Review: The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier

by | Jul 28, 2010

In the early days of modern self-publishing, there were two books most self-publishers lived by: The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter, and The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Marilyn and Tom Ross.

While Poynter has continued to update his book, now in its 15th edition, The Complete Guide was sorely in need of an overhaul.

Now, since Sue Collier has joined Marilyn Ross as the new owner of Self-Publishing Resources, the company Marilyn and Tom founded, Sue brings the modern sensibilities of a blogger and active social media user to the company. (You can connect with Sue at: @SueCollier.)

Sue has taken on the herculean task to bring the massive Complete Guide into the twenty-first century. And she’s done about as well as could be expected.

The Whole Nine Yards of Self-Publishing

The approach of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing is encyclopedic. It attempts to cover just about every base you might cross as a self-publisher.

The book is divided into seven parts:

  1. PART I: Today’s Publishing Scene—Deals with the history of self-publishing, different ways to get into print, the difference between subsidy, vanity and self-publishing, goal-setting, and an overview of the ebook market.
  2. PART II: Start-Up Considerations to Get You Off on the Right Foot—This part discusses finding subjects to write about, the nuts and bolts of researching and writing books, different sorts of books you can publish, editing, setting up your publishing company, generating capital, operating procedures, bookkeeping, tax implications, choosing publication dates, getting ISBNs and bar codes, and the other minutia of publishing.
  3. PART III: Creating a Quality Product That Attracts Buyers—The authors delve into book design and production.
  4. PART IV: Killer PR—The Great Equalizer—The Rosses were always known for national campaigns, and that emphasis continues here, with a strong section on PR, marketing plans, reviews, getting editorial coverage, generating radio and TV interviews, running book signings and the like.
  5. PART V: Selling Books the Usual Ways—The authors explain how to get into the retail book distribution channel in order to sell to bookstores, about wholesalers and distributors, and the ins and outs of advertising and direct mail, subsidiary rights and book spin-offs.
  6. PART VI: Nontraditional Venues for Generating More Sales—Here you’ll find a new section on social media marketing, premiums and incentives, and other “maverick” sales opportunities. Also discussions of developing a sideline as a speaker, creating seminars and working trade shows and book fairs.
  7. PART VII: Propelling Your Business Through the Stratosphere—Looks at different ways to expand, either through selling your book to a traditional publisher, or by transforming into a small press.
The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Sue Collier and Marilyn Ross
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The book concludes with a brief timetable, the outline of a five-month marketing plan, and lots of resource lists. There’s a bibliography, a glossary and an index, which you will find useful.

What’s the Bottom Line on The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing?

I’m really glad Sue Collier has updated this book, which has been fantastically useful to generations of self-publishers. With the addition of a lot of web-oriented material, the book should have another useful lifespan. It’s also been completely redesigned and has a much more modern appearance.

One thing I liked were the “Websites, Wisdom & Whimsy” sections at the end of each chapter. These are set apart through some fanciful typography, and have amusing quotes, tips and resources. They even included one of my all-time favorite William Safire quotes: (Safire wrote a column on language for the New York Times for many years.)

William Safire was asked if sloppy communication was caused by ignorance or apathy. “I don’t know and I don’t care,” he quipped.

The scope of this book is very similar to Poynter’s but it’s written quite differently. It continues to show its parentage as the original product of Tom and Marilyn Ross who worked together to establish a highly successful company in the publishing business.

This is also one of its shortcomings. Despite being overhauled, there’s no way this book can escape the era in which it was written. The entire mindset of the book is oriented to traditional self-publishing using offset printers, wholesalers, distributors and sales through the whole chain of distribution.

Today creating anything like a national campaign for a self-published book is very difficult task, and one that almost all self-publishers would fail at. Tough but true. On the other hand, the explosion in self-publishing brought about by print on demand technology and now, by ebooks, is given little attention as a viable commercial model.

Yet in my experience this is the path being taken by an increasing number of self-publishers, in response to technological changes, risk-aversion brought on by the economic collapse, and the ability to put a book into print for almost no money. When The Complete Guide was originally issued, self-publishing relied on your ability to sell at least 2,000 offset books just to pay for your development costs. This is no longer true.

