I wrote this article about 10 years ago; it was reprinted a number of times in various small newspapers around the U.S.A. Since then, "self-publishing" has grown immensely, into an entire movement known as Independent Publishing, or "Indie" Publishing. Now, hundreds of thousands of books each year are published independently. Some of the information in this article is outdated -- for example, the number of books independently published has skyrocketed. Nevertheless, much of the information here is still sound advice to new authors.
— Michael Pastore
Publish Your Book Yourself:
Some Simple and Sensible Advice
TRY GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED by conventional means, and you quickly discover two discouraging facts. Most of the major publishers that you write to won't look at your manuscript unless it is submitted by a literary agent. Most literary agents won't take you as a client unless you've already had a book published by a major publisher. This frustrating dilemma brings to mind the ludicrous law (still on the books in one state): "When two vehicles meet on a one-lane roadway, neither one shall move until the other has passed."
One way to solve this publishing predicament -- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse -- is to publish the book yourself. In 1855, Walt Whitman set type at his friend's printing company, then paid for the printing of the first edition of his unappreciated masterpiece Leaves of Grass. With the help of his wife, William Blake -- considered by his contemporaries to be a madman, and now regarded as one of the world's great poets -- handcrafted all his books in his own workshop at home. Some other once-ignored now-famous writers who have published independently include Benjamin Franklin; Henry David Thoreau; Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Carl Sandburg; Rudyard Kipling; William Strunk, Jr. (The Elements of Style); D.H. Lawrence; Gertrude Stein; Beatrix Potter; the Bronte Sisters; John Galsworthy; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Browning; George Bernard Shaw; Samuel Butler; William E.B. Du Bois; James Joyce (Ulysses); Percy Shelley; John Ruskin (Unto This Last); Anais Nin; and Virginia Woolf.
While many of the well-known major publishers have had to merge to stay alive, small-press publishing and self- publishing is thriving. In the United States, more than 100,000 books are published every year. According to author and self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, approximately 53,000 of these books are published by small presses and independent publishers.
Self-publishing your book differs from getting the book published by a larger publisher in three important ways. When your book is published by a larger publisher, then that publisher 1) pays for all the printing and publicizing expenses; 2) does the work of preparing the manuscript, working with the printer, and getting publicity and selling the book; and 3) keeps most the profits: generally between 85% to 94% of the sales. (But keep in mind that the publisher loses 40% to 50% of these profits to pay retailers and distributors.) How is self-publishing financially different? Self-publishing authors 1) pay for everything; 2) do all the work; and 3) keep all the profit.
With the so-called vanity presses the author gets the worst of both worlds: the author pays for the printing of the book, and still pays the vanity publisher a large percentage for each book sold.
Urbana publisher and author Rupert Evans has been practicing and promoting a unique variation to the standard method of self-publishing. Evans, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, explains it thoroughly in his self-published book Book-on-Demand Publishing. (see Self-Publishing Resources sidebar for more information). The most troublesome problem with the financial end of self-publishing is that the publishers-authors print, for example, one thousand books (printing less will usually cost too much per book), and then, too-often (as Thoreau and Whitman discovered) can sell only a small percentage of that amount. Evans neatly cuts this Gordian knot by making his own books, one at a time, in his workshop at home. Evans prints the pages of his book with a laser printer; then binds them with a strong adhesive glue; then cuts the edges with a powerful paper cutter called a guillotine. Using Evans's method, if a publisher receives an order for ten books, the publisher simply makes ten books. There's no enormous initial printing expense to fork out, and no large inventory to clog your closet space. Evans says that binding your own books at home is easy, and can be learned in less than one hour. And if you don't want to buy a guillotine cutter, you can take your book to any copy shop, which will be glad to trim it on three sides for a reasonable price.
Advice from Rupert Evans helped Bruce Pea, a resident of Champaign, successfully self-publish his book The Prairienet Companion. Pea learned about self-publishing from three sources: from Evans, from books on the subject, and by joining an Internet mailing list. "It didn't take long to write this book, only about two months," Pea said. "The editing process, on the other hand, seemed like it would take forever." Pea said that a friend of his did wonderful work as the books's editor. "Editing took about five months and was worth all the effort it took to get the manuscript in shape," he added. Asked to give advice to newcomers, Pea said: "The first thing I would say is know who will buy your book and how you are going to reach them when you are ready to sell your book before you start writing. Also find a good editor, graphic artist and printer to work with."
The actual process of self-publishing your book may be divided into four basic phases: writing and editing; finding and working with a book printer; preparing the text, cover, and illustrations for printing; and publicizing and selling the book. All these skills and activities can be self-taught. The self-publisher may choose to do all of these activities herself, or hire help for any specific phase of the project. The remainder of this article contains a dozen sensible tips for getting started. The most common and most important questions are addressed here: How should a newcomer begin? What needs to be done? How much will it cost? Will the book be a success?
First write your book, and write it well. This first slice of advice is by far the most important. Read books in the same field as yours and compare for quality. If your book doesn't measure up, go back to the writing board, and rewrite until its right. Before telling yourself the magic words ("The book is done!") get opinions from well-read friends who will tell you with objective candor exactly what they think.
Publishing your book yourself should be considered as a last resort, only to be attempted if you have money to burn, time to spare, and a book you believe in with your whole heart and soul. It's rare for a first-time author-publisher to financially break even. (Repeat this last sentence seven times before embarking on the self-publishing adventure.) Begin by following the beaten track: send your manuscript to established publishers and literary agents. But remember too, that a large percentage of books published by major publishers never get off the ground. In 1851, Herman Melville's Moby Dick was published by one of the top publishers in New York, and ten years later it had sold only sixty copies. Possibly the best way to reduce the financial risk of self-publishing is to use Rupert Evans's book-on-demand method, discussed above.
