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Taking the "Self" Out of Self-Publishing:
What You Need to Know When You Decide to Publish Other People’s Books

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The self-publisher is baptized by fire. You’re sadder but wiser, as the old song goes. And like an old song, you are perennial. You go back to do it again.

Your press has earned a solid reputation. Other writers admire your ability to break the mold. Niche publishers sneak a look at your back-cover art and copy the format for their books. You stand out among the established companies as a tough little press, the new fish that won’t be intimidated by bigger ones in the pond.

Aspiring authors notice you too. Your imprint acts as a magnet. It draws manuscript proposals to your mailbox. You’re in the break-even stage, and want to expand your business horizon. Like a ghost in the graveyard, you believe in your niche and stay there, accepting only those authors who write in your subject area. It deepens your foothold. But the ground can still feel like quicksand as you wade through the labyrinth of royalties, advances, and other aspects of dealing with an author who isn’t you.

The transition from publishing your own work to publishing books by others is wrought with conflict. The self-publisher has traditionally closed the schism between author and the industry by wearing both hats. Now, the seams are ripped apart by business dictates. As a writer, you understand the angst of the struggling author. But you’re a publisher now. Your sign reads, “The Buck, If It Ever Shows Up, Stops Here.”


The moment arrived when a promising manuscript landed on my desk. I read it closely, raking the text for editorial inconsistencies. From my experience, one chapter may run smoothly, while another requires massive changes. Check for inadvertent plagiarism. Do any phrases sound familiar? As a self-publisher, you’ve listened to your gut, honed your instincts, and come to know your niche. Nobody knows the subject like you. Knowing that familiarity can obstruct objectivity, seek a second opinion. With permission from the author, send sample pages to an editor. Get feedback on the quality of the manuscript as submitted.

Request an estimated word count. Get quotes from printers. List production, marketing, and promotion expenses in an overall publishing plan. Your self-publishing ventures have bestowed the wisdom of hindsight. Examine past mistakes and learn from them.

“Nobody makes much money in this business,” cautions Robert Alberti of Impact Publishers. “The margins are slim all around: author, publisher, reseller, wholesaler, distributor. Consider how much the publisher has left after giving up 50 percent or more in discount, 20 percent for production, 15 to 20 percent for marketing, 10 to 15 percent for royalties, 10 to 15 percent for editorial expenses, 10 to 15 percent for overhead. Yes–this adds up to over 100 percent. You see how easy it is to go bankrupt as a publisher. Job one is to stay in business, so it’s critically important to keep expenses in line.

“There is one way to remain standing when most other publishers have fallen,” Alberti says: “Don’t borrow any money along the way. The interest you pay on borrowed money simply adds another expense to the list above.”

Proofreading can impose financial penalties. Editor Sharon Young cautions against letting authors correct edited manuscripts. “I’ve found that the most difficult thing for authors to do is to put their pen down–or push their keyboard aside–and stop writing their books, especially after they’ve been edited,” she says. “The simple process of merely okaying a comma suggested by the editor, or changing the structure of a sentence, oftentimes turns into an unexpected invitation to overhaul major portions of the book.”

Your financial plan is your blueprint. But what’s that stubby pencil you’re using? If your accounting records resemble a racetrack scorecard, it’s time for an upgrade. “The best software in the world doesn’t guarantee accuracy if you don’t really ‘get’ accounting,” says Judy Galbraith, president of Free Spirit Publishing. “Certainly it helps, but if numbers aren’t your strong suit, I recommend hiring accounting out. Early on, I did everything myself. I found bookkeeping my biggest challenge. I had to really work to keep meticulous records, knowing the importance not only of royalties, but also of tax payments, invoices, etc. The first person I hired was a part-time bookkeeper, and that was one of the best decisions I made in the first years of Free Spirit Publishing.”

Payments When the Author Isn’t You

The terms of publisher—author contracts vary and are negotiable, but these contracts usually favor the publisher. To present a fair and balanced contract, examine author-favored clauses in the Authors Guild Model Trade Book Contract (available at www.authorsguild.org) and also visit the National Writer’s Union site (www.nwu.org), which offers links and advice on contract issues.


Poynter offers a downloadable publisher—author contract at http://parapub.com/getpage.cfm?file=resource/business.html.

For more comprehensive information about publishing law contracts, see Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers, with Forms on CD-ROM by Tad Crawford, ISBN 1581150393, and Kirsch’s Guide to the Book Contract by Jonathan Kirsch.

Royalty payments are based either on net revenue or on list price. Small publishers often prefer the “net based” or “invoice price” payment scale–which reflects the amount shown on the publisher’s invoices to wholesalers and retailers, factoring in their substantial discounts. Contracts that specify royalties based on list price also specify sizable reductions for sales involving deep discounts.

Royalties are commonly paid on an escalating scale for both paperbacks and hardcovers. Although rates vary, many publishers pay approximately 5 to 10 percent of net revenues on the first 5,000 copies sold, 10 to 12.5 percent on the next 5,000, and 15 percent on copies sold above 10,000. “Our discount schedule is 5/10/15 on both hardcover and paperbacks,” says Pat Johnson at Perspectives Press. “This arrangement is fair to both parties. The advantage for the author is that, since we expect our books to grow over time rather than make their biggest splash when new, the author becomes a part of the reward of that growth. If a book plain doesn’t make it, the author will experience a disappointing payback. But then, so will we.”

For self-publishers who financed their own books, paying an advance is like offering steak to a guest while you’re sneaking canned tuna fish in the kitchen. An advance, paid against royalties, is one option an author might waive. If you do pay an advance, “third/third/third” is a common payment structure: one third on signing; one third on delivery and acceptance of the complete manuscript; and one third on publication.

Tasks to Do in Tandem

Judging from my experience, the standard contract takes too much responsibility out of the hands of the author. I rejected a manuscript when the author appeared unwilling to implement my suggestions for promotion, and I favor stipulating author-based efforts to promote a title.

Many authors need training and persuasion to do the necessary promotion. As a self-publisher, you’ve had to promote your own work. You’ve strayed from keyboard to microphone, while nervously clearing your throat. From this vantage point, you can help your author shine. From production to promotion, the self-publisher is perfectly suited to fill in the gaps between the daring leap of faith and the hard bottom line below.

Ellen Poulsen is the author of Don’t Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang, and the president of Clinton Cook Publishing Corp. She can be contacted at ellenpoulsen@aol.com.

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