Two Kinds of Self-Publishers—Which One Are You?

by | Sep 30, 2009

This post is in response to the Backwords Books call for entries for blog posts about self publishing. I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the other entries, a diverse set of people looking at the same moment in time from completely different perspectives.—Joel

As a new blogger on book design and self-publishing, but an old hand at helping authors publish their books, I’ve been treated to quite a tour of the virtual space the last few weeks.

One of the first things I noticed were the numerous, ongoing, and passionate arguments about self-publishing itself; is it the “best idea ever,” or does it simply make you “want to cringe,” both comments I found in recent days.

There’s also quite a bit of confusion about self-publishing and arguments that seem fueled principally by semantic disagreements or misinformation.

Two Kinds of Self Publishers

It seems a lot easier to understand if you realize that there are two types of self-publishers (and yes, this is a generalization, but hopefully a useful one).

  • “Hobby” Publisher  – This is someone who may be writing a cookbook for the PTA, a memoir to share with family members, a photographer creating a book of photos to commemorate an event, a poet wanting to finally see her poems in print, or a novelist tired of the rejections from traditional publishing houses. The common denominator is that they expect the exercise to cost them money, as any hobby would. They publish to fulfill a personal need, or for an institutional reason.

In a way, it’s difficult to call these activities “publishing” because publishing implies making a work available to the public. One thing we can say with a good deal of assurance is that almost none of these books will ever be seen by anyone outside the author’s circle of family, friends and colleagues. From reports in the press, it seems that these books will have virtually no sales outside of those closed circles.

This person may not know what an ISBN is and, in most cases, have no reason to know. They may not know that the odd-numbered pages of books are always on the right-hand side, or how the book distribution system works. They are mostly price-sensitive and pleased to find out there’s a website that will “publish” their book for nothing. They may have no interest in copy editing, proofreading, indexing, and the like. They want a book, and now they can have one.

Consequently, the way these books are made, the suppliers who cater to these self-publishers, and the standards applied to these books (basically, none) are actually quite appropriate for the intentions of the “publisher.” These are the people that all the so-called “self-publishing websites” are intended to serve. It might be more accurate to characterize these companies as manufacturers because essentially they are producing products for a customer, almost exclusively sold to the customer’s account.

The Other Kind of Self Publisher

  • “Competitive” Self-Publisher – This self-publisher knows that publishing their own book also means that they are going into business. They may be a previously published author trying to break into a new niche, a consultant publishing a book on their specialty or, more likely, a non-fiction author of a niche book who has the entrepreneurial spirit to realize that they can make their book a financial success all by themselves.

This type of self-publisher has been around a long time, and predates the print-on-demand era, although print-on-demand has lowered the risk for these publishers and encouraged them to bring new books to market.

This self-publisher has done her homework. If she intends to sell her books in bookstores, she knows she will have to compete with books from conglomerate-publishers for space. Often an enthusiast or recognized expert in the field they write in, they may already have an audience for their book from their own activities.

This publisher will hire professionals to edit, design, layout and produce her book, and will more than likely have professional marketing help as well. She will follow a production schedule, or find a competent “book shepherd” to organize the myriad details of production, distribution and launch. She will form a company and will publish her book as a business activity. She expects, like any businessperson, to make a profit. For some authors, the profit from publication is most important, but in other cases the prestige, leverage, or enhanced speaking and lecturing opportunities are the expected profit.

Both Kinds of Self Publishers Can Be Successful

I’ve produced wonderful books for both kinds of self-publishers. Many of the books published by a “competitive” self publisher, given an author who is motivated and attentive to business, go on to make money. Self-publishing niche nonfiction, especially for someone known in their field, is almost always profitable. Dan Poynter has been launching self-publishers like this for many years.

I’ve often asked prospective clients to tell me how they would define “success” for their publishing project. The answer to this question determines everything that follows. Listening carefully to your own answer to this question will guide you through the thickets of self publishing. Good luck.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Sean Kennedy

    What I don’t understand is the whole process of self-publishing. I went on a self-publishing site, and I was very confused, I have no idea if I’m the one giving the company my PDF format of my novel for them to work with then sell me the books, or is it that they will be the ones selling the books. Can you please explain to me which is it?

  2. Adam

    Hi Joel, thank you for doing all this. It’s very helpful and immensely encouraging to be given practical help. I have a poetry book and a novel-in-stage-unknown in the works. Both are works that I would love to see go “big.” Since I’m largely unaware of how either will fare, what would you suggest I do? Should I go for big and hope big, should I start small and hope for bigger? Thank you for all your help!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Adam, I encourage you to start out with a small work so you can learn how the publishing business works. With the experience you gain, you’ll be much better prepared for more substantial projects.

  3. norma vought

    I wrote a poetry book it has 70 pages and my poetry word count whole

    document words 10827. can you help me find a poetry publisher how can

    you publish my poetry book for free?

  4. Mary Horan

    I guess I am the first type but a part of me wonders if what I have written would appeal to others who would actually pay money to own a copy. It was nice to see someone older than myself also wanting to self publish. It is certainly encouraging. I am prompted to take this further than fantasy when I again shared a few poems and was asked again why I had not published something so beautiful that they were moved to tears. Your site has much to offer in helping me to learn about this self publishing, that in the world of the internet would not be cost prohibitive. And if it turns out to be more than a book for family and friends, at my age a little cash might make life more lively and certainly interesting.

  5. Kenneth E Wilson

    This is really informative as it will serve as guidance in publishing my first book. I will key into your article to broaden my knowledge more thanks. -ken-wise

  6. brent thurston-rogers

    Joel, you lost me when you wrote “book shephard”, unless you were making some kind of pun on ‘shepherd’.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for finding that typo, it’s been fixed.

  7. mickeypamo

    Elly seems to be quite a strong woman. Thanks for the guidance.
    mickey morgan (mickeypamo)

  8. Jessica

    Thank you very much for this information! As I work on my first book, I am grateful for your website.

  9. Percy

    Thx Joel for your definitions above. I’ll continue to educate myself through other articles in your website, on my way to writing my first book as a “Competitive Self-Publisher”

  10. Elly Friedman

    I am going to be 90 years old this year and have many disabilities including MG. I have produced two movies and written some movie scripts. It is too stressful now for me to to produce movies and so I am converting some of my scripts to books and I am self publishing them. One of my fears has been acquiring alzheimers disease. Since I have started my self publishing writing I find that my brain has become much more active and the visualization and imagination that comes with it has partially overcome my disabilities. It is a new pleasure for me which I would recommend for others. I have always been very competetive and want to learn all about the publishing business, and the new technologies. Thank you.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Elly, thanks for leaving your comment. And thanks for the really good news that activities that challenge the mind, like self-publishing, may also be good for your health. I hope you enjoy the articles on this site, and good luck with your publishing projects. If you have any queestions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help out.

  11. Jill

    I found this an insightful article for me personally. I have always believed that everyone openly or secretly believes there is a book inside them. I can remember when vanity press publishing was considered an opportunity to print your book and with luck lead to being discovered and reprinted by a publishing house and eventually make money!
    Joel, now I have read your article I can now understand the value of self publishing and the difference between a hobbyist self published book and a competitive self published book. Both authors will have a book in hand and both authors will be pleased with the goal achieved. The pride and accomplishment that comes with having written a book! However, like you said the success of the book is in the individual’s answer and everyone measures success in their own special way but like in any field in business a focused, well planned and executed project such as a professionally published book most assuredly has broader opportunities to be successful and can run with the big boys!



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