The Dangers of Self-Publishing: What Do Publishers Do Anyway?

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This is the first in a series of articles about self-publishing. This series will cover everything from the technical bits, to self-promotion, to getting books into bookstores.

Since the rise of the digital era, people have been calling for the death of the publishing industry as we know it. We’ve all heard someone claim that publishers are obsolete, they don’t do anything for writers anyway, and that writers are guaranteed to make way more money from self-publishing. But they’re wrong.

True self-publishing—successful self-publishing—needs to be treated like a business, or it will fail in 99.99% percent of cases. The author needs to educate themselves in and do all of the things that a publisher would, or their work will not sell.

Breaking Down Royalties

For most traditional publishing contracts, the author will make approximately 10% of print sales and 25% of ebook sales. Of course, this varies from publisher to publisher (and from writer to writer). How can this be justified when the author is the one who creates the product?

Let’s break it down for print sales.

Roughly 50% of all book sales go to the bookstore or bookseller. This is important; bookstores are struggling to stay alive, and without them, we have no book industry. There is no place to launch or advertise new works, to showcase all the wonderful titles, or to buy your book if bookstores don’t exist. And this 50% from selling your work isn’t pure profit; it covers payroll, overhead costs (including rent, insurance and utilities), purchasing new titles to sell, and all of the other facilities that make spending time in a bookstore wonderful.

In theory, the other 40% goes to the publisher. However, the middleman takes a considerable size of the cut. Publishers work with distributors, who give the publishers a considerable advantage over self-publishing authors. They have huge inventories and print, categorise, advertise, sell and transport the books directly to bookstores.

The money that’s left does go to the publisher. But it’s important to remember what the publisher has invested. Each work has a whole team working on each title, including an acquisitions or structural editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a book designer, a typesetter, a production manager, and a marketing manager (potentially two if the title is expected to sell well in both digital and print). That’s not even counting the roles that keep the publisher afloat, including people who work in sales and contracts and royalties and accounting. In smaller publishers, many of these roles overlap, but they still need to be able to support each of these roles in order to stay afloat.

Warning: The Vanity Press

Beware of the vanity press. These are “publishers” that offer to self-publish your work for you; for a hefty fee, they will do a number of services, and provide you with a published book. However, the experience with these publishers is often very sketchy, and there are hundreds of horror stories online of people ten copies of their book that they have no way of selling, or a hundred copies of their work with typos added into the text that weren’t in the original manuscript, or losing $10,000 and not getting anything tangible in return.

Websites like Writer Beware help to keep the industry abreast of these companies, however, there is not a great deal online about Australian vanity presses, and new ones are cropping up all the time. Before using any assisted self-publishing service, and especially before handing any money over or signing a contract, always do a quick background check. Do an online search for their business name next to the word “review” or “experience”, and look for third-party reviews. See if you can find other books that this service has worked on, and how well they have been published or sold. Contact other people who have worked with them, if you can.

When in doubt, contact your state writers centre or the Australian Society of Authors and ask if they know of any writers who have had any experience with them. The Australian Society of Authors also offers a contract assessment service to help you make sure that you’re getting a fair deal. They also guarantee that if you’re dealing with a vanity or scam contract, they will alert you immediately and provide a full refund.

The Jack-of-All-Trades

To successfully self-publish a book, the author needs to approach it like they would approach starting a small business in an industry they are not familiar with. It will take research, personal investment, and a huge amount of work.

The first step is to become familiar with each of the things that a publisher would do, and determine how to get them done. For some things, like editing and cover design, it is a very good idea to outsource them to a professional. Other aspects, such as typesetting, are possible to do yourself if you educate yourself and are truly dedicated. Other aspects that need to be considered include whether the title will be published in print or as an ebook, the marketing and self-promotion plan, who the audience is and how the work will get to them, and the overall budget for the project.

Budding self-publishers need to know that this investment is a risk; there is a chance that very few copies of the work will sell, and that you will end up running a loss at the end of the day. If this doesn’t matter, and you are truly passionate about getting your work into the hands of its readers and you are willing to dedicate yourself to having complete control over the project, then it very well may be worth it.

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Self-Publishing: What Do Publishers Do Anyway?

  1. pscottier

    I think distribution would be the killer for many excellent self-published titles, Sophie. Of course, bookstores aren’t the only important venue for sales.

    A very useful blog, btw.


    1. Sophie Mannix

      Thanks, Penelope! 🙂 Absolutely, distribution is huge. People can’t buy your work if they can’t find it. But I also think that marketing/promotion is pretty key—the market of self-published ebooks can be fairly saturated, so it’s a matter of cutting through the competition and being seen by your audience. 🙂


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