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Self-Publishing

Introduction

From time to time people ask me why I decided to self-publish or how I set up as a self-publisher and, as these questions often come from writers who are considering self-publishing, I thought it might be useful to write an article about it. However, before starting it’s important that you understand the difference between “self-publishing” and “subsidy publishing”. They sound similar and are often confused with each other or are considered the same thing, but they are very different and all too often writers fall into the subsidy publishing trap when they think they are self-publishing.

Subsidy publishing is the new name for vanity publishing. In this case writers pay to have their books published. The ISBN on a subsidy published book is registered with that publisher’s imprint not with the writer. Sometimes the writer will be expected to pay for a print run of 1000 or more copies, which the writer has to sell in order to recoup that expense. But who buys these books? Usually just the writer’s family and friends. Sometimes the subsidy publisher will offer print on demand, but the book can only be purchased from the publisher’s website. Who will buy the book? It won’t appear in the lists used by booksellers. Readers won’t stumble on it by accident while they’re browsing in their favourite book store. Even if they have heard of the book, many people are wary about buying from a store they don’t know anything about. They’d much rather buy books from their regular bookseller. If, after realising your mistake, you then try to withdraw your book from the publisher, you may find that you have inadvertently signed away the rights for your book and you’ll have to buy them back again in order to publish elsewhere. Even if you do get your rights back, you may find that your prior association with a vanity publisher has irretrievably damaged your author credentials in the book industry. Don’t go near subsidy publishers.

Self publishing is when a writer sets up their own publishing imprint and buys a block of ISBNs registered to that imprint. The writer pays the print cost to the printer and distribution fees to the distributor but does not pay a publisher, since the writer is the publisher. (Obviously, with ebooks there’s no print cost.) The distributor fee may be an annual fee or may be a percentage of book sales. Take care as there are some companies that provide a “self-publishing service” but are also a vanity publisher. You may be able to just use their print service without using their publishing service, but you should always check the terms and conditions.

Some self-published writers call themselves “an independent writer/publisher”. This is a clearer description of what they do and also distances themselves from the similar sounding, but completely different, “subsidy published” label. Unfortunately, too many people within the book industry treat self-publishing as no different from subsidy publishing. The assumption is that if the book hasn’t been accepted by a literary agent and by an editor from a traditional publishing house, then it must be poorly written and filled with clichés and two-dimensional characters. The fact that the writer has chosen to self-publish is seen as evidence that they have failed to interest any literary agents which, in turn, is seen as evidence that the book can’t be any good.

This prejudice can be seen in areas where libraries and booksellers refuse to order self-published books and can also been seen in the guidelines of some book awards. For example, the Man Booker Awards includes the following in the “Eligible Books” section of their rules and submissions page:

d) Self published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher or where a company has been specifically set up to publish that book
Curiously, although this restriction explicitly excludes self-published books, it doesn’t explicitly exclude vanity-published books.

The Costa Book Awards (formerly the Whitbread Literary Awards) includes the following in their FAQ:

We regret that self-published books, books that are solely published online, translations and collections of short stories are not eligible with the current Awards category structure.
Not all book awards have this exclusion.* There are some less well-known, but still respectable, awards and there are vast numbers of tiny awards that hardly anyone has heard of that don’t have this exclusion. Sadly, but inevitably, there are also fake awards that should be avoided.

Is this attitude justified? In the case of brick-and-mortar booksellers, they will only accept “sale or return” books and, as most self-publishers can’t afford the costs of returned books, this automatically excludes self-published books. This isn’t necessarily a sign of prejudice. It’s just a result of the self-publisher not having the resources to enter that market. A customer may be able to specifically order the book through the bookseller (provided the title is in the distribution list) but you won’t attract the attention of causal browsers.

(“Sale or return” means that the bookseller can order copies of the book, but they only pay the wholesale value after they have made a sale. If the book becomes unsaleable, for example it’s been dog-eared by browsers, or if the bookseller simply decides not to stock that book any more, the book is returned and the publisher has to absorb the cost of printing a book that can’t be sold. The “return” may involve posting the whole book back, but more usually means ripping off the book cover and just returning that. The book interior is destroyed.)

The main source of the prejudice against self-published books is the idea, already mentioned above, that writers only resort to self-publishing when they fail to interest any literary agents or traditional publishers. If a book has been taken on by a traditional publisher then it’s considered to have passed a certain standard. If a book is self-published, then the implication is that it’s failed that standard. Whilst it’s true that there are plenty of poorly-written self-published books, this doesn’t mean that they are all bad. (What’s more, I’ve also read some traditionally published books that are full of the bad practices I’ve been taught to avoid, so I’m somewhat dubious about this perceived standard.) However, without the brand label of a big mainstream publisher there’s no way of distinguishing between the wheat and the darnel, so they’re all lumped into the same category.

