It’s time to just say it. “Self-publishing” is dead. I’m not talking about the act of self-publishing a book. I’m talking about the phrase itself. “Self-publishing” now means two different things that are miles apart. It’s time to kill this useless phrase.
Barbara posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am confused by all the different terms in current publishing. Like “indie publishers,” “traditional publishers,” “ebooks,” “ebook indie publications,” “small presses” “small publishers,” “independent publishers,” “print on demand,” “hybrid authors” and whatever it is that Amazon does.
I am former Washington, DC newspaper reporter writing a novel about the newspaper business. Though I have finished a first draft and am working one revisions, I am not quite ready to submit a manuscript yet. But I need to know what all these terms mean and how to go about deciding where I belong. Thanks always for your great blog and for answering my question.
Randy sez: Let’s start with the most confusing term of all—“self publishing.” This used to have a single meaning. But in recent years, it’s come to mean two massively different things:
- Vanity publishing
- Indie publishing
Let’s look at these and define them clearly.
“Vanity publishing” means that you pay somebody to publish your work. You typically pay them a flat fee and with that money, they then hire editors, proofreaders, typesetters, graphic designers, marketers, and whatever else. They take care of the printing, warehousing, shipping, distribution, sales, etc. If there are any profits, they distribute them to you, usually taking a cut.
In vanity publishing, you do the writing and you take all the financial risk. The vanity publisher does all the other work and takes none of the risk. The profits can be divided up various ways.
It should be obvious that vanity publishing is wide open to abuse. When you are fronting the money and taking all the financial risk, the vanity publisher has little incentive to keep costs down or do a good job or give you a fair shake.
It is possible for a vanity publisher to give you a fair deal, but most professional authors, editors, and agents will tell you that vanity publishing is almost always a terrible deal for an author. David Gaughran does a great job of explaining why on his blog, so I’m just going to refer you to him. Here’s one of his articles to get you started.
“Indie publishing” means that you act as your own independent publisher. You write your book. Then you do all the tasks that a publisher would typically do, or else you find a specialist who can do the ones you can’t. These tasks are:
- Cover design
- Typesetting (for print books) or formatting (for e-books)
Indie authors often do all of the above themselves. Then they upload their finished book files to the various online retailers—Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, Google Play, etc. Or they may work with a distributor, such as Smashwords, who will deal with some or all of the retailers.
The key thing here is that the author gets a large percentage of the money—typically between 35% and 70% of the retail price of the book. The indie author takes all the financial risk and gets most of the rewards, so she has a high incentive to keep costs down and do a good job.
As it turns out, indie publishing can be a great deal for authors. The very best-paid indie authors are earning millions of dollars per year, and a surprising number are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. For a superb analysis of how much indie authors can earn, see the Author Earnings web site run by Hugh Howey.
Why “Self-Publishing” is Useless
“Self-publishing” used to mean essentially the same thing as “vanity publishing” and very few professional authors would have anything to do with it.
In recent years, “self-publishing” has also come to mean “indie publishing,” and a great many professional authors are doing it very successfully.
It ought to be obvious that “self-publishing” is a term that is too ambiguous to be useful. It needs to be thrown away.
We have two other perfectly good terms we can use instead: “vanity publishing” and “indie publishing.” So use whichever is appropriate, and nobody will be confused.
Let’s remember that there are some other publishing options. Let’s look at those.
“Traditional publishing” means that you work with a publishing company that puts up all of the money to publish your book. They pay you some money upfront as an “advance” in exchange for the rights to publish your book for a certain length of time. They also pay for all the editing, proofreading, typesetting or formatting, printing, warehousing, sales, and distribution. They collect all the money earned and pay you a percentage as royalties.
In traditional publishing, you do all the writing and the publisher does all the other work and takes all the financial risk. You split the rewards with them.
What’s not to like with this arrangement?
Let’s be clear that this can be a great deal for authors. Until very recently, most of the really famous authors worked with traditional publishers and made great boatloads of money. There are a couple of thousand authors currently doing very well under this system.
The problem is that in recent years, the deal has gotten substantially worse for authors. Here are some of the friction points that authors have:
- Advances have gotten smaller.
- Authors are expected to do all or most of the marketing.
- Royalties on e-books are low—typically 25% of the wholesale price of the book, which works out to about 12.5% of the retail price. This is very much lower than the 35% to 70% earned by indie authors.
- Many publishers require option clauses that lock in an author to working with the publisher on the next book.
- Many publishers require no-compete clauses that prevent an author from working with another publisher (or from indie-publishing) during a certain window of time.
- Traditional publishing takes a long time to move a book from concept to final published book. It may take a year or two or longer.
- Traditional publishers often can’t handle all the books that an author can write, and this is a huge problem if there are option clauses or no-compete clauses in place.
- Traditional publishers decide what will be published and what won’t, and this often feels arbitrary and unfair to authors.
- Traditional publishers hold all the high cards in negotiating.
There are probably other friction points, but these are the most glaring. These are the reasons why so any professional authors have simply walked away from traditional publishing and gone indie—they believe they’re better off on their own. These are the reasons why so many indie authors have refused contracts offered by traditional publishers.
Some authors use the term “legacy publishing” to refer to traditional publishing.
“Hybrid author” is a term coined by Bob Mayer. It means an author who chooses to publish some books with traditional publishers and some books as an indie author.
Hybrid authors are looking for the best of both worlds, and this can be a reasonable choice. I’m a hybrid author, because I have some books still in print with traditional publishers, while all my current projects are in indie publishing.
“Small publishers” are traditional publishers that are small—typically just a few employees. Small publishers often give better royalties on e-books. They may give more attention to new authors. I’ve worked with a small publisher, and it can be a sensible option.
Small publishers seem to be fading as more authors go indie.
E-books and Print-On-Demand
E-books are electronic books that are sold and delivered electronically. In some categories of fiction, most of the books sold are e-books.
“Print-on-demand” books are paper books that are printed and sold only when a customer orders a copy. Traditionally, publishers printed thousands of books in a large print run and then warehoused the books. This kept the cost per copy low, but if the books didn’t sell, that was a problem. The unit cost of a print-on-demand book is fairly high, but the risk is zero because you don’t print it until you’ve sold it.
Amazon has made it easy for indie authors to create and sell e-books and print-on-demand books. You can upload your e-book at kdp.amazon.com. You can upload your print-on-demand book at createspace.com.
Numerous other online retailers let you upload and sell e-books, including Barnes & Noble (at nookpress.com), Smashwords (at Smashwords.com), Apple (at itunesconnect.apple.com), Kobo (at kobobooks.com).
The publishing world is changing fast. Traditional publishing used to be the only game in town for authors who wanted a fair shake financially. Now indie publishing is an exciting option. Indie publishing gives authors some negotiating power with traditional publishers, because now they have the power to walk away.
Barbara, I hope that answers your questions. I won’t tell you what you should do, because every author is different. But now you know what your major options are. Good luck!
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.