Last week, I broke down the Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing. I’ve also done a three-part series covering The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of print-on-demand publishing. So what’s left and why should you care? There are two main branches of self-publishing still to discuss: true self-publishing and hiring a “vanity” publisher. While traditional publishing is most author’s ultimate goal, self-publishing has become a common stepping stone to achieving it. Self-publishing or vanity publishing is often preferred over print-on-demand by author’s with their eyes on traditional publishing because (arguably unfairly) print-on-demand is not given much respect higher up in the industry because literally anyone can do it if they have a computer and a few hours’ spare time. Self-publishing, though, takes dedication, hard work, and a serious belief in and commitment to your book (note that all of this can apply to a POD book, but sadly, that’s seen as the exception and not the rule). When self-publishing is done correctly, it can help serious authors build a reputable platform that will work to attract traditional publishers later.
Whether you’re seeking to publish your own work or wanting to increase your expertise in the eyes of clients, knowing the basics of self-publishing is a must.
True Self-Publishing Pros and Cons
This is arguably the most difficult publishing method. It’s certainly the most expensive. True self-publishing means that you arrange everything from production to distribution yourself. Now, you don’t have to actually do it all yourself. In fact, you don’t want that at all because chances are you aren’t an expert in every field of publishing. You need to hire professionals to do the work, and you must stay on top of what needs to be done and find the best folks for the job. You also need to realize that with a traditional publisher, you are at least guaranteed an advance, while with self-publishing, there is no guarantee of return. However, that said, many indie authors do well. Your earning potential is limitless, it’s just going to take a whole lot of work on both the front and back end to see an actual return.
- No Percentages/No Hoops: When you submit to a traditional publisher, the odds are never in your favor. You can have a great story written beautifully that would be adored by countless readers if given the chance, but that guarantees nothing. You can’t just submit and get a bite. Big publishers won’t even look at your manuscript unless you first find an agent. That requires crafting a proposal, and the portion of the proposal that an agent or publisher looks at first is the segment where you describe how you will market the book. They are looking for one thing: a platform. You have to already have an audience for your work. If you don’t, the law of percentages is going to cut you down. Traditional publishers get freighter-loads of submissions, and a good percentage of them are great. How do they narrow things down? Platform. (You can read more about how this works in last week’s post.)
- Stepping Stone: If done well, a self-published book can earn you that coveted platform. Now, you need some sort of built-up audience before publishing, period, but it doesn’t have to be massive. If the book is well-received by your small audience, your audience will potentially grow to an impressive size that will catch the eye of a traditional publisher for your next book. If you can get a high rating on Amazon and Goodreads with lots of reader feedback, you can prove to a publisher that there is an audience eager to read your manuscripts.
- Get It All Out There: If you’ve done everything in your power to make your story great (rewrites, beta readers, a great editor, etc.) but you have no publishing reputation under your belt, self-publishing can be a great way to just get your name out into the industry. It feels great to see your name on a book cover; you just want to make sure you’ve done everything necessary to make it a manuscript you can be proud of.
- Rights to Profits: When you truly self-publish, pretty much 100% of the profits go to you, unlike in traditional publishing or vanity publishing. The distributor you’ve partnered with may take a percentage, but you’re getting the big piece of the pie in this scenario. That means that selling a few thousand copies as a self-published author can actually make you a return, whereas if you only sold 2,000 copies with a traditional publisher, your book would be seen as a flop and you wouldn’t “earn out” and receive any additional royalties other than your advance. You also own all the rights to everything: the material, the ISBN number, the cover design, all that good stuff. You don’t have that with a traditional or vanity publisher.
- Expensive: The two largest perks of traditional publishing are the accomplished editing team and the fact that you do not pay for any part of the book’s production or distribution. When you self-publish, you can hire a great editor, but that, just like every other aspect of getting a physical copy of your book into the world by yourself, is not free. True self-publishing is a luxury not every author can afford. You must seek out and pay for a developmental editor, a copy editor and/or proofreader, a designer, a printer, and a distributor. It’s also a good idea to hire an individual or company to help with marketing if you can. Otherwise, you will have to do all of the marketing yourself, and that can be extremely overwhelming.
- Heavy Marketing: Even if you do have the cash to hire someone to help with marketing, you’re going to be pulling serious weight in this department. Yes, in traditional publishing, you still need to spend time marketing regularly in order to “earn out” on royalties, but when you self-publish, you are building your own brand from the ground up. While your manuscript is out with beta readers and editors, you need to be building your social media presence like mad, advertising the upcoming release of the book along the way. You need to get that manuscript to as many beta readers as you can so that you can gather reviews for the book before it even launches. People are more likely to take a chance on a book if others have already read it and liked it. After the book is released, the real work is just beginning. You can’t wash your hands and say you’re done after launch week. You must continuously be creating hype for the book with giveaways, social media posts, interviews, etc.
