Self-Publishing Basics: Four Ways to Publish Your Book

by | Oct 13, 2009

Okay, you’ve sweated over your manuscript, you’re finished with your re-writes, and it’s time to leave the dark of the writer’s solitude for the bright wide open world of readers just waiting for your book. But how will you get your book into print? How will you publish?

Not so long ago, “getting published” meant one thing and one thing only. You would somehow find a way to get a contract from a publishing house—probably located in New York City—and then wait for them to create a book from your manuscript.

This was never an easy task and, with the consolidation in the book publishing industry, continues to become more difficult with each passing year.

But now there are more options than ever. Before you take the first step down the road to publication, perhaps you should look at the map, and see exactly where that road divides, and where the path you’ve decided to follow will lead you. To help you choose your path, here are the four basic (very simplified, to be sure) options you have to get “published.”

1. Traditional Publishing

Most books produced by traditional publishing houses are brought to them by literary agents, and many acquisition editors prefer to deal with agents on all acquisition matters. For the prospective author, then, the chief task becomes acquiring an agent who understands the book, has had experience with the market for which the book is intended, maintains contacts with the relevant editors who publish for that market, who has integrity when dealing with authors, and who will arrange a sale to a publisher that benefits the author.

Unfortunately, there are far fewer agents than there are publishing houses, or acquisitions editors. This means that it can be an arduous task to find an agent to represent you and your book. By far the best way to meet an agent who might be a good fit for you is to be referred by one of their successful authors. This is not as rare as you might think, and if you have good contacts within your field, it pays to pursue this avenue.

Traditional publishers will offer a contract and perhaps an advance against the eventual royalties your book will earn. Depending on how the contract is worded—and many are different in these regards—you will receive somewhere between 8% and 12% of either the retail price or the wholesale price.

You will have to give up the reproduction rights to the book, and you may be required to release the electronic, first subsidiary, foreign translation, and other rights to the publisher. You may or may not have any control over the development of the manuscript and the final look of the finished book. The publisher will decide how to market the book, and will rely on you, your contacts, and your own marketing efforts as an intrinsic part of the marketing plan for your book.

They will attempt to distribute the book as widely as feasible, and may be able to place your book—if appropriate—into thousands of bookstores around the country, and create public relations opportunities with major media. The publisher will decide when your book no longer warrants any efforts to market it, and may put it out of print within one to two years of initial publication, depending on the sales your book has achieved.

Recommendation: If you believe your book can be a large-scale blockbuster, that Hollywood directors will line up to option your book, or you have already been on Oprah, this is the path for you.

2. Cooperative Publishing

Although not as well known as other avenues to getting into print, the cooperative publishing model has a lot to recommend it for the right book. Although many publishers who produce books cooperatively don’t advertise that fact, it is advantageous for the right book and the right publisher.

In this model, a publisher who is already issuing books in your market, and who knows how to sell to that market, may offer you a contract different from the normal publishing contract. They will be interested in books that complement their existing line, and will have pretty high standards in both content and writing style for the kinds of books they will consider.

You will be asked to pay a publication fee, to cover some of the publisher’s upfront expenses and, when the books are printed, you will be asked to pay the printer’s invoice. In exchange for this investment—and these fees and printing costs can typically run to $5,000 or more—the publisher will take over all the functions that a traditional publisher provides.

In addition, rather than receive a royalty, you become the equity partner with the publisher in the profits generated by your book. So instead of 8% or 10% of the retail price, you will earn, for example, 50% of the profit. This arrangement removes the financial risk for the publisher, since all costs are substantially covered by the author, and it gives you the cachet and the editorial, production, and marketing capacities of the publishing house.

As an author you will still be responsible for helping to market your book but, with your equity participation, this is much more like a business venture for you and can justify your spending more time and expense to sell your book.

Recommendation: If you are a non-fiction author in a specific niche, and you can identify smaller publishers who aggressively service your field, you may find a great fit with one of those publishers, allowing you to concentrate on writing and selling your book, leaving everything else up to your publishing partner.

3. Subsidized or “Vanity” Publishing

In this publishing model, you pay to have your book published. Although you might pay a fee to a Cooperative Publisher, you and the publisher become partners in the success of the book. With subsidized publishing, you pay for a service only, since the company you will deal with has no need to actually sell any books. Their profits are derived only from authors, and this is why they have traditionally been known as “vanity” publishers.

You will contract with a company that may appear to be a traditional publisher, or with one of the ever-sprouting “Self-Publishing” websites. These companies follow two basic models; either you will pay a fee for the design, typesetting and production of your book, or you will pay a high price for any copies of the book you purchase.

In addition, you will be offered numerous “packages” of services including manuscript editing, marketing, premium interior or cover design, press release mailings, listings in industry directories, illustration, and so on. Each extra service will accrue an additional fee, and these fees can quickly add up to thousands of dollars.

When your book is printed, you will receive somewhere between 1 and 25 copies of the book, although the publisher may claim to print more that they are “holding” against future demand.

