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Self-Publishers Beware

Beware The Self-Publishing Sharks

Written by Allan M. Heller

Self-publishing your book may be your best option... if you don’t fall prey to some of the money-grubbing companies who will suck up your cash without a moment’s hesitation.

Self-publishing giants such as Xlibris employ reverse psychology to entice prospective clients. Full page advertisements in magazines such as Writers Digest show a photograph of a renowned author, and underneath his name, “Loser?” The author in question is someone who initially paid to have his work published, then later achieved outstanding success. Thus these companies anticipate a major objection to this method of propagating ones works. Once known as “vanity press” the self-publishing industry is fast becoming huge. But is self-publishing the way to go?

Anyone Can Self-Publish a Book
The good news, and the bad news, is that anyone can self-publish a book. This means that a ton of garbage gets self-published - books that any self-respecting publisher wouldn’t touch with a 20 foot book mark.

The biggest advantage of self-publishing is that there is no chance of rejection. Anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript or a query to a publisher knows how difficult and discouraging this can be. While some of the smaller presses may be willing to consider new writers, the Royalties received are not commensurate with the amount of time and effort, and anyone who quits his job to write books full time wages an uphill battle.

Publishing novels is nigh impossible without a literary agent, most of whom will not even consider neophytes. Even those literary agents who claim to be open-minded about beginners generally are not, and more than half the time, will not bother responding. With self-publishing there is no rejection. Your novel, chapbook, biography, reference manual or how-to guide will at least have a chance.

Self-Publishing a book is the EASY part...
Assuming that you do self-publish your magnum opus, your next step is to somehow spark interest in your book. Traditional publishers have catalogues, marketing departments, sales representatives and connections with major book stores. Self-publishing companies list the authors, titles and subject matter in searchable online databases, but that is no guarantee that this will generate sales. 

The Onus of Book Promotion Falls to YOU
So the onus of promoting your book usually falls to you. Some authors are good at networking, and are very effective at setting up interviews, book signings and media coverage. Others are good writers, but possess few marketing skills. The Internet, while a great boon for seekers of information, can be a great hindrance as well. 

But You’ve Got All the Control of Your Self-Published Book
A second advantage, one which closely ties in with the first, is that authors who self-publish have complete editorial control. Unless you are Stephen King, your published book will not be the same as your original manuscript (and even Mr. King may be forced to make one or two changes!) 

Editors have deadlines and space constraints, and authors may be forced to delete their favorites passages, or rewrite entire chapters at the editors whim. Some authors claim that they hardly recognize the result of months, or years, of labor. Self-published writers have the first and last word, literally.

But with complete editorial freedom comes an obvious downside: lax editorial standards. Quite bluntly, this results in a veritable bumper crop of really bad books! Misspellings are fairly easy to catch with built-in spell-checkers, but misplaced homonyms are easily missed, and plot flaws, poor syntax and boring story lines are much more elusive to the subjective reader (usually the author).

Also, self-publishing tends to cheapen the literary process. This may sound pompous, but with so many people writing and publishing their own works -be it online or through print-on-demand arrangements- the status of author is not held in as high a regard anymore. Writers who go through the traditional route are often asked, “Oh, did you self-publish that?” Some bookstores are not interested in sponsoring book signings for non-traditional authors, and many newspapers will not run feature articles about them.

The Real Appeal of Self-Publishing
Still, with the obvious disadvantages, many authors still find self-publishing appealing. Writers who are shy of rejection might otherwise be leery of ever submitting something, or even worse, of writing anything, resulting in, to paraphrase Thomas Gray “some mute inglorious Miltons.” Lending legitimacy to the industry, Writers Digest magazine holds an annual competition for self-published books. Now in its 15th year, the contest awards a top prize of $3,000. In addition, there are several, although not many, self-published authors whose books have been picked up by mainstream publishing houses. 

The Price of Self-Publishing is Reasonable
Self-publishing can cost you anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand, depending on how much work you’re willing to do, and how much you want to leave to others. 

