Top 10 Things Self-Publishers Don’t Need to Do

by | Sep 8, 2010

Like anyone entering a new world with strange rules and arcane traditions, new self-publishers are often confused about what they have to do, what they’re supposed to do, what they really ought to do. It’s like there’s a secret society and if you don’t know the secret handshake everyone will see that you’re a hopeless newbie.

But, hey, we’re indie authors and indie publishers. We follow the conventions when we need to, because we decide whether or not it’s something that will help us toward our publishing goal. If I have a book I think a lot of librarians might like, I’m going to take the time and expense to put a P-CIP data block and an index in that book.

Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that since you’re the author and the publisher, you can do pretty much whatever you want. Like Abbie Hoffman who, in 1971, insisted on titling his book Steal This Book. He flouted convention, and many booksellers wouldn’t carry the book, but he made an indelible point.

So here’s a list of things you really don’t have to do if you don’t want to. After all, it’s your book. If you don’t have a good reason to follow established conventions, or the conventions are irrelevant to your publishing plan, then maybe you shouldn’t bother. Take a look:

Top 10 Things Self-Publishers Don’t Need to Do

  1. Register your copyright—There’s no copyright “police” that will come and arrest you if you don’t register your copyright. Your copyright is inherent in the work when you create it, the registration process is just to supply proof of ownership in case you need it. Maybe you’ll never need it?
  2. Get CIP, LCCN, PCN—All those acronyms. Who needs it? Nobody says you have to apply for Library of Congress Control Numbers or anything else. If you know your marketing plan, maybe you don’t need them.
  3. Obtain an ISBN for your book—An International Standard Book Number identifies the publisher of the book and the individual title. It’s like a universal stocking number for inventory control and database retreival. Maybe you’re going to sell all of your books by hand, off the back of your truck. In that case an ISBN might be a waste.
  4. Put a Barcode on your book—Let’s face it, a Bookland EAN Barcode is an ugly, blotchy rectangle to have on your book. If you’ve already passed on the ISBN number, you won’t be needing one of these, because it’s simply a scannable version of the ISBN.
  5. Put your book for sale at Amazon—Nobody can force you to put your book on, where it will join millions of other books in the biggest retail establishment in the history of the world. This trusted source for books—and pots and pans and generators and bicycles—ships millions of books each year. But if you hate corporate America and its evil ways, don’t put your book there. Stick to the local independent stores and hand selling, you’ll be happier.
  6. Hire an editor—Editors may want to tell you how well you’re communicating your ideas, and they want money to do it, too. Nobody says you have to put up with or pay for book editing.
  7. Hire a book designer—As one of my clients once said to me, “You just put the page numbers on, right?” Your word processor can do that, and a book cover as well.
  8. Establish a strong online presence—Major publishers are encouraging their authors to “build their author platform” and indie authors start gathering their tribe online even before they publish. But some people are uncomfortable online, or putting themselves out in front. You can just say no.
  9. Publish in all formats—Readers have so many reading choices now, self-publishers are issuing their books in print, Kindle, iBooks, PDF and other formats in response. But it’s also fine to stick to one format, and sometimes there are good reasons to do so. We probably won’t be seeing expensive technical manuals as unprotected ebooks anytime soon.
  10. Market your book—Lots of people publish books without a profit motive. They are more interested in spreading their ideas, and the whole idea of “marketing” may seem like it could ruin the impression you’re trying to make. But you know what? It’s not mandatory. You can print your books, donate them to libraries, give them away, or leave them next to the Bibles in motel rooms. Really, the choice is yours.

What I’m trying to get at is that self-publishing is an act of personal expression. It can be whatever you want it to be. So often we’re creating books that we want to sell in the marketplace, and with which we want to compete with books from “the big boys.”

In that scenario we know we have to create a professional product, nothing less will do.

But it’s also refreshing to realize that it’s a matter of choice. Maybe you want to put your Introduction at the end of the book. Maybe you don’t need page numbers. You can use convention or purposefully ignore it.

With the move to ebooks and digital products of all kinds, the forms we’ve become accustomed to for books are starting to change. With that change will come a huge opportunity to influence the new forms that will develop for text and multi-media storytelling.

Takeaway: As independent publishers we get to choose how closely we want to follow book industry conventions, and when we want to ignore them.


Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book (1971) was boycotted by many booksellers, for obvious reasons. It is now available on, for free. You can steal it here.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Betsy Gordon

    @Ron — “Picard’s Syndrome”? As in… Jean-Luc?

