Archives for category: Self publishing

Getting a bit of help from a bigger publishing house with the unexciting matters of sales and distribution is almost certainly a good idea for the small independent publishing house.

Here, from Jane Friedman’s blog is an extract from A People’s Guide to Publishing by Joe Biel. I’m not sure you have to take the numbers Mr Biel gives as universally applicable, but there’s no question that outsourcing your sales and warehousing is going to cost you a significant amount. But of course, so will running these operations yourself. The cost of using a distribution partner may tend to look large, possibly because the publisher, seeing many charges from their distributor appearing as as separate invoices, might tend to see them as rather large. But for smaller publishers farming out sales and distribution is almost certainly not going to cost more than doing it for themselves: the full costs of doing these functions independently are hard to visualize — until you get down to budgeting seriously. As soon as a publishing house grows beyond being able to fulfill orders out of the garage, they should consider outsourcing.

Mr Biel locates the origins of distribution subcontracting to 1971, but it has been going on much longer than that. When I started work we had two or three “distribution clients”. Cambridge University Press itself had had its books distributed in the USA by Macmillan since 1890, until, in 1949, they established their own offices in New York and took over warehousing, distribution and sales for themselves.

The good news is that there are now so many publishers and publishing services companies (including Ingram, the book wholesaler) offering these services that setting up a publishing company is easier than ever.

We can all heave a sigh of relief: we are free once again to use the word “cocky” in our book titles. Fallena Hopkins has apparently agreed to cancel her trademarking of the word. The decision is announced by The Cocky Collective as shown. See Inqusitr.

Until Ms Hopkins speaks though, a little breath-holding may still be in order.

See What a cock up for an account of the original trouble.

Let us hope this is the last we have to hear about this silliness — and I mean at both ends. Who’d want to use the word cocky in a book title, and who’d want to gain exclusive access to such a thing? Still, a victory for free speech is always nice.

I’ve often claimed that entry into this business is so much more simple (less expensive) now than it was before the arrival of the internet, and am glad to see this report from Los Angeles Magazine about how this is playing out in LA. (Link via The Digital Reader.)

Turning a manuscript into a book is so laughably straightforward nowadays that it makes old guys like me, who spent a lifetime learning how to do exactly that, seem like simpletons. To “publish” an ebook may take about half an hour (the writing should take longer), and setting it up for print-on-demand manufacture will take an additional few minutes. Selling the damn thing is another story. Contrary to everyone’s assumption, the hard bit of publishing is getting rid of the product. Many authors conclude that traditional publishers abilities in this area are worthwhile, but as we all know many, many self-published authors have broken the barrier and have earned huge profits by figuring out how to reach their audience on their own.

I think the thing that guarantees the future of the book publishing industry is the fact that it is so much easier to publish a book than it is to write one. Thus people who’ve managed to publish their own books successfully will always be tempted to repeat the trick without waiting till they’ve written another decent sized manuscript. Get your friends to write the thing. Offer your expertise to all and sundry. Given time, you too may evolve into a More-or-less-Random House.

I didn’t know we had a term for this now. In hybrid publishing authors subsidize their book (which I suspect often means “pay for the production of”) while the publisher is responsible for producing, distributing, and selling professional-quality books. Authors get some payback on their investment via a higher royalty rate, usually around 50%. In academic publishing we’ve been doing subsidized publishing for aeons thinking of it as grant-assisted publishing, and a hundred years ago profit sharing contracts between authors and publishers were not uncommon. But the self-publishing business seems to have necessitated the invention of this hybrid category. Publishers Weekly gives us a report on a recent Independent Book Publishers Association meeting about hybrid publishing among other topics. The story was relayed by Book Business Insight.

The IBPA produced a set of guidelines earlier this year listing the functions which “define” a hybrid publisher. To be a hybrid publisher you must:

  1. Define a mission and vision for your publishing program
  2. Vet submissions
  3. Publish under your own imprint using your ISBNs
  4. Publish to industry standards
  5. Ensure editorial, design and production quality
  6. Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights
  7. Provide distribution services
  8. Demonstrate respectable sales
  9. Pay a higher-than-standard royalty

Elucidation of item 4 is provided by their Industry Standards Checklist for a Professionally Published Book, all of which seem perfectly sensible.

