Quick Note on Self-Publishing

This is actually very simple, people. Leaving aside the actual discussion of the wisdom of self-publishing, generally speaking, if you are going to self-publish, for the love of all that is good and decent in this world, don’t pay to do it. In this day and age, there is no reason to do so.

If you don’t need physical copies of what you’re writing, then there’s especially no reason to pay anyone to publish, since a simple word processing file will suffice, and if you’re truly inspired to put your document into pdf or one of the various e-book formats, there’s software that will let you do that for free.

If you do need a physical copy, then someplace like Lulu.com will let you design and set up that physical copy for free, and the only time you (or anyone else) pays for the thing is when you order a copy, in which case Lulu charges you for the paper, binding, shipping and (I’m sure) a small cut for their profits. This is vastly less expensive than any other way you could do it.

(Bear in mind that the above assumes you are minimally competent to copyedit your own work and are competent to do a basic design for your book, either on your own or using the default settings available on Lulu or other similar services. If not, you can hire people to do these specific tasks, which is still very likely to be cheaper than a suite of services you would buy from a vanity publisher.)

Speaking personally, when it comes to self-publishing, as long as people know what they’re getting into and have their expectations grounded in the real world, I have no problem with people self-publishing, since I’ve done it myself at least a couple of times, and may choose to do it again in the future. I also have no problem with services like Lulu; I have a Lulu account and I use it whenever I finish a manuscript because I run off personal, bound copies for myself and my wife prior to official publication, and occasionally to auction a copy for charity (Lulu also offers “service packages,” which I don’t recommend, but the basic package — which is what I use when I use them — is free). Self-publishing can be useful in certain specific circumstances, even if it is almost never profitable in any significant way.

But again, if there’s one thing I can drill into your head about self-publishing, it is: Don’t pay for it. There are lots of ways to do it that don’t involve you shelling out a dime to anyone else before you have a product available to sell.

45 Comments on “Quick Note on Self-Publishing”

  1. Just curious, for your typical novel length work, how much does it cost for a couple of copies via Lulu?

    I may be misreading the site, but it appears most for sale books are in the $18-$23 range, I don’t know if that is set based on pure page count/production+margin cost or if that is the author’s set price.

  2. I also have that question, Andy Smith, especially because the most “basic” package I see on Lulu is $200 for “formatting.” I’ve heard of a few authors who print up bound copies for themselves or family before the book’s publication. I did that last year for my father at Kinkos, but it was closer to $50. $200 seems pretty steep to men, though I would like to do it for my father again this year.

    John, what package do you use?

  3. I recently printed off a novel-length manuscript for myself for about $13, which is the “wholesale” cost of production, set by Lulu. The cost will vary depending on page length, which itself will vary depending on word length, font size and so on.

  4. I’ve always liked the print-on-my-demand concept. But your method of printing a copy for yourself is lovely. Whenever I start a project the first thing I do is make the poster — that way it fools my brain into thinking it actually exists (my brain is easily fooled) and all there is to do is fill in the blank space. So to me, the idea of having that final, physical evidence, to thumb through and catch those persistent little errors that one only catches in an accidental read, is wonderful.

  5. Diana Peterfreund @ 2

    If you’re not too picky about perfect-bound or hard bound you can pick up a pretty nice comb-binding machine for about $120. Combine that with a printer that’ll do automatic double siding and you can do it yourself in minutes to the manuscript. That’s what I do for my beta readers in the round before I send things off to my editors. The nice thing about it is that I can put betas together and get them ready to off to readers within a few hours of finishing the draft without having to leave the house. I started doing it that way because I live in the middle of nowhere and going through a printer or taking it to a copy center adds up to several days and significant travel time to the proposition.

  6. Andy @ 1: From what I understand, that’s pretty typical for a POD paperback. They’re simply more expensive than standard mass-market paperbacks.

    I bought one very short programming book off of Lulu years ago, and was very pleased with the obscure specialist content. But I don’t regularly buy self-published books, because I’m not aware of very many that are worth buying.

    A few self-publishers have done very well indeed, most notably Edward Tufte, who mortgaged his house to print the The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. He explains:

    I also wanted to control the design to make the book self-exemplifying, i.e. the book itself would reflect the intellectual principles advanced in the book. Publishers seemed appalled at the prospect that an author might govern design… On the design side, I found Howard Gralla, who had designed many museum catalogs with great care and craft. He was willing to work closely with this difficult author who was filled with all sorts of opinions about design. We spent the summer in his studio laying out the book, page by page. We were able to integrate graphics right into the text, sometimes into the middle of a sentence, eliminating the usual separation of text and image, one of the ideas Visual Display advanced.