    And here I thought it was just one of his many admirable — dare I say, lovable? — traits!

    I, too, suffer from “Picard’s Syndrome,” and am delighted to see it popping up “in the literature,” so to speak. Thanks, Ron!

  2. Ron Jones

    I’ve been browsing your website for a week now, and it has provided me with a wealth of new knowledge; for which I am truly grateful.

    As to your comment on editing, I suspect that it is like many other things in life that you need (whether you know it or not). In the end, it’s going to cost you money up front for a good editor, time in labor hours, or money on the back-end in lost sales because of a substandard product that cannot even get an audience in the marketplace of ideas.

    I suppose one could take advantage of the digital revolution, and post your work on a web site (much like this one ;) ). While WordPress is an easy-to-use blogging platform, Drupal has a “book” module, which (as the name implies) enables you to post your book, with a corresponding table of contents, and page-to-page navigation. With some labor, you can make your title page, the home page of your web site (if you value your time at all, the phrase “with some labor” should be counted as a cost).

    A free account with Google analytics will enable you to track the number of people who visit, and how long they stay on each page. More importantly, you can use the Goals section to create “funnels” which track how far people read in your manuscript.

    When you realize where you’re losing people, use the Google Website Optimizer (a free multivariate testing platform) to tweak and change your copy until the click-through rate is back up (indicating that folks are “turning the page”).

    Of course, if that seems like a lot of work (how much do you value your time?), you could just hire a professional to edit your book for you. If you’re not technically adept, it will probably save you some time, many headaches, and just may increase your sales enough to pay for itself.

    Regardless of which route you choose, I recommend that you follow the example of and post your book online in its entirety, or make it available as a PDF download. “HORRORS!” you say, exclaiming about lost sales, copyright violations etc… and you would be making valid points.

    However, I would also point out that the above mentioned Ludwig von Mises Institute does a booming business selling hard copies of obscure economics texts (most of which are available for free download). Why? because folks like me with “Picard’s Syndrome” like the feel of a book in our hands.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ron, thanks for your input. I’m not sure I understand the connection between Google analytics and manuscript editing.

      But writers need editors, and books need to be edited if they are intended to sell in the marketplace. I don’t think there’s any question about it. Publishing an unedited book is very self-defeating.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Sue Collier

    What a refreshing reminder that self-publishing is and always will be about control. Authors/self-publishers control it all–the work, the look of the work, and the marketing of the work. I always advise my clients that although (insert whatever aspect about the process is in question) is publishing convention, ultimately they are in charge of (insert whatever aspect about the process is in question).

    Of course, there are those who are better off keeping their “self-publishing” in blog format–because without numbers, editing, design, and marketing, what’s the point?

    Good post, Joel, and great discussion!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Sue, I think we have about the same approach.

  4. Michael N. Marcus

    >>I disagree emphatically with No. 1<<

    Sheesh! Don't people recognize satire, irony, parody, exaggeration?

    I had pretty much given up on April Fools hoaxes, but maybe I'll reconsider.

  5. Joel Friedlander

    I received the following comment via email from David Amkraut, who has written for my blog, and who is also an attorney with a specialization in “intellectual property”:

    “I disagree emphatically with No. 1 (in the article). It is very important to register copyright before publication or within three months of publication. Timely registration is vital if your book ever gets infringed. Timely registration means you can seek the severe statutory damages (up to $150,000 per work infringed) as well as attorney’s fees, should you need to sue the infringer. As a practical matter, the prospect of obtaining statutory damages and recovering attorney’s fees means you may be able to find an attorney to work for you on contingency, even if your book is not a big seller.

    “In contrast, without timely registration, you are limited to getting whatever damages the infringer has caused you, or unfair profits he has made from the infringement. You can not recover attorney’s fees. Damages and unfair profits are often very small and usually extremely difficult to prove. Because the cost of hiring an attorney will usually be far more than any recovery, as a practical matter you have no meaningful remedy without timely registration.

    “As an attorney, when people come to me with a possible infringement case, my first question is, “When did you register copyright in this work?” If the possible client did not timely register, 9 times out of 10 the discussion goes no farther. ”

    Thanks for the input, David. This is also how I advise my clients.

