What exactly is self-publishing these days?

One of the most confusing things about self-publishing is what exactly constitutes self-publishing. For every right answer to this question there are about a dozen wrong answers. Particularly in the past decade, since the inception of POD (print on demand), there are a lot of inaccuracies out there. I’m going to do my best to set you straight.

A term I—and probably you too—hear thrown around a lot is “POD self-publishing.” POD refers to a printing process—specifically, digital printing. It doesn’t have anything to do with publishing per se, but somehow, it has become lumped together with self-publishing.

As I mentioned above, POD means “print on demand,” which is exactly what it sounds like:  An order for a book comes in, the book is printed, and the order is filled—on demand. Authors no longer need to shell out thousands for an offset print run of 1,000 or more books.  Not only does this free up cash for other elements of the publishing process—professional editing and cover design, to name but a couple—but it saves authors from having to figure out what to physically do with a pallet or two of books. (So it also saves a lot of garage space!)

Probably the best-known print on demand printer is Lightning Source. Some so-called “POD self-publishing companies” will have you believe that you, as an author, cannot go directly to Lightning Source (where they are likely going for their POD printing). Not true. The majority of self-publishing authors I work with open an account with Lightning Source and have their books printed there. There is no need to go to a “middle-man.”

Some POD services are free or nearly free, but most charge a few hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars. CreateSpace and Lulu are low cost and let authors set their own book prices, but other services set the book prices for the authors and pay the author a “royalty” off the net price. This is how these services recoup their manufacturing costs. More often than not, the prices set by these companies is quite high, rendering the books virtually unsalable. Most are ultimately purchased by the authors themselves.

Many of these companies also assign an ISBN (essentially like a book’s social security number) to the books. This makes the company the publisher of record rather than the author. This is not self-publishing but vanity publishing (pay to publish) by a different name (POD self-publishing sounds so much better, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s not accurate.). There are three primary ways that this method of publishing differs from true self-publishing (Thanks to Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for this list!):

  1. Control. With true self-publishing, the writer controls all aspects of the publishing process, from cover art to print style to pricing. With POD services, choice is typically limited to the package of services the publisher offers.
  2. Revenue. With true self-publishing, the writer keeps all proceeds from sales. With POD services, the service keeps the lion’s share of sales proceeds to offset printing costs, and pays the author a percentage–either a percentage of income (a royalty) or a percentage of profit. Basically, you’re paying twice: once upfront, and once with each book produced and sold.
  3. Rights. With true self-publishing, all rights remain with the writer, who has full ownership of his/her books, including the ISBN number. With most POD services, the POD service owns the ISBN, and has a limited claim on digital and/or electronic publishing rights.

So what exactly constitutes true self-publishing? You are the publishing company. You own the ISBN. You make all decisions regarding the book, including how it looks and how it is priced. If a publishing company name other than your own publishing company name appears on your book, they are the publishing company. And it’s not self-publishing.


Sue Collier
Sue Collier

Sue Collier is the co-author of The Fifth Edition of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing and the president and CEO of Self-Publishing Resources—the consulting company originally started by the premiere experts in self-publishing, Tom and Marylin Ross. Sue has degrees in English and education from the University of Wisconsin and offers professional publishing services to businesses and individuals.

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