    But before following his example, do consider his advice on the subject: My general advice about self-publishing is do it only (1) if the content of your work clearly demands self-publishing and (2) after you have published some books with real publishers. Very very few books make significant money for the authors.

  7. Thanks, Kelly, but my printer is… crotchety at best. Usually, I rely on kinkos if I want to print anything more complex than a few pages. And I print things so rarely that investing in a new printer is hardly worth it. It’s valuable more for its scanning functions at this point. Paying for kinkos (or lulu, if I can figure it out) so once a year so my darling dad can get his own, personalized “advanced reader copy” before my publisher even sends our ARCs is all I need.

  8. Thanks for this. There are so many economical ways to self-pub I always cringe when I meet someone who’s paid.

    Writing is a commodity. Readers and publishers are supposed to pay writers, not the other way around.

  9. I never gave much thought to this…but using Lulu as a way to print a nerd x-mas gift-book for my friends might be a neat idea. I’ll have to investigate this further. There is a nugget of awesome in this idea.

    I guess the real question is how expensive is it to print hardbound books, which I’ll have to examine Lulu’s prices to find out.

  10. There are exceptions even to this, of course. Some webcomic artists who sell collections of their work actually do make a living on their self-published works by essentially becoming their own small press. Since they have a built-in audience (assuming they have enough web-traffic and put out a good product) it makes more sense for them to shell out some money so that they can make a higher profit margin on their books. Places that you don’t pay tend to take most of the pie slices, since your sales is how they make their money.

  11. Good to point out that what “vanity” publishers offer can be done much more cheaply (hence what you are paying for is someone sucking up to you).

    I spent time in the micro-indie film scene before starting with the novel writing. I have to say that in both worlds the folks who had successful experiences with self-funding their art (defined as not being angry and spittingly bitter about the whole thing), all had some previous experience as businesspeople. Either they had run a company, or had a sales career where their salary depended entirely on how much product they moved each month.

  12. Janci:

    There are exceptions to every case, but the point is to note they are in fact exceptions. Most people considering vanity presses, etc do not have audiences already built in, for example.

    Mary Arr:

    Indeed, one huge problem with this is that most writers and creative types don’t have much training in business or finance.

  13. I have frequently used Lulu’s services, printing perfect-bound editions of some never-to-be marketed collaborative fiction for, at the most, three people wholly for our own amusement and reference. Being Word proficient, this is done entirely without help except for using Lulu’s template for file formatting. The books are, on the whole, very nice and reasonably priced; the only payment is for materials, shipping and Lulu’s fairly minuscule take. And if I’m not mistaken, Lulu only takes a “cut” if you are selling your items; for me, with my revenue set to zero, Lulu takes nothing more than the manufacturing cost and shipping.

    I can’t say much for Lulu’s customer service, however, if there is a problem with their final product (which has happened twice–once print quality issues, the other when they essentially destroyed a book’s cover while packing it). Abysmal customer service in both instances, unfortunately, and both occasions required much hoop-jumping to get resolution and replacement.

  14. As one who also uses Lulu, I’ll note: The production costs aren’t hard to find (look for the FAQs) and are very explicit. The prices you’re seeing are set by authors who, you know, might actually want to earn a buck or two. There’s no need to take any Lulu “package” (and they don’t push them), if you’re able to generate PDF–or clean Word–and can follow directions. (Word has book templates, you know…)

    I’ve used it both to produce a paperback annual of the free monthly ejournal I publish(costs about the same as Kinko’s Velobound, but I get better paper, better print quality, and a gorgeous wraparound color cover–and I can sell copies to one or two others who might want them) and to produce some actual books for sale, and been pleased in all cases. My wife’s using them for genealogical books, with magnificent and cost-effective results… [Yes, I’ve published books through traditional publishers–a dozen, all in the library field–and I understand the difference. I’m delighted that Scalzi and most commenters differentiate between self-pub and vanity publishing.]

    Just don’t think of Lulu as a publisher; they’re not. They’re a service agency, providing as much or as little service as you choose to pay for or, in some cases, not pay for. (Want to give away PDFs as downloads while selling paperback versions? Yep, Lulu will do that, too–and they maintain the storefront.)

  15. John: Of course. And vanity presses aren’t the way to go for people with built-in audiences, either. I’m not sure there are any exceptions to the rule that vanity presses are NOT the way to go.