Nature abhors a vacuum; humans appear to abhor organizational disorder. The disorganization of self publishing has clearly upset many, and we can now see them shaking out the chaotic variety into ordered layers:

  • the really basic self-published book (family histories, wedding albums etc.);
  • the sort of vanity self publishing where sales are not important;
  • “profit seeking” self-publishing, usually ebooks but also print-on-demand;
  • then a layer of “professional” service providers;
  • the hybrid publishers discussed here;
  • indie publishers who finance the publication of books whose authors wish to avoid the traditional sector;
  • small traditional publishers;
  • other traditional publishers;
  • large publishing conglomerates.

Of course, any traditional publisher may perfectly legitimately agree to accept an author subsidy without having to reclassify themselves as hybrid. The borders are porous.

Terminology too: this link to Blackwell’s in the UK shows, I think, that the borderline between hybrid, indie and small traditional falls slightly north (or is it south) of the US one. Before the digital revolution upended everything, we all would refer to small publishers who were not owned by a larger group as independent, thus often indie, publishers. The recent colonization of this term by the self-publishing world has necessitated a tactical nomenclatural withdrawal, at least in the USA.


The target on this topic keeps moving as year succeeds year, but the tale told remains relatively consistent. Self-published authors are doing more and more books and making more and more money. The site Author Earnings tracks all this, (with a bit of rhetorical bias against traditional publishing, though that does not affect the validity of their data) and here I select a few snapshots from the last couple of years to show how things are going.

I don’t know whether this chart is encouraging or not. I guess we might take $50,000 as a sort of decent wage level, and this seems to show that there are almost 3,000 authors reaching that level on the basis of ebook sales alone in 2015. Not too shabby really. Also evident is the way the blue column overtakes the purple one as we focus more and more on recent data.

Author Earnings discuss the results of their research in considerable depth. As they say “The leftmost set of bars in every chart [their piece shows several charts covering different sales levels] includes all authors earning at or above a given level, regardless of their earliest publication date. The left-most purple bar is thus where we’ll find traditional publishing’s longest-tenured and highest-selling authors: names like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Lee Child, David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, and Stephen King.

The left-most blue bar is also worth a mention. Prior to 2009 indie authors were a niche phenomenon, with very limited access to mainstream readers. Six short years later, there are more than half as many indie authors earning steady midlist-or-better incomes from their Kindle ebook bestsellers as there are among ALL traditionally-published authors — even with all of those perennial traditional-publishing name-brand heavyweights, who spent decades atop the old-media best seller lists, also tipping the ebook scales.

So let’s take a look at the other sets of bars, moving across the charts from left to right, because that’s where things start to get really interesting.

When you look only at authors who started publishing less than a decade ago — in 2005 or later — the gap between the numbers of indie and traditionally published authors earning midlist-or-better incomes nearly disappears. Fast work, considering that none of those indies had widespread access to readers until 2010, giving their traditionally-published cohort-mates a five-year head start.

In fact, if we look at only authors who debuted in the “ebook era” — i.e. in 2010 or after — we see a reversal. At each annual earnings level, we find far more indies than traditionally-published authors who debuted in the last 5 years and are now earning that much or more.”

Here from a subsequent Author Earnings 2016 report is a similar chart showing the results at $10,000 for all formats of book.

Author Earnings’ Data Guy points out many authors enjoying significant sales in good-selling categories are not represented in this picture because the data they collect from Amazon is based only on the top 100 in any category*. The 101st book in romance say, may well sell more than most of the books in some other category. Recent moves by traditional publishers to increase the prices of their e-books must at least have led to a decline in unit sales (maybe $ sales also) though one might think its effect would be evident across all the columns. Firm information is this area is naturally rather hard to come by, though this of course doesn’t stop people speculating about trends. The temptation to regard any of this as saying anything about print should be resisted.

Jeff Bezos just revealed in his annual letter to shareholders for 2018 that over 1,000 Kindle Direct Publishing authors earned over $100,000 in royalties in 2017. Wow! How many of traditional publishing’s authors got that much? This chart from Author Earnings 2016 report suggests that it can’t be too many.

No question, self publishing is a category which is growing by leaps and bounds. There still remains a huge market for books from traditional publishers, and there remain thousands of active and aspiring authors who seek the validation of publication by a traditional publishing house.  But will there come a tipping point when the volume remaining for the traditional publishing business is just too small to support their infrastructure? You can’t answer with a definitive “No”, but nevertheless you’d be hard pressed to say “Yes” and believe that that point was likely to come any time soon.

