The Self-Publishing Spectrum

Some of this information is an excerpt from the “Navigating Publishing” seminar Brad Pauquette will be providing for Columbus Creative Cooperative on November 12th.  The seminar is free and open to the public, get the details here.

The publishing industry can be broken into three large groups:

Traditional Publishing – books published by one of the “Big 5” publishing companies–Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House or Simon & Schuster, or one of their imprints (subsidiaries).

Independent Publishing – books published by a publishing company that isn’t owned by one of the Big 5, and that produces the work of authors who do not share in the ownership of the company.

Self-Publishing – books published in which the author is one of the primary financiers or decision makers within the production process.

Self-publishing encompasses a huge spectrum of publishing processes and strategies.  From the little old lady who pays a vanity publisher to produce her book to celebrities like Jim Carrey who approach the process with tens of thousands of dollars, lots of different people are self-publishing and for different reasons.

For simplicity, we’ll break “self-publishing” down into three big categories–vanity publishing, hobby publishing and author-publishing.

Vanity publishers typically want a hands-off experience, where they’ll be treated as if their book has been published by a legitimate for-profit publisher.  The cost is often high, and in most cases, the author has little to no realistic expectation of recovering those costs or turning a profit on the book.

Hobby publishers are your typical CreateSpace users (note that not all CreateSpace publishers are hobby publishers, some use a professional production process).  This person has little money to invest in the production of his book.  While of course they hope their book will go bananas and be the next Fifty Shades of Grey, sales will be fairly modest.  The hobby publisher may spend a little money here and there, but is mostly interested in free tools and resources to get the job done.

Author-Publishers are self-publishers in name only.  In reality, they’re creating small publishing companies.  The budget to produce a book may range from a few hundred dollars to $50,000+, but the author-publisher (AP) will invest money in their business.  The only difference between the AP and an independent publisher is that the AP is producing his or her own work.  While the AP may choose to do some tasks herself, she does have a budget available to spend on the production of her book, to hire expert editors, designers and various marketing services.  The AP is expecting to invest money in her project, and is ultimately expecting to return a profit.

The notable quality of author-publishers is that they treat their project as if they’re starting an independent publishing company (one that just happens to produce their own work).  This means committing themselves to the same process that a publisher would use, which begins with objectively examining their manuscript for ways that it can be improved.

Real publishers use a five step process to make their books the best that they can be (and the most likely to be profitable).  As an author-publisher, you can replicate these same five steps.  For more information, check out The Self-Publishing Handbook: Five Key Steps to Professionally Publish Your Book, which you can get for free (click here).

The disadvantage to author-publishing is that there are a lot of hats to wear.  Within your new micro-publishing company, you’re the CEO, COO, director of marketing, creative director and so much more.  Before self-publishing, it’s important to honestly ask yourself whether you’re the type of person who can effectively wear all of those different hats.  Remember that any job that you can’t do well you’ll need cash to pay for, or your results will suffer.

From a career standpoint, there isn’t a lot of merit to hobby publishing or vanity publishing.  You’ll see your book in print, and that’s always fun, and you’ll meet lots of interesting people at author fairs, but that’s about the end of the road.

However, author-publishers can make real income and successful careers.  Like any startup business, there’s a lot of risk, but effective author-publishers can and do turn a profit on their projects, even with a limited investment.  Like any other micro-enterprise, success is determined by product quality, market research and contracting experts, with a little bit of intuition and luck.

Companies like Columbus Publishing Lab, among others, make experts available to you.  Expertise helps you protect your investment, like insurance.  Especially when you’re working with a small budget, it’s important to know that your dollars will hit their mark.  When you can only do it once, it’s often worth it to pay a little more to know that it’s done right, rather than taking a risk with your only shot.

Companies like Author House, among others, charge exorbitant rates for editing, design and production work, and pay very little for books sold through their distribution channels.  It’s nearly impossible to make a project profitable with those kind of numbers in play (or the poor production work), which is why these companies belong in the Vanity Publisher category.

Columbus Publishing Lab is set up for author-publishers.  Whether you’re approaching your book project with a lot of money or just a little, we want to help you put that investment to its best use, to improve the likelihood that your book will be widely read and that your project will be profitable.  We’ve helped lots of different authors with lots of different budgets to invest their money in ways that make sense.  You can be a successful author-publisher, and we’d love to offer our expertise.

Brad Pauquette is the author of The Self-Publishing Handbook and the CEO of Columbus Publishing Lab. He has worked as a publishing consultant since 2008.