Problems With Self Publishing

If there weren't enough problems with self publishing already, I've been seeing signs of a new rain clouds on the horizon. Last year at this time, I wrote about the darker side of starting a new publishing business:

I've heard from new publishers who expect hand-holding from every vendor they deal with, when the profit on the business they are bringing that vendor won't pay for an hour of the customer service rep's time. In other words, you're asking them to lose money on you, because you see it as being necessary overhead for their business. They might not agree. The most frequent argument I hear from new publishers who believe they have logic on their side is, "I may become a big publisher one day." You may, you may not, the odds are on their side that you won't. The odds are also on their side that if you do become a big publisher, you'll put aside your personal feelings and deal with them if they can give you the best value for your money. Another movie classic you may recognize, "Tell Mike it was business, not personal."

Some new self publishers who are fresh out of a publishing seminar or who just finished reading a how-to book are rushing into self publishing without getting all their ducks in line first. Then they find that the paths that were open for others aren't open to them. It some cases, the problems may be the fault of the "expert" who gave the seminar or the author of the how-to book. Either the path or the ease of walking it may have been oversold, or the industry may have changed. But some of the changes in the industry have been driven by large numbers of self published authors who haven't done their homework overwhelming the system.

There was a time when getting book signings arranged was as simple as asking. Bookstores were happy to host readings and signings, sell a few of the author's books and more importantly, bring customers into their stores who might never have been there before. But the number of authors without any book industry experience rose, and some of them thought they could arrange readings the week they expected their book to be printed. Even the major trades have trouble getting books out on schedule, so a date on a new self publisher's calendar should be treated as a rough estimate, not a scheduling tool. There's no point in holding a book signing if you don't have any books, and it reflects on the bookstore as well as the author.

How many times will a bookstore go through the time and expense of setting up to host a reading, possibly even advertising, only to have the book and author pull a no show. Or worse, create problems for the bookstore by showing up and not knowing the ropes. Many bookstores today won't schedule readings unless they are contacted by a publicist for a major trade or by authors famous in their own right. Too many self publishers are deluded into thinking that a book is an important credential in the publishing industry. It may be a credential outside the publishing industry, but insiders are surrounded by books and authors day and night - it's nothing special.

The same is true for other publishing infrastructure companies that don't charge up-front fees. A subsidy publisher is happy to get you because you are ensuring their profit up front. The fee you pay will more than cover the publication costs associated with your book, and most will be happy to sell you all manner of profitable (for them) add-on services as well. But printers only get paid when books get printed, in quantity. Some self publishers are too clever by far, leaning on their local printers for preproduction expertise and then getting cheaper pricing over the Internet through a broker. Customer service is a major cost in every business.

One day this may lead to problems self publishing through Lightning Source. I've always written that as far as the industry is concerned, the difference between an author and a publisher is a block of ISBN numbers, but that time may be coming to an end. Print providers like Lightning Source charge trivial set-up fees per title that may or may not cover the labor cost and overhead in setting up a new customer account. The business model of an on-demand printer is the same as that of an offset printer, to mark up paper with ink, bind it, and sell books in quantity. New publishers who don't bring with them an air of knowing what they are doing aren't attractive prospects. The print providers don't win any prizes for having a large, inactive customer base.

Lightning Source was always known for steering authors to author services companies, otherwise known as subsidy publishers. They turned me away the first time I approached them at a trade show back seven or eight years ago, and I was a trade published author by then. If problem of new self publishers taking up their time and not generating sales should grow, I won't be surprised if they go from discouraging self publishers who sound like amateurs to rejecting self publishers who can't prove they are pros.


Charles Sheehan-Miles said...


This worries me too. I'm new at this, and not terribly experienced with publishing. For that reason, I've tried to run my silly questions by either the self-publishing or pod_publishers list so that by the time I get to LSI or Bowker or Amazon, I've got myself together.

One thing I learned years ago in the nonprofit world is that if you behave like a professional, people will believe you are one.

Morris Rosenthal said...


Yes, it's not a problem unique to the publishing world. The modern world is definitely a place where the squeaky wheel gets the oil, perhaps the ancient world was as well, but people who consume too much oil tend to drive up prices. TANSTAAFL