Archives for category: Self publishing

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.


Reedsy (via Book Business Insight and Digital Book World) provides this infographic on how to register copyright.

Why to do it though is a different story. Under US copyright law your book is copyright by virtue of its existence. It will always be covered by copyright whatever you do, or don’t do, so some of the ten reasons for registering given here by FindLaw are actually benefits you hold whether you pay your registration fee or not. Registration has one basic benefit: “You can’t sue for copyright infringement or get an order from a judge to make somebody stop using your work unless your work is registered either within the three months after your work is first published, or before the infringement first occurs.” If you worry that such a thing might happen then you should pay your $35 and feel secure.

But note: timing is important.

See also my earlier Copyright registration post.

People will go on about this. In crude terms publishers can be said to have wrested control of pricing back from Amazon, who were allegedly loss-leadering ebooks. Unsurprisingly publishers have an interest in their books (in whatever format) not being sold too cheaply — they are after all all profit seekers, even not-for-profit university presses who, like any publisher, have costs which must be covered if they are to continue in business.

The commentariat often moans about this, mocking publishers for charging so much that nobody’s going to buy their product. The commentariat is mercifully free of any need to cover the costs of creating a book. Its members also gaily play the other side of the street and complain about publishers’ meanness in paying royalties at far too low a rate on ebooks which after all, they claim, have no costs associated with them, so 70% of revenue ought obviously to go to the author. Why should these guys care that they are asking for 30% of lower and lower prices to be all that will keep publishers afloat: after all, they claim, if you lower retail prices sales will increase, so that a 30% piece of the huge pie will represent so much more than the larger current slice of a smaller pie. Sounds like it might be reasonable — except that it’s not. Selling your books for $1.99 may well increase the sale, but it will in almost every instance not increase it enough to compensate for the loss of revenue. An example like the sale at 20p of 250,000 heavily discounted ebook copies of The Life of Pi represents a bonus sale of a book which has already covered its costs with regular print sales. Would that all our books could get to that category: but they don’t.

Sales of ebooks have indeed slowed, and I’m pretty sure the major explanation for this is price. Whatever these commentators think, selling fewer copies at a higher price is not in and of itself a crazy policy. It’s hard to reprice a physical book, but you can switch the price of an ebook up and down as often as you want, and starting off fairly high is the obvious way to go. It’s the time-tried way too: for years publishers tended to publish in hardback and then follow up with a (cheaper) paperback a year or two later. The ebook is just another format, but allows for easy price adjustment as there’s no physical stock that needs to be stickered when the price is changed. But there are costs, and if they are not covered bankruptcy inevitably follows. Such, one often feels, is the animus of the commentariat that this is an outcome that they’d welcome.

Recently we’ve had a flurry of rhetoric driven by a Daily Mail article reporting that Amazon had called for publishers to reduce their ebook prices. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly, and all too typically) this article reports on ideas which come out of the writer’s brain rather than anyone at Amazon’s mouth. The Digital Reader corrects the record. What Amazon was actually advancing was the anodyne and undeniable comment that setting a lower price may well be a good way for an unknown author to get attention. It obviously is. Can we go too low? Of course we can, as The Writers’ Workshop reminds us: the strategy works best when no one else is doing it!

Publishing Perspectives has derived a price list for various publishing services from Reedsy’s data.

  • Developmental Editing: $989
  • Editorial Assessment: $674
  • Copyediting: $703
  • Indexing: $500
  • Query Letter Review: $325
  • Proofreading: $513
  • Book Cover Design: $586

Reedsy Marketplace is an online network of freelance publishing professionals. The numbers above are the median number for each function. More detail can be found at Reedsy’s blog site, where the editing numbers get further broken down by genre and word-count.

I’m not sure what Query Letter Review implies, but it looks to be relatively well remunerated, as indeed are the editorial functions in general as opposed to the basic production ones. I have to imagine that a Query Letter is one pitching a book to a publisher or agent, so no doubt it has to contain a detailed outline which makes it clear why anyone would want to buy the planned book.

Most of us in publishing spend little time thinking about the contracts with authors which form the basis of our stock in trade.

Many publishers use a standard contract, adding any peculiar issues as additional clauses at the end. Big trade books will tend to have contracts negotiated clause by clause by publisher and agent. These will usually cover only a license to publish — in various specified editions. A university press on the other hand may “buy” the copyright from the author in return for royalty payments or a fee. In crude terms this just reflects the relative value of a bestselling novel and an academic monograph. Effectively it means that when the book goes out of print, publishing rights will probably revert to the author in the trade world, while the copyright remains with the academic publisher. An academic publisher will rarely refuse to revert copyright upon being asked though. The arrival of print-on-demand production has affected this part of the contract: if the book never becomes unavailable, rights need never revert. Agents are no doubt tying reversion to a rate of sale now.

You should remember (because we all know this don’t we) that you should always read your contract and would be wise to get legal advice on it. You never know when your book is going to go viral, so think about rights you may be casually giving up. What looks anodyne today may turn out to be a big pain tomorrow. Hergé apparently assigned publishing rights to his work to his publisher in 1942, and this has cast into doubt millions of dollars-worth of merchandising rights. The Digital Reader has the story. As Tintin was first created in 1929, Hergé (1907-83) doesn’t have the excuse that he was a young writer unaware of future demand for his works. Maybe he needed to raise cash in a hurry.