I do highly recommend hiring a professional editor, which will cost you a few hundred dollars. Then, you’ll need a quality cover design and someone to format the interior. Add about $750 or more for those tasks. Finally, you’ll sign up with one of the many Print on Demand publishers (they print one book at a time. This will cost you anywhere from nothing (Lulu) to around $900. Read ALL contracts and agreements carefully, because they do vary.

Most self-publishing companies offer a basic package for less than $500, and with new print-on-demand technology, the author is not stuck with boxes and boxes of books.

Up-Selling Self-Publishing Packages... Fries with that order?
You can bet that most self-publishing companies will want to sell you their marketing, proofreading, copy editing and ghost writing services. Most of these services aren’t that good, with a few exeptions. You’re better off seeking outside professionals to do your editing. And you can expect to do the bulk of the real marketing yourself, even if you do pay your self-publishing company a hefty fee for book marketing services. 

If you are considering self-publishing, look at least five different companies, compare their prices, and if possible, talk to other authors to see if they were satisfied with the results. Reading testimonials that self-publishing houses post on their websites will not tell you anything; you will only get one side of the story.

Allan M. Heller is a free lance writer, and the author of three books: Fabjob Guide to Become a Life Coach (Fabjob, Ltd., December, 2003), Philadelphia Area Cemeteries (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., April, 2005) and Monuments and Memorials of Washington, D.C. (Schiffer, May, 2006).

Blurred Distinctions: Vanity Publishing vs. Self-Publishing 

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Of the many issues highlighted by the recent launch of pay-to-publish divisions by two major commercial publishers (Harlequin Enterprises’ DellArte Press--nee Harlequin Horizons--and Thomas Nelson’s West Bow Press), one of the most interesting, to me, is how blurred the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing has become.

Like many other changes in and around the publishing world, we owe it all digital technology. Pre-digital, self-publishing meant that you became your own publisher, undertaking or contracting out every aspect of the job yourself--from editing to design to printing/binding to warehousing to sales (famous example: What Color Is Your Parachute?). Vanity publishing meant that you paid a company to do it all for you (examples: Vantage Press, Dorrance Publishing). Although the end result was similar (since either way, you paid the full cost of production and had to store and sell the books yourself), self-publishing provided greater control over quality and cost.

In the late 1990’s, a different kind of vanity publisher began appearing: one that took advantage of the then-new print-on-demand technology. Because the books were produced on demand on glorified photocopiers, rather than in quantity on offset presses, these new digitally-based vanity publishers could charge much lower prices, as well as eliminate the problems of storage and unsold stock. There was even some degree of distribution, via Internet booksellers such as Amazon. Writers paid an initial setup fee, and the company recouped production costs at the point of sale, keeping the lion’s share of profits and paying the author a “royalty.” (Among the first digital vanities: AuthorHouse and iUniverse, both now owned by Author Solutions).

Looking for a way to set themselves apart from the expensive offset vanities of old, and also for a stigma-free term they could use in advertising, these new companies dubbed themselves “self-publishing services.” This has been the accepted term for fee-based digital publishing ever since--even as the costs have skyrocketed to old-fashioned offset vanity press levels, even as the old offset vanities have gone digital, even as major commercial publishers have begun experimenting with fee-based publishing, even as ambitious publishing service conglomerates like Author Solutions attempt to confuse the issue even further by re-christening themselves “independent publishers.”

This is the answer to one of the questions I’ve seen asked over the past couple of weeks: how Harlequin could have failed to understand that DellArte Press was not self-publishing, but vanity publishing. The kind of service offered by DellArte has been called “self-publishing” since the late 1990’s, with little criticism or protest. For many if not most people, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and their kin have become the standard definition of self-publishing. (Example: when Lisa Genova’s iUniverse-published book, Still Alice, got picked up by a commercial publisher, the extensive news coverage described her as a “self-published author,” and no one disputed that designation.) For a sizeable group of writers, this method of publishing has even become an ideological position, with iUniverse, Lulu and others supposedly leveling the field by allowing writers to bypass slow, exclusionary, and behemothic “traditional” publishers, while avoiding the DIY hassle of true self-publishing.

