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There’s been a lot of talk on blogs lately about the pros and cons of self-publishing. Until now, self-publishing has been synonymous with vanity publishing, the idea being that there are no gate-keepers to self-publishing. All you need is some money and you can publish a book, no matter how crappy it is. Today, as the publishing world rearranges itself, that’s beginning to change. With more people graduating from MFA programs, more people writing books, more people querying agents, and fewer books getting published, the self-publishing industry is booming. Scribd, the iTunes of publishing, is a site where authors can post anything from a recipe to a novel and name their price for people to download it. With tens of millions of readers and more than a million documents, it’s the largest self-publishing site that I know of on the Web. Meanwhile, print-on-demand companies like iUniverse, Lulu and Xlibris (to name a few) offer formatting, editing, proofreading and even book cover design for authors who want as much help as possible, while the lower-end CreateSpace (formerly BookSurge) is for authors who want to do the design themselves.

My feeling about companies like iUniverse is that they’re a big ripoff. There are four reasons to self-publish:

1. You tried to get published by a traditional publisher and couldn’t
2. You don’t have the patience/desire to query agents and go the traditional publishing route
3. You already have a platform to sell your book (eg. you’re a motivational speaker who can sell your book at seminars)
4. You’re writing a memoir, recipe book, etc. for your family and friends

Whatever the case, one of the biggest advantages to self-publishing is that you make way more money per book than you would through a traditional publisher. Rather than keeping 10-15% of the retail price, you get 40-60%. Or not. Print-on-demand companies like iUniverse that offer “packages”, work like this: for $600, you get five “free” softcover books, and the rest you have to BUY from them at an author’s volume discount. It’s not clear from their website how much the author’s volume discount is, but the package price increases up to $4200 if you want editing, formatting and more “free” copies of your book. And this doesn’t include the dozens of other optional services they provide like an author website or an e-book format, all for additional hundreds of dollars. This is like one of those modeling agencies that offers classes and professional photos to girls who don’t have a chance at modeling, for several hundreds of dollars. That, my friends, is called a SCAM.

Before I get into some of the other self-publishing options, I want to say that “global distribution through, Barnes & Noble, etc.” is also a scam. If you self-publish your book, it will NOT be on the shelves at Barnes & Noble—EVER. It WILL be on and along with five quadrillion other books. All this means is that if someone already knows about your book, there’s an avenue through which they can purchase it.

Lulu allows you to keep 80% of the revenue from your book (now we’re talking) after the manufacturing cost, kind of like Scibd, except that with Scribd there is no manufacturing cost. In fact, Lulu is a sort of Scribd meets POD because you upload your document and name your price, and then when someone buys the book, it’s printed and mailed to them. (I’m betting Scribd will soon follow with a similar model that allows readers to buy a printed version of downloadable documents.) Packages at Lulu range from $369-$1369. A much better deal than iUniverse.

Like Lulu, Amazon’s CreateSpace allows you to name your price. Then it takes 20-60% of that price (depending on where the book is purchased) plus a $1.50 per book fee. So if you sell your book for $12 on Amazon, you’ll get $5.70 per copy, nearly 48%. That’s after you’ve paid for your package, editing, formatting, book cover design, etc. Packages range from $299 to $4346.

I’d have to do more research to see which is better between Lulu and CreateSpace, but they each look much more appealing than iUniverse.

And now that we’ve covered the self-publishing options, here are some arguments FOR and AGAINST self-publishing:

1. You’ll probably end up doing most of your marketing anyway, so why not get a larger percentage of the royalties (50-80% vs. 10-15%)?

2. As the blogo/Twitto/Internet-o-sphere evolves, new gatekeepers will emerge in the publishing industry: Maybe even a blogger who reviews ONLY self-published books. Imagine that!

3. It’s empowering! No more kowtowing to agents and publishers! Just get out there and DO IT.

4. With companies like Harlequin’s new DellArte self-publishing arm, which plans to churn out books that look as professional as Harlequin books, no one will be able to tell the difference between self-published and traditionally published books.

1. Self-published books will never get the respect that traditionally published books have. They will never get reviewed and never distributed in bookstores.

2. Self-published books are a rip-off for the author. Not only does the author have to do all her own marketing, but in order to keep the cost per book down, she has to do all her own editing, formatting, and cover designing as well.

3. If everyone self-publishes, and more traditional publishers open self-publishing branches, readers will be swimming in a sea of sludge, unable to sort the wheat from the chaff (to mix metaphors). With so much junk out there, people may read even less than they already do.

