Why Are You Writing? Quill PenHave you noticed that self-publishing is all the rage?

Wow. I remember when I first self-published in 1987, it was a realm mostly confined to frustrated authors who had the money to embark on what was then a costly venture — or entrepreneurial types, like myself, who saw it as a viable business opportunity. My, how things have changed.

I’m dedicating this and the next column on May 21 to assessing “self-publishing companies.” I put that in quotes because, technically, the only self-publishing companies are those that authors own and operate to publish their own works. If some other entity is handling the publishing (and owns the ISBN), you are not self-publishing. I refer to this as “subsidy publishing,” whereby you are subsidizing the cost of publishing your book; otherwise, “self-publishing companies” are more accurately called self-publishing services. However, because so many people are calling them self-publishing companies these days, I will go with the flow here.


Simply put, self-publishing companies differ in how they make money. Some profit from the fees you pay, some from mark-ups on printing, and others from add-on services. Or a given company may have multiple profit centers. So, while they all have similar menus of options, the key is where the profitability centers are for them — which is where you need to be on the lookout for potential pressure tactics.

For example, some self-publishing companies will produce your book with a high price per unit. Their fees otherwise may not be that bad, and this may be where they’ll tout their price-competitiveness; however, if their price per book is too high, you may not be able to sell any or profit sufficiently from them. I’ve seen self-published books with a cover price of $24.95 with other typical books of their kind being $14.95–$19.95. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll have a hard time selling, unless your book is exceptional in what it provides (in which case you may have to expend quite a bit of energy and expense educating potential buyers on your book’s advantages).


Another pitfall is high fees. Unless you do some comparative shopping, you’ll have no idea what “high” means. (And apparently, some self-publishing services are high on something, with the prices they charge.) One key place to look for this is in design fees. It’s not uncommon to find cover-design fees around $500, and sometimes much more. On the face of it, this sounds reasonable, given that a typical book cover costs about $750–$1,500 from a competent freelance designer. But the all-important difference is that the $500 or more you’re paying to the company is for a canned template design.

The “designer” (often someone being paid a paltry fee or wage and lacking decent design skills) is simply plopping your book title and your name into an existing template, changing the font and colors, and perhaps dropping in a stock photo. The design will be lacking any inspiration and, more important, will not convey the soul of your book. Just as a competent and fairly paid editor brings out the soul of your manuscript, a competent and fairly paid designer does the same with your cover design. (Incidentally, everything I’m saying here applies equally to the interior design and typesetting of your book.)

The best way to deal with this is to pay the fee, though perhaps higher, to a true book-cover designer whom you’ve contracted (just as you would if you were truly self-publishing). Then, have the company use this design. If they don’t allow this, don’t use them — a key clue they intend to profit significantly from cutting corners on the design.


Add-ons are another profit center for these companies. They get you in the door with a low cost (“Get published starting at $299!”) and slowly ratchet up the pressure on you to add services: premium cover design, marketing services, press releases, sales channel placement, and so on. Suddenly, you’re into thousands of dollars when you thought you were paying $299.

It’s kind of like shady auto mechanics who get your car in for an oil change, then find all kinds of things “wrong” with it — and tell you this while your car is up on the lift with parts of it laying all around. Most customers aren’t going to tell the mechanic to put everything back together just so they can take the car to another possibly shady mechanic for a second opinion; if the price appears within reason, most customers will just suck it up and approve the repairs. And savvy, though shady, mechanics know the range of profitability they can push that will appear to you “within reason.”

So, similarly, shady publishing services will get you all excited about your book being published — perhaps literally through what they say or perhaps just by letting you get knee deep in the process — and then hit you up for add-ons. Thankfully, if you find yourself in this position, unlike being at the mechanic with your car on the lift, you can take a deep breath and take some time to think what’s best. This is where belonging to a publishing group of some kind can be very helpful for opinions and feedback.

This is not to say that add-ons are all bad or unnecessary. They may be a wise investment for your project. But use some common sense and caveat emptor before agreeing to anything. As a perfect companion resource to SelfPubSmart.com, Mark Levine’s Fine Print of Self-Publishing will allow you to compare these add-ons and understand what’s good and bad. (The book also compares these companies’ contracts.) Your goal is to recognize when a self-publishing company is pushing for additional services, not in the best interest of your book but for their own good.

Next column: Part Two continues with a few tips on sales reps, the cost of entry, and determining your bottom line.

About the Author

Andrew Chapman
Andrew Chapman
Andrew is the founder of SelfPubSmart.com and has worked in nearly every aspect of independent publishing for over 25 years; he has been a publisher, editor, designer, consultant, and more, for clients ranging from solo professionals to Fortune 500 businesses. His eclectic background is unique and affords him an atypical perspective on the industry. In addition, he is an award-winning writer and author who is a professional speaker on the topic, with over 300 engagements to his credit throughout the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. From 2003 to 2010, he served as the president of the association Publishers & Writers of San Diego, which he led through growth from a dozen paid members to more than 150. In addition to his professional experience, Andrew has a Bachelor's Degree in Publishing and Writing from George Mason University, earned with a 4.0 GPA in only three years.