  16. @9 Absolutely on printing gifts. I actually have a fan-fiction I love that I had physical copies of printed from Lulu. Just because I got tired of printing out pages off and on, when I just wanted to read one more chapter while cooking dinner ect. When you start adding in printer ink, paper and time…well they are reasonable. The longest one was almost 800pages and less than 20.00 in trade paper format. Lulu doesn’t seem to do mass market size that I have seen.

  17. New goal in life: hack into John’s Lulu account so I can order copies of his books before they are published!

    Just kidding. Maybe.

  18. My parents have used Lulu a couple of times, for the kinds of projects that self-publishing is ideal for. My mother published a textbook on nursing education that was a bound and printed version of the notes she’d put together after decades of teaching. My father created a catalog of my parents’ extensive print collection and gave copies to my siblings and me last Christmas.

    Neither of these things required any money up front, or any ego-stroking about how one was a real live published author now.

  19. When to self-publish:

    after going to thirty or so bookstores (chains, indies, specialist shops) and seeing nothing like your category of book on the shelves of 90 percent of them.

    Note, this can make self-publishing Book Type X wise at one point, foolish the next. A decade ago, it made perfect sense to self-publish “urban” novels. Now publishing has caught on and many publishers have their own urban lines. Better off going with a real publisher now, rather than spending $10,000 on a query letter (the book itself).

  20. Lulu does offer “Pocket Book” size, 4.25×6.87 inches, which is mass-market size–but it’s an awful way to format most books; trade (6×9) is much better.

    If you think you’re going to sell hundreds of copies, Lulu’s not the way to go (print-on-demand is inherently expensive), but it’s a great way to test a market or a book or to do very short-run items, such as Sheila’s. (To be fair, CreateSpace, a division of Amazon, offers somewhat similar services with no upfront fees, but with even less handholding than Lulu and taking a bigger chunk on regular sales. On the other hand, you do get a free ISBN and Amazon listing. My “regular” Lulu books also have CreateSpace editions, since neither one is exclusive.)

  21. To clarify Janci’s note, I don’t know of any webcomic artists who use a vanity press, though many of them do self publish. It seems that most of them put together the whole book themselves and then go to a printer (not kinkos but an actual book printer) to have 500-2000 copies made. At that number, a printer is cheap than than POD.

    Most of them seem to find self publishing a ton of work, especially the first time. The layout takes time. Direct sales have a higher profit margin but tracking, packing, and shipping several hundred orders the first few weeks is quite a bit of work and takes organization.

  22. Forgot to add: POD has much less risk. Printers are generally structured with a payment format of X + YN, with N the number of books and X a decent amount. So it’s not practical to make tiny print runs. Ideally, you can judge the right number for a single printing so you don’t run out and have to pay for a second run.

    The death blow to many tiny specialty publishers such as wargame and rpg companies has been to over estimate a print run and get stuck with a big bill and then pay for a warehouse space for product than lingers.

  23. Can I add an addendum?

    If you’re going to self-publish, and you’re going to pay for it, pay a printer not a “publishing house.” For instance, I run my own company to publish table-top role-playing games (a niche product if there ever was one.) I do small (100-200 copy) print runs. I make pretty good money at it, for a hobby-not-a-job (around $5000 a year.)

    I would never, ever, use a publication service or other sort of big name vanity press. At the best, these people are just going to turn around and call an actual printer. At the worst, they’re going to take your money, run off five copies at the local shop, and you’ll never see the rest of your copies again.

    But Lulu copies cost a lot of money, and I can be pretty confident of a low level of sales per product (I have a few fans of my work, and word does get around.) So using a non-POD printer ends up saving me a chunk of cash. But *that’s* the reason to pay for it — after you’ve sold a few copies and had a hard look at your bottom line — not because “it’ll get you published.” If all you want to do is “get published,” Lulu or the local copy shop will handle that just fine.


  24. Never never never never EVER pay a publisher for ANYTHING! Even extra ARCs. If you have to have more than your contract will pay for, go Lulu. There are people who will do it even cheaper.

  25. Publishers are not printers; printers are not publishers. Folks who blur that line tend to be vanity presses.

    Lulu and Lightning Source and others of that sort are extremely useful for onesie-twosie printing.

    If you’re looking for 100 copies of a book, there are a zillion short-run digital printers who can do very high quality work for less than Lulu would charge for mediocre quality. (A different one calls me every bloody week. Thank goodness I can say, “I’m sorry, our printing is under contract until 2012.”)