Aside from this prejudice against self-published books, the main problems with self-publishing are the same problems encountered by any small business starting up in an overcrowded market. It’s like setting up a tiny coffee shop in a street full of big national and international coffee chains. You’re an unknown competing against the big well-known brand names. Potential customers walking down the street won’t notice your little establishment amongst all the big shiny façades they instantly recognise. Big businesses can take advantage of economies of scale, but small businesses can’t, which means higher per-unit costs.

For example, the per-unit print cost of my novel The Private Enemy is £6.10. Admittedly it’s a large book with approximately 136,000 words, over 500 pages and a 32mm spine, but this is still a hefty print cost compared to offset printing. The wholesale discount is 35% for most booksellers but 40% for local brick-and-mortar stores who have agreed to stock it. The retail price is £12, so a 35% discount means a wholesale price of £7.80, and a 40% discount means a wholesale price of £7.20. (If the bookseller charges customers more than the retail price, the bookseller keeps the extra income.) Subtracting the print cost from the wholesale price gives a net sale income per book of £1.70 (for the 35% discount) or £1.10 (for the 40% discount). The net sales need to cover the cost of the jacket artwork and the proof reading. They also need to cover the cost of setting up the print-ready book block, the proof, the copy I’m required to send to the British Library (including postage) and any marketing costs.

Ideally, they should also cover the cost of professional critiquing and the writing courses that have helped to improve this novel in particular and my writing in general, but since I have both benefited from and enjoyed the writing tuition I’m not bothered if those costs aren’t recovered through book sales. They were fun and informative, and I like learning new things and increasing my skill set, but even excluding the costs of critiquing and writing tuition, I still need to sell well over 1,000 copies to break even.

Why Did I Self-Publish?

Given the above, you might be wondering why I decided to become an independent writer/publisher. The one area where print-on-demand self-publishing has the advantage over traditional offset publishing is niche non-fiction. In this case, the big publishers no longer benefit from economies of scale. A small readership means slow sales and with offset printing this means paying for book storage, and that’s not cheap. This not only involves finding the space to store the books but also requires the regulation of environmental conditions, such as humidity. If the storage area is too humid, the paper can warp or mould can develop, and no one wants to buy a warped, mouldy book. This is the reason why text books, especially in highly specialised subjects, are so expensive, which is all the more unfortunate when the prospective readers are students who are not exactly known for their large bank balances.

In this case, print-on-demand becomes the more cost-effective solution. Whilst my £12 novel may be competing against under-£10 novels, my £12.99 text book is competing against over-£20 text books. It is also, admittedly, competing against its own free electronic versions. However the reason why I decided to provide a print version was because I discovered that people were printing out the PDF but were finding it a bit of a hassle. Even in the digital age, some people simply prefer physical books, so I decided to provide a paperback version to save readers the inconvenience of printing and binding the PDF themselves.

It was pointless for me to go to a traditional publisher. There are few who’d be interested in a book that’s freely available in electronic form, and few who’d agree to switch to LaTeX to typeset a book if that’s not their standard production editing process.

I have some experience as a production editor (for the Challenges in Machine Learning Series) and I have attended various literary seminars given by people within the publishing industry, so I already had some knowledge of publishing before I started. (I’m fortunate in that I live near Norwich, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, so there are a lot of interesting local literary events.) From the feedback I received from people who had read my tutorials, I felt there was sufficient interest to make self-publishing those tutorials as paperbacks a viable option.

As for why I chose to use my imprint to also publish my fiction books, for my illustrated children’s books it was simply the fun of it. In particular, the duck book was an interesting typesetting challenge and proof that TeX could be used to typeset a far wider range of books than the mathematics and computer science books with which it’s more traditionally associated. It was also an interesting test of my flowfram package and flowframtk application. Similarly, I wanted to design the layout of my novel and experiment with memoir and microtype, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if the novel had been taken on by a traditional publisher.

How to Set Up as a Self-Publisher

I’m English and live in the United Kingdom, so some of the information here is specific to the UK. If you live elsewhere, you’ll have to find the equivalent for your country. In particular, the terms here are British English. For example, the word “solicitor” in the UK has a different meaning to the US “solicitor”. A UK solicitor is a member of the legal profession who deals with conveyancing, wills, client advice and other legal matters. HMRC is Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. If you are outside of the UK you will need to find out the equivalent legal and revenue-related regulations.

