Understanding the Self-Publishing Process: Overview of Challenges and Issues

Date: Monday, June 27, 2011
Forum speaker: Bob Pimm
Forum arranged by: Karen Asbelle
Summary notes: Ann Marie Aubin

As technology continues its exciting advance to influence how we interact with the written word, opportunities arise for writers and editors alike. To stay competitive, it's important that we editors expand our functional understanding of what's involved in today's self-publishing, along with its challenges and issues, so we can effectively support our clients and enhance our role as editorial advisor.

Literary attorney Bob Pimm visited BAEF recently to discuss how self-publishing is evolving in the age of eBooks. The following are some highlights of our forum discussion:

Why Self-Publish?

There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, not the least of which is that they've become tired of rejection by the traditional literary "gatekeepers": book agents and publishers. There are basically six vertical publishing lines in the U.S. these days and those big publishing houses have numerous gatekeepers to keep out the hundreds of callers who think they have The Great American Novel in their hands. A book might even be initially accepted by a publisher's acquisition editor, only to be declined later by its marketing team, if they don't think they can sell it. Or authors may not be able to accomplish the essential first step of successfully attracting and engaging a book agent who would represent them to a publisher.

An author, though, can now decide a project is worth the dedication it takes to put it out into the world. With the technology that brings us everything from the ability to type a manuscript on a computer to the opportunities afforded by the growing acceptance of non-traditional forms as "books" in their own right, why not publish yourself?

Traditionally, the concept of self-publishing was synonymous with vanity presses—those publishers with no gatekeepers who will print anything, if you pay them for the privilege. And plenty of those authors can end up with a garage filled with unsold inventory.

However, that bad reputation has not been universal. Such writers as Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce have all utilized the self-publishing option. Thanks to legitimate self-publishing, we have books such as The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton, The Celestine Prophecy, and The Joy of Cooking.

Self-publishing offers the author control over content, design, financial aspects, marketing, and pricing and discounts. There can also be personal or non-financial reasons for self-publishing. For example, a war veteran wants to publish his memoirs with full control. Only a limited printing may be needed. The project may be family-supported. The motivation for creating the book is not about profit.

Unlike using a vanity publisher, true self-publishing requires the author either to coordinate all the work personally or to hire the needed support services (e.g., editing, front/back cover design, interior page design, printing, marketing, promotion, distribution).

Are Authors and Books Good Candidates for Self-Publishing?

Some elements to consider before self-publishing are:

  • Do I have the capital needed to support my project?

  • Am I aware of, and able to navigate, the legal aspects of publishing?

  • How do I want my book to look (in terms of design)?

  • How will I market my book?

  • What kind of sales can I expect?

Book topic: Books are products, like movies and popular music. Look at your book critically: can it be a movie? A television feature? Books with a laser-sharp focus have a better chance of success than books with general broad appeal. It's even possible to have a "local" bestseller. A big publishing house would consider a manuscript based upon how much money it can be expected to generate. They will not dedicate the massive amounts of money and time to a project that could one day become a classic, if it will not sell in the current market.

Target market: Start with your intended customer then work backwards. What are readers of this type of book looking for? What do they want? Writers write, but they may not know how to reach their market and deliver. Do a "needs analysis" for your intended readers to determine how your book will meet a demand.

Capital needed: Have you figured how much capital funding will be needed to complete the project? Do you need investors? Don't start without having some idea of the funding that will be required. For example, some self-publishing authors don't know how much they will need to pay a copyeditor or proofreader to prepare their final manuscript. Or they don't consider the marketing and related travel they will need to do to get the word out.

Business acumen: How savvy are you? A self-publishing service is not unbiased and you must protect yourself as the author. You will need to address copyright, trademarks, bookkeeping, taxes, inventory management (including returns), marketing and PR, and advertising. If you don't use a self-publishing service company, how will you handle order-taking, fulfillment, and sales?

If you decide to work with a self-publishing service company, there are some contractual points to consider, and be aware that there is plenty of ongoing litigation to self-publishing houses. Don't hesitate to ask other clients of the self-publishing house you're considering if they are satisfied with their experience.

Make sure your share of book sales is calculated from the cover price (usually 10% for mainstream books), not the net price. There's a big difference. And even so, you may not make as much money as you anticipate, even if you are on The New York Times' bestseller list. [By the way, you may wonder how some can get on the NYT bestsellers' list before the book is on the shelf. Publishers' Weekly and wholesale buyers can put it there before consumer sales kick in.]

