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What is Self-Publishing?

Posted in Just for Writers, and Publishing

Image of logo for Pennwriters.orgA presentation for The Inkwell,
a gathering of writers from


I’m a writer of fantasy and science fiction stories. I wrote and published my first novel in 2012, and I currently have 9 novels in 3 series, short stories, and book bundles – 23 titles now, with 3 more novels expected for 2018.

I have always been a self-publisher – what is known as an “independent author” (indie) – and wouldn’t dream of mortgaging my ordinary rights to an agent or traditional publisher. I publish in ebook, print, and audiobook, and I’ve just commissioned my first translation. My books are published worldwide through dozens of retailers and a handful of distributors. You can find my books online anywhere.

I’m just an ordinary author with an ordinary following in my genre, making ordinary proceeds – not any sort of superstar or major bestseller. I started this business while I was employed full-time, and now I’m retired and able to devote more time to it.

Books as manufactured goods

You can take 200 of your family’s recipes, do them up in a word processor, and take the file to your local book-printer and have them run up 100 bound copies for you to sell or give away to friends and family.

Church groups do something like this all the time, to raise money. Corporations publish their annual reports in glossy hardbound editions for handouts at meetings.

Your collection of recipes — that’s a book. But it’s not part of the book trade. No one can order it online. It’s not in any bookstore (unless your local shop decides to take a few on consignment and add them to the “local region” section, because you asked them to.) It doesn’t have an ISBN number, that fundamental identifier that distinguishes one book from every other book in the world and lets it be ordered from anywhere.

This is not what we mean by “self-publishing.”

Vanity Presses

Vanity publishers, like the notorious Author Solutions, are predatory organizations that take advantage of would-be authors. They make their money by selling services, including unnecessary ones, at tremendous markups, upselling as many of their service offerings as possible, and then producing some form of book product, often badly-edited, poorly formatted, and ill-covered, distributed somewhere obscure.

Since their revenue does not come from book sales, they don’t care what quality of writer buys their services, and are not much concerned with the quality of the products they produce.

Many are even worse – downright crooks who take the money and run, and then pop up again under a different name. It’s common to hear of some grandmother who’s written a memoir who pays thousands of dollars to see it become a book (of some kind), if she actually receives a book at all before she gives up. See for some horror stories about vanity presses and some fraudulent small publishers. Here’s an excellent overview of one of the worst of the vanity presses: Author Solutions.

This is certainly not what we mean by “self-publishing,” though ill-researched news articles sometime confuse vanity presses with self-publishers.

Small Publishers

These are miniature versions of the large Traditional Publishers. They have a submission process, take ownership of some part of your copyright (as much of it as they can for as long as they can), and make most of the editing and cover and pricing and distribution decisions. They do some marketing (not necessarily including your suggestions) and may require some marketing from you (e.g., author websites, book signings). Some may charge you for setup services (fees for a cover, for example).

They make their money from sales, so at least they are aligned with your interests, unlike vanity presses, and are only interested in acquiring manuscripts that they think will sell well that fit their catalogues and publishing calendar. You receive a percentage of the sales, usually quite small, and you may or may not receive an initial advance against those revenues.

There is usually language in the contract about how long they can hold your copyrights, or under what conditions you can ask for your rights back (rights reversion).

Like all traditional publishers, there are many horror stories about the contracts they use, which typically lock up far more rights than they need for much longer than they need, for not very much return to the author. If you get to them via an agent, then you have introduced yet another parasite who (for a one-time service) will take another 15% of your income for the life of the deal.

The big difference between the large publishers and the small/micro presses is that the former stay in business better than the latter. A one-man micro-press is vulnerable to death/succession woes that a larger company can weather. A one-woman micro-press can rob the incoming royalties to pay emergency medical bills, and then vanish. The “writer beware” link above will give you some examples to read about.

This is far from “self-publishing.”

So, what IS self-publishing?

The author (“self”) produces a manuscript, takes it through all the stages that turn it into a completed product, and launches it into the book trade in a way indistinguishable from any other book. In return, the author retains all the rights and receives all the sales royalties.

The author does all the work (or pays for parts of it to be done), takes all the decision risks, and gets all the benefit.

Sounds simple, and it is – but there are a lot of details.

Self-publishing is nothing new – this is how many authors used to get their work published.

Prior to circa 2010, this was a much harder activity. You could buy ISBNs, you could get manuscripts cleaned up and ready to go (buying editorial services where required), but how did you engage formatting services (print editions and the new technical ebook editions), how did you produce print editions without incurring capital investment and inventory costs, and how did you get to retailers?