Setting up as an independent writer/publisher means you are setting up a new business registered under your name (real not pen) and address. This means registering with HMRC as a sole-trader, which also means registering for self-assessment and, usually, for Class 2 National Insurance Contributions. (There are some exemptions for Class 2 NIC. Check the HMRC for details.) Every year you will have to complete the self-assessment form, but fortunately this can be done online, which customises the form for your business. You may need to hire an accountant if you don’t know what to do, but you will still need to keep track of all your income and expenses. (Personally, I like GnuCash but there are other accounting software systems.) If you don’t register as a sole-trader, you’re not self-publishing.

It may sound a bit obvious, but the first thing you need to do is think of a name for your imprint, which will typically also be your trading name. When you think of a name, try doing a web search on it. If you get loads of hits, find another name. Ideally, find a name that doesn’t generate any hits at all. This has two advantages: there’s less risk of accidental trademark infringement and when people do a web search for your company, your web site (once you’ve set it up) should come up on the first page.

It’s also a good idea to set up a business banking account to keep your personal and business transactions separate. As with all new businesses, you’ll need start-up capital. This will have to come from your savings. Publishing is a high-risk business and you’re unlikely to find yourself eligible for a start-up loan. (Again it may sound obvious, but it needs to be said: avoid loan sharks.) All businesses are a gamble with the start-up capital as the initial stakes. You must consider very carefully what would happen to you if you lost it all. Write a business plan and do your research.

Start-up expenses for a self-publisher include the usual business start-up expenses, such as broadband and web hosting. If you work from home you need to work out the percentages of work and home use. For example, what percentage of your Internet use is work related or what percentage of your fuel use is work related? You’ll need these percentages when you fill in your tax return. Don’t forget to tell your vehicle insurer if you drive to work-related events, such as book readings or book launches, otherwise you may find yourself uninsured.

Good marketing can be expensive and time-consuming. Spamming is worse than no marketing if you want people to read your books and be interested in you as an author. Be wary of any unsolicited email offering to help improve your website or search ratings. If a business resorts to spam to hook new clients then that will be their tactics if you hire them to help with your marketing.

Start-up expenses that are particular to publishing include buying a block of ISBNs from the ISBN registration agency. The smallest block size is 10, but remember that you need a separate ISBN for each edition and each format. Don’t be tempted by anyone offering you a “second-hand” ISBN. There’s no such thing. Each block of ISBNs is registered to a specific imprint. ISBNs are not transferable. If the company you’re thinking of to print and distribute your books tells you not to worry about an ISBN, that they will supply one, then they are a subsidy publisher. (Although some printers and distributors may have an optional subsidy publishing section that you can skip.) You must order your ISBN block directly from the ISBN registration agency. In the UK, this is Nielsen UK ISBN Agency.

If you haven’t already done so, you need to hire a professional proof-reader to check your book for typos. If you are publishing fiction, you should already have had your work professionally critiqued. Again, you must be wary of scams as there are a lot around that are targeted at writers keen to get into print. If you don’t know the difference between critiquing and proof-reading, the former is an analysis of your writing, what parts work and what parts don’t (repetition, clichés, exposition, redundancy, unclear plot points, etc) while the latter checks for spelling, grammar and typographical errors. Remember the writing mantra: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Proof-reading is the final stage after the edits following the critiquing. When choosing someone to critique your novel, make sure you find not only someone who’s qualified to do so but also someone who likes your genre.

(I ’fess up. I didn’t hire a proof-reader for my LaTeX books. Given that the HTML and PDF versions are free, it would’ve been an unsustainable expense. My novel, on the other hand, was both professional critiqued and proof-read. If any errors have made it into the final version, I apologise, but it wasn’t from lack of readers. [Edit 2015-04-03: it turns out there were some errors! They’ve been corrected in the revised first edition.])

Unless you also happen to be a book cover designer, you’ll need to hire someone to do your jacket. Be careful not to fall foul of copyright or IP licensing issues. You may need to check with your solicitor to ensure what rights you have regarding the cover. Don’t assume that just because you’ve paid someone to do some artwork or take a photo for you, that you have the right to do as you please with that image. By default, you don’t. Absolutely don’t grab an image off the Internet and use that or you’ll find yourself in a breach of copyright action. In most countries, copyright is automatically assigned to the creator of the work. The work doesn’t need to have a copyright statement written on it to establish copyright. (Copyright statements are usually just a reminder to people who don’t know about such laws.) There are some free images on the Internet that explicitly allow copying, but if you use them it’ll just make your book look cheap which won’t match the print-on-demand price tag.