My personal feeling about self-publishing? If I query 100+ agents and still no one wants to represent my book, I’ll consider it. And if I go that route, I’ll work my ass off to sell it. But I’m not ready to give up on the traditional publishing industry yet. Call me old-fashioned.

Tomorrow: An author interview with a YA writer who decided to self-publish. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on self-publishing?

12 comments to Self-Publishing

  • I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this, Meghan…as a musician, "self-releasing" CD's is all the rage. It's a really helpful tool – I don't have to wait for a music deal, and I have a product I can sell! Also, it's completely changing the whole music industry, and record companies are scrambling to figure out how to cash-in on people making their own CD's. . . I've wondered for a while now whether a similar trend will show up in the book industry…it seems too early to tell. The main difference I see is that the music industry has a fairly accessible context for me, with my self-produced CD, to sell product. All I have to do is get gigs and even if I just stand on the street and play my guitar I can sell CD's. I may not make millions but I can at least make back the money I've spent to produce the CD, as well as a bit of change. I don't thing there's a comparable context for selling books – could I sell my book if I stood on the street corner reading from it? Hmmm….maybe I should try it!

  • Meghan Ward

    So true, Tanya. It all comes back to the "platform." Some readings have authors selling their books, but not all of them. Otherwise it's up to you to do a lot of Internet marketing. Thanks for sharing your parallel music experience, and I want to hear how things are going with your writing offline!

  • Sanjay self-published his first book – and any illustrator I meet knows of him because of that book. It was also on the shelf of borders and us flying off the shelves at museums. Best of all, he got a book deal with chronicle becos of how well the first book did. At the alternative press expo – there was a lot of self-published stuff and I bought a few that I really liked-who knows if these books wd have ever seen the day if they had waited for an established publisher to get their works – of course I am talking about comic book artists and illustrators-I guess, it may work differently for non-picture books. I don't know anything about that.

  • You said, "self-publishing has been synonymous with vanity publishing."

    That's because of people like you who combine and confuse the two. A writer who pays a vanity publishing company like iUniverse is NOT self-publishing. She is paying a publisher, and therefore is NOT the publisher.

    If you are not the publisher, you can't be a self-publisher.

    Just as no one can eat lunch for you or go to school for you, no other person or company can self-publish for you. The words just don't make sense.

    You are also causing trouble when you say that a self-publisher "has to do all her own editing, formatting, and cover designing as well.' Only an ignorant fool would self-edit, and few writers are qualified to design covers. (However, interior formatting is not difficult — I've done it for six books.)

    After being dissatisfied with the quality and earnings of books published by "traditional" publishers, I formed my own company to publish my books. I hire editors and designers and buy photography. I concentrate on writing and marketing.

    You said that "Self-published books are a rip-off for the author." That's not so if the author is really the publisher, not the customer or victim of a vanity press.

    You listed four reasons to self-publish. Your list is incomplete. You did not list the reasons that are most important to me, and to others: COMPLETE CONTROL of the book, and MORE INCOME from each book.

    You said, "Maybe even a blogger who reviews ONLY self-published books. Imagine that!" There's no need to imagine. If you did a few seconds of research you would have found and others.

    Michael N. Marcus

    author of "Become a Real Self-Publisher,"

    author of "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)," coming 4/1/10.

  • The commenter Micheal Marcus said, "You are also causing trouble when you say that a self-publisher “has to do all her own editing, formatting, and cover designing as well.’ Only an ignorant fool would self-edit, and few writers are qualified to design covers. (However, interior formatting is not difficult — I’ve done it for six books.)"

    I think what Meghan implied here is that doing all your own editing and formatting and designing means that you're responsible for it, whether you actually do it or not yourself. You say that you've hired editors–good! But you were still responsible for it. I got that.

    Michael also said, "You said that “Self-published books are a rip-off for the author.” That’s not so if the author is really the publisher, not the customer or victim of a vanity press."

    I think Meghan again hit the nail on the head where she points out, in several places, how authors can be ripped off. Obviously, not everyone will fall prey. I know someone who very successfully self-published, and did well with his book. Michael Marcus is obviously doing something well, too, with the time and effort invested in editing and marketing. Good! I love to hear people doing this well.

    But just as most people don't have a clue how to approach agents and editors in traditional publishing, most won't have a clue how to approach self publishing.

    Michael also said that "You listed four reasons to self-publish. Your list is incomplete. You did not list the reasons that are most important to me, and to others: COMPLETE CONTROL of the book, and MORE INCOME from each book."

    Again, Meghan did say this–she mentioned in several places that more income would be had from self-publishing and that you'd be empowered. I heard this loud and clear.

