There are a lot of things being called self-publishing that aren't.
Google "self publishing help" and you'll find a plethora of companies ready to sell you their services. Talk, as I frequently do, to other writers and tell them you self-publish and they'll say brightly, "So do I! I go through this great company called..." at which point my brain shuts down and I go into nodding-and-smiling mode. Everywhere I look, there seem to be businesses springing up like mushrooms to help the dewy-eyed newbie author thread her way through the maze that is publishing, all for a small (HAH!) fee. Every week offers of help flood my email inbox or lurk in my good-old-fashioned-style antiqued Home Depot mailbox.
Not to mention the fact that on many sites that deal with self-publishing there seems to be an implied assumption that all self-published authors REALLY want to do is to attract the attention of a real publisher, you know, one that'll do all the work for you and leave you to write in peace (as if deadlines, the editor's letter, galleys to proof and the fact that sorry, hon, you're a midlist author and therefore get to do your own marketing didn't exist) and pay you a HUGE advance into the bargain. So why bother to learn the trade if you're soon to ride off into the sunset (heading for your personal writing dojo in the South of France) with your saddlebags stuffed with $100 bills?
Even the big players are in on the act: as The New York Times explains, you can, for example, pay CreateSpace (a division of Amazon) up to $4,853 to help you, at one fell swoop, with all that bothersome editing and design and non-writing stuff. Considering that earlier in the article the writer tells us that "most self-published books sell fewer than 100 or 150 copies, many authors and self-publishing company executives say" (what a wonderfully imprecise piece of journalism!) most wannabe self-publishers may be well advised to stay away from these high-end packages.
The result is that the waters are so muddied that the majority of aspiring authors have no clue what real self-publishing is. It is simply this:
- the author takes 100 percent of the risk
- the author receives 100 percent of the profits
- the author retains her rights to her work in their entirety
This means that you, the author, make the decisions as to who edits your book, who designs the cover and what it looks like, and whether or not you'll have a book trailer (NOT in my opinion; why watch a 2-minute video when you can read the blurb in ten seconds?) You decide the exact moment at which you upload that precious file to Amazon, or whether you want a print version before or after you launch the e-book, or whether you join the KDP Select program or publish on Smashwords or... well, you get the picture. YOU make the decisions, not some company selling you a suite of options (editors you don't know, designers whose work is an unknown quantity and who may not be right for your genre, for example).
And if you self-edit and do your own book covers and upload a Word file and cross your fingers, you can self-publish for practically nothing. The payback, of course, may be an amateurish production that gets bad reviews. On the other hand, if you happen to be a writer whose best friend has a genuine talent for editing AND you have excellent graphic design skills and access to layout software, you may be able to produce a professional-looking product for $0; I have seen this done.
Most of us are not so multi-talented, so we outsource, paying for editing, design and a great cover. This costs money; I read somewhere in the last couple of days (YES I KNOW IMPRECISE JOURNALISM BUT I'M NOT THE NYT AND I'M JETLAGGED) that the average cost is $1,600, which sounds about right.
So no wonder so many authors are driven into the arms of companies offering a one-stop-shop experience. Bless Smashwords founder Mark Coker, who told the NYT that his company "did not offer any services because he wanted to encourage do-it-yourself e-book publishing," for not jumping on a bandwagon that, I believe, is detrimental to self-published writers everywhere.
Why? Because, I believe, if writers are constantly encouraged to turn toward the seemingly easy one-stop solution, true self-publishing--the kind where the author's vision, however mistaken, is paramount--will never gain the strength it needs to build itself into a many-headed beast that the big corporate publishers will never, ever be able to take down. Right now self-publishing is the Wild West, but sooner or later all those little self-publishing-help companies will begin merging into something larger and more powerful, and barriers to self-publishing will begin to appear. I don't know what they'll be, but this is the way business works in this world.
So, writer, educate yourself as to what true self-publishing means, save up your dollars, and strike out for yourself. There has never been a better time; the stigma of being a self-published author is disappearing fast, and the laws of capitalism haven't yet kicked in to create ever larger obstacles in the way of the small player. Don't let the fear of doing it wrong and the initial investment deter you. Spend time learning what the book biz is about, get your book edited, get a good cover and become a small publishing company in your own right. And then if one day people start asking you to publish THEIR books, you may realize that you've joined the other side, but I hope you'll lay out the options fairly in front of them.
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