I’m a snob. Oh, I don’t particularly care what kind of car you drive or if you wear the latest designer fashions, but until recently I turned up my nose at authors who published their own books.
It smacked of self-indulgence and vanity (as in that old term “vanity press”). But as one friend and then another chose to pay to publish their own books — people I admire and respect — and as the author Amanda Hocking became the superstar example of successful self-publishing, I realized I had been too hasty.
The phenomenon was worth a second look.
And one of the first things I learned about the self-publishing business was that there was a reason the subject of many self-published books was — yes — how to self-publish, because it’s not easy to understand all the ins and outs.
“As with many things in life, there are often hidden fees,” said Lorraine Shanley, president of Market Partners International, a publishing consulting firm.
And many options. First, you can choose to publish your book as a print edition, e-book or both. With print editions, the most common system now is called “print on demand.” That means you don’t actually have the book printed until someone buys it.
That’s unlike the old days, say 15 years ago, when if you published your own book, you had to commit to buying hundreds or thousands of copies.
The advent of digital printing means it makes economic sense to print one copy at a time, said Kevin Weiss, president and chief executive of Author Solutions, which owns numerous self-publishing companies, including iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Xlibris.
“Before, you had to fill your garage with books and pass them on to all your best friends,” Mr. Weiss said.
Self-publishing is obviously taking off, but statistics on new titles are almost impossible to come by because so many books counted as part of “nontraditional” publishing include reprints of old books now in the public domain.
But Mr. Weiss said his company was on track to publish 26,000 new books this year, compared with 13,000 four years ago. CreateSpace, the self-publishing arm of Amazon.com, doesn’t release numbers, but a spokeswoman, Brittany Turner, told me in an e-mail that its books increased by 80 percent from 2009 to 2010.
There are many reasons potential authors want to publish their own books, Mr. Weiss said. They have an idea or manuscript they have passed around to various agents and publishers with no luck; they may just want to print a few copies of, say, a memoir for family members; they want to use it in their business as a type of calling card; or they actually want to sell a lot of books and make their living as writers.
“You have to know what services you’re buying, who retains the rights, and realize that getting a book published is not the same as getting it marketed,” Ms. Shanley said. “One size doesn’t fit all.”
Then there’s choosing the right company. If you’re technologically comfortable, Lulu.com or CreateSpace may be good options. CreateSpace, for example, doesn’t charge upfront fees, but you’ll pay if you want additional services like copy editing and design layout. And it costs $5 to $10 for the printed proof.
On the other hand, iUniverse and AuthorHouse offer what Mr. Weiss called “assisted self-publishing.” But the price of that assistance can range widely, starting as low as $400 and going as high as $15,000.
For the lower end, you get help in creating a cover and getting a copyright and ISBN number (the numeric book identifier). You’ll also get one paperback copy of your finished book, as well as an e-book distributed on all platforms, including the Kindle and the Nook. The book will also be sold through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
For $15,000, you get content editing and copy editing, indexing, citations and footnoting, and promotions like book trailers, placement in Google searches and other goodies. And you receive 150 paperback and 50 hardback copies of your book.
Like many authors, Susan G. Bell, who lives in Larchmont, N.Y., had mixed experiences publishing her own book. A former managing director at J. P. Morgan Securities who went back to school to get her master of fine arts at Sarah Lawrence College, she told me she had submitted her Wall Street novel, “When the Getting Was Good,” to about 20 agents. Despite receiving some positive feedback, there were no bites.
A few years ago, after hearing that a Sarah Lawrence classmate had self-published a memoir, she decided to check out that route.
“I just wanted to get on with it,” Ms. Bell said. “I was ready.”
Following her classmate’s lead, she chose AuthorHouse and bought one of the lower-cost packages. It took about a year from the decision to self-publish to the day she held a copy of the book in her hand.
She spent some time learning the ropes: setting up a Web site, figuring out social media, getting blurbs for the book, arranging for an author photo and finding someone to design the cover.
For the cover design, she chose several she liked from novels she had read and contacted the designer of one of them through the designer’s Web site. To her surprise, she was able to commission one for $2,000.
Ms. Bell is not sorry she went the self-publishing route, but like so many authors (and yes, even those who are traditionally published) she found book promotion much tougher than she thought it would be.
“What I didn’t realize was how difficult it would be to get a review for a self-published book,” she said. “And it’s hard to sell books without reviews.”
Nonetheless, Ms. Bell has sold about 700 books through the first quarter of this year, and that is better than most: industry experts say the average self-published book sells fewer — often far fewer — than 150 copies.
And after all this, can you make money by self-publishing? How much you receive per book varies widely depending on who publishes it and who sells it. For print books, the royalty can run as little as $1 to $3 a book, although you can get much more if you sell from your own Web site or if you publish it as an e-book.
For e-books that sell for $2.99 to $9.99 on Kindle, for example, authors can earn a 70 percent royalty, and eBooks priced outside that range earn authors a 35 percent royalty, according to Ms. Turner, the Amazon spokeswoman.
Potential authors have to be realistic about what they can expect when self-publishing, Ms. Shanley said. But that should not necessarily deter them from doing it. “With all the caveats, it’s really liberating and a field-leveling advance,” she said. “That might not be the attitude of many publishers, but for consumers it is.”
After all, in the past, Ms. Bell would have just had to tuck her manuscript away in a drawer. “I wanted to cross the finish line,” she said. “I’m holding a book, and I’m proud of it.”
And that’s important. But so is knowing the drawbacks. “Self-publishing is a lot like ‘American Idol,’ ” said Mark Levine, chief operating officer of Hillcrest Media Group and author of “The Fine Print of Self-Publishing” (Bascom Hill Publishing Group, updated 2011). “A lot of people have been told that they have talent, but they really don’t. Everyone has a story to tell, but everyone doesn’t have a story to publish.”