Will the publishing service be giving you an advance? Usually an advance is nonrefundable and the publisher will want to recover the amount of the advance in book sales before any additional payment is given to the author. However, if the author's final work is not satisfactory, then the publisher might ask for all or part of the advance to be returned.

Publishing agreements rarely promise a particular format. Printing hard cover books is not necessarily a guarantee. Check your agreement to make sure you understand the production commitment.

If there is some sort of "approval" involved in your self-publishing agreement, make sure it provides you with proper recourse, in the event your final manuscript is rejected. For example, your agreement should state that you must be told exactly why the manuscript is being rejected, with specific references to the problem. You must be allowed a specific and adequate amount of time to address and fix the problem(s) or be given the opportunity to submit a new manuscript.

Will the self-publishing service be allowed to edit your work? In some cases, authors have wanted to disassociate themselves from the book after the publisher has imposed significant changes. Check your contract to review your options.

Check your service agreement to ensure you are the sole owner of your own copyright and will retain it without limitation. It was noted that through an oversight years ago, The Joy of Cooking inadvertently transferred their copyright to their publisher.

Federal trademark: Having a trademark will protect consumers (well-known trademarks are a reason for consumers to trust the product) and will protect the trademark owner from attempts to steal.

If you anticipate that your book might develop into a series, you can trademark your book with an "intent to use" so that you will have the rights for future works.

If you work with a self-publishing service, you may be featured on one of their Web pages. Unlike your own website, which you can easily update, you may need to follow a procedure for updates, such as submitting a form for a change request that goes into their queue.

Will you be able to distribute your book by your own means, in addition to a designated distribution company, or will they have exclusive control?

Creating the Book

A self-publisher will need to understand elements of publishing that may seem extremely outside the skill set of a good writer. For instance, it's critical for a book (in any form, be it paper and ink or electronic) to look and feel "right." The information has to be laid out clearly and in a very readable way. "Readable," of course, varies as much as the disparate definitions of a book. This is where a designer enters the picture—perhaps the first person the writer approaches when beginning a venture. "It's amazing what a good book designer can do for you," Bob said.

Book design addresses elements such as front and back covers, typesetting the interior pages (font, leading, kerning), use of barcodes (ISBNs, EANs), and eBook file formatting (html-based, Epub, azw, locations, tags, links), and if there will be a planned mobile app.

The self-publishing service may have strong views about what the book's look and appearance should be. Review your agreement. Even if an author has certain rights, the publisher may refuse to go forward if they disagree. Having backout clauses for yourself are important.

Be sure to review your self-publishing service contract very carefully:

  • Unbalanced contracts: Know what they are committed to do, and what you are committed to do

  • Who pays what?

  • Review by attorney

  • Copyright ownership

  • How many copies will they sell?

  • Hidden add-on costs?

  • Over-printing by incorrectly projecting demand – false economies-of-scale?

  • Production quality: ink, paper, bleeding—even “best quality” can be low quality, appropriate type of binding, will the binding crack on a reference book, will the cover curl?

  • Who has control of price?

  • Marketing budget – review all commitments (e.g., they "might" put it in a catalog?)

  • Untimely distribution of sales proceeds—will they report sales to author on timely basis?

  • Untimely statement details – are they hard to read, purposely complicated?

There are companies you can enlist to help with some of the ‘problem areas' faced by self-publishers. Bob mentioned Thompson and Thompson. Keep in mind that such services can be very expensive, but may be worth the cost. Many lawsuits are based upon people not knowing clearly what they're signing.

Be sure to include an auditing clause in your service agreement. Publishers may try to avoid this. Structure it so that if service deficiency is found by an independent auditor (e.g., contracted number of copies not printed, deliveries not made), the cost of the audit is borne by the publishing service.

Copyright page: Don't skip this step. Every book should have a copyright page registered through the Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Program to help librarians categorize it (refer to Chicago Manual of Style elements).

Your book should carry an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which is a unique numeric commercial book identifier based upon the 9-digit Standard Book Numbering (SBN) code. Importantly, you should consider omitting the price from the bar code, to allow you to more easily increase the price in the future. Also, note there are variations on the standard barcode, if the book will be sold in non-book retail venues (e.g., a book on surfing sold in surf shops). There is also the EAN barcode for international sales. EAN ( European Article Number) is now renamed International Article Number, even though the EAN abbreviation is retained.