- Slow Momentum: Self-publishing isn’t a get rich quick scheme. If done well, a self-published book can become a source of passive income, which is awesome, but it’s going to take some time to get there. Without the recognition of a big publishing name behind you, you’ll have to push harder to get your voice and face out there. It’ll be harder to get your books on big store shelves and get an interview on a site or in a magazine with a large audience. But it can be done. Enter your book into contests to get some recognition and some awards attached to your book’s title. Strategies like this will help you steadily build momentum that can propel your book into real earning territory, but it isn’t going to happen in a day.
- Cheap Market: Thanks to the POD surge, there are thousands of books on Amazon with a $0.99 price tag. Also thanks to POD, those prices are associated with indie books. However, if you participate in true self-publishing, you need a higher price tag to compensate you for the time and money put into the book. But if you’re pushing your book as an “indie” read, folks who click on your ads are going to expect to see that low price tag. My advice would be to stop viewing your book as an indie book, and then other people will, too. If you’re doing true self-publishing, your book isn’t going to have CreateSpace or similar programs attached to its name. You’ll have the name of your book packager or printer on there, or you can even create your own publishing company name. Sure, submit to indie contests, but submit to others, too. Don’t attach indie author hashtags to every single post about your book. I see so many authors trying to sell their book solely on the basis of encouraging readers to support indie titles. It’s great to support indie titles, but don’t use the indie label as your main marketing tool. Sell the book on its own merit, and then you can begin to overcome that indie price tag assumption.
Vanity Publisher Differences
A vanity publisher is meant to act exactly as a traditional publisher, except you pay them to take on your book. Many of the pros and cons of a vanity publisher are the same as those of true self-publishing. For instance, you still get your name out there on a real, tangible book. You can still use it to build a platform that will impress a traditional publisher. You still have to compete in a cheap market, and you still have to pay for editing, production, and distribution services. You’re also still going to have to push super hard with marketing. So, instead of repeating myself, in this list of pros and cons, I’m just going to focus on the things that are different from true self-publishing.
- One-Stop Shop: A vanity publisher has a team of editors, designers, and distributors already on-call. You don’t have to hunt down an expert in each field. Of course, you need to keep in mind that this means you aren’t personally selecting your editor, designer, or distributor. Still, the ability to sign one contract and do everything makes many authors sigh with relief.
- Slightly Cheaper: Since you’re dealing with a sort of “package deal” instead of with multiple professionals’ individual fees, the total on your contract will probably end up slightly more budget-friendly.
- Lack of Control/Rights: Read your contract very carefully. Most vanity publishers lure writers in by saying you can cancel your contract at any time, but what the authors don’t realize is that, just like a traditional publisher, the ISBN number belongs to the publisher, not the author. Vanity publishers often also sneak rights to the cover design, layout, and even the electronic copies into the contract. So, sure, you can pull your contract and walk away, but you’ll have to start over from scratch with a new ISBN, cover … pretty much everything except the raw manuscript.
- Misleading Claims: Many vanity publishers boast awesome marketing and distribution support. While some uphold these claims, many others do not. You’ll notice that their marketing support has very strict limits about how long they will help you out and exactly which strategies they will employ on your behalf. Some do not follow through with their distribution promises as well. They may request that a store like Barnes and Noble carry the book, but they don’t follow up and make sure it actually gets done. That’s up to the author.
- Greed: Many vanity publishers boast that only the best are taken on, that they receive thousands of submissions and only a small percentage make the cut. From what I’ve experienced, this is sometimes an empty claim. Now, a book packager, who often works closely with traditional publishers, will be choosy because they want an impressive book list to attract those traditional publishers (I’ll be posting more about book packagers in the near future, as I’ve recently started targeting them for my ghostwriting business). Many (not all) vanity publishers don’t really care about the quality of their book list, just the quantity. More signed authors mean more money in their pocket, regardless of how the books sell.
- Smaller Returns: In traditional publishing, it makes sense that the publisher takes the larger percentage. They took the risk on your book, paying you up front. They paid to edit, produce, and distribute it. So, they should get the largest share of returns. A vanity publisher, on the other hand, gets paid by you to do all those things, and then they still take the larger percentage of the profits from you. Essentially, you take all the risk and see the smallest slice of the pie. And if you chose a publisher with shoddy marketing techniques, you’re not going to break even, much less make a profit.