    As for design… I play a game in the hucksters’ room at conventions, called “Spot the Self-Pub.” I used to be able to do it by seeing the shite quality of the printing, but short-run digital printing has improved to the point that I actually have to pick up the book in order to be certain it’s not done by offset presses.

    However, the giveaway is still the design. I can tell a lot of self-pubs from across the room because the writer didn’t hire a real cover designer.

  26. Thank you for this information. It’s actually rather timely for me.

    Mr. Scalzi mentioned hiring people to do copy editing and design. Does anyone have recommendations on specific services or people they have used? Also, about how much does something like this cost for a non fiction book? Does it vary by content? Page count? Something else?

  27. I work for a publishing services company, and yes, it’s completely true that places like Sir Speedy can print you a lovely book to hand out to your friends, that blurb.com is fantastic for making coffee table books (I know an interior designer who put her portfolio in a book that way and it looks terrific!) but it is incredibly bad advice to say that most people can take a Word-formatted manuscript and make a professional-quality book out of it.

    The self-publishing world catches enough crap for having poorly edited and badly designed books. Why? Because people think companies like Lulu.com are all you need. Sometimes they are. Often they are not.

    Company’s like ours help writers keep control of their work without having to deal with the steep learning curve to not only learn how to format a book properly or how to get it distributed (with returnability), but we also educate authors on how to best market it.

  28. @ Kat G
    You sound so reasonable when you explain it like that… But: Yog’s law. If you’re a publisher, you’ll get your money fromt he books you publish and pay the author for the work he/she did. If you take the author’s money, you’re not a publisher.

  29. GalJ: I’m head of editing and production for a university press, and was a design manager at HarperCollins. Email me at emglover at hotmail dot com and I’ll try to help you out. (Note to the peanut gallery: this invitation is to GalJ only.)

    Copyeditors are chosen based on content. Fiction and nonfiction editors are very much NOT interchangeable (though of course there are some people capable of both). Nonfiction copy editors often have specialties (this is particularly true in the university press world, where things such as foreign language facility make a difference).

    Costs vary by content, length, and something most freelancers call “aggravation tax.” Which is to say that somehow…annoying clients pay more than charming clients. ;-)

  30. especially because the most “basic” package I see on Lulu is $200 for “formatting.”

    You don’t need to pay that if you upload a .pdf file that’s already laid out, Diana.

    If you upload your own files, the per-unit cost is around $20 US for a 200-page hardback, IIRC. The website’s cost calculator is pretty accurage.

    When you’re self-publishing, formatting is a service you can purchase (from Lulu, from freelance folks, etc.), or you can do it yourself. Editing is a service you can purchase (from freelance editors, etc.), or you can do it yourself. Cover design is a service you can purchase, or you can do it yourself.

  31. This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on Self-publishing all year.

    I’ve been self-publishing niche books on taxation since 2006. I’ve done very well, and I use a POD printer and own my own publishing label. My out-of-pocket costs are minimal– I do pay a professional editor and I usually pay for cover design, which is about $800-1,000 per manuscript.

    CreateSpace and LULU really are the best places to start. CreateSpace offers wholesale copies for as little as $2.50, which is very inexpensive.

  32. Nathreee @28, Kat G @27 did not say they were a publisher, but a publishing services company. World of difference.
    One of the things I have liked about this thread is the clear distinction between publishers (pay the author, pay the editor, pay the artist, pay the designer, get paid from sales) and all the other varieties of tasks in the publishing field.

  33. Pretty good advice. You mentioned the electronic format and you can always publish to some place like Kindle. There are also a lot of web sites that will publish short stories on-line and maybe even a full length novel at no charge.

    If a person likes writing short stories, writer’s groups are always looking for new members and many of them publish anthologies with submissions from their members. They don’t usually charge for this and often give the authors that had manuscripts accepted free copies of the anthology. I’ve done this twice myself. It didn’t cost me anything AND I got a copy or two free from the publisher. It’s not big-time, but it’s free.

  34. An open-source Linux documentation project I was heavily involved in about four years ago published a physical manual of our work through Lulu; it was the same Docbook-markup content as the system’s built-in help, but run through a PDF converting script and cleaned up manually.

    We set our Lulu account up to be zero royalties, so total cost to our project was zero, and the cost per-book was as low as possible. I forget the exact sales figures, but we did sell a fair number of copies.

    The coolest part was working with the translation teams to do internationalized non-English editions; I’d done the original cover art and found myself learning to work with Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic and other non-Western scripts for the first time… and I’m esentially a unilingual English speaker! (we eventually hacked out a script to do most of the translation, by pulling certain phrases from the already translated content and copying them into the SVG graphics used for the cover.)

