quick guide self publishing and print on demand

The following are modified extracts from the Society’s Quick Guide to Self-Publishing and Print-on-Demand:


Self-publishing or vanity publishing?

A ‘vanity’ publisher (they sometimes call themselves ‘subsidy’ publishers) will ask you for money (often thousands of pounds), but that payment does not mean you are acquiring any books (beyond, say, 10 ‘free’ copies and the chance to buy more in return for further payment).

Beware of flattery – it’s your money they’re after. Increasingly, vanity publishers produce very short print-runs or print to order, so overheads and warehousing costs are minimal, and in any case the production costs have already been met (by you). There is inevitably less incentive for the publisher to sell the work.

Production values tend to be poor. And check the fine-print; for example, undertakings to print ‘up to 1,000 copies’, or to send publicity fliers to ‘up to 30 reviewers’ guarantee nothing. Reviewers and booksellers will be sceptical, knowing that (even if this does not apply to your book) many works that were not good enough to find a conventional publisher end up on vanity lists. Very many authors who sign such deals report spending a great deal of money and getting little but disappointment in return.

Think very carefully: is this sort of deal preferable to conventional or self-publishing?

The problem with print-on-demand

Print-on-demand copies are, by definition, produced in response to firm orders. Bookshops stock titles on sale-or-return. So even if you can interest a bookshop in a self-published work, it is unlikely to stock one which is print-on-demand.Potential readers will become aware of the work only through your own efforts (e.g. book signings and websites).

A listing on Amazon is of use if people know your book is what they’re looking for; but do people visit the websites of publishers when in search of something to read? If your work is non-fiction and you are confident you know how to target your readership, OK. If it is fiction, poetry or memoirs, take heed. Think about how you come across and buy the books you read.

Companies offering print-on-demand services should give guarantees about the retail price of the work (print-on-demand is not a cheap process) and the speed with which orders will be met. It must also be clear on what grounds you can terminate the publishing agreement. You are strongy advised to join the Society and get your contract checked over before signing a publishing agreement of any sort, especially one which asks you for money.


Publishing as an ebook or in electronic form

To read an ebook, you need to be able to print it off or download it from the internet onto your PC, or onto an ebook reader. And despite the press hype, ebooks have not yet caught on. Until you are confident that these are formats in which people read books, and you know which will be the sought-after platforms, it is probably not a route worth taking.

You could make your material available online – free to anyone who visits your site or restricted by an access code if you want to control potential uses or charge for them. There are further options, e.g. whether your material can be accessed for reading only, for authorised downloading, or if it will have a site on which browsers can give their comments. But is that really what you have in mind?

In almost all cases, a better alternative may be to set up a website on which you publicise and from which you can sell – or give away – copies of all or parts of the work, in printed or electronic form, as you choose.

‘Self-publishing’ means that you are responsible for everything: the design and typesetting, finding a printer, funding the production, storing the printed books, marketing and selling them. As a business you need to inform HM Revenue & Customs, keep proper accounts and know what laws apply to you.

You can control your own creation, right down to the last punctuation mark, and on every book you sell, as publisher you will make far more money than you would ever get as simply the author. But you risk your capital, and running the publishing business will take at least one third and probably more like half of your available time.

Think what a conventional publisher does: costings, editing, design, printing, the expertise of its legal department, chasing payments, sorting out returns, warehousing, marketing, distribution, setting up and negotiating subsidiary rights deals and special offers, the credibility of its imprimatur, its ability to carry loss leaders.

Learn as much about the technicalities as you can. All the specifications will have to come from you. Get as many competitive quotes as you can. Be sure all costs are absolutely clear from the outset. What self-publishing will cost entirely depends what you are buying, the range of services and the quality of the finished product.

Self-publishing is time-consuming, hard work, stressful. It costs money.  Be realistic about the chances of reviews and sales. Consider how many other thousands of titles are vying for readers’ attention. For every successful self-publisher, there is a host of bitterly disappointed ones. If you have only a few titles and sufficient time, expertise, enthusiasm and money, self-publishing may be the answer. If you’d rather be writing books, perhaps it’s not for you. 


Fiction, poetry, memoirs

If you want a limited number of attractive copies for friends and relations, paying a good local printer to produce copies to your specifications may well be a sensible option. If you are considering self-publishing because you have been unable to interest a conventional publisher, remember that getting your work into print is a far cry from having any great influence over who will buy or read it. When did you last buy a self-published work of fiction, poetry or memoirs?

Indeed, when did you last become aware of the existence of such a book? You cannot force a bookseller to stock a particular title, a potential reviewer to read it, or a reader to buy it. Reviewers and booksellers often discriminate against self-published books because they know that (even if this does not apply to yours) many are those which were not good enough to find a conventional publisher.

The number of works in print increases exponentially year on year. Most book-buyers, overloaded with choices, buy books via word of mouth recommendation, browsing in bookshops, or seeking out film, TV or celebrity tie-ins and the winners of literary prizes. You will have little influence over such matters.


Specialist non-fiction

Specialist non-fiction should be easier than fiction to market effectively, at least if you know the profile of your potential audience and the best way to reach them (e.g. lecturing, specialist clubs or journals, a subject-specific website).  The terms offered by many publishers for specialist non-fiction are deteriorating, so self-publishing may look like an attractive option.

Reprinting your previously-published works

If your work has previously been published, is now out of print, and traditional publishers are not interested in reprinting it, self publishing (particularly as print-on-demand) may be an attractive option. However, given that mainstream publishers increasingly have print-on-demand facilities themselves, you may want to see if your new publisher will re-launch your backlist (as print-on-demand or otherwise) before taking the self-publishing route.

Your first step must be to ensure that all rights have reverted to you from the original publisher. This almost always requires an exchange of letters; do not assume that rights have reverted simply because the work has been out of print for some years. In addition, the original publishers will own the copyright in ‘the typographical arrangement of the published edition’ (lasting for 25 years from first publication), which means that you may not reuse their input, e.g. by making a facsimile reproduction, without their permission.


If you would like the full Quick guide to Self Publishing and Print on Demand then please contact us. (£7.50 for

non-members, free to members) The Quick Guide is available in a PDF format via email or in a booklet via post.

If you have decided that you would like to Self Publish then the Society of Authors is happy to vet any contracts you receive. Click here for information on how to join.