A self-publishing journey: what IS self-publishing?

After quite a long gap, I’ve decided to self-publish a few books. I thought it might be interesting to write up my journey, because perhaps the research I undertake will be beneficial to others.

Today, I’m clarifying what the term self-publishing means because, unfortunately, it’s not as obvious as you might think.

There are several variants of self-publishing. Here’s how I think of them.

Vanity publishing

This has been around for a very long time. This is where, traditionally, you pay a publisher to publish your books, or at least make a sizeable contribution to costs. In return for a payment of several thousand pounds or dollars you receive five or six lavishly produced books. You are unlikely to make any money at all from this venture, not least because, having already received payment, the publishing company has no incentive to try to sell anything.

In the days before self-publishing became viable for everyone, the only reasons I could see for anyone choosing the vanity publishing route were either to see their work in print, knowing that no real publisher would touch it, or because they wanted to produce something like a family history or memoir that would be of no interest to anyone outside the family, but tremendously important to its members.

You can tell who the Vanity publishers are. They tend to advertise that they are seeking manuscripts, whereas real publishers are usually inundated with the things.

Then when they receive your manuscript, they tell you it’s wonderful -- before asking you for a “contribution” towards costs.

Self-publishing companies

It all gets a bit confusing when you realise that there are self-publishing companies that will help you get your book into print, in exchange for money.

I think where these differ from vanity publishers however is that they tend to offer a range of services and, crucially, they usually make it pretty clear that you will have to do much of the marketing yourself.

I have never used either vanity publishers or the kind of self-publishing companies I’ve just talked about, but the way I see it is as follows.

A self-publishing company can be useful as a kind of one-stop shop. They will, or can, provide the services of an editor, a proof-reader and a cover designer. They will also sort out ISBN numbers, send copies to the various Book Deposit libraries, and ensure your book is for sale on all the major platforms.

That’s all good, though it can still take a while for your book to materialise. You should also realise that placing your book in all the major platforms is neither difficult (just time-consuming), nor marketing as such.

Prices vary enormously and, as with traditional publishers, you have to have the contract gone over with a fine toothcomb. (If you want to read some real horror stories about contracts that tie “independent” authors in for years see the Writer Beware blog.)


What makes this whole area even more confusing these days is the following:

  • Some traditional publishers have also introduced a self-publishing option.

  • Some agents have also decided to go into publishing.

  • Some so-called “self-publishing” companies are basically short-run printers.

Do-it-yourself self-publishing

In this model, the author is responsible for every aspect of the publishing process. That is not to say he or she does everything. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to outsource some aspects, like editing or cover design. Joanna Penn, in Business for Authors (which I reviewed here: Review of Business for Authors: How to be an author entrepreneur, by Joanna Penn) talks about creating a virtual team, which I think describes it pretty well.

Also though this involves a lot more work, and there’s every chance that the finished product won’t look as good as it could do if you cut corners, what appeals to me about it is that you are completely in the driving seat. You don’t have a contract, and you are not dependent on someone else deciding whether your work is good enough or not.

So, having had experience of being traditionally published, and of self-publishing in the independent sense I’ve just described, and having researched many different self-publishing company models, I have decided that my preferred way forward for most of my books is the do-it-yourself self-publishing route. Why? That’s what I’ll cover in my next post.

I know it’s a bit risky to announce this, in case nothing comes of it (eg I might get run over by a bus), but I'm hoping to write and self-publish a few books. If you'd like to be kept informed of new titles, please sign up to Terry's Books Bulletin by clicking the button below. Thank you.

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