Regarding the "reading devices" now in the market (Kindle, iPad, Nook, Sony eReader), currently print is still predominant. But reports show that eBooks are growing by triple digits every quarter. Lots of people buy paper AND eBooks. When people can't find their hard copy at home, they may just purchase the eBook version. Make sure your files are compatible with espresso POD (print-on-demand) machines. And perhaps learn how to produce a shareable video.

Print-on-demand (POD): If you are converting a hard copy book into eBook, be sure your self-publishing service contract allows you to control the digital file for POD. Make sure the digital file is not exclusively on the publisher's computer to be sold back to you. Actually, these days, it may be advisable to simply start with production in the eBook format, THEN turn it into a print book, if you plan to do both.

Selling the Book

Then there is selling the book. It can be a challenge to get self-published books into the bookstores. But bear in mind that a book must be listed in the Ingram Book Company database to even “exist” for many retailers.

And it's very hard to project how many books you'll really sell. Should you print 1,000? 10,000? “People underestimate how hard it is to sell 500 books,” Bob advises, and selling 1,500–2,500 is a LOT of books to sell. It takes 20,000 copies to even qualify for a fiction bestseller.”

What are your public relations plans? It's advisable to lay out your PR plan even before you write the book, and certainly don't do any promotional interviews before your book is actually available. Books are frequently an impulse buy and you want your book already on the shelf or available online when consumers hear about it.

Your marketing plan should consider the cost to reach your specific market. Will you do a print book, an eBook, or both? What are your print book pricing schedules? What are your eBook pricing schemes and windows?

Will you finance your own book tour or get the word out via social media such as Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn? What are your marketing plans? Will you approach bookstores for shelf space? You can contact wholesalers, libraries, schools, get into catalogues, and check out subsidiary rights. Or will you opt for less traditional but potentially more flexible sales venues, such as non-book retailers and seminars?

If you go with Internet sales, say, through a website, social media, video trailers and webinars, you'll need to learn about search engine optimization (SEO), Google AdWords, and metatags, in order to get your book to appear at the top of Google and other search engine results lists. And consider direct marketing through email marketing tools such as Constant Contact. You can also explore the use of online viral loops, with share (“like”) activation and sharing incentives.

Amazon, not surprisingly, is a huge player in the publishing business, and has massive amounts of sophisticated data about what customers want and how to provide it to them. Strangely, big publishers are resistant to learning about the behavior patterns of the very people they're targeting. A self-publisher can use that information to great advantage. For instance, Amazon knows that there is a price range that constitutes a kind of sweet-spot for sales: $2.99–$9.99. Customers consider ‘the right price' for a book to be within these parameters, and Amazon uses that hard-earned information to custom market its products.

Bear in mind that when books are sold in the traditional vendor chain, sales are not necessarily final. Vendors can return unsold books, and return for credit can be 10%, 75% or full credit—it can vary.

Time is telling us that some self-publishers are now skipping eBooks entirely and moving on to eBook apps. The industry is experimenting with countless ways and variations to deliver a book. Even eBook trailers on YouTube allow people to share and increase a book's exposure. People are learning to enjoy reading on their phones and tablets, and the ease and economy of doing so will clearly make paper-and-ink books more of a novelty, as technology moves along.

What does all this mean for editors? Writers will be producing a huge variety of material in new and experimental formats. Photos, films and music may be incorporated into a book to enhance the consumer experience. That may mean various copyrights would need to be determined. A written work may be very short, or tailored for app reading ($.99 per download multiplied several thousand times equals good money!) Today's editors should be prepared to approach material with a fresh eye in that regard, and maintain a willingness to learn the new norms and exceptions in publishing.


Bob mentioned some useful resources for reference. Take some time to browse these sites:

Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book by Dan Poynter

The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know to Write, Publish, Promote and Sell Your Own Book by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It…Successfully by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry

Bob Pimm, literary attorney and counselor-at-law, has extensive expertise in all aspects of the book industry, with more than 25 years of experience. He has valuable, firsthand knowledge in book industry retailing, distribution, small press publishing, and literary agency. Bob has worked at Barnes & Noble, Ingram Book Company, small press publishers, and with independent booksellers throughout the U.S. He is a member of the American Bar Association, the Authors Guild, the National Writers Union and California Lawyers for the Arts. Bob has authored books, chapters, and numerous articles on legal and business aspects of the book publishing industry, including articles about new technologies and the emerging e-book industry. He can be reached at rgpimm.com

Previous BAEF forum with Bob Pimm:
Get Paid More: Negotiate Better Contracts

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Ann Marie Aubin works as an editor in San Francisco. Visit her website www.copywasher.com.



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