See Author earnings for some individual high earners.


* And doesn’t include data from the old-fashioned bookstore channel plus other non-Amazon sales, which might alter the size of the gaps between them but probably wouldn’t change the relationship of indie/traditional publishing.


Looks like we’ve gone about as far as we can go. Now that we have made just about everything that can be made, a mature capitalism shifts from the making of things towards providing services. Publishing always featured a distressing lack of metal-bashing — we production and manufacturing types would migrate to the end of the operation closest to such physicality — the nearest an editor would get to physicality was reshelving a book! From time to time manufacturing staff would even get to visit a printing plant and admire all that iron being put through its oily paces. Reassuringly we did at least deal in solid physical objects. Now, however, the emphasis is moving away from the tangible and towards the digital. We still manage to keep in touch, thanks to the fact that nowadays publishers have to make both printed books and ebooks simultaneously. But more and more “real” stuff keeps getting away from us, and being farmed out to freelance workers or service companies. I suspect there isn’t any category of publishing work (senior management excepted), which in one company or another you couldn’t find being handled by freelance workers.

Our residual hands-on fix might turn out to be facilitating for self published writers who’d like not to have to do for themselves those activities we have become so good at managing. Should publishers get into providing services to Uncle Tom Cobley and all? Established publishing houses have at various times tried to offer services to self-publishing authors, and while this does all help to spread the overhead costs, it can probably never be a large business as it just doesn’t fit well with the way publishing companies are set up. More likely seems to me to be the increasing freelance-ification and outsourcing of the production side of the book business, leaving publishers with little or no capacity to offer others. Of course one trend feeds the other: as publishers lay off staff in the production area, so more freelance workers become available both to self-publishers and to the very publishing companies that made the lay-offs in the first place. For the bosses, a win-win: no more pesky people getting unnecessary luxuries like paper clips, health-care, pensions and salaries — lots of hungry freelance workers breaking down your doors to do any kind of work on your terms.

See also Plus ça change

Brooke Warner at Huffington Post rather sensationalistically accuses us (book publishers) of discrimination. I’ve no doubt we could do better in our hiring practices, but that’s not what HuffPost is on about. The discrimination here appears to be against self-published authors.

It’s a bit tough to be clobbered because people who refused to solicit your services end up turning out what some observers adjudge a sub-standard product.* Several large publishing companies offer services to independent authors. If they had asked us, we’d have done the job for them; but no, they decided to do things on their own. And now we get blamed for the allegedly bad outcome!

Lots of indie authors choose the self-publishing route for positive, independence-based or money-making reasons. Of course some self-published authors are going down this road because they have not managed to get a traditional publisher to take on their book. There are all too many indie authors who protest vociferously against traditional publishers whom they see as restricting the public’s access to reading material by refusing to accept their books and books by their self-publishing colleagues for publication. There’s an obvious illogicality to this — if the book is available from an indie publisher, in what way is the public’s appetite not being fed? In one sense their complaint may actually be justified: what they are effectively saying is that they are being disadvantaged in market access. Access to bookstores does tend to favor traditional publishers: the book retail business model has after all been built up over a couple of hundred years of business partnership in a form which suits its main participants. The business is based upon established routines of information exchange and broadly standardized methods ordering, invoicing and supply. It’s very hard for an individual author to get anywhere near duplicating this service, but that’s because it’s hard, not because there’s any plot to exclude the individual author/publisher. Just like librarians, booksellers cannot be talking to a sales rep, even if that rep is the author, 24 hours a day.

Random House and its fellow Big Fivers cannot publish every book ever written, though god knows with all this consolidation it looks a bit like they might want to. Any publisher has to discriminate between this book and that book — oops, there’s that word discrimination, but used here in its value-judgement-free sense of choosing between one thing and another. We have to be discriminating about what we publish: capital is not endless; money has to be made off any publication (or at least there has to be a good chance that money will be made) — publishing isn’t a literary charity after all.