The industry really took off when Amazon and others launched usable ereader devices and made it possible for authors to reach them directly (an end-run around the book trade’s distribution methods) and get paid directly. More service providers quickly followed, offering broad distribution (using the tools of the book trade), formatting services, and audiobook-creation services. A veritable forest of freelancers and companies offering to create industry-quality covers sprang up. At the same time, the improvement in quality for POD (Print On Demand) made inventory-less print editions a reality.

Today’s self-publisher has a mix of skills and expertises (beyond the manuscript production). They learn to do as much of it as they can themselves (to save money or to learn enough to supervise others), and they look at their books as investments.

Costs and rewards

Here’s an example of how to think about self-publishing financially.

I write fantasy and science fiction, mostly novels.

Each book has an investment cost: covers, setup fees at distributors, etc. And each book has a creation cost (hours to write, edit, etc.) at some nominal wage amount.

I use $25/hr as a labor cost, for calculating what it costs to produce the book. (That’s a wage of $52K/yr). In principle, I could be spending my time at a job, after all.

I do the editing, formatting, and cover creation myself, and pay for background art for the covers. I do all my own website work, go to a few retailers directly, and use distribution services for the rest.

So, I’m an extreme example of doing just about all of it myself (my background in computer technology, photography, and music is valuable). Still, since I “charge” myself for the hours it takes me, it’s not very different in valuing the investment than if I paid a freelancer to do it instead.

Looking at one ordinary mid-series novel of 121000 words, I spent 214 hours on it ($5600). I also spent a little actual cash initially, and a little more each year for annual distribution charges or for changes (like a new cover). By now, 5 years after it was published, that’s a lifetime total of $623 out of pocket. Let me repeat that – every actual dime I spent over 5 years is around $600, for a book which has earned about $2600 so far. Some years it will earn less (not actively marketed), some years it will earn more (advertising, new cover), but in any case, my new ongoing investment is small, and it just keeps on producing.

Each year, that book sold some units and I made some money. Each year, the money I made as a percentage of my overall investment (cash & labor) in that book varied, ranging from 23% to 2%.

That same book is part of two book bundles (as ebooks) which cost me almost nothing to produce, since it’s just a repackaging of the existing book. For a labor investment of $225 to make the ebooks and no other costs, I’ve earned more than $670 already.

Over time, I produce several books (today I have 9 novels and 10 short stories, which make up into 23 titles (bundles, collections, etc.)). Each of those books has an investment cost and an income.

Think of this like a variable annuity. My minimum annual target is 10% or better, for all my work altogether, both the older works and the brand-new ones. That’s not a bad annual return for any sort of investment, especially since the lion’s share of that investment is my own labor.

That’s like saying “I spend X amount of hours valued at $25/hr” and “Y amount of dollars”, and I earn 10% ongoing for that investment, year after year after year.

I do have other costs, of course – websites, continuing education, office expenses, advertising – but those are for the business as a whole, not for an individual book. That’s my “nut,” as they say in business modeling, as in I have to make a profit on the goods I sell and enough extra to “cover my nut”. The “nut” is usually a stable and predictable amount that doesn’t change much no matter how many books you have, so the business as a whole becomes more and more profitable as you fill up your inventory of titles by writing and publishing.

Skills needed

If you hand your manuscript to a traditional publisher, you’re done – you won’t get any more input into cover, descriptive data, positioning, or distribution, and you won’t get those rights back for a long time.

They do quite a bit to it and keep most of the earnings. You can do most of that yourself these days, once you learn how, and keep all the control (and earnings).

Task Pay for It
Freelance/Direct cost
Do It Yourself
Developmental edit (advice on plot holes, tightening things up, restructuring, etc.) $500-1000 Learn how or trade services
Copyedit (proofreading) $200-500 Learn how or trade services
Industry identifiers (ISBN, Library of Congress, CIP) $200 or less $200 or less
Copyright registration (optional) $35 $35
Marketing preparation: metadata, keywords, genre, book description, pricing, website listing Learn how Learn how
Cover creation $200-500 $200-300
Format for print $200 Learn how
Format for ebook $200 Learn how or trade services
Create audiobook (optional) $1000-2500

or revenue share

Self-narrate, self-produce
Review copies/paid reviews $400 (Kirkus) Marginal utility
Printing & warehousing initial inventory NA (POD) NA (POD)
Distribution (print, ebook) $50 title setup plus
% of royalty
$50 title setup
Marketing Variable Variable

What do I spend?

