point, let’s say you’ve hired an awesome editor for $600 and an artist for $175, because you found a graphic arts major at the local college who really needs a few bucks, but isn’t up to charging truly professional prices. Aunt Jenny has agreed to copy edit when it’s done—and of course you’re busy reading Mary Sue’s dreadful D&D adventure turned novel because she gave you a surprisingly insightful beta read, and you’re returning the favor.

Next step, getting the thing published. With just a little bit of computer savvy (of which I have none, but managed to do it anyway), you can go to and upload your entire manuscript plus cover for FREE. You still have to pay for printed books, but there is exactly ZERO cost for the initial setup. Lulu makes its money when you buy books or when other people buy them from the Lulu’s website.

Same with Amazon’s Create Space.

All you have to buy is that ISBN we talked about earlier and to register your book with the copyright office. And of course market the snot out fo the thing, but no matter what, you're going to have to do that, anyway.

So why exactly does anybody go to iUniverse, Outskirts, Dog Ear, Tate and the rest?

I have no clue.

Bottom line, friends: don’t buy the snake oil pitch. Don’t get ripped off. Do your research. And don’t think you’re going to get rich (quick OR slow) self-publishing…come to that, don’t think you’re going to get rich publishing, period! There is absolutely no way to predict what the reading public will glom onto. Just write the best story you can, polish it to within an inch of its life and send it out into the world. 




Tali Spencer said...

Great advice! They're called vanity presses because they'll publish anything and lots of folks are publishing memoirs and family histories and the like, for themselves. But they've been around forever, haven't they? I get a laugh every time I register copyright (and I ALWAYS register copyright) because a few weeks later I can count on receiving a pitch from Dorrance Publishing, offering to "publish" my book. They even send snail mail and it looks official if a body doesn't know any better. I have some backlist stuff I may be self-publishing soon, but I'll be doing it myself and hiring a cover artist.

H.B. Pattskyn said...

I have an f/f story simmering in the back of my brain that I may self pub later down the road because it contains characters from my first DSP novel and since they don't do f/f...

It really is amazing how many people I run into who fall for the sales pitch. I'm definitely all for self publishing, just do it right! :)

RedAlice said...

Great piece, Helen! I hope people listen. Unfortunately, with established companies like Penguin jumping into the vanity press game ( I'm afraid we're going to see even more of the ol' snake oil about :/