Self-Publishers: What Does It Take to Make A Publishing Company?

by | Nov 5, 2010

Last month on Publishing Perspectives, the useful news and discussion site, editor-in-chief Edward Nawotka asked the question, “When does a self-publisher constitute a publishing company?”

At first you might be surprised someone would ask this question. I mean, what exactly is the point? Is there a debate going on about requirements to call yourself a publishing company?

Here’s what the article says:

So many self-publishers brand themselves as companies — for a variety of reasons, often to do with marketing — but if they just publish books written by themselves, does this qualify? Personally, I believe that it takes a list comprising three authors to have the foundation of a publishing company.

I believe Mr. Nawotka was trying to be provocative for the sake of discussion. How else to explain, for example, Para Publishing? Is it a publishing company? Not for most of its life, according to Mr. Nawotka’s definition, because it only published the books of one author: Dan Poynter. Over 100 books, in fact, with sales throughout the book distribution system, for over 25 years. Seems like a publishing company, doesn’t it?

Or John T. Reed, with over 30 books and selling since the 1970s. Reed had national distribution through Publishers Group West for over 20 years, although he now sells exclusively on his website. His publishing company has been highly successful for many years. Not a publishing company?

The Indie Spirit Comes to Publishing

Publishing Perspectives, which has great topical writing of interest to anyone involved with books, is also staffed by veterans of the traditional publishing industry. The prejudice against self-publishers will die hard when it finally dies.

The plain fact is that indie authors setting up publishing companies to produce and promote their own works, or the works of a small handful of authors, are here to stay. The industry is undergoing fundamental change, and the tools of production are now in everyone’s hands.

How we use these tools is something different. But self-publishers are already through the gates and setting up shop and building their platforms and attracting a tribe of avid readers and selling books. Lots of books.

No, this toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube. Indie authors don’t really need someone telling them whether they can be considered a “publishing company” or not—it’s just an irrelevant question.

There’s no licensing authority where you get a permit to publish a book, or where you go to get permission to call yourself a publishing company. The new model is authors talking directly to readers, without the intermediary of the big corporate publisher in between.

This is a model that’s exciting to a lot of readers and to a lot of writers too. Big trade publishers, on the other hand, have always been business-to-business companies, suppliers of product to distributors and wholesalers with very little contact with the end users of their products—actual book buyers.

And that’s why indie authors continue to succeed: we are the market we are selling to. And that counts a lot more than what you call yourself, doesn’t it?

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Edwård,

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. sherri mclain

    Hi Joel

    I hate to be a fence-sitter (besides being uncomfortable, I’m normally an A or B kind of person) but I agree with Marco’s point and the others as well. Marco is correct in pointing out that they are two different entities for the reasons he stated. However, having recently attended two conferences and listened to talks by publishers, I would agree that this “you can’t conquer the world because you don’t have a flag” idea is prevalent, and comes from two places.

    The first is the view that publishers must maintain their role as gate-keepers. They truly believe that anyone who doesn’t go through the gate-keeper is a rubbish writer and they are here to protect the world from rubbish books. To their defense, any indie writer who doesn’t hire a very experienced editor to do a thorough edit and critique of their book before it goes out is perpetuating this idea, because the greatest writers out there all do this and get back pages and pages of edits (which they use to make changes) before they go to press.

    The second issue is fear. There was palatable anxiety among the publishers I ran into, and the publishers’ conference I attended (for the hell of it) was focused almost entirely on trying to come up with a plan B because they were all doomed.

    Anyway, great blog, Joel.


  2. Mary Tod

    Hi Joel – I love the notion of redefining business models, particularly well established business models where the current actors take their roles for granted or, in some cases, as God-given rights. I’ve been watching the publishing industry for more than six months now (I realize that still makes me a neophyte, but I’m learning) and it’s fascinating to see how locked in many of the big players are to a model than no longer works.

    I found an interesting example of changed business models while looking for travel information this weekend. I began my search with the Frommers site. In the past I would have purchased a Frommers guidebook however that’s no longer necessary because Frommers has put their content online. For me this was an ‘aha’ moment. A former publisher of books, is in a different business, the business of travel information with links to other websites, easy to use navigational tools, top ten lists, interactive maps and so on. Very creative – one might say that their choice was an obvious one to make but I bet it took guts at the time they made it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mary, Frommers is a great example of taking advantage of the new technologies available to leap ahead of competitors who are still trying to figure out the “next step.”

      Book publishers—whether large or small—ought to be doing the same thing. When you separate text from the vehicle that’s been used to deliver it, the text itself can be understood, divided, re-purposed in all kinds of ways. What I find exciting is that we are still just at the beginning of this change. Thanks for contributing here, Mary.

  3. Marco

    Yikes, folks. Why does this have to be a “OMG He’s bigger than me so he must hate me” kind of thing? Aren’t we talking about semantics and public perception here?

    Think about it: For most contemporary readers and writers, the publishing system has worked by pulling writers out of a general pool and publishing their work. If your company publishes only your books, and doesn’t accept submissions or solicit the work of others to print, then you’re a fundamentally different sort of company than most traditional publishers. Maybe it does come from a sort of snottiness, maybe not, but there is something different about individuals forming companies to publish their work, and a publisher who actively accepts or solicits manuscripts to publish. Yes, if you self-publish your stuff, you’re a company that publishes. Absolutely, by strict definition. But you’re not the sort of company that gets listed in Writer’s Market, and that’s a pretty significant difference. So maybe there’s a necessity underlying any exclusiveness that prompted the remarks. Maybe there does need to be a separate category for self-publishers, not because they are a lesser entity, but simply because they’re a different entity. That seems reasonable to me.