  6. Bob Mayer

    99.5% of self-published books are going to die slow, agonizing deaths. Which is pretty much the percentage of rejections agents send out. I think there is a connection. No matter what the format, where it’s sold, whether it has an ISBN or not, the bottom line is quality of writing. Just because we now have eBooks, doesn’t make it any different than POD and before that printing it out at home and comb binding it. Just because you can read a book, doesn’t mean you can write one. Every author I know works extremely hard at the craft. Those who succeed at self-publishing, that .5% work very hard at it and have quality product. My rule of thumb after 20 years in the business and having had over 40 books traditionally published and now bringing my backlist out with my own company: do not self-publish fiction if you don’t already have a brand. Which means pretty much every ‘new’ writer.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Bob, you know of what you speak. My experience is pretty much the same, especially when it comes to self-published fiction. It would be far better for authors who want to self-publish fiction to hold off until they have established some kind of “platform” online and have the attention of a group of readers.

      Also one of the chief reasons it’s so much easier to profit from self-published nonfiction, particularly if your book is instructional, teaches something or from some angle that’s not available elsewhere, or in a niche in which you have substantial pre-existing authority.

      Thanks for your astute comment.

  7. Mary Tod

    Hello Joel – lots of interesting comments on your blog post, particularly on #6. In my personal journey to write and connect with readers (I did not say publish, not yet at least) I thought that the traditional model would validate my work. However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you), the more I investigate the writing industry, the more I understand the profound changes going on. It’s like a B2B world has suddenly become a B2C world with radically new roles.

    I think writers should examine their personal business model – how they develop, produce, market, sell and distribute to readers – and build a strategy for their work much as a small business would do. Good writing alone isn’t enough IF you want to reach a large group of readers.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thank you for a clear and concise piece of advice that everyone thinking of self-publishing could learn to their advantage.

  8. Betsy Gordon

    @Joel — Wow! That wasn’t at all difficult. Thanks, Joel. I hope someday I get a better picture to replace this one, but at least it’s better than the hovering ghost!

    I think I am repeating myself when I say I’ve learned a tremendous lot of stuff from your blog, and from all the interesting links I’ve followed from it.
    Once more, thank you for your efforts.

  9. Betsy Gordon

    @Joel — And by the way, Joel, how can I insert a real picture of myself in place of that ghostly, hovering icon-person? Thanks — Betsy

    • Joel Friedlander

      Go to and set it up there. It will follow you around the ‘net!

  10. Betsy Gordon

    Joel — I was with you all the way till I hit #6. Remembering your excellent post of January 29, 2010, in which you elucidated all the ways an editor can help a self-publishing author produce a higher-quality book, I was “shocked and horrified,” as my high-school English teacher used to say.

    I think even the kind of book that is intended for only a few family members can still benefit from the author’s working closely with a professional editor. An excellent editor not only corrects those blatant errors that make lots of books hard to read, but also nurtures and protects the writer’s personal and unique “voice” and style. That’s part of the fun in editing — for me, at least.

    And if a book is intended not only for those loving and perhaps uncritical readers in one’s close circle of friends and family, but for a wider readership – well, I can’t do better than quote GeoMurph’s remark in his response to Joel’s blog of July 19th (Top 10 Worst Self-Publishing Mistakes – Explained!) Here’s what GeoMurph said (and I wish I had said it myself): ”If you don’t respect your readers enough to make your work the very best it can be, then don’t expect them to spend money buying your book and time reading it.”

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, Betsy, I think you know me well enough by now to know that I wholeheartedly agree with you and with GeoMurph.

      But I think we have to be careful to not lay down dictates in what is, essentially, an act of self-expression. Certainly if you wish to sell books, it makes sense to produce as professional a book as possible. And as we have often discussed here, the first thing a self-publisher should budget for is editing because it is the chief failing of self-published books.

      I can see from the comments that although I had something to communicate here, I don’t seem to have done a very good job of it. Thanks so much for weighing in, Betsy, it’s always a pleasure.

    • Michael N. Marcus

      >>I think even the kind of book that is intended for only a few family members can still benefit from the author’s working closely with a professional editor.<<

      Relatives can be highly critical.

      I got this email from a customer of Outskirts Press: "I was so excited when my book was first released, but after a few family members pointed out the mistakes, I can’t describe the restraint it took for me not to explode."

      (Also, be prepared for sibling rivalry. I know of one author whose younger brother refuses to read the older brother's books, and certainly won't compliment them. In publishing, it can be better to depend on the kindness of strangers.)