My Vanity Experience
About four years ago, when I was still in college, I looked into publishing my first novel, written in high school, with a vanity press. I approached two publishers and had two widely different impressions/experiences: one good, one bad. Let me explain.
The first publisher I found was Tate Publishing. My husband had seen their name on some books he was stocking at Amazon, so I checked them out. I didn’t really know what a vanity publisher was, but I quickly realized that I was meant to pay for the services they provided. They would edit the manuscript, design the cover, and then distribute it to places like Barnes and Noble for a few thousand dollars, and they had varying levels of contracts. The more expensive ones included increasing levels of marketing. So, I started searching how to submit, thinking it might be worth it just to get my name out there. I read that they only accept a small percentage of books received because they only wanted books they thought could sell. So, I was thrilled when they accepted my manuscript. I was good enough to be in that tiny percentage! Well, now I’m not so sure. It became pretty clear that this company was all about the money. They pestered me with emails while I was trying to learn a little more about them before shelling over a few thousand dollars. I am so glad I did that research. The reviews the company posted on their own page were glowing, of course, but there were mountains of bad reviews elsewhere online. Unhappy authors claimed that they weren’t satisfied with the covers the company had created, but they weren’t allowed to change them without shelling out more money. They found lots of errors in their supposedly edited manuscripts. Those who had paid for the higher-tier contracts that were supposed to include lots of marketing help were sorely disappointed. The company had done very little, if anything, to actually get their books on big name bookstore shelves or help them start a book tour, as they had promised. These authors ended up doing everything themselves anyway in that department. Needless to say, I turned down the contract they offered me, but to this day, they still send me emails, knocking the price of the contract down by this or that percentage.
About a year later, my mentor used John Hunt Publishing to publish one of his novels. He enjoyed the experience, so I decided to check them out. I quickly realized this publisher was a little unusual, but in a good way. They offered multiple tiers of contracts, just like Tate, but the top two tiers were traditional publisher contracts. John Hunt and their multiple imprints care about their book lists, unlike many vanity publishers. So, if a book is really good, and they believe that it can do really well on the market, they take it on in a traditional format. However, they also offer a number of other contracts that function like a normal vanity publisher. You pay for all the services all in one place. However, based on the perceived marketability and the level of required editing, you pay a different price. Unlike with Tate, you didn’t pay more to get more. With John Hunt, you paid less if they believed your manuscript would require less work, but the services were all the same. That’s a very nice setup. Yes, if you get one of the “vanity” contracts, which they call “cooperative publishing,” you are paying them and taking part of the risk for a smaller percentage, but if you get a higher level (say third or fourth tier, like my mentor) you aren’t taking all of the risk. You also have the potential to land a traditional contract. So now I was excited. I filled in what they call an Inquiry, which is basically a book proposal, and sent in the manuscript with it. A few weeks later, I got real feedback from the editors. Essentially, they thought the story itself had potential, but they let me know, politely, that it was clear a fourteen-year-old had written it (I hadn’t really done any developmental editing before submitting, just a proofread, because, well, Tate had accepted it into their tiny little percentile, so it must be pretty good, right? Wrong). They knew it would need a lot of editing, so they offered me the lowest tier contract, and consequently the most expensive. I didn’t take it because their thoughtful critiques had made me realize that I could make my book so much better. I hadn’t really touched the manuscript for years; I’d just submitted it to see what would happen. But unlike with Tate, the John Hunt editors had actually taken the time to read the manuscript and give constructive feedback. And they had said the story was good! Suddenly, that held so much more weight than the Tate people saying it was an awesome, print-ready book that they’d just love to add to their list. I wanted to take the time to make it the best it could be. It took me a while to sit down and do it, but now I’m almost done with my first round of serious developmental edits, which I’m posting in installments on Channillo. When I’m done, I’ll probably resubmit to John Hunt just to get some more feedback and see what sort of contract they would offer. If they want to take me on traditionally, that would be amazing.
If you don’t have the platform to get noticed by a traditional publisher or if you’ve gotten lots of rejection letters with no real explanations as to why, self-publishing is a good option to consider. It can lead you in all the right directions, but only if you do it right. It’s not cheap, and it’s some seriously hard work. If you want to go the vanity route, you need to be extremely cautious. Do your background research on every publisher you consider, and look out for the warning signs that a particular company is just after your money.
You have lots of options for getting your book into the world. No matter what you choose, though, always take the time to step back and make sure that you’re doing your story justice.