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 bar code 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!

Jim is an 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.

Copyright © 2009 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

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