This is sort of anti-publishing rant is of these classic ploys of setting up a straw man and then pouring ink all over him to “correct” a non-existent problem. For example “If traditional publishing were holding up a high standard with every book published, I might tone down my firm accusations of wrongdoing here, but instead they’re publishing so many books whose literary merit is questionable at best.” Come on Brooke Warner, if publishers were in business to publish only books of literary merit, things would of course be different. It’s not that we are incompetent, and think that Your Big Book of Dogs has the same amount of literary merit as War and Peace. We are in business to make money, and as long as there are people out there who’ll fork over money for schlock, we’ll be happy to provide it. But we can’t manage all the schlock, just as we can’t manage all the romance, mystery, sci-fi etc.

“The industry is promoting a singular message, and they’re banded together in their efforts to keep an entire group of authors out, based on a singular criteria” [if it’s singular, it’s criterion, Brooke] — “They’re united around the belief that if a publisher at a major house does not deem your work worthy that you are not worthy of receiving a fair review, of entering your work into a contest to be judged (fairly, ostensibly on the merit of the work), or of being a member of an association that touts itself as promoting writers’ interests.” Whoever “they” are and that sinister “industry” in which they are co-conspiritors, they are of course not really banding together to exclude anyone. They are all individuals and individual companies, making their own judgements and discriminations. How are readers meant to discriminate between good books and bad ones? If some of them come up with a quick-and-dirty conclusion that life is too short to look at every book, and the simplest way to cut is to disregard books from publishers whose name you don’t recognize, does that really amount to a plot? If you’ve written a self-published book of course you’d wish that The New York Times would give it a review. I’ve no doubt that 99% of the authors of Random House books might join you in that same wish. The fact is that very few books ever make it into the review media. There’s just too little space and too many titles.

The long and the short of it is that there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have self publishers and traditional publishers. They effectively represent different markets. For one segment to hurl insults at the other is a bit like people who prefer to fly from New York to Washington characterizing those who go by train as idiots.


* Let it not be assumed that I believe self-published books to be axiomatically sub-standard. Many of them are first-rate and any publisher would leap at the chance of publishing them — as is clearly illustrated by the many instances in which exactly this has happened after the book’s initial success as a self-published book. However, understandably perhaps, given a universe into which anyone can publish anything, an assumption has grown that many self-published books are not of the first rank of quality. Winnowing this immense output in order to find the ones you might be able to sell in your bookstore is a task which would take more time than anyone has available.

Lots of books were published by the author him/herself back in the 18th century and earlier. The big difference between this and current self publishing is that in the past only wealthy people, or authors who could gather subscriptions from wealthy patrons could do this. Blake, though he had his backers, differed from most in that he did much of the production work himself. Now of course it costs next to nothing to get your book out there.

The “patron” might be an institution: at school we used German Grammar Notes, locally-printed by Titus Wilson in Kendal, a book arranged for, and written by, our German teacher A. E. Hammer. It was alleged that you could set your clock by Jack Hammer’s advance upon the school every morning alongside the cricket field: a kind of Yorkshire Immanuel Kant (Mr Hammer was a German too). Many years later, long after I’d left the school, a pukka edition of German Grammar Notes* was published by Harraps. We also had a locally produced French vocabulary picture book, compiled by J.H. Bruce Lockhart, an earlier headmaster of the school. I still tend to intone “une barbe de trois jours” when glimpsing myself unshaven in a mirror: B-L’s illustration showed a rather disreputable tramp — in those days you didn’t forget to shave. Apparently Strunk and White: The Elements of Style started out in life in the same way at Cornell. I’ve just been given a newly published illustrated tribute edition, signed by the illustrator, so I live in hope for Jack Hammer’s work. I long to see illustrated the “constellation” — that raucous party of three or four German verbs who at the end of a lengthy sentence, in long-anticipated bibulous song, together their voices may be found to have joined.

Until recently we had vanity publishing — for those who couldn’t collect enough cash from patrons, and were unable to find a publisher to front the cost. Vanity presses collected fees from authors and brought out their books in short-back-and-sides fashion. They were thus named because they’d take on anything regardless of quality — most such things being published to massage authorial vanity. Despite this prejudice, it must be the case that some good books made their way into the world by this route. The books were made available, rather than “published”, and any success would (as so often) depend on the author’s promotional vigor. It may be true to say that the main change this area is a change of nomenclature: surviving vanity presses have transformed themselves into independent publishers or publishing services companies.

