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.

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