From the archives


Self-publishers and piranhas

With fewer and fewer publishers publishing fewer and fewer titles by fewer and fewer authors, more and more people are turning to self-publishing. And more and more self-publishers are making more and more promises to get more and more business.

Here are some important questions to ask to separate the publishers from the piranhas and pariahs:

Is the price unbelievably low?

Some publishers, such as offer free publishing of your book and you pay a low price per copy. It's a great deal if—and only if—you have a friend who is a professional graphic designer who can create the cover and typeset the interior. Otherwise, you're stuck with tacky templates and a book interior that SCREAMS "self-published."

Other publishers offer unbelievably low prices, then say, "Oh, you want editing? That will be another $1,000." "And you want a custom-cover design? That will be another $1,000." "Oh, you want an ISBN and barcode so you can sell to book stores? That will be another . . ." Well, you get the idea. That low price quickly escalates with all the additional charges.

Are there no posted prices on the publisher's Web site?

Many self-publishers offer complicated discount programs or refuse to post their prices. Those are red flags!

Does the publisher own the rights to your work?

That's fine if you're working with a royalty publisher who is taking all the risks and wants exclusive use of the material (and will have the rights revert back to you once it goes out of print). But some self-publishers want your rights when you're taking all the risks. One company wants exclusive rights for seven years, which means you can't go with another publisher for that period of time.

Is the publisher offering "co-op" publishing?

Some self-publishing piranhas will promise that they have a market for, say, 2,500 books, but need the author to pay the cost of one thousand copies. The one thousand copies are printed for the author—often at inflated prices—but it's unlikely the publisher will print the other 1,500.

Does the publisher offer the author standard "royalties" on the book the author paid for?

Why shouldn't the author keep all the profit for the book they have paid for? Potential piranha!

Does publisher offer marketing? worldwide distribution?

Some self-publishers will make big promises of marketing and distribution, but let's be very clear. Marketing sells very few books. It's word of mouth. For instance, The Shack's publisher spent $300 on marketing, but word of mouth sold nearly 4 million copies!

"Marketing" is often an empty promise. The author is the marketer! Do you have a speaking ministry? A TV or radio show? A blog with tons of visits? If you don't have some way for you to market the book, all the publishers' marketing won't move books.

"Distribution" is another empty promise. Yes, book stores obtain books through distributors such as Ingrams, but distributors only provide availability. The author must provide the desirability. Distributors, as the name implies only "distribute" to the desire created by the author. One self-publisher charges its authors $4,000 to make the book available to "thousands" of online book stores. (And that price doesn't include one single book!). Finally, distributors are going to want a 65 percent discount on your book.

It's an illusion that authors sit in their home offices and simply write. The vast majority of self-published books are going to sell from the back of the room. So spend that 65 percent on arranging speaking engagements. And set up a free online "shopping cart" such as to become your own distributor.

Does the publisher have a minimum number of books that must be ordered?

When the average book in America sells only 500 copies, asking an author to pay for one thousand should be a red flag. With Print On Demand (POD) technology, which is basically a million-dollar photocopy machine, books can be printed in increments of one. (, for instance, can produce a book for as little as $5.) And POD books look virtually identical to traditionally printed books.

An author can expect to sell books to about 10 percent of his or her audience. So, if you're speaking to 10,000 people per year, it's likely you'll sell one thousand books in a year. Don't overestimate the number of books you can sell in one year.

There are professional and ethical self-publishers such as ACW Press, an arm of American Christian Writers. But there are also piranhas and pariahs preying on authors.

Please check out these links before signing with any self-publisher:
Better Business Bureau
Editors and Preditors
Six Red Flags
Writer Beware

I would suggest self-publishing only if you can answer these three questions. (And yes, I know how eager you are to get your book published. The scam artists know that all too well!)

1. Has a royalty publisher praised your book, but said there isn't a large enough market for them to publish it?

2. Do you have a way to reach that market?

3. Do you have the ability to produce it professionally? Can you afford to go with a reputable self-publisher that will produce a professional-looking product or do you have access to design and typography expertise to do it yourself. (A poor cover and interior design will cripple your sales. It must be able to compete with mainstream publishers.)

Self-publishing is a wonderful way to reach a narrow market (and become a big fish in a small pond) or to prove to royalty publishers that there is indeed a market for your work in the larger pond (one of my self-published book was picked up by Tyndale House).

But do stay away from the piranhas!

Copyright © 2009 James N. Watkins

Jim is an acquisitions editor with Wesleyan Publishing House and an editorial advisor to ACW Press. He's the author of 14 royalty-published books and four self-published books including Squeezing Good Out of Bad and Writing with Banana Peels.


In a recent issue of The Christian Communicator, Dr. Dennis Hensley wrote about "self publishing, formally called vanity publishing . . . " and seemed to lump all self publishing together with vanity publishing. The article was about things for which people waste their money. You mention in Communicate to Change Lives specific times when self publishing might be a good option. Can you clarify for me? (December 2009)

    Great question! I guess I would make the following distinctions. And the same company can fall into both the "vanity" or "self-publishing" categories based on . . .


    Vanity publishing: no editing. They'll print whatever you send them!

    Self-publishing: You want the best product possible, so pay to have it professionally edited by a pro or the reputable self-publisher.


    Vanity publishing: you pick a cover template and dump your copy into a computerized typesetting program.

    Self-publishing: you pay for a professional cover and interior design.


    Vanity: you're publishing for family and friends (and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that).

    Self-publishing: this is a commercial venture and you've identified an audience that's willing to pay for your message.

    But most important . . .


    Vanity: you have enough rejection slips and evaluations from professional writers and editors that you should be convinced that the writing is not good enough for publication or that there is no viable market—but you vainly go ahead and publish anyway.

    Self-publishing: you get rejection slips, but editors and professional writers comment that this is a great book, but has a limited audience (Christian cat lovers in Ohio) so a big royalty publisher can't accept it. But you have a way to reach that market by speaking to Christian cat lovers in Ohio, setting up a online forum for Christian cat lovers in Ohio, etc.

    Vanity and self-publishing

    ACW Press includes editing and custom cover and interior in all its packages, so it's "self-publishing" in that sense, and some of its books have become best-sellers and award contestants.

    But it also publishes some material that has no commercial appeal outside of family and close friends, so some of its products would probably be considered "vanity" publishing.

    Maybe the best way to describe legitimate self-publishing is "independent" publishing as in the music industry's "indie" artists who shun the big labels and create and market their own commercial quality music.

    Then again, perhaps the writer of Ecclesiastes was correct, "Vanity, vanity. All is vanity."

I do not believe all self-pubbing is vanity publishing. Sometimes self-pubbing is appropriate because of small or niche markets that a traditional publisher can't or won't reach. The vanity part comes from authors who don't or won't pay their dues, learn the craft, and jump ahead of themselves. Gayle Roper (December 2009)

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