Make sure you are aware of publisher legal obligations for your country. For the UK, these include sending a free copy of each title to the British Library within one month of publication. The five other legal deposit libraries may also request free copies within 12 months of publication, and the publisher is under a legal obligation to send any requested copies (at the publisher’s expense). The copyright page should include the publisher’s imprint and address.

You need to find a printer and distributor. I use Lightning Source, which is part of Ingram, and integrates printing and distributing. With Lightning Source, the title set-up first involves specifying the meta-data. (The book’s title, the author name, format, number of pages, page size, type of binding, etc.) You can then generate a template for the jacket, which is calculated according to the supplied meta-data, and the template is emailed to you. (You can choose the file format. I select PDF, but I think you can also choose InDesign or EPS.) The template shows the safe areas and bleed areas and also the barcode. I use LaTeX with tikz to layout the jacket design onto the template, but there are plenty of other graphics applications around. Once this is done, I then have to upload this jacket PDF along with the PDF of the interior. (Again, I think the InDesign file format is also allowed, but I always deal with PDFs.) Lightning Source charge a fixed fee for the cover and book block setup.

During the setup stage I can also order a physical proof. (I’m always sent a digital proof, but I find it’s easier to notice errors in the physical proof than in the electronic proof. Also, colours can appear differently on screen to the way they appear in print.) If there are any errors in the proof, a new interior or jacket can be re-uploaded. There is a fixed fee for interior or cover revisions. (If both the interior and the cover need revisions, then it’s twice that fee.) If I don’t need any revisions, my total setup costs are under £100 (including the physical proof). If I need to do a revision, the total setup costs depend on whether or not I decide to order a new physical proof when I upload the new PDF.

Those are the setup fees for each new title. In addition there is an annual digital distribution fee (under £10) which must be paid every year to keep the title in print. There is another annual fee which is optional and that’s the Ingram Advance Catalog or Ingram Children’s Advance Catalog fee. Although the advance catalog is optional, it helps with marketing your book.

The above are the only fees I pay to Lightning Source. They subtract the print cost from the wholesale cost per book sale. At the end of each month I get a summary of the number of books sold that month and three months later the net income (“publisher compensation”) is deposited into my account.

If you want to set up an online store through which to sell your books, in case readers want to buy directly from you, you’ll need to have terms & conditions and a privacy policy drawn up, which requires a solicitor. Since a shop involves storing personal data (customer names and addresses) you also have to register as a data controller with the ICO. However, be aware that most people prefer to purchase from well-known stores rather than unknown stores. (Although it helps to use a trusted payment provider, such as PayPal.) Again, economies of scale work against a sole-trader, which means that small stores can’t compete against the larger ones in terms of the cost of postage and packaging. I’ve been (pleasantly) surprised by the number of customers I’ve had to my online store, and even more surprised by the number of international orders, so despite the above caveat some people are prepared to buy through small stores. The packaging, the PayPal transaction fees and the petrol costs for the journey to the Post Office are absorbed by the book sale, however I don’t have to deduct the wholesale discount and the print cost can work out to be cheaper since I can order a short print run from Lightning Source.

How much you actually have to spend on starting up depends on how much you can do yourself. For example, I can easily typeset my novel using LaTeX, but if you don’t know how to typeset, you’ll need to either hire someone to do it for you or learn how to do it yourself. I commissioned a friend who’s a talented local artist to do the artwork (the people and car) for the front and back of my novel’s jacket, but I used gimp to do the actual layout. (I also purchased some brass sheets for the brass effect.)

I have some experience with HTML, databases and scripting languages, so I can write most of my web pages. Whilst they may not look as flash and fancy as some commercial pages, I’ve tried to optimise them for browser-independence and accessibility since most of the visitors to this site land on the tutorial pages rather than the home page, and the simplistic design makes it easier to read long technical pages. If you switch off the page style or use a text-only browser such as lynx, the tutorial pages are still readable, so they should be accessible with text-to-speech or Braille displays. If your website is essentially just a glossy brochure for your books, then you’ll probably need to hire a web designer. My online store uses osCommerce software, which is free open source software written in PHP, so I have been able customise the code for my books.

