Self-publishing is the publication of media by its author without the involvement of an established publisher. The term usually refers to written media, such as books and magazines, either as an ebook or as a physical copy using POD (print on demand) technology. It may also apply to albums, pamphlets, brochures, video content, and zines.
In the traditional publishing model, the publisher bears all the costs and risks of publication, but retains most of the profit if the book is successful. In self-publishing, the author bears all the costs and risks, but earns a higher share of the profit per sale.
The $1 billion market of self-publishing has transformed in the past two decades with new technologies providing increasing alternatives to traditional publishing. Self-publishing is increasingly becoming the first choice for writers. Most self-published books sell very few copies. Those which sell large numbers are newsworthy because they are so rare. The quality of self-published works varies considerably, because there are no barriers to publication and no quality control.
Self-publishing is not a new phenomenon. While most novels were distributed by established publishers, there have been authors who chose to self-publish, or even start their own presses, such as John Locke, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Martin Luther, Marcel Proust, Derek Walcott, and Walt Whitman. In 1759, British satirist Laurence Sterne's self-published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. In 1908, Ezra Pound sold A Lume Spento for six pence each. Franklin Hiram King's book Farmers of Forty Centuries was self-published in 1911, and was subsequently published commercially. In 1931 the author of The Joy of Cooking paid a local printing company to print 3000 copies; the Bobbs-Merrill Company acquired the rights, and since then the book has sold over 18 million copies. In 1941, writer Virginia Woolf chose to self-publish her final novel Between the Acts on her Hogarth Press, in effect starting her own press.
Until the advent of ebooks and POD technology, most self-published books were published through a vanity press, so called because such authors were assumed to be egotistical writers, unable to accept their work was not good enough to be accepted by traditional publishers. James D. Macdonald claimed that vanity publishing violated Yog's Law which states that "Money should flow toward the author." Vanity publishing usually required a one-time payment of $5,000 to $10,000 to do a print run of 1000 books; these books usually ended up in boxes in a garage.
Photographer-turned-publisher Max Bondi said that "investing in a project shows that you believe in it". Nevertheless, part of the reason for the negative stigma is that many self-published books are of dubious quality, because they are written by authors who are still learning their craft, and have never been edited or even proof-read. For example, in 1995, a retired TV repairman self-published his autobiography in which he described how he had been stepped on by a horse when he was a boy, how he had been almost murdered by his stepfather when he was a young man in Mexico, and how his ex-wife had clawed his face with her fingernails. The repairman spent $10,000 to have his 150-page masterpiece printed up, and, for promotion purposes, he sent copies to a local library, to the White House, and to everybody with the repairman's same last name. These efforts did not lead anywhere; today, the book is largely forgotten.
Self-publishing is still seen as a "mark of failure" by many. The image of self-publishing has been improving and some feel the stigma is gone entirely, while others feel it still has a way to go to cultivate respectability. Book critic Ron Charles in the Washington Post complained that "No, I don't want to read your self-published book", citing concerns that self-published books lacked quality and were published by authors with little understanding of the audience or the market. However rare breakaway bestsellers such as Fifty Shades of Grey and The Martian were first self-published, helping to lend respectability to self-publishing in general. Further, with new avenues of self-publishing, there are more opportunities for authors to break through directly to audiences.
For decades, the literary world dismissed self-published authors as amateurs and hacks who lacked the talent to land a book deal. But that attitude gradually began to change with the rise of e-books and the arrival of Kindle from Amazon, which gave authors direct access to millions of readers.
A huge impetus to self-publishing has been rapid advances in technology, particularly the exponential growth of the Internet and a general shift from analog to digital technology. The Internet has been described as a "great equalizer" in the publishing world, since it enables an author to put their books out there and "stand naked before the world." Costs for printing and distributing a book have fallen dramatically. Advances in e-book readers and tablet computers have improved readability; such devices allow readers to "carry" numerous books in a small portable device. These technologies make it possible to have a book printed or digitally delivered after an order has been placed, so there are no costs for storing inventory. Print-On-Demand (or POD) technology, which became available in the mid-1990s, can produce a high quality product equal to those produced by traditional publishers; in the past, one could easily identify a self-published title by its lack of quality. Print-on-demand was easy, since an author could simply upload a manuscript, choose an interior file format and a cover, and the book could be printed as needed, avoiding warehousing costs, and reducing the risk of being stuck with a huge unsold inventory. Further, the Internet provides access to global distribution channels via online retailers, so a self-published book can be instantly available to book buyers worldwide. A Canada-based firm named Wattpad offers streaming video productions based on the stories of self-published authors as of 2017.
Internet transmission of digital books was combined with print-on-demand publishing with the invention of the Espresso Book Machine which was first demonstrated at the New York Public Library in 2007. This machine prints, collates, covers, and binds a single book. It is in libraries and bookstores throughout the world, and it can make copies of out-of-print editions. Small bookstores sometimes use it to compete with large bookstore chains. It works by taking two Internet-delivered pdf files, one for the text and one for the cover, and then prints an entire paperback book in a matter of minutes, which then drops down a chute.