    Finally, the discussion about self-publishing is definitely a heated one, as evidenced by the slightly testy comments of Michael Marcus here, and there is no steadfast right or wrong answer. Being flexible and knowledgeable about what it entails—and recognizing the obvious pitfalls–is the key to navigating self-publishing. I think it would be a mistake to be adamant one way or another. Thanks, Meghan, for being open to the pros AND cons in this post. THAT is what is most valuable here.

  • I very much enjoyed reading your blog and opinions on self-publishing. I would like to point out two important items of interest to your audience:

    1. If you POD through you WILL be available to brick and block bookstores (Barnes and Noble) and have the option to distribute not only in the US, but internationally as well. Readers will be able to walk in a bookstore and order your book. The negative on the bookstore route is that they can return the book to you if unsold, and you will make less profit as they set the price. They are owned by Ingram Books which is why the distribution is available.

    2. MOST IMPORTANT – If YOU are not making 100% of the royalties, something is wrong. Additionally, you should have all the rights to all the decisions about your book. Because…it's YOUR book. Read the fine print. There are "self-publishers" out there that may put restrictions on eBook distribution, for example.

    I am an advocate for the writer and and the underdog. It is my goal to demystify the industry. I have started a website, " where I will be providing free templates, helpful links and advice to writers (I have just started this site). Writers easily lose track of costs (i.e., lose money on the book) I'm also Twitter @NovelHelp, which is how I found your blog.

  • Meghan Ward

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Aditi – great to hear a self-publishing success story. I don't know how it compares to publishing a novel or memoir, but it's good to know there are other avenues besides traditional publishing.

    Michael – thanks for your comments. I agree with Sierra that I did address many of the points you mention. And thanks for letting us know about I'd love to learn about more of these sites.

    Sierra – Thanks so much for your detailed and insightful comments. I completely agree.

    Claudia – Thanks for letting us know about your website, and thanks for letting us know that you CAN order self-published books at stores like B&N (I'd still be surprised to see them stocked on the shelves, but according to Aditi, this IS possible.)

  • Claudia said, "MOST IMPORTANT – If YOU are not making 100% of the royalties, something is wrong."

    Royalty arithmetic is cloudy at best. There are many formulas, and different percentages applied to a publisher's gross or net sales. An author is pretty much defenseless, and merely deposits whatever check arrives with no verification of sales or costs.

    In Hollywood, naive actors or screenwriters with inexperienced agents may sign a deal to receive a percentage of the profits on a movie, and later find there are no profits — despite millions in ticket sales. Whoever taps the keyboard, controls the royalties.

    A "real" self-publisher (owner of her or his own micro-publishing company, not a customer of an author services company like iUniverse or Outskirts Press) does not get royalties, but collects the profit on each book sold.

    For example, a 300-page paperback can be printed by Lightning Source for $5.40, and have a $19.95 cover price. will work on a discount of as little as 20%, or even less when they sell below cover price. Amazon pays Lightning about $16. The self-pubber keeps the difference between $5.40 and $16 — a juicy 66.25% — much better than the royalties from a vanity press or a traditional publisher.

    Michael N. Marcus

    author of "Become a Real Self-Publisher,"

    author of "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)," coming 4/1/10.

  • Wil Wheaton is one of the most successful self-publishers I know of — of course, he's got quite the platform as an actor/blogger/author, so he's got an advantage that most of us don't. He's praised Lulu a lot on his blog for its POD qualities:

    To address one of the points above, he links to this site:

    And for shameless self-promotion on a blog post tangential to this, I posted my thoughts on digital distribution from a musician's perspective and a writer's perspective a few days back:

  • Meghan Ward

    Thanks, Mike, for the Wil Wheaton link and for your own blog link. Mark mentioned the Self-Publishing Review above, and I think it's great that this site exists.

  • A quick note on CreateSpace: I got up and running with them for $39, not $299, and the $39 was only because I went with their pro plan to get better royalties (it's only $5 a year after the first year). Their site was a bit difficult to navigate, but they've recently added a calculator that makes it easy to see exactly what your cost per book is and how much you keep (go to and click the Sales & Royalties tab). Also, they've now added the Expanded Distribution channel, which at first glance looks like it's more expensive than Lightning Source. So it appears that CreateSpace is a good choice for selling through your own eStore and Amazon, and for ordering copies for yourself to resell or give away, and Lightning Source is a good choice for distribution (B&, brick & mortar stores, Amazon UK, etc.).

  • Meghan Ward

    Thanks for all that info, Jackie! All these comments are making me want to self-publish something 🙂 I'm still curious to hear from people who have managed to get their self-published books ON THE SHELVES in B&N or Borders and how they did that.