There’s been a lot of effort, in the discussion over DellArte (and, to a much lesser extent, West Bow), to establish an unambiguous dividing line between “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing.” Is self-publishing keeping 100% of the profit from sales? Is it owning your ISBN number? If the company that produces your book takes a cut, or if you use its ISBN, are you by definition vanity published, even if you didn’t pay an upfront fee? Is any print-on-demand publishing service vanity publishing, or are there meaningful differences between them? There’s also been discussion of how the pejorative connotations of “vanity” distort the discourse. Some feel that the term should be retired--but coming up with a new term is difficult.

These are all relevant questions. But I think that the lines between self-publishing and vanity publishing have become so hopelessly blurred, both by custom and ideology, that crafting an authoritative set of definitions is impossible (not to mention, no matter what one comes up with, someone is always bound to disagree). I think it makes more sense to see fee-based publishing as a continuum, with true self-publishing and full-on vanity publishing as the extremes, and many variations in between.

Moreover, beyond matters of terminology, or the ethical concerns that arise when commercial publishers attempt to monetize their slush piles by setting up their own pay-to-play publishing divisions, there’s a much more fundamental question: no matter who offers it or what it’s called, is paying to publish a good choice for authors? In some cases, the answer will be yes (in which case the writer must then decide which kind of fee-based publishing best suits his or her needs). In many others, it will be no.

In the end, what’s important is that writers know their goals, do their research, understand the challenges, ignore the hype, and do their best to make an informed decision. Wishful thinking, I know. Still, I live in hope.

Having said all of the above, I’m going to add to the confusion by offering my own set of definitions.

When the DellArte discussion began, I felt it was fair to make a distinction between vanity publishers (fee-based publishers that presented themselves as publishers, rather than as publishing services) and digital publishing services like AuthorHouse, which were perhaps not entirely forthright in their presentation of the issues surrounding fee-based publishing, but at least didn’t try to pretend to be something they weren’t. On reflection, however, I feel that in terms of hype, expense, and value, there’s not a hair’s worth of difference in most cases. There is, however, a subset of digital publishing services that do provide something different (IMO, anyway), as you’ll see below.

So here goes: My attempt to define the major points on the continuum of fee-based publishing.

I described this above: you handle or contract out all aspects of production and marketing yourself, from editing, to design, to printing/binding, to warehousing, to selling. In true self-publishing, you own your ISBN number (it has also been pointed out to me that some self-publishers don’t use ISBNs), and keep all sales proceeds. You do not grant or encumber your publishing rights in any way.

Assisted self-publishing
Assisted self-publishing companies charge no setup or other fees (although most sell a variety of add-ons, some quite expensive), recoup production costs at the point of sale, and make their money by keeping a cut of profits (you can usually determine what the profit is by setting your own price). They’ll provide their own ISBN, or let you use or buy yours. To enable the company to produce your book, you may be required to grant nonexclusive publishing rights (terminable at will), and to indemnify it against legal action. Examples: Lulu, Cafe Press, Blurb, CreateSpace (although with CreateSpace and BookSurge merging, that may change).

Vanity publishing
Any kind of publishing or publishing service that requires you to pay an upfront or setup fee. This would include print-on-demand publishing services like the Author Solutions brands, former offset vanities like Dorrance Publishing that now use a digital model, and book manufacturers like Brown Books that offer a more elaborate (and more expensive) service, but also the option of short-run printing. Such companies handle the entire publishing process for you, and may or may not exercise some degree of selectivity. In return, you grant publishing rights (usually nonexclusive and terminable at will), accept the company’s ISBN and pricing structure, and are paid a pre-set “royalty.” While not attempting to conceal the fact that they charge fees, or pretending to match your resources with their own, these companies can be quite misleading in their presentation of the benefits of fee-based publishing.

Deceptive vanity publishing
Fee-based publishers that pretend to be something else--whether by failing to reveal their fees on their websites or in their promotional materials (SterlingHouse Publisher, Strategic Book Publishing), charging fees for something other than printing and binding (such as requiring or pressuring authors to buy their own books--American Book Publishing, Anomalous Press, VMI Publishers), claiming to match authors’ fees with their own money or resources (Commonwealth Publications, Northwest Publishing), or denying that they are vanity or subsidy publishers despite charging a fee (Tate Publishing).

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