On the whole however, this is a valuable book for people entering self-publishing. It gives a thorough overview of how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together, and has plenty of illustrations, forms, resource links to point you in the right direction. It’s practical throughout and will be endlessly useful as a reference as you go through the process of becoming a self-publisher.

Oh, Um, There’s This One More Thing . . .

Tom and Marilyn Ross always expemplified the proud and outspoken spirit of self-publishers, and they championed other self-publishers and helped to make them a success. So it’s a little ironic that The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing is no longer self-published. This new edition is being published by Writers Digest. Which is interesting. In November Writers Digest will also publish the formerly-self-published Indie Author by indie publishing advocate April L. Hamilton, who has written about her decision to traditionally publish her book.

Both of these books are high-quality, must-read acquisitions for modern self-publishers, and I hope they both sell a lot of books. The self-publishing world would be better for it.

Takeaway: Although showing its origins, The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing is the new must-have book for people who want to self-publish, and a tribute to Sue Collier’s diligence. I recommend it.

The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing
Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Writers Digest Books; 5th edition
Publication date: August 9, 2010 (but on sale now)
ISBN-13: 978-1582977188

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Sue Collier

    Michael–Thanks for weighing in. But–ouch!

    I can’t really speak to the interior design–I rather like it, actually. (Of course, I don’t wear bifocals.) And since this was a traditionally published book, we didn’t a whole lot of say as far as font or font size. (Talk about a case for self-publishing and maintaining complete control!) I also think the cover beats the last revision.

    Duly noted about some of the terms using some old-fashioned spellings…and some other mentions that perhaps were overlooked by both of us authors as well as Writer’s Digest’s editorial staff. Could we have updated every example? Sure, but even something written in 1985 (such as a permissions request) can still have validity today. Revising this book was an enormous undertaking; we didn’t reinvent the wheel when it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

    But honestly, I do think these are all minor details in what is an incredibly valuable guide for the self-publisher. The fifth edition–as well as the sixth and subsequent editions–remains a staple for any self-publisher’s book shelf.

  2. Michael N. Marcus

    Joel, you let Marilyn and Sue off easy by not discussing your field of expertise–book design–so I’ll pitch in.

    I bought the previous (and seriously outdated) edition in 2008, and my copy of the new one arrived a few minutes ago.

    After a brief page-flipping session, I have to say that I am extremely disappointed with the interior design. The book is just plain hard to read.

    The text type is small. The ink color looks more like gray than black, so there is not nearly enough contrast against the cream-colored pages.

    The italic captions are even smaller than the text, and words within illustrations are nearly illegible. The fly-turd size italics in the index are almost useless.

    Chapter names are in tiny italic type in the page footers, and my baby-boomer eyes had trouble reading them with _or_ without my glasses. (For the record, I have no trouble with newspapers, magazines or most books, and my PC monitor is set for “normal” size type.)

    I recognize that there is a huge amount of material in this 556-page 5.6 x 6.5-inch book. If it had 6 x 9, or–even better–7 x 10 pages, the type could have been larger and the thinner book would be easier to keep flat for reading and marking up.

    Even with the present page size, the leading could have been reduced a bit to allow larger type.

    The index needs a thorough pruning. By eliminating terms like “Homer Simpson,” “Pegine Echevarria” and “J.C. Penney”–that NO ONE would search for in a book about publishing, maybe some space could be rescued for enlarged text.

    Also, I doubt that readers need separate line-listings for Tim Zagat, Nina Zagat and the Zagat survey–which are all on the same page.

    I agree that the book shows its age. It sometimes seems to regard the Internet as a novelty. The recommendation that web pages must load in eight seconds or less was appropriate in the age of modems, but not now, with ubiquitous broadband. Ancient fan-boy jargon like “surfer,” and spelling “Web site” instead of “website,” and uppercasing “Net” and “Web” make the book seem like a 90-year-old in a nursing home dressing like a teenager.