  11. Mayowa


    That the choice exists and should remain free from external inteference is crucial like you say. A particular choice may result in less than desired results, but it can always be changed because the self publisher is in charge.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  12. Mayowa

    You’ve got em riled up with this one, sir. I like it!

    I think I understand your intent here and I like where you end up. When you self publish, it’s your show, your house. You should weigh the consequences of every decision carefully but at the end of the day, you get to do whatever you want.

    Having said that though, I heartily disagree with #6. It’s always worth it to make your work the best it can be, even if it’s for personal expression.

    Great post.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mayowa, well said as always. See replies above. Many many books get published without editors, which really is unfortunate, because the author’s message will not be as clear as it could be, and will not reach as many people as it might.

      However, I’m still going to defend the right of self-publishers to issue their work in the way they see fit. If the result is that no one wants to read it, maybe they will change their minds. But it will be them making the decision, not someone dictating to them.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        >>I’m still going to defend the right of self-publishers to issue their work in the way they see fit.<<

        Some self-pubbers go without editors not out of choice, but out of ignorance or economic necessity.


        I've recently contemplated a possible difference with an editor provided by a major publisher, and one hired by a self-publishing author.

        If a "Big Six" publishing company pays the editor, the editor's loyalty is to the publishing company, and she is the boss of the author and seldom get challenged.

        If the author pays the editor, the author is the boss of the editor and can ignore corrections and recommendations. If the editor is dependent on income from the author, she may be more likely to accept weirdness ("heck, it's his personal style, so I'll let it stay") than if she had to answer to an editor-in-chief in Manhattan.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Very true, Michael. And some from quite different reasons. Having published books for many many people over the years, you wouldn’t believe (okay, maybe YOU would) the reasons I hear. So I think it’s too narrow for us to think there’s only one route, only one right way. It’s not up to me to decide if it’s right for someone else. I can only point out whether their decisions seem congruent with their goals, then help them get where they want to go.

  13. Cassie

    Crikey, what have you got against publishers? (No, wait, don’t answer that – I can guess.)

    Of course you don’t need to do any of those things. You don’t *need* to sell/distribute the thing at all, if you don’t want to. You can bash away your random thoughts on your typewriter, hold it together with treasury tags, let your kid scribble a crayon drawing on the front, put it in a drawer, and forget about it. And noone will be none the wiser. Kinda defeats the purpose of self-*publishing* though, eh? If noone gets to hear about the book, because you’ve not used well-established routes to market (or nobody *wants* to hear about the book because it’s not been professionally edited or typeset) then that’s not publishing – that’s onanism.


    I’m particularly concerned that you state that author don’t need to ‘put up with’ editors. Jesus – have you seen the state of your country’s literacy levels lately? Have you ever been on Facebook and seen how the great unwashed ‘communicate’ with each other through grunts and accronyms? Editors are needed now more than ever. I certainly wouldn’t want to read a book that hadn’t been edited. Unless someone was paying me to edit it, of course.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for your comment, and for being the first person to use the word “crikey” on my blog! (Still wondering about those “treasury tags” though, I don’t think we have those on this side of the pond.)

      See my comments to Ed, just above you, about the intent here. I don’t think doing your own thing defeats the purpose of self-publishing, because each self-publisher gets to say what their own purpose is. And it’s not always masturbation, either. There are people who have written and published books for one person (really) or a very small circle. There are other authors making a statement that has nothing to do with finding readers or selling books. All I’m saying is that there’s room for all, and for everyone to realize these are choices to be made not inflexible rules that must be followed.

      And no, I don’t read unedited books either, lol. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        >>There are people who have written and published books for one person (really)<<

        Outskirts Press wants that business. The smallest Outskirts publishing package ("Emerald") includes exactly ONE book. Price is $199, with two cover choices, one trim size, white or creme paper, and no ISBN.

        People with more ambition and smaller budgets have other choices.

        Aachanon Publishing beats the $199 Outskirts Emerald deal by $4, and provides THREE books—not just one.

        Wasteland Press calls itself “‘the cheapest full service press on the internet.” Its "Basic" package matches the Aachanon $195 price but provides FIVE books.

        Michael N. Marcus
        – "Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don't be a Victim of a Vanity Press,"
        – "Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book,"
        – "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

        • Joel Friedlander

          Well, I usually refer people to Lulu or CreateSpace if they really only want a few books. There, you only pay the production price of the book and you avoid all the “subsidy” stuff. Using this method you can get in print for under $30.