    If you wrote fifty 600-word articles, laid them out in columns (each with its own header), threw in a few photos, printed it on thin, grayish paper and folded it in half, it would look like a newspaper. You could even put it on newsstands, distribute it through kiosks on street corners, sell subscriptions, etc. But if one person wrote the whole thing, we wouldn’t really consider it a newspaper the way we consider the NYT a newspaper, not really, even though they look similar. This idea of legitamacy is not a matter of the publishing business, but society in general (such as, “You’re not really a cook if you work at McDonald’s; You’re not really a basketball player unless you’re in the NBA; You’re not really a dog breeder until you sell dogs to people other than your family,” etc.). A crude analogy, sure, but maybe it will help explain things.

    I am NOT saying that a company publishing the work of a single person is less respectable, bad, or improper in any way. I’m not. And I’m not saying that there aren’t people out there who turn up their noses at self-publishers and think they’re not worth the dog crap they stepped in on the way to work. There are people like that, sure. What I AM saying is that even if the motives are misguided, there’s something valid in the end pronouncement that should be looked into, which is simply this: language changes. What publishing means now isn’t what it meant 25 years ago. And 25 years ago it meant something different than it did 100 years before that, etc. When my parents were kids there was no such thing as an MP3 player (much less “iPod”). Things change, and part of our job as literate people is to figure out what to call the new things, so that people can make sense of it all. Having “publishing company” refer to two very different types of companies doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s not in the best interests of the big houses, the small presses, or self-publishers.

    Or maybe the problem is not that a new name is needed for self-publishers, but that a new name is needed for traditional publishers. After all, the title is misleading: a traditional publishing company does much, much more than print a book, a huge part of which is the finding of the work to be published, the acquisitions. So the question is, what does “publish” mean? Does it mean print? Does it mean edit, design, and print? Does it mean advertise, solicit, review, acquire, edit, design, and print?

    That’s part of what needs to be figured out.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly a certain amount of this discussion is about semantics, but it’s also about people’s mindset and their attitudes. Clearly, when technology changes our language changes along with it, or the original meanings of words get folded into the new uses.

      In this case I think a lot of what people were reacting to was the idea that people who work in traditional publishing have some parameters or authority over what others call themselves, which is just a silly idea.

      And I think “publish” still means to bring to the public’s attention or to put in a form for public consumption. That’s it. Is this blog “published”? Some would say yes, others no. The time we are in is transitional, and all these examinations are worthwhile if they help advance us to a better understanding of just what the heck is going on.

  4. Walt Shiel

    I read that article a few days ago and had the same reaction. With this kind of arrogance and disdain for the “little guys”, these industry insiders would fit right in in Washington, DC.

    If you publish books, in any format, and sell them while the IRS and your state consider you a business and demand associated accounting, then you must be a publishing business.

    Is the carpenter who hires no employees and completes one or two jobs per week running something not worthy of being called a business, while the big firm downtown is a “real” business?

    These publishing insiders sound like children interested only in boosting their own self-esteem. Considering some of the dreck I’ve found coming from the NYC Big Six, I think publishing for the love of the book is more worthy than publishing for little more than celebrity cachet.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Although it looks to me like the time is long past when self-publishers need some kind of “validation” from traditional publishing, it doesn’t appear that everyone else sees it the same way. I wanted to write this because I just couldn’t get the comment—and the implied paternalism—out of my head. Thanks for your contribution.

  5. Mchael N. Marcus

    >>requirements to call yourself a publishing company?<<

    This is just one more semantic battle which may provide intellectual stimulation to the debaters but is ultimately a fruitless waste of time.

    For two years, I expended a lot of effort and a lot of words attacking the term “self-publishing company.” I criticized companies that used the label, pointing out that it MADE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE, because no person or company can self-publish someone else — just as no one can self-educate, self-immolate or self-medicate someone else.

    For better or for worse, the meanings and implications of words do change — and I can't stop the changes. At one time, a “girl” could be a boy. “Bad” can now mean good. "Don we now our gay apparel" has a different implication than when the lyric was written.

    Many people — and media including The Wall Street Journal and Writer’s Digest — use the term “self-publishing company.” There’s not much point in my continuing to bang my head against an unyielding concrete wall, or to pee into the wind.

    The requirements for using the label "publishing company" are very simple:
    (1) Is the entity a company?
    (2) Has it or will it publish something?

    That's it.

    No one would criticize a clock company's self-description because it produces just one design, or a computer company because it uses only CPU chips made by Intel.

    Michael N. Marcus
    –Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    –"Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

    PS: The Feds make a distinction in providing a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) based on the number of authors a publishing company represents. The Library's "Cataloging in Publication" (CIP) service is generally not suitable for self-publishing authors. To be eligible for CIP, a publisher must have published books by at least three authors. With just one or two authors, you get a Preassigned Control Number (PCN), instead.

    It's highly unlikely that a prospective reader will notice the difference, or care.

    • Joel Friedlander

      I think we’re on the same page on this subject, Michael, thanks for your comment.



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