Guest blogger…Jana Oliver on Self Publishing

Since the internets are still kinda buzzing about the ‘assisted self pub’ hoopla with Author Solutions/Harlequin Horizons/Dellarte Press, I wanted to discuss self publishing a bit more in depth…but being lazy, I didn’t want to do all the resarch myself, so I found a fellow RWA member who has some experience in self publishing.


Jana Oliver began her career by self-publishing her first three books. After two of those were finalists for national awards, she signed with Dragon Moon, a small Canadian press. Her Time Rovers Series went on to win twelve awards, including the Prism and the Daphne du Maurier. Jana is now writing a Y.A. Urban fantasy series for St. Martin’s Press. Her first book in the Demon Trappers Series will debut in Sept. 2010.

What is the difference between self-publishing and a vanity/subsidy press?

In its purest form, self-publishing is when an author forms a publishing company and handles all aspects of the book’s production. The author/publisher foots all the expenses, but receives 100% of the profits and retains all subsidiary rights.

In vanity/subsidy publishing (also referred to as joint or co-op publishing) the author pays a print service provider to produce the book. The book’s ISBN is registered to the press who produces it, which means the author is not the publisher. The press usually offers other services at additional cost, such as editing, distribution and marketing options. Depending on the contract the press may retain some or all of the rights for a set period of time. The author receives a “royalty” for each book sold. Often the press sets the sales price, which can be substantially higher than other books in the same genre.

They sound similar in many ways. The author still ends up paying to have the book produced.

They are similar, and there’s been further of blurring of the lines over the past few years. The primary difference is what portion of the profit the author receives and who retains the rights. Some subsidy publishers do not take the author’s rights, while others hold them as long as seven years. The other difference is the overall cost of production. In my experience it can be a little less expensive to go it on your own rather than working with a subsidy press as these presses do not make their money off the number of books sold, but rather from their overpriced services.

Can you give us an example?

Sure – iUniverse and AuthorHouse charge $170 for copyright registration. DellArte charges $204. You can register your copyright online for $35 at the U.S. Copyright Office. That’s a big markup for what is a very quick task. Bookstores are leery of POD (print-on-demand) books if they’re not returnable. Many refuse to stock them. To allow bookstore returns (which are pulped) subsidy publishers charge anywhere from $699 to $839 per year. So you lose not only those returned books, but are charged for the privilege of having them pulped.

So what are the benefits of self-publishing?

What most authors find appealing is the ability to control the quality of the final product and the speed at which the book will be in print as compared to “traditional” publishing. The author is free to present the story exactly as he or she envisions it, without editorial “interference”. Self-publishing, done correctly, can help an author build “platform”. And, as mentioned above, the author receives all the profits.
But there have to be some downsides…

Most definitely. Whether you self-pub or use a subsidy press, the author is footing the bill for every cost related to that book’s production which can easily run into thousands of dollars. When you self-pub, there is no one else to blame if the book is riddled with typos or the cover art is hideous. The freedom to tell the story in your own way can be a major negative. Every book needs help from a professional editor. To avoid that step since “no one knows my book like I do” means your work is probably not going to be that fabulous of a read. On the vanity/subsidy side, you can pay to have the book edited, but you are relying on the company’s word that their editorial staff is qualified to do a good job. If you contract the editing yourself, you can check references and choose the best editor for your project. It is extremely difficult to get your books into the chain stores. They only have so much square footage and they’re rather stock a John Grisham than Mr. or Ms. Unknown Author.

What about the stigma of being self-published? Does that work against you?

Big time. Though over the past few years New York editors have begun to pay attention to self-published works, lest there’s a sleeper hit amongst the dross, the general consensus is 99% of DIY is bad. Unedited, poorly written, barely readable. The remaining one percent are the hidden gems, but the bad stuff tars the good. It is assumed that an author self-pubs because they couldn’t sell their work to a “real” press. That’s not always the case, but DIY authors have a steeper hill to climb. Getting trade reviews is very difficult if the reviewer can tell you’ve been pubbed by a vanity/subsidy press (and believe me, they can tell). And to make it even more difficult, most of the professional writers’ organizations do not accept self-published books as qualifications for membership. Many contests are closed to self-pubbed authors, denying them the ability to receive needed recognition. When you sign with a traditional press, that stigma is gone, but if you go it alone that’s one heavy monkey on your back even if your book is the next Harry Potter.