Let us not forget that subset of patron-funded books which might be described as club books. One often meets these as cookbooks published by schools, churches, charitable groups. I even have one “Published by the Employees of Oxford University Press”, important as containing the recipe for Joellyn Ausanka’s locally famous Apricot Pecan Bars, which apparently evolved from her mother’s Date Walnut Bars recipe. Club publishing shades into such things as learned societies and academic research groups: one might include the Royal Society’s early publications, and certainly groups like the Roxburghe Club.

Paul Murphy at Huffington Post has some interesting comments about author earnings. Frankly I’m surprised that “almost a third of published authors earn less than $500 (£350) a year.” Does this not have to mean that ⅔ earn more than $500? That’s the bit that really surprises me. I think there must have been massive undercounting especially in the self-published ranks.

A couple of years ago McGill University’s Book History Group held a conference under the title “Self-publishing in 18th-century Europe : a comparative approach” lead by Dr. Marie-Claude Felton. You can listen to her talk on this topic at The Bodleian here. She tells us that in 1731 in London 30% of the pages typeset at one printing house were paid for directly by the author, while 31% of the books published in Paris in 1786-87 were entirely published by the author (financed and distributed). In fact these numbers may well understate the extent of self publishing: Alexander Pope self-published The Dunciad, although the book carries no indication of this. Obviously there might be many other instances where we do not have secondary evidence as we do from Pope’s correspondence.

Selling your book by yourself could be a complicated matter in the days before street numbers. Here’s Dr Felton’s showing of an involved set of “place of publication” directions for people wanting to buy M. Duplessis’ Archives mytho-hérmetiques.

See also Author as publisher.


* Still available, in a sixth edition:


The sheet is designed with a shape which enables it to fit a battledore, or hornbook.

He that ne’er learns his ABC, for ever will a Blockhead be. So hearken you writers. Ruth Harris brings us (via The Digital Reader) an Authors’ alphabet. It has lots of links which should prove useful to self-publishers.

Oregon State University Press has a publisher’s alphabet. Maybe I should try one too.

  • A is for author, the bane of your life.
  • B is for bully — the same or his wife.
  • C is for contract that sews it all up.
  • D’s for delivery when you find it’s a pup.
  • E is for editor, reading the books;
  • F’s for the curses she makes as she looks.
  • G is for galley where we check out the type.
  • H for hysteria. Marketers all just love hype.
  • I’s for the index you forgot to get done.
  • J is for JSTOR — isn’t digital fun?
  • K is for black ink, how we use it, oh my.
  • L is for List price — folks’ll say it’s too high.
  • M’s for masterpiece — with a great deal of luck.
  • N’s for neglect — books do often suck.
  • O is for out of print — now we relax.
  • P is for payments: royalties, wages, and tax.
  • Q is for quire. Never quite sure what it means:
  • R is for ream — 100 quires make 5 reams.
  • S is for book seasons: Spring, Winter and Fall.
  • T is for text font — don’t make it too small.
  • U’s for under-recovery — curse all overhead!
  • V is for volume — all too often unread.
  • W’s for waste. We trash many a lousy book.
  • X is for Xeroxing — how editorial training is took!
  • Y is for yapp — overlapping cover flaps.
  • Z marks the end: books replaced by apps?

Looking back over this I notice how cynical and pessimistic it is. Melpomene obviously took off on me. However, I insist, I remain the most cock-eyed of optimists about our business.


Knowing what you want to say, seeing it clearly in your head, and then just letting it rip at the keyboard may work with an essay (or a blog post), but with a book the length of the project will mean that sooner or later the words you just wrote will inevitably begin to influence your next line of thought, and soon you’ll be veering off on tangents on tangents. Writing an outline is something every author should confront sooner or later. Sooner’s better, as thinking it through will help you clarify your aims in your own mind. It’s also better because if changes are suggested, they are easier to implement before the passage in question has been written in full.

But it seems so cold and final. Much nicer to let your inner Heathcliff drive you along wherever he wants. Still, beware; if you want to get a publisher on-board, you’ll need to write a proposal indicating why the book’s needed and why you’re the one to fill the void. An outline will be a necessary part of that process: so you’re going to have to do it anyway — may as well get it done as early as possible when it’ll be of most help to you. So all writers, even self-publishers (perhaps especially self publishers who won’t have to go through the disciplinary step of satisfying an agent or editor), will end up benefitting from having to make a thorough outline.

Help is provided by a wide range of sources. This article from Publishing Talk by literary agent Sarah Such focusses on the writing of the outline. A more business-oriented tack is taken by Jane Friedman.