In last week's post, I mentioned several reasons why self publishing is a logical default approach for new writers. What I forgot to do was explain what self publishing is and isn't. So this post is a clarification.
A clarification that could properly be called a rant. The rant comes from the frustration I've witnessed in dozens of writers I've met over the last few years who've signed their publication rights over to a so-called "self publishing" publisher. This post and perhaps another or two won't be very much about the best way to self publish. It will be very much about the worst way to self publish. Thus a rant. A warning.
(First, a qualification. If your only goal is to get your book printed and up on Amazon so you can know that your kids and grandchildren and neighbors can read your story, then ignore this post. If you don't care about selling significant numbers of books or finding a substantial audience of readers, ignore this post. If you have no aspirations for a career as a writer, ignore this post. And please know that there is nothing wrong with the simple desire to take the easiest approach to getting your book printed and up on Amazon. That "easiest approach," whatever you determine it to be, needs no comment or critique from me!)
(Second, a disclaimer. What follows is merely one writer's view of the world of publishing. It is not the one true vision. I'm not the one true expert. Take everything I say with a healthy skepticism.)
(Third, a caveat. If you are already a published author and you are happy with your current publishing arrangement, whatever it is, then don't read any of this post. It will just distract you from what you should be doing, which is working on your next book!)
Having said that...
To state what might be obvious but often isn't in a world filled with companies trying to sell "self-publishing services," self publishing is publishing yourself.
Over and over, writers fall for "self-publishing" scams. They pay money to a company that claims to self-publish them. This entire premise is false. If you self publish, that means you publish yourself. If you pay money to an outfit that claims to help you, you are more than likely buying snake oil.
Self publishing means that you figure out how to get your books to the marketplace and you have control over that. You figure out the mechanisms to get your books into paper form and ebook form and you have control over that. You arrange for your cover design, your editing, your formatting. You get your own ISBN number. You decide your discounts, your retail price, which distributors and retailers you will sell to, whether they be the likes of the behemoth Amazon or the corner bookstore or the neighborhood cafe.
If, instead, you pay money to one of the ten thousand companies that call themselves self-publishing companies, you are not really a self publisher. You give up control to another company. They own the ISBN. They control the distribution. They make the critical decisions. Pricing, marketing, distribution, promotions. In the rare event that you find a company that claims to still allow you to make these decisions, move very carefully. Why are you paying them money? What is the point? To make it so you don't have to learn to do the very things that dramatically enhance your ability to find an audience and sell books?
At this point, I should point out that if they don't ask you to pay them any money and instead only ask for you to sign over your publication rights, then that's the fee you are "paying" them.
In other words, one could logically sort out publishing scenarios and consider the two most attractive versions. The first is when a publisher pays you a substantial cash advance in return for those publication rights to your book. The second is when you bring your book to market yourself, keep all the rights, all the control, and make certain that all reasonable monies flow to your bank account and not the account of some other company that owns the ISBN number. (Technically, the owner of the ISBN number is the publisher of your book and will be listed as such in all appropriate databases, i.e., if you own the ISBN number, you are the publisher.)
When you give up control to another company, you'd be amazed at what you can't do. In most cases, you can't control much of the most critical aspects of your writing career. There will be a layer of bureaucracy between you and your book. If you want to fix mistakes in your paper book or ebook, good luck. If you want to get a bunch of books at a really good price to take to talks and book clubs and festivals, you're out of luck. If you want to have enough margin to entice bookstores with a full 50% discount and free freight, you will make zero money or even end up paying out of pocket for the privilege of selling to them. If you want distributors like Baker & Taylor or Ingram to take on your book, you won't be able to give them the 55% discount they require.
The list goes on. If you want to change course with your marketing, you have to convince someone else to let you do it. If you want a reviewer to consider reviewing your book, you have to convince them not to be affected by a possible stigma connected to the reputation of your so-called "self-publishing services" company. If you want the larger world of books - stores and media and conventions and conferences to take you seriously, good luck. Professionals in the book world often take one look at your "self-publishing" company and see that you got sold by one of those "internet publishers" who made your book available on Amazon and other internet sales channels, and they know you paid good money to an outfit to have them do what you could have done yourself for free. You become stigmatized by your choices that suggest you didn't do your due diligence.
In addition is the possibility that your actual publisher - not you, but the company who owns your ISBN number - maybe takes a chunk of the money off the top, money that should come to you. You paid them to set up what you could have done for free, and then on top of that you may have given them permanent rights to take a percentage of every book that you sell for what could be the rest of your life and the life of your children.
That same "self publisher" may sell their business and then a stranger you've never heard of owns rights to your books. Or the ISBN owner dies and that person's wastrel nephew inherits the rights to your books. At the very least, you have a major problem on your hands. At the worst... Well, as a writer, you can probably imagine the worst. And all of it is unnecessary.
Next week: A simple measure that will immediately tell you if a publisher of any sort is any good at all...