Understanding your self-publishing options

Many writers believe they have two options for publishing their books; traditional publishing or self-publishing. But that’s like saying your dinner options are filet mignon or fish. Fillet mignon is a specific high-end steak and fish could mean dozens of options, ranging from a lovely poached salmon to a can of sardines. And whether you’re talking about fish or self-publishing, some of the options stink.

When it comes to self-publishing there are a lot of fish in the sea


The way I see it, there are five self-publishing models. I’ve matched-up each with an appropriate fish, because, ya know, a gal has to make her metaphor work. I’m not going to name any specific companies in these examples, but I’ll give you important positive and negative things to look out for.

The shark

This model will look like an impressive option to the newbie writer. Sharks have very slick websites and offer all sorts of expensive packages. Price may be the deterrent that saves many from being eaten, but the Shark’s high fees can also make it appear to be the top notch choice in the field. If they charge those prices and have all those books on their site, they must be good, right? Don’t be pulled in.

Shark packages often include things that you could access on your own, for little or no cost. The only real tangible items in most of these packages are cover design and interior layout. Those elements of publishing really do require time and an understanding of how to create a professional looking book, but they toss those real items into a package full of fluff and charge A LOT of money. Most packages are padded with stuff that is meaningless or actually free. One company lists Amazon “Look Inside” as one of the marketing features they offer – but “Look Inside” is free to anyone distributing through Amazon, and is done by Amazon.

Sharks insinuate that self-publishing with them is the next best thing to traditional publishing because of their partnerships, experience and reach. But many of these sharks are well known for their scamminess in the publishing world and their logo on your book may induce more sympathy than status.

Sharks make it clear in their contracts that they retain ownership of all the work they do for you. You retain the copyright to your manuscript, but if you cancel your contract with them at any point, all you’ll walk away with after all that money is spent, is what you had to begin with, an unpublished manuscript. No cover or interior files that you can have printed elsewhere.

Sharks will not allow you to provide your own ISBN (International Standard Book Number), they will provide it for you, and even mention assignment of the ISBN as a package benefit; as if this is something you should be excited about. IT IS NOT. If there is one thing I could make sure all self-publishers know, it would be how important it is to own their book’s ISBN. I’ve written a post about it, that I hope you will read and share with anyone you know who wants to self-publish.

The Shark is the most expensive way to self-publish, and at the end of the day will not offer you any greater chance of success.

The Catfish

The catfish is not a shark and yet it’s not a salmon (I’ll describe the salmon next). The catfish is a bottom feeder that feeds on people’s naiveté. I chose “catfish” for this scenario because of its internet association with misleading people.

The catfish offers all the services that a self-publisher needs, often at reasonable rates within the industry norm. Although, there does tend to be some padding in the packages, with things like cover design consultation (I would hope so, since you are paying them to design the cover!) or an author page on their company website (these pages are usually just a picture of the book, its description, a link to buy, and sometimes a bio of the author. But when was the last time you went book shopping on a publisher’s site? You probably went on Amazon or Chapters/Indigo. When was the last time you wanted to connect with an author and went to the publisher’s website? You probably searched for the author’s Facebook page or Twitter feed. So this, in my opinion, is a useless fluff benefit).

What the Catfish has in common with the Shark is the ownership of the ISBN. And like a shark, it sneakily lists assignment of an ISBN under its package benefits. Let’s be clear, the only one who benefits from this is the shark or catfish.

Catfish can be solid providers of quality self-publishing services. And some authors may be fine with having the ISBN number assigned (there is more work involved in owning your own numbers). But what I don’t like is that the catfish doesn’t explain the significance of the ISBN, it just slides it into a package. It matters, and not explaining that is misleading.

The Salmon

Full disclosure, I consider Bookgiddy to be a Salmon so as objective as I try to be, there is bound to be some bias.

I chose Salmon for this example because Salmon is good for brain function, and these publishing service providers are as passionate about self-publishing education, as they are about publication.

The salmon may or may not offer packages, and I’ve seen a bit of padding of features here and there, but Salmon want you to be more than a self-publisher, they help you become an indie author.  These publishing service providers work with you using ISBNs you provide (and will often assist you in acquiring your ISBN account if you need that assistance).

Unlike sharks and catfish, under the salmon model you are the publisher and all the print-ready cover and interior files are yours to publish wherever you choose.

The Halibut

The Halibut model is very much like the Salmon, in that it is above board in all its information and is often a great resource for self-publishing information. But it does provide its own ISBNs and as such becomes the publisher of record and retains the print-ready files.

As much as I encourage writers to be fully in charge of their self-publishing journey, I respect that some people are willing to share a cut of their royalties to have someone else deal with many of the publishing details. But be sure to know how much of your profits you are giving up.

I suppose someone could argue that The Hailbut and The Catfish are not really different, if the author goes in understanding the importance of the ISBN, and that’s true as far as comparing prices and work quality, but I differentiate the two by how open they are about the significance of the ISBN and how much fluff is in their packages. Someone willing to mislead in one area, may be less than honest in other areas as well.

The Betta fish

While betta fish can be aggressive, that’s not why I chose it for this last category. I call this last option Betta Fish because of its preference to be alone.

Technology is such that if you want to you can self-publish with very little help at all. You will need to have a printer (if you wish to create more than an ebook) and a distributor (unless you wish to sell directly from your website) but you can learn to design and set-up your own cover and interior files, you can read books on editing and polish your work. There is a learning curve, but it is doable.

My singular suggestion; only choose this path because you love design, are great with details and are excited about the creative process involved. If you are choosing this option just to save money, it may not be a good idea. It could be a disaster. If you aren’t excited about doing all the work it will take to be as polished as your competition, you are doing yourself, and your book, a disservice.

Whichever model you choose, I wish you well on your author journey. If you have any questions about this post please leave them in the comments below.

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