So does it make sense to self-publish at all?

Yes and no. It makes sense if you are publishing non-fiction or niche books. It makes sense if you’re a published author whose backlist has gone out of print and you want to ensure those books are available to new readers. Self-publishing works if you want to produce short stories for the growing number of e-book readers, making a bit of cash and channeling new readers to your print books.

Self-publishing doesn’t make sense if you’ve just received another rejection and you’re sure NY has some secret agenda to keep you out. It’s not a good idea if you aren’t willing to shoulder all of the marketing and publicity responsibilities, aren’t able to haggle with distributors to ensure your books are available. It’s so not a good idea if you honestly believe you’re going to be an instant bestseller, because you’re not.

And to be clear — just because you or a subsidy press list your book in a thousand online bookstores does not mean you’ll sell a single copy. That’s just the brutal truth. There is too much competition for the readers’ dollar, especially right now. Some subsidy-published authors are sure their publishers are screwing them out of their royalties, because their books have to be selling, right? Wrong. Most DIY books sell only one hundred copies. I’ve heard that you’re considered a bestseller in the DIY world if you sell 500. Now that’s truly depressing.

What are your thoughts about the virtual explosion of DIY authors in the last couple of years?

There are some negatives to this trend. First of all, the majority of these authors will never recoup their investment, though each of these folks likes to believe they’ll be the exception. If they go the vanity/subsidy route and aren’t careful who they work with they can be scammed out of thousands of dollars and either receive substandard books or none at all.

The glut of new authors has created a different sort of issue for conventions. Back when I self-published (2001-02) there weren’t that many DIY authors doing the “con” circuit so I was able to participate in panel discussions and build my brand at science fiction/fantasy, mystery and romance conventions. Today, with so many new and unseasoned authors roaming around, some of which have no idea of convention protocol, con organizers have been barring the DIY folks from taking part in programming. This means that you might have the world’s greatest book and make an excellent panelist, but you’re not going to get to sit in the front of the room. Not being able to have potential readers hear you speak, get to know you, makes it unbelievably hard to build your career.

If you were starting your career today, would you self-publish?

Unless I was writing non-fiction, I’d not go self-pub in today’s publishing climate. With the changes in convention rules and the glut of self-pubbed titles floating around, it’s difficult to get any traction. If I was starting today I’d find myself a strong and dynamic small press, one with talented editors, and I’d hone my skills until I was ready to move onto NY. Whether I would receive an advance or not, I wouldn’t have to pay to produce a book that’s nearly impossible to sell.

So the bottom line is…

If you’re repeatedly being rejected by agents or editors, rethink your writing. Join a critique group and perfect your craft. Keep submitting and one day you might hit the jackpot and someone else will pay to produce your book. If you just have to see your book in print NOW, do your research. Determine the exact costs involved in either self-publishing or partnering with a vanity/subsidy press. Factor in the hidden expenses, like Amazon’s 55% cut for each book sold, and check any subsidy press’ credentials. Then step back and ask yourself if having that book in print is worth the cost both in terms of time and money. If so, proceed with extreme caution and create the best book you can possibly produce.

Any resources you can recommend for fledgling DIY authors?

Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishing Manual is a great place to start. There are numerous websites that deal with all aspects of self-publishing, both good and bad. Check out SPAN (Small Publishers Association of North America – SPAN has a wealth of information to share and you can interact with folks who’ve built successful self-publishing careers. Keep an eye on Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors’ listings for current scams. They abound. The trick is to make sure you don’t become a victim.

Any last thoughts?

The majority of author success stories have one thing in common – persistence. It is the rare author who becomes a bestseller overnight. The key is to go at this writing business in a slow and steady way, making course corrections as needed. Go luck and stay safe out there.