There’s a great deal of aggro in the self-publishing/indie community about the iniquity of publishers and their rapacious contracts. But every deal is a negotiation, and it’s up to authors to keep negotiating if they are unhappy with some of the terms. Sure the power balance favors the publisher: all the more reason to bargain hard. Publishers really have no incentive to be so hard-nosed that they alienate every one of their authors. After all, at the end of the day there are always other publishers, including potentially yourself. Any publisher’s editor will be expected to sign a certain number of books each year: they, as individuals, cannot afford to allow every negotiation to end in acrimony. Sure they’ll push for the most favorable deal they can get: so should the author.

The Authors Guild currently has an initiative under way aimed at revising several of the boilerplate clauses that publishers typically import into their contracts. It stands to reason that standard contracts need to be revised from time to time as new technologies and distribution options alter the shape of our business. Publishers can I think be relied on eventually to respond to market forces, and change clauses in their standard contract which no longer make sense. Much of the frustration in the indie community stems, I think, from the slow pace of change. This may not be desirable, but is surely understandable, especially in cases where the clause needing change is one which benefits the publisher! What looks like rapaciousness is all too often laziness and incompetence. Still, why should an aggrieved author feel better about laziness than greed?

Discoverability is vitally important. On the other hand discoverability is almost irrelevant. Both of these statements are paradoxically true.

Here are two blog posts, each taking the opposite side. The first one, from Publishing Perspectives of 20 March 2013 about Search Engine Optimization and Discoverability tells you you’ve got to do it. This is of course true: if you don’t get the metadata out there nobody on-line will ever be able to find your book.  But as Joe Wikert points out, at The Average Joe, 27 April 2015, there just aren’t people out there saying “Gee, I wish I could discover more content”. So it’s easy to get trapped into thinking discoverability is going to help sell books. It isn’t: but lack of discoverability will surely prevent sales. You’ve got to write a book people want to read. Getting them to realize they want to read it is of course the secret sauce. Having got their attention, then you need to ensure that the people can actually find your book.

See also Metadata and discoverability and Metadata glossary.


There was a flurry of concern a few years ago about agents elbowing in onto publishers’ turf, and getting their clients books printed without the benefit of a publisher. We all seem to have gotten spine-stiffening injections since then, and now one doesn’t find the same panic among publishers. We have always had societies and clubs publishing, and we have become accustomed to bookshops and libraries doing their own printing and publishing. We are now much more relaxed about the fact that anyone at all can publish a book, so why should literary agents be left out.

In 2013 Porter Anderson had a little series of posts about agent-assisted publishing at Publishing Perspectives. Here they are: The first, the second, the third, the fourth, and the wrap-up.

Amanda Luedeke at MacGregor Literary Agency (link via The Passive Voice) says it is now “ridiculously easy for any schmuck to pound out a terrible novel and send it to the best editors” who don’t have the time to read them all. Saying “send your terrible novel to me, you schmuck” hardly seems like a winning marketing slogan, but alienating a few awful authors might not be too damaging I guess.

Agents have long provided an invaluable service to the publishing industry by prescreening manuscripts. It was always a natural step from there to providing editorial services, ranging from rewrite to copy editing and design. And now that typesetting has become virtually (or potentially) a side effect of copy editing, producing press-ready files is clearly a logical progression. So what’s so sensitive about the next step, getting the books printed? If we want to allow an agent to do this task for us, why not? From a publisher’s point of view the beauty of having agents do stuff is that they tend to be paid by authors.

As Ms Luedeke points out the role of agents in publishing is not as an alternative to the Big Five, it’s as a sort of service to authors. Many of these are going to be self published, and can use all the help they can get.  However one wonders why a self-published author would need the services of an agent to negotiate a contract with their self-publisher self. Just shows the twists and turns going on in the business.

Joe Konrath, (in a comment on the following story at The Passive Voice) informs us “Signing with a publisher is like getting into the car with a drunk driver. You really can’t be surprised when they crash and cripple you.” It should not need restating that many authors demonstrably do appreciate having a publisher. They keep getting into the car. Those who don’t share that appreciation have other options now that we’ve “invented” self-publishing, the equivalent perhaps of the bicycle. Isn’t that the end of the story? Apparently not, if you look at the many comments. This sort of excessive hatred of publishers no doubt comes from the exaggerated expectations that some authors have allowed themselves to build up.

Merritt Tierce wrote a well-reviewed novel, Love me back, in 2014 and now bitterly complains at Marie Claire that people have stopped buying her book, something she seems to think is her publisher’s fault. “Publishing is always moving on. Foolish poet that I am, I didn’t realize how hollow that would make me feel. But of course publishing is moving on. Because publishing is also an industry, employing people who need to pay their own utility bills.” The moving on appears to have included issuing a paperback edition the year after the hardback came out, so I don’t think Doubleday can be said to have dumped a disaster. Indeed Ms Tierce discloses that her book sold 12,000 copies, which didn’t earn out her advance — (a nice, generous advance for a first-time author). Some of the comments at The Passive Voice, to be fair, do point out that 12,000 copies for a first novel is actually a rather good performance — certainly not Mr Konrath’s crippling car wreck!

Her problem is “I would like to be paid to write. I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options.” Who wouldn’t sign up for this deal? Heck many of us might sign up for less than that. Indeed many do: it’s called a job in book publishing. Get over it Ms Tierce. It’s not Doubleday who’s forgotten about you, it’s book readers. Let’s assume the 12,000 who bought your book all liked it — what do you expect they should do? Go out and buy a copy of the same book every month? No. Write another. Maybe it’ll sell beyond average expectations just as your first one seems to have done. Maybe it won’t. If the book is good the credit goes to you. Where do you think the blame should go if the book isn’t?

Being a novelist isn’t a job.