    The book needs a front-to-back revision and elimination of ancient artifacts. It’s silly to show a letter (seeking permisison to use copyrighted material) that refers to a book coming out in 1985, and apparently composed with an ancient typewriter. Another letter includes “news” of upcoming events in early 2001.

    The front cover, too, looks absolutely ancient–but not funky-ancient, just dull-ancient. There is poor contrast between the type and background, and when the cover is shown as a thumbnail on, only the word “SELF” can be read.

    There is a tremendous amount of valuable information in this book, but it simply is not ready for 2010. It is past-due for a complete remaking–or maybe it should just be allowed to die gracefully. It could continue as an artifact of the way things used to be, like “The Compleat Angler.” That book was first published in 1653, but you can buy a freshly printed copy on

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, that’s an amazing amount of work you put into this Michael, and I’m sure Sue and Marilyn will be interested in your input. I have to admit, I was surprised to find you as a design critic!

      Beyond the dated quality of some of the examples in the book, it’s still a very valuable resource with a tremendous range of subject matter that will help new self-publishers get oriented in the business and get going with the publishing projects.

      I’d like to note here also that I pointedly do not review the design of the books I mention here, which may seem odd, since I’m a book designer. I’m working on a blog post on this very subject and will have it up soon, so I’ll hold my other comments for then.

      But thanks for taking the time to make such detailed observations.

  3. Christy Pinheiro

    Good to see an update on this book– I read it years ago and even in 2005, I thought it really needed an update. I’ll take youre word for it Joel- this one looks like it’s worth picking up. Thanks for the review.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sure, Christy. It’s a great source of information.

  4. April L. Hamilton

    Joel –
    Thanks for the mention and recommendation. =’)

    I’d like to point out that the scope of my book is a departure from Poynter’s and that of Ross/Collier. Where those books detail the steps, tips and gotchas involved in starting up and running a publishing business, mine is geared to individual indie authors who need step-by-step instructions in preparing and formatting a book for publication through POD and ebook service providers. It goes on to provide step-by-step instruction in choosing and working with service providers and freelancers, and also provides instructions for getting started with (or strengthening) various aspects of author platform (how to set up an author website/blog, how and why to use social media, how to ‘work Amazon’, etc.), as well as how, and under what circumstances, to make the transition from self-publishing to mainstream publication.

    The book has been re-titled by Writer’s Digest Books, and is now called The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use. I don’t have an exact release date yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know. I’ll be happy to get you a review copy too, if you like. =’)

    Indie authorship is a business, and many indie authors act as their own publishers, to be sure. But the concerns and needs of individual indie authors who only publish their own works, maybe only one or two titles every few years, are very different from those of indie publishers who intend to put out a catalog of titles each year and compete head-to-head with other small presses.

    And finally, here’s a link to the blog post in which I discussed my decision to go mainstream with The Indie Author Guide.
    Thanks again!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hey April, that’s really useful to know how your book differs from the “encyclopedic” books. And yes, I’d love to review it. I just saw the new cover today for the first time, and it’s terrific.

      Your book is a book every indie and self-publishing author should own. Thanks for the input.

  5. Sue Collier

    Thanks, Joel, for such a nice review of the new edition! I’d have to agree with you on its shortcoming of still being a bit steeped in the old-fashioned world of offset printing and traditional distribution. One of the reasons for this, I think, is not only was Writer’s Digest not interested in an entirely new book, but mainly because the bulk of the revisions were completed a year ago…and frankly, at that time, I was still on the fence about POD as a viable way for self-publishers to print and distribute. I’ve completely come around in the past several months, however. Unfortunately, it was too late to rewrite vast portions of the book by then. I hope readers of The Guide will turn to my blog for more up-to-the-minute information on all things self-publishing.

    And yeah–it’s pretty ironic this book is not self-published, huh? I’m happy to announce that Marilyn Ross and I are currently updating the bestselling Jump Start Your Book Sales. We will be self-publishing that one–and printing and distributing through Lightning Source, btw!–and offering it as an e-book, so look for that one to be as up-to-the-minute as possible.

    Thanks again, Joel. Always appreciate your support!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the fascinating background, Sue, that explains a lot. Nevertheless, people new to self-publishing can get a terrific education from your book.



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