Ebooks

I haven’t mentioned about ebooks as I started up my business primarily to provide paperback versions of my free PDF and HTML tutorials, so I wasn’t particularly interested in ebooks at the time. I have published a short story ebook through SmashWords to gain a little experience with it, but SmashWords is a US company and I’m a UK citizen so this has caused some complications for me. More specifically, the IRS turned down my ITIN (W-7) application, but they never replied to me when I wrote to ask them to clarify in what way they felt that I didn’t meet their guidelines. The inconvenience and expenses caused by this has made me reluctant to continue this avenue. Lightning Source can distribute ebooks but, as far as I can tell, they require a DRM, which I don’t like (except for digital library books where they are needed for self-returns). Therefore I’m currently undecided about ebooks. I can easily create an epub version of my novel and I could sell it through my online store, since it supports the sale of digital goods, but it wouldn’t be available in the general distributions channels.

Conclusion

I don’t bother about marketing my text books, as it wouldn’t be cost-effective, although I sometimes link to them when I’m answering a related question as it saves me typing up what I’ve already written. However, there are plenty of TeX-related sites that link to them and they’ve been reviewed in TUGboat (the TeX User Group journal). So far, the monthly reports from Lightning Source have always included sales of Volume 1 or Volume 2 (or both) and there is already interest in the pending Volume 3. The fiction books, on the other hand, require extensive local marketing, the unit net income is small and most of the sales are made within my neighbourhood or at literary events (although there are also sales made through third-party booksellers, just not as many as the text books), which supports my earlier observation that print-on-demand self-publishing works best with niche non-fiction.

Think long and hard before setting up as a self-publisher, and make sure you do plenty of research. It’s not enough to be a good writer. There are many talented authors who lack business skills. In fact, this is true of many in the creative arts, and the comment is not intended as a criticism. None us can claim to be skilled at every trade. This is the very reason why publishers and literary agents exist. Don’t go into self-publishing with grand ideas of becoming a multimillion best-selling award-winning author. Keep your feet on the ground and a clear head. Don’t let yourself be conned by the unscrupulous who will try to make you believe that with their help people will rush to buy your books. The hard fact is that the book market is flooded, most readers won’t try an unknown author without special recommendation from a friend or reviewer, and there are too many people who simply don’t read.

If you just want to produce a book for a small set of people, such as your family (e.g. your memoirs) or your class (e.g. you’ve written the course text book), you may find it simplest to just use a print and binding service rather than actually publishing the book. If you want to publish a niche non-fiction book, then print-on-demand self-publishing may well benefit both you and your readers. If you want to publish fiction, especially in a popular genre, you’re better off trying to find a literary agent (but don’t use that as an excuse to avoid paying for your novel to be critiqued).

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* Edit 2015-04-03: It’s good to see that the Kitschies don’t exclude self published works (see Kitchies 2014 Datavore Infoflavour) which is encouraging for SF writers who additionally have to contend with being in the Sci-Fi Ghetto.

I’ve been on a number of writing courses at the University of East Anglia. (Not the prestigious world-renown one. I already have a PhD, I don’t have the time or money to do another post-graduate degree, but the university used to have some good writing courses in their former School of Continuing Education.) Whilst I was on one of them I happened to borrow a murder-mystery novel from the Norfolk digital library. The amateur “detective” seemed to spend the entire time moping about her love life (or lack of) and finally discovered the murderer not by a clever means of deduction but by simply meeting someone who happened to have witnessed the crime. (S.S Van Dine wouldn’t have approved.) I asked my writing tutor how a novel that uses so many of the devices we’re taught to avoid can get published. She asked, “Is it in a series?” I said, “Yes,” and she replied that was how. So it’s not just me who’s a cynic. However, that’s by no means the worst traditionally published detective mystery book I’ve read. I later borrowed another one by a different author where the first two chapters were populated by characters who seemed to have walked off a twentieth-century sitcom including the clueless ditz who provided the means for the other characters to infodump. I gave up when I reached the third chapter and found the author was about to provide a more detailed version of the previously infodumped backstory. And, yes, that was in a series as well.

The problem is that the book industry is an industry. Projected profits and losses must be calculated and risk assessments performed. A multi-book author is a better investment than a single-book author. Book series are more marketable than standalone novels but, despite my cynicism, I know that my own actions as a reader contribute to this. When I browse through the digital library looking for unknown authors who might interest me, if I see a book that’s part of a series, I think, “oh, if I like this book I can borrow all the other books in the series.” Occasionally I return to look for the next book in the series, but more often than not I don’t.

First published 2014-10-06. Last modified 2015-04-03

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