Amazon's introduction of the Kindle and its self-publishing platform, Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP, in 2007 has been described as a tipping point in self-publishing, which "opened the floodgates". It was an "exclusively electronic self-publishing platform" which was e-book only, free for authors to upload their books, and gave authors control over how their books were priced as well as access to the same distribution channels as major publishers.
In recent times the publishing industry as a whole is in a great deal of flux, in a sort of "Wild Wild West" state. The online retailing giant, Amazon, has had a huge impact on the book-selling industry, driving many brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business and making inroads into publishing as well. Amazon has enticed readers away from bookstores and into an online environment, and its KDP and CreateSpace distribution channels have spawned a huge growth in self-publishing. As a result, the numbers of self-published authors are ever-increasing.
There is an anti-establishment aspect to self-publishing, in that it has been seen historically as a way to defy authority or resist oppression. The self-publishing movement can also be viewed as a part of the Do-it-yourself culture which "flourishes in environments of communitarian support." A writer who is rejected by the usual system can find solace in self-publishing. Some struggling authors complained that the traditional publishing model was too "insular", keeping out different ideas about stories as well as ones with unusual characters or plotlines, or which dealt with minorities, and self-publishing was a way for these formerly outcast writers to connect with readers. Libraries have also become involved with self-publishing; the Library Journal and Biblioboard worked together to create a self-publishing platform called Self-e in which authors submit books online which are made available to readers. These books are reviewed by Library Journal, and the best ones are published nationwide; authors do not make money this way but it serves as a marketing tool.
The dramatic changes have impacted the standard publishing industry as well, which is controlling a smaller share of the overall publishing market, forcing many traditional publishers to consolidate to reduce costs. The squeeze has been applied to such authors, some of whom have complained that traditional publishers have often asked for the author to contribute part of the start-up expenses personally, in effect deviating from the usual model of the publisher providing all upfront expenses.
Self-publishing is still a "difficult and demanding way to go" but is increasingly becoming a respectable, if alternative, choice for a writing career. Self-publishers who are savvy, motivated and hard-working, can build audiences and make money.
In the traditional publishing model, editors and publishers act as a filter or screen, weeding out possibly radical, badly written, or otherwise substandard content. In contrast, self-publishing enables authors to bypass this filter and sell their books directly to the public. The wide-open uncensored nature of self-publishing has caused problems and controversies with pornographic or abuse-themed content. Amazon has a policy against selling content relating to rape and incest and bestiality which states "We don't accept pornographic or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts", but it is sometimes difficult for book distributors to distinguish what type of content is acceptable and what is not. Some retailers have had to remove problematic content. A survey found that self-published erotica had more extreme themes than mainstream books. Erotica is about 1% of the mainstream market but 29% of the self-published market, according to one informal survey in 2013.
There have been some controversial self-published books, such as that of a man who posted a photo of his dead wife, whom he had murdered. Celebrity Kim Kardashian self-published a 445-page book which consisted entirely of selfies, a book described in Slate magazine as having "no literary ambitions at all – it barely has words."
While editors at a traditional publisher would often insist on fact-checking, and doing due diligence regarding claims made by an author, there are no requirements in the self-publishing model for this to happen. Self-publishing has attracted political provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos who was able to publish his tome Dangerous on Amazon despite being dumped by traditional publisher Simon & Schuster as well as Breitbart after a video surfaced of him condoning pedophilia.
As a check on self-published content, and as part of its overall strategy of empowering consumers by giving more information, Amazon permits reviews of its products, including books that it sells. However, it is possible for self-published authors to game the Amazon review system to make their books appear better than they are, perhaps by encouraging large numbers of five-star reviews by paying anonymous reviewers to write fake laudatory comments. According to one view, the system is at serious risk of fraud and deception. Amazon has responded by emphasizing reviews in which the book purchase is verified, and it has fought back by, in some cases, suing people and service firms who sell fake reviews.
A problem for some successful self-published authors is plagiarism. It is relatively easy for a manuscript to be copied and changed in superficial ways, but changed sufficiently so that it is hard for plagiarism-detecting software to catch the similarities between the real book and the plagiarized copy; then the copy can be uploaded online under a new title and different author name, which can earn royalties for the plagiarist. For example, author Rachel Ann Nunes, who wrote A Bid for Love in 1998, found that her manuscript had been plagiarized, with a nearly identical book entitled The Auction Deal. Nunes hired a lawyer to track down the plagiarists. In the previous publisher-dominated system, a publisher would have been liable for selling a plagiarized book, but in the world of self-publishing, there are no liabilities involved if Amazon removes the plagiarized titles. It is often difficult to catch and prosecute the plagiarists, who can masquerade using false identities.
The publishing industry, including self-publishing, is changing so rapidly that it is hard to make accurate predictions about where it is headed. It is likely that self-publishing will continue to grow, and that authors will demand more and more data about their readers as well as how well their books are selling. Self-publishing is growing in marketing sophistication and ambition, according to one view.