          • Chris

            Yep, lulu or blurb.

            Easy. Cheap. Passable quality.

    • Chris

      Nah, don’t be so hard on him, Cassie! Poor fella was just prompting punters to take a shot at publishing without getting tied up in all the old-school BS.

      Although, you are right… editing is advisable.

      But it’s certainly not essential.

      That’s the beauty about today’s publishing environment. You can release an ebook in any state you want and still alter it without any financial cost on the re-release. Hell, you don’t even have to tell anyone you’re re-releasing a fixed copy!

      Okay, you may lose a few readers due to the original errors, maybe even garner a few crap reviews. But essentially, it’s no drama for the self-publisher.

      What is important is just getting out there and having a shot. Every writer should embrace the possibilities of self-publishing, instead of cowering from the feared ‘established conventions’.

      Of course, just because a book is edited by a pro doesn’t mean it will be readable.

      I reckon people should just write something. Release it. Learn a little. Go again. Eventually most people will get the hang of it.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Nice, Chris, great to know you’ve got my back. But Blurb? I don’t think so, although they are fantastic for photo books. The problem is the price is so high, yes?

        Thanks for your participation.

        • Chris

          Some of their suppliers are running Indigos. Thus the photobook benefit.

  14. Ed Eubanks

    Good points, Joe, and thanks for the reminders about this. You’re right, of course, on all counts.

    That said: most of the things you listed (#2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, and arguably #6 and 7 in some cases) represent steps that may increase the likelihood that a book will actually sell— and some of them may dramatically increase that likelihood. I know there are some (maybe a lot) of self-publishers who aren’t really concerned about selling copies of their books, or whether anyone actually reads them or not; they just want to see their work in published form. But for many (dare I say most?) self-publishers, the goal of getting their writing in front of others is a high priority.

    It’s still not necessary to do those things in order for your book to sell— provided that you have means to sell them apart from those listed. Maybe you are a frequent speaker and can sell books at your events; maybe you are a prominent pastor and have other means of attracting a reading audience. But this has always been true about self-publishing.

    What I think is so exciting about self-publishing today is that there is that third alternative to either having an existing means (as described above) or working with a traditional publisher: that any writer can develop their market through one or more of the ways you listed above.

    (I know that many of your other posts make my arguments for me, with more detail and to greater effect; but if this is someone’s first “read” from your blog, they may NOT know this!)

    So, again: you’re absolutely right that self-publishers don’t NEED to do these things; but it’s worth noting that they may want to do them nevertheless.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ed, thanks for your comment. And yes, I was aware that first-timers might get the wrong idea, but decided to take that risk. If you write 300 blog posts in a row encouraging people to follow convention and produce a professional book, sometimes you have to “nod” to the other side. And maybe it’s just my way of saying “loosen up” because publishing your own book can be a fun thing to do if you’re not afraid of “doing the wrong thing.” Thanks for reading!

  15. Michael N. Marcus

    >>You can use convention or purposefully ignore it.<<

    Through two years and ten self-pubbed books, I've definitely become more conventional. Maybe it's like the common pattern of liberal and atheistic college students who later become politically conservative and religious. I'm 64 an don't know how much time I have left, so my book design evolution has had to be compressed. [grin]

    By doing lots of books, a self-pubber can experiment with various styles. By using POD, a self-pubber can re-do a book style that later seems wrong. (I'm doing that with three books.)

    My first two books had folios starting on the first page, because the old tradition of blind folios followed by Roman numerals seemed silly. I later realized that folios up front look silly and "went blind" up to the table of contents. However, the Romans no longer use Roman numerals, and neither do I.

    For several books I followed the New York Times style of having em-dashes disconnected from the preceding and following words. I thought that having spaces before and after the dash helpd to unite throughts, not just words. With my last three books, I've connected the dashes. I now think they look just fine, and I can't imagine why this bothered me before.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — "Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don't be a Victim of a Vanity Press,"
    — "Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book,"
    — "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults),"

    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, it’s been interesting to watch your evolution, and you were one of the people I thought about when I wrote this article. Maybe it was the enthusiasm with which you seemed to be “sticking it to the man” in your books, but it proves that you can do pretty much what you want. And even though the Romans don’t use Roman numerals any more, I’m still quite fond of them and using them in my books.



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