  • Editing – I do my own. There are automated tools that help with some of the proofreading.
  • Industry identifiers. I invested in a batch purchase of ISBNs once I was sure I would write several books, so my ISBNs cost $1 each (for a significant upfront investment). My total cost per book is about $65 for elaborate and scholarly data on the copyright page.
  • Copyright registration – I spend the $35.
  • Marketing prep – do it myself.
  • Cover creation – I buy background art to order, and add all the other elements myself.
  • Format for print & ebook – I do it myself.
  • Audiobook – I narrate them myself. My first was done with a commercial studio. Then I bought gear and will produce the rest myself.
  • Reviews – I don’t buy review services. I get reviews from readers.
  • Printing/warehouse – I buy a few copies from my POD vendor to keep around for when I go to shows or want to sell signed copies.
  • Distribution — $12/year/title

My out-of-pocket cost for a typical novel for ebook & print is $250 for cover art, $100 for ids and copyright registration, $12 (annually) for distribution = $362. Plus putative labor cost. That’s all.

How can you find out more?

Unlike most traditionally-published authors, whose contracts prevent them from speaking about the terms of their deals, the independent author community (having no such restrictions) is extremely communicative, and there’s a strong sense of responsibility to help new members find their way in the profession.

There are many organizations that are oriented to helping newcomers, and most are free, commonly set up as Facebook groups. The one I like best is a mixed group of professional UK and American authors called the Alliance for Independent Authors (ALLi) at A typical Facebook post there is someone asking a question about how to do something, followed by lots of helpful responses from other members for guidance. They charge money ($99/year) for access to their full site and their Facebook page. On the other hand, they also provide valuable discount codes for services you want to use – for example, their discount code for Ingram saves me $45 in setup fees for each title with a print edition, so when I publish more than one book per year, that alone pays for my membership. (Full disclosure – if you end up joining ALLi, and use my affiliate code which is 949, I’ll get a finder’s fee.)

I participate in several of the writer-oriented Facebook groups, but the only organizations I pay money for are ALLi (above) and my genre organization (SFWA – Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Most genre organizations, who initially refused to recognize and admit independent authors, have by now constructed some sort of path to admission for them, usually based on a record of minimal sales (they don’t take aspiring authors, mostly, but (self-)published ones – so you have to have a record of publications and earnings).

There are a great many online courses and (of course) books that offer detailed guidance. Search on “Self-Publishing” on Amazon.

I’m also happy to personally help answer questions for the local community of writers. I volunteered to make this presentation in a spirit of spreading the word, so please feel free to email me with questions.

You will also find some help on the website I use for my writing colleagues, There is one blog area for ordinary news, and a separate blog area called “Just for Writers” ( that specializes in technical articles about topics of interest to self-publishers (at varying levels of technical depth).

A copy of this presentation as an Adobe PDF file can be found here: What is Self-Publishing

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  1. An amazing – and amazingly detailed – business plan.

    I have thought about joining ALLi, but only occasionally (I’m working on my second book, do everything myself, and don’t know if it’s worth the annual fee to someone with only one book on the market).

    If I do, I will certainly use your code.

    Paying yourself $25 an hour sounds rather low, though. If you would do it anyway because of your love of writing, then that is nominal. Hard to measure the worth of ‘heart and soul.’

    Are you doing Ingram hardcovers?

    March 4, 2018
    • No hardcovers yet, though since it’s POD there’s no reason not to. I’ve just had more urgent priorities on my list. I will get to it. 🙂

      $25/hr is an arbitrary sort of rate. I spent many years at double that but realistically, considering the current impossibility of getting a job at my age, that’s no longer relevant. I feel strongly you have to charge something for your labor in order to properly evaluate the financial choices between doing something yourself and paying someone else, and so the $25/hr is more in line with what a freelancer might charge.

      March 4, 2018
  2. Great post. I like the fact you factor your own time into the expense of self publishing. Makes perfect sense, but surprising how few authors (myself included) actually do that. How do you manage to do your own proofreading? I’m hopeless and miss tons of errors.

    March 5, 2018
    • It’s a process of several steps for me.

      1) There are automated editors, such as AutoCrit, which are good for entire classes of errors that are hard for a human to find, especially for repeated words (“the the”) or words used multiple times in a short stretch of text.

      2) Do your first proofread on hard-copy, in a DIFFERENT page size than your manuscript so that it flows across the lines/pages at different spots.

      3) Format the ebook, then read it on an ereader.

      4) Read (mumble) it out loud. You’ll be amazed how many errors pop out that way that are otherwise invisible. It’s because you can’t go any faster than you can speak, and that keeps your eye from gliding over the prose. And, of course, it uses a different part of your brain to evaluate whether or not there’s a mistake.

      5) If you’re particularly stubborn, try reading it in reverse order, if you can stand it. Anything to break the hold that the “reading trance” has which ignores errors in favor of flow.

      The point is to use different views/parts of your brain with each of these processes to keep squeezing the errors out. There will still be some stubborn survivors when you’re done, but…

      I remember the first time I spotted a typo in an Oxford University Press book, in the 1990s. It felt like the end of an era. 🙂

      March 5, 2018

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