Most of the website-centered publishing services companies that offer these services also claim to distribute your book with the aim of furnishing copies to eventual buyers through “print on demand” technology. However, this distribution usually amounts to a listing in a database and nothing more (unless, of course, you purchase an additional “package”).

Since these companies derive all their profit from authors, there are no barriers to “acceptance.” The actual work of these companies is much easier to understand if you think of them more as manufacturers than publishers, and yourself more as a customer than as an author.

Books produced through this option may be well written, or they may be trash. It makes no difference to the “publisher” since they are actually just manufacturing products, not publishing per se.

Recommendation: If you would like to print up copies of a cookbook for gifts or fund-raising, or print a book solely for distribution within your company and you have the staff to do it well, this can be a viable option. As with all manufacturing, ignore the hype and compare on price.

4. Self-Publishing

Simply put, this path to publication is when the author decides to also become the publisher of his book.

As such, the author will form a publishing company of his own. He will obtain his own ISBN range, so book databases will recognize his company as the publisher of the book. The author now becomes responsible for all the functions usually provided by the publisher.

The author will need to provide—or contract for—editorial, interior and cover design, proofreading, illustration, indexing, proofing and manufacturing, warehousing if books are produced by offset printing, order fulfillment and shipping, accounting, marketing, publicity and sales. The author has gone from a lone worker in front of a screen, to a replacement for a multi-function, complex business designed to acquire, create, produce, and sell a product.

To address this daunting challenge the self-published author will need to educate herself about all the areas mentioned above, and will need to become familiar with the practices of the publishing industry and the bookselling trade. She will need to learn where to place her advertising dollars, how best to launch a new book into the headwind of the nonstop news cycle, and every other function that bears on the publishing of her book.

The self-publisher who is serious about making the transition to profitability will usually use free-lance contractors to accomplish these myriad goals. She will hire a professional editor, a book designer, and a public relations or marketing professional. She will contract for the proofing and printing of her book, and will run her own book review campaign and author tour. She will recreate the infrastructure of a publishing company, but devote it all to one book.

Recommendation: For niche non-fiction authors, authors with a strong existing “platform” from which to sell books directly to buyers, and for those who are energized by the prospect of marketing themselves and their ideas 24/7, self-publishing can be a rewarding path.

So, Who Are You?

I think it should be obvious by now that these paths diverge widely, although each will lead to “publication” of a kind. What’s really critical here is your own self-examination. Why did you write your book? Who did you hope would read it? How central to your life is this book likely to be? What would you define as success with your book?

It’s only by answering these questions, either alone or in consultation with a book publishing professional, that you can come to a rational decision about which path is right for you.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Hadassah Harper

    Hello! I recently have been looking into self-publishing (not just for myself, but also for my sister, who is writing a memoir). I stumbled upon this site while trying to get another opinion and have found the information shared here to be very insightful.

    I was wondering what your thoughts were about online direct publishing is. There are several platforms that have been highly recommended (CreateSpace, Kindle Direct, LuLu, IngramSpark, etc.). Have you ever used one of these platforms? And which have you found to be the best way to go?
    (I realize this post is a few years old, so I hope this comment is seen)

    Best of wishes and God bless.
    Hadassah H.

      • Mark Twen

        CreateSpace – GREAT!!!
        Ingram asks for money
        Lightning Source-

    • Mark Twen

      LULU is horrible agency! DON’T deal with them. Every time you make little or any changes, they charge you !! They will be printing your book and sending it to you for a prove. It is their way of making money, when you make nothing!~

  2. wally

    Hello! I am 5-8ths finished hand writing a true story about my 60plus years with a severe stutter .I did well to overcome the down falls of being abnormal,bullying harassment etc.My greatest contribution is that through serendipity 7 years ago I found a way to improve my speech dramatically,without the use of drugs, electronics hypnosis etc.I plan to self-publish Wally

  3. Allen Smith

    I’ve been approached by someone who has worked in the publishing industry for years and has formed her own company called Relentlessly Creative Books. My manuscript is done and ready to go and she’s interested in taking it on. According to her, she will get the book into production (design, cover design, ISBN, registration, etc.) at NO COST to me. Then, may ask for 50% of certain marketing fees, provided that we both agree upon them. In essence, we’d be partners in the book. Most likely, she’ll take a 50% share of the royalties.

    Have you ever heard of anything like this? It doesn’t sound like any of the traditional models. After experiencing the frustration of book marketing, I desperately need someone who’s connected and can get by book in front of the right people. Book production is the easier part. What do you think?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Allen, it used to be called “partnership publishing” in a slightly different form. I don’t see anything against it. If the publisher is putting in the money to bring the book to market, they will have a vested interest in making it successful. So it really depends on your evaluation of this specific publisher, their track record, and the referrals of other authors they have worked with. With proper vetting, it could be a good situation.

      • Allen Smith

        Thanks, Joel. This will be my third book. Everyone of the deals has been different than the one before. I just want to make sure that I’m not stuck at the airport when my ship comes in. :-)

  4. Danny

    What about first time fiction writers? I’m currently working with a publishing consultant

  5. surendra sharma

    Wish to publish my Hindi Literature Poems and Lyrics book and would like to see your help.