Beware of fee-charging literary agents and vanity presses. Avoid literary agents that want to charge a reading fee, or other fees except basic expenses for photocopying, phone calls, and the like. Resist the temptation to be published by the well-named "vanity" presses. Said Martin J. Baron: "Vanity publishing is to legitimate publishing as loansharking is to banking." Literary agents and publishers should pay the author, not vice versa.
Decide if self-publishing is right for you. Using this article and the books and websites on the accompanying Self-Publishing Resources list, make a plan of things to do, how much you'll be spending, and what you hope to achieve. Remember that the process of producing a book is usually performed by a large team of experienced professionals. If you're going to do it all by yourself, expect it to take a lot of time. Will it be worth it the effort? Only you can decide.
Get at least ten printing estimates. The cost of printing your book depends on many factors: the size of the book, the number of illustrations, the number of pages, and much more. To print 1,000 copies of a basic no-frills paperback book can cost, generally, between 3,000 and 5,000 dollars. Get estimates from at least ten book printers who specialize in printing short-runs: these printers have the technology and know-how to give you the best quality and the lowest price. The best-known short-run book printers are listed in many of the books or websites in our Self-Publishing Resources feature.
Do your own typesetting and save a bundle. Self-publishing is a many-faceted process. The more work you do yourself, the more money you can save, and the more control you have over the quality of the finished book. The desktop publishing revolution began when computers gave individuals the ability to do typesetting from their offices or homes. To typeset your book yourself, you'll need a computer with a word-processing program such as WordPerfect(tm) or Microsoft Word(tm). A full-blown publishing program -- such as Quark Xpress(tm) or PageMaker(tm) -- is a nice luxury, but for most books (especially books without many pictures), the word-processing program will suffice. A good-quality laser printer -- 600 dpi or better -- will print the text pages that you send to your book printing company. Your book printing company will then photograph these pages, print them, bind them, and transform them into your book.
Consider learning about "Electronic PrePress", called "EP". We are now riding the crest of the wave in the "Electronic PrePress" revolution. Instead of sending text-on-paper to your printing company, by using the right software you can now send your manuscript on a computer diskette. The end result is that your words will come out looking sharper on the printed page. Both methods, the older (see paragraph above) and the newer EP, work well enough. And both can be learned in a relatively short amount of time. EP doesn't stand for electronic paradise -- there's a downside to be evaluated: EP works best with an Apple computer, and the software required can be expensive.
Avoid Nouveau-Vanity Presses, but explore Print-On-Demand and Digital Printing Options. Avoid all publishing systems where the author pays for printing but does now own 100% of her/his books: in other words, avoid the "nouveau-vanity publishers" that take a percentage every time your book is sold. Well worth exploring, however, are Print-On-Demand companies (P.O.D.), and digital printing companies.
Get the Numbers. Long before you send your book to the printer, you'll need to get all kinds of numbers. A ten-digit ISBN number -- such as: 0-927379-96-1 -- is a kind of unique Social Security Number for your book. ISBNs can only be obtained (and for a fee) by writing to R.R. Bowker Company (see our Self-Publishing Resources section.) While you're at it, ask Bowker for an Advance Book Information (ABI) Form, the form that first announces your book to the outside world. Of course, there is other paperwork involved in the business side of self-publishing. The most important is a business license and tax forms from your state and local government: call your county clerk for details.
Get your book into the big library. If your book is chosen for the vast collection at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington DC, then you'll have a better chance of selling the book, especially to libraries. Long before you plan to publish, call or write to the Library of Congress and ask for information and forms about their Preassigned Catalog Number (PCN) program. The information you need is titled: "Procedures for Securing Preassigned Library of Congress Catalog Card Numbers"; and "Request for Preassignment of LCC Number" applications. See our Self-Publishing Resources section for LOC contact information, including their website where you can quickly print these forms.
Protect your literary property. Call or write or hit the website of the Library of Congress to get your Copyright forms. Request package # 109, which contains a Circular 1 and form TX. (see Self-Publishing Resources section for contact information and the LOC copyright website).
Get your book reviewed. Once your book is printed, marketing the book is a whole new challenge. It's difficult to sell any kind of book yourself, but nonfiction writers usually have an easier time than fiction writers and poets. Whatever genre you choose, invest time in trying to get your book reviewed by large or small publications, local and far away. Good reviews, or any reviews at all, can make a vital difference.
Learn everything you can about the world of publishing and self-publishing. The more you learn, the better your chances. Mark Twain said: "I believe in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more of it I have." For more information, take a look at the books and websites included on our list of Self-Publishing Resources. Many of the books listed, and the Publish Today & Perish Tomorrow website, offer detailed checklists that map out each step of the publishing journey. Like any new business, self-publishing is a significant risk. Twenty years after paying to publish his great book of poems, Walt Whitman was so desperately poor that he was selling his books from a basket on the streets of Camden. And the good-natured Henry David Thoreau jokingly complained that he owned a large library of almost a thousand volumes, and 700 of these were unsold copies of his first self-published book.
Perhaps these two great authors had heard the old folk proverb: "Gold has no value if it remains inside the mountain." Of course, for Whitman and Thoreau, the treasure they wanted was not the same coveted substance as the world's glittering gold. When you write and publish your book -- not for the money -- for the joy and the experience it brings you, that joy is your true wealth and your real success.