Tuesday, June 24, 2008

If You Are Going To Self-Publish

When I teach at a writer conference I often meet people who have self-published their book. Some of these people will meet with me and see if as an agent, I can take their book to a traditional publisher. It is possible but rare for authors to make this move. Other authors self-publish then write me as though they are a "published" author. And they are to a degree but if you've been in the business for any time at all you can easily see through it. In the last few days, a writer pitched a novel saying they were a published author. I checked the name of the publisher and instantly recognized it as the self-publisher, Publish America. If you want to learn a lot about this particular publisher and their reputation in the marketplace, simply go to Google and type in the words "Publish America" and in a few entries you can see a great deal of public opinion about this company.

If you have a market for your book or you speak often and need to sell something in the back of the room or any number of other good reasons, self-publishing is an option. I'll be the first to tell you that I've read a great deal of poorly produced self-published books as an editor or literary agent. There are also some success stories about self-published books. My books have been with traditional, easily-recognized publishers. Many writers will ask me about self-publishing and because I don't know all of the details about different companies, it is difficult to know where to refer them.

When someone has decided to self-publish, they often do not take the time or energy to research the reputation of a publisher or the distinctions between the various self-publishers. Here's a resource which you should consider because it provides a wealth of information and removes some of the "guess work." For the unskilled author, it is hard to sort through the self-publishing company ads and determine which one is right for them and their budget. I recommend you get a copy of The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, third edition, The Contracts & Services of 45 Self-Publishing Companies--Analyzed, Ranked & Exposed by Mark Levine.

In the second chapter, Levine gives the reasons to read this book: "If you decided to buy a television or a car, you might read Consumer Reports to find the best price and highest quality. Spending hard-earned money to publish your book should be approached with the same care. But, unlike buying a car, your book is an extension of you. If you choose any publisher ranked "Outstanding" or "Pretty Good" in this book, you won’t get stuck with a Lemon. This book is all about helping authors find and choose a publisher that offers a superior product at a fair price."

Also you should know that Mark Levine has started his own self-publishing company which is not included in the 45 companies called Mill City Press.

"Here are a few reasons why you need to read this book: • To know what you need to look and watch out for when choosing a self-publishing company • To understand what these self-publishing contracts really say and how to negotiate better terms with a publisher • To get the most value for your money by not overpaying for services or book printing and by getting the highest royalties" (p. 8)

What's fascinating about this book is Levine's editor took the same size book specifications to each of the companies, got their contracts, then studied and compared them. As Levine writes, "This time around, my editor contacted each publishing company discussed in this book as a prospective author--just like any of you would. The difference between you and her is that I armed her with the tough questions to ask, regarding justifications for 50%–200% printing markups, excessive publisher royalties, and more." (my bold on the percentage of markup)

Also Levine, a lawyer, provides a detailed explanation of a publishing contract and the different elements which an author should be concerned with and what to watch in the different clauses.

This book is eye-opening and educational for any author considering self-publishing. Why is it important? I want to include another key quotation from Levine's book, "The reason I keep putting out new editions of this book is because, now that I speak to writers' groups and at writers' conferences all over the country, I always meet people who got scammed--really scammed. In May 2007, I met a nice man who had been conned out of $35,000 to publish his book. His $35,000 got him 3,000 hardcover copies of his book that he couldn't sell, a lot of debt, and a series of lies from an unscrupulous publisher. I can promise you that, if you follow the advice in this book, you won't get ripped off by any self-publishing company and that you may, in fact, negotiate a better deal. If you don't follow the advice here you may find yourself out a lot of money and involved with an unethical publisher." (p. 9)

In the early part of the book, Levine cautions that every self-published author should have their book professionally edited. It's one of the main failures in many of the self-publishing books that come across my desk. These books are often filled with simple errors which any beginning professional editor would have caught and fixed. If you wonder which companies are covered in this book, follow this link. I was surprised with some of the companies that fell into the "companies to avoid." To show the depth of Levine's analysis, one of the companies, Bookpros in the outstanding category is online. This book doesn't cover every possible self-publishing company but many of them are included.

I applaud Levine for his careful analysis and research then serving the broader writing community with The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, Third Edition.

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6 Comment:

At 2:56 AM, Blogger David Meigs Left a note...

Finally a book that sheds a little light on the POD publishing industry. I hope you don’t mind, but I posted a link to today’s post over at CW (ChristianWriters.com).

God bless!

At 6:06 AM, Blogger Unknown Left a note...

I've self-published a couple of books because the niche was too small to even consider traditional publishing. I use these books as samples of my writing and marketing ability when talking with editors.

I think a part of the problem is calling these companies "publishers." My books were done by a "publisher." I hired a company to print. I hired an editor and proofreader. I hired a designer. Hmmm... I became the publisher.

I will be recommending this book in my Muse Online Conference workshop on self-publishing.

Thank you, Terry, for great information

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Cheryl Pickett Left a note...

I completely agree, many authors ride on the emotional part of wanting to publish, don't do their homework (as they might with anything else) and then get disappointed or scammed. Mark's book is a good resource to help with some of that.

One thing I did want to mention though is the distinction between this kind of self-publishng (also called POD, subsidy or fee-based) and the other definition where an author sets up his or her own company.

I know you know this, but I hope you don't mind my pointing it out for others. I try to do so when I can, as I was completely confused by this interchanging of terms for the longest time.

I really wish POD publishers would pick a new term, or work out something else, so that authors don't have so much hassle trying to figure it all out. There's plenty of other stuff to learn, my question is why make it harder? It would help cut down on some of the scam issues too.

I know such changes won't happen soon, but maybe if enough authors say enough is enough, maybe it can some day.

Keep up the good work.

Cheryl Pickett

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


You point out a distinction that people do need to understand. Self-publishing or using a POD where you pay someone else to publish your book is one way to get into print. Many writers try to use the names of these companies (which editors and agents know intimately) to claim they have been "published." It's not true.

What you are talking about is more of a "small press." Where the individual has formed their own publishing company and gone to that effort. This effort is more involved and complex and distinct from self-publishing or even POD in my view.


At 3:41 AM, Blogger Dan Poynter Left a note...

Great (and sobering) post, Terry.

Publishers are in business to stay in business--i.e. to make money.

Agents want books that will sell.
One way to determine if a book will sell is check its track record.

“If a self-published book sells 1,200 copies per month for six months (7,200 copies), I am interested”

--Jillian Manus, Agent
MEGA, Atlanta, March 26, 2004

But be aware: it does not matter if you sell out to a publisher or publish yourself, the author must do the promotion.

So you can self-publish, promote and prove the book in the marketplace and then offer the book to publishers.

Remember Richard Paul Evans and the Christmas Box.

For more examples, see Document 155 at

--Dan Poynter, The Self-Publishing Manual, http://ParaPublishing.com

At 5:35 AM, Blogger Terry Whalin Left a note...


What great comments and additional points and I appreciate you so much and the information you gracious provide writers on this important topic.

If you don't have Dan's book, The Self-Publishing Manual make sure you pick it up. It's an education wrapped in a small package called a book.



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