    Lulu worked well for us, but we did have, between us, a large amount of computer knowhow, reasonable design chops, and some layout and publishing experience. The content is several years out of date now, but it was a great project.

  35. @Scalzi (#12)

    When it comes to the issue of novices (and some experienced authors) having less than adequate business training, let me just say…Amen.

    One of the first things I advise clients to do is become familiar with the industry – very, very, very familiar.

    One of the other things I advise is that they find a good lawyer. (You’ll note I don’t advise “my clients” to that end – probably because I try not to give advice that’s no longer necessary or relevant. I tend to think they already have one.)

    It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of business savvy when making decisions about writing, particularly when it’s intended as a career. Self-publishing isn’t “traditional publishing,” and it’s not for everyone, but I know plenty of people who’ve used it to good advantage. The real issue is one of disclosure, information and understanding – without which, quite frankly, people make bad decisions in many areas – publishing perhaps the least of them.

    And just to add two more cents’ worth: I have several clients who use Lulu regularly, for various purposes (read: I’m the lawyer, don’t ask me for details) and although I have only very limited contacts with the company, my experience with their business department has been much better than I expected. They seemed particularly interested in ensuring they met the needs of small publishers and independent publishers. I can’t otherwise recommend or criticize their service, but I can say they did have a better grasp of the issues and a more helpful support team than I expected.

  36. For the love of &deity; do NOT use MS Wurd to format anything that is to be professionally printed. There’s these things called typography, nuance, readability and design; have you heard of them? If you think Wurd is good enough, then you have not.

    I don’t write fiction because I suck at it, so don’t think you know anything about typesetting and typography unless you’ve successfully done it with the right tools and study.

  37. I self-released a DVD via CreateSpace and had a very good experience with them. The product was indistinguishable from a professional studio product (other than the lackluster insert design, which is my fault; I did it myself). They’re up front about costs and how much they take, and the film is not only available from their e-store and Amazon but also now streaming on Amazon, none of which I had to pay up front for (Amazon takes an additional cut of the price on top of CreateSpace’s cut, though, so even fewer pennies go into my pocket).

  38. @ 33 Alice Bentley
    So, if it’s so different, why do they call it by almost the same name? Oh wait, right, they’re after money, and things like this are very common in the US…
    And why would I pay them to do it, if a publisher is going to do it for free?

  39. Nathreee @ 39
    Because they are providing services to publishers.

    When you are self-publishing, you have to either do the things a publisher does yourself, or pay someone else to do it.

    A long time ago, I worked for a company that wanted to produce printed manuals for the software that we produced. There was no way a real publisher was going to do it, there was simply no market. So we hired a publishing services company (I don’t remember which one, and this was 15 years ago) to help produce the book. I had to write the dang thing, but they did the layout, typography, etc, helped us find a printer, advised us on paper and binding, and basically got us through a process we knew nothing about.

    And afterwards, we owned it.

    If you’re familiar with Yog’s Law, you might have also read Slushkiller. Vanity presses are preying on the first 10 grades. Self publishing is for grades 11+, that is, “Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.”

  40. When in doubt, look at whether the ‘service company’ is entangling your copyright! If so — it’s vanity.

    The only legit case I know of is if someone like Lightning Source or lulu needs a non-exclusive license to print copies to fill orders from third parties. No one should ever get an exclusive license or anything that affects your copyright for this or future books.

  41. I’ve used both Lulu and CreateSpace for niche printing jobs. The latter has less hand-holding in its online interface, though the base-cost-per-book is lower. The printing quality has been fine either way. Rule of thumb: expect to order two test copies, as the first one you get will have a gutter margin 3mm too narrow, or you’ll find that you invented a stunning new way to spell the word sloped which somehow evaded all prior rounds of copy-editing.

    As luck would have it, I found that you can use the same PDF for both services. Being me, I did it all in LaTeX, which beats M$ Word in the typesetting department any day, provided you’re willing to write your SF murder mystery in a Turing-complete programming language.

  42. I have a similar post about self-publishing on my blog. I’ve also provided a link to a video showing the Espresso Book Machine at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London.

  43. You have a good point. That’s why it’s also important to consider the purpose of what you are writing. I think it’s something that a few writers are missing out–the purpose of what their writing. Thanks for sharing this post. Keep on!

  44. Wow, self publication, that was frightening for me two years ago and I started writing but as of yet I just can;t finish my crime novel. When I have I will use lulu.