Regarding the e-book market, there are predictions that independent authors will be grabbing an increasing slice of this market. Traditional publishers are losing ground in the e-book market, according to several sources. E-books published by traditional publishers declined by 11% from 2015 to 2016. The drop in e-book sales was really more of a phenomenon in which established publishers were raising the prices of their e-books, and saw a relative decline in sales compared to their print offerings. In contrast, sales of self-published e-books have been increasing. An increasing number of e-books are being read on tablets as opposed to dedicated E-book readers. One forecast was that digital sales would continue to increase over time, and paper-based publishing would become a "niche market" like with newspapers and magazines.
A report in 2017 suggested that Amazon was working on a system to transform foreign language fiction into English with its AmazonCrossing service. Amazon accounted for 10% of all translated foreign fiction books, according to one report.
There are an increasing variety of resources for authors choosing the self-publishing route.
Publishing guru Jane Friedman breaks out the publishing routes for authors into basic categories:
The author as a self-publisher also takes on many of the creative tasks to complete the finished works, which include creative writing as well as selecting the writing software, editing, marketing, and cover design. While self-publishing means that the author is in control of the entire process of production, from writing and editing, to layout to distribution, and to choosing publishing platforms and selecting marketing variables such as the price, many of these tasks can be outsourced to professionals. Professionals can be located through search engines, freelancing websites such as Reedsy, word of mouth, identifying and contacting creative assistants who have worked on already-published books, and searching relevant forums. Authors can spend up to $5000 for a variety of services to assist with publishing.
There is strong agreement that self-published authors fare better if they are able to employ a skilled editor, preferably one with a financial interest in the success of the book, and who can bring a savvy understanding of the market as well as a strong sense of story development. Self-published author James Altucher describes working with an editor:
Nils and I went back and forth on more than 15 different rewrites for my book. The difference between the original version and the final version is like the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.
A liability for self-published authors is that if they can find a skilled editor, he or she is still being paid by the author for upfront editing work, and may not care whether the book is successful or not. A big advantage for working with a traditional publishing arrangement is having an editor and publisher who have a financial interest in making the book a bestseller.
A self-published author is responsible for the technical aspects of self-publishing, which include formatting for printing and digital conversion. Formatting can be complex and time-consuming but patient people can learn how to do it by themselves, but often hire this task out to experienced freelancers.
Unless a book is to be sold directly from the author to the public, an International Standard Book Number or ISBN is required to uniquely identify the title. ISBN is a global standard used for all titles worldwide. Most self-publishing companies either provide their own ISBN to a title or can provide direction about how to get one. A separate ISBN number is needed for each edition of the book. It may be in the best interest of the self-published author to retain ownership of the ISBN and copyright instead of using a number owned by a vanity press.
The dominant self-publishing platform is Amazon which controls the vast share of the market, but there are numerous competitors and platforms in which authors can upload and sell their books.
Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP is Amazon's e-book publishing unit which was launched when the company began selling its Amazon Kindle book reading device in 2007. Books can be published in numerous languages. Amazon's KDP has hundreds of thousands of self-published titles. Amazon's KDP program uses ASIN identifiers instead of ISBNs to identify e-books. Amazon does not release sales figures of its authors. Many authors prefer Amazon for its global clout and reach. One analysis suggested that Amazon earned $2.3 billion from e-book revenues in 2016, and 25% of these were from self-published e-books; and Amazon released 4 million e-book titles in 2016, and 40% of them were self-published. Another estimate was that Amazon controls 70% of the e-book market.
Amazon's Kindle Unlimited service lets readers read any books in its catalog, provided that the users pay a monthly fee. Amazon tracks which books are selected and read by subscribers. An author who wants to have their book included in this program enters into Amazon's KDP Select program, and as part of the agreement, the author promises to make their book exclusive to Amazon. The author can opt out of the KDP program every ninety days. An estimate in 2017 was that of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited market, about 60% of the books read and borrowed were self-published. Amazon initially began the program by paying authors whenever their book was chosen, but then it switched to an arrangement in which it pays authors based on pages read. Each month, Amazon establishes a fund from which to pay authors, based on Amazon's accounting of which pages are read. Amazon has been criticized for short-changing authors by paying them out of this monthly fund. As a result of the program, many Amazon authors found that their income decreased substantially when the company switched to the pages-read basis. The collective fund for KDP authors in August 2017 was $19.4 million which was the "largest ever" of the monthly funds, but overall authors received the lowest amount, which was $0.00419 per page for that month. Some authors tried to compensate for less income by slightly altering and republishing their work, to try to increase the total of pages read. The change to the pages-read model was criticized as being a "huge pay cut" for authors. None of the big 5 publishers contributed books to Kindle Unlimited as of 2017.
IngramSpark lets authors publish digital and paperback editions of their books. It distributes books to most online bookstores. Brick-and-mortar