  6. Silvia Beck Speyer

    Very interesting- I published my children’s book (I also illustrate my books), with CREATESPACE and am very pleased with them. Very helpful company. Always responding immediately. I am having a book-signing shortly and will take my book to schools, gift shops etc. It will be fun to see my book distributed. It is also on AMAZON and all outlets. The problem is to make the book visible- the recent press release should help – but who knows. I certainly would not publish books if I had to rely on making money this way! But I love to see my brainchild come to life and keep on going. CREATESPACE is not as expensive and a company owned by AMAZON- i think I am in good hands….

    • Mark Twen

      CREATESPACE is the BEST among all and FREE!!

  7. Bing

    I’ve spent the last 15 years in reasearch and 2 more in placing the information in book form to produce 2 volumes of an historical reference work. I am about 60 days away from having everything ready for publishing. I am not an academic; not a tenured prof. Just a recent retiree who has always loved history. I am completely new to this world…I mean completely! I just happend to come across your excellent site and am very glad I did. However, after reading the above, Proceed with Caution, and all of the comments and replies, I think I’m going to chunk the whole deal. Who on God’s green earth can you really trust? I am amazed at the folks who actually have the money to pay someone else to salvage their mistake and start over! I have one bit of money for this venture and that’s it; so wherever it goes, it better work or I’m done. It’s easy to say, “educate yourself,” but this monster seems so big and it eats money! If I’m in that much danger of throwing the money away, I’d rather throw it at a little round while ball at Hilton Head, rather than give it to some scam artist who would ultimately be the one to have all the fun with it and probably get my tee times to boot. This publisher hunt was exciting when I started a few days ago, but, after reading here, I don’t trust a blessed soul. I’m sure there are some good ones out there, but how in the world can a novice find them and be sure? Anyone can create a good-sounding website.


  8. Rosemarie

    iUniverse is owned by Xlibris? Did they take your rights? I am sure you can sue…
    I was interviewed recently on an internet radio show, but I am still looking into companies. In my research, iUniverse was suggested, but I will beware…thanks, guys…

  9. nikki broadwell

    I have a lot of interviews on my blog with people who have self-published using various companies.

    • Rosemarie

      I am having trouble finding this information.

      • nikki broadwell

        check in the archives for the interviews–if you google authorinprogress I think you will find my blog.

  10. Rosemarie

    Joel, can you please suggest the better self publishers, like iUniverse, Trafford, Author House? Thanks.

    • Gary

      iUniverse and one other use the same platform and are owned by the same company. be aware!!

      • Rosemarie

        Is iUniverse not to be trusted?

  11. Gary

    I made a critical mistake using Xlibris to assist in my self-publishing. Although the internet is full of warnings, the sales representative assured me that all those complaints were a thing of the past. Wrong. Calls go unanswered, emails are not responded to and my book, which is already on various book selling websites as available, is being held hostage with no where to turn to. Despite assurances that I was to get dozens of copies of my book, I can’t get one unless I pay retail.

    You are forewarned!!

    • nikki broadwell

      Thanks for this, Gary. I am trying to decide what direction to take for my fantasy trilogy–I will avoid Xlibris.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I’m truly sorry, Gary. The best revenge is to write another book and do it yourself. Get your rights back from xLibris if you can.

  12. Glen

    Well and good. But what about people who write fiction and may not have an outright Hollywood blockbuster of a manuscript?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Since this was written, Glen, there’s been a big movement by novelists to e-books, which represent a really good way to get your work out there and see what the response is. That may, in the end, be the “5th way.”

  13. Rosemarie Monterosso

    Hi. Thanks for the information. Most of it, I am already aware of, though the cooperative publishing is something I would like to know more about it. It seems like self/subsidy publishing, i.e. iUniverse, etc….so what I really need help with is choosing a publisher such as this one. I have been published in a magazine and also as a journalist and theater critic but I received a sign to do something with my talent as a whole and specifically as a book. Please suggest the best cooperative/self publishers that you know. Thanks.

  14. Pat Newcombe

    I like the article – it’s very informative although I, personally, learned nothing new it’s nice to have the options put so clearly.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Allan, glad you enjoyed it. These articles about Self-Publishing Basics are specifically designed for people who need an introduction to this field, so I’m glad they are helpful.

  15. Allan Douglas

    Thank you for the amount of clarity you bring to the issue of publishing a book. I feel many new authors hold romanticized views of what their paths to publication are. I know I did. Sometimes the truths come as a dash of cold water to the face. Articles like this help us avoid the rude awakening that can cost us so much in terms of money and time.

  16. Matthias Leue

    A very informative comparison. I’m just getting my feet wet on publishing my first book and the myriad of information on the web is overwhelming. I’m glad I found your site. Thank you.

  17. nikki broadwell

    I would like more info on cooperative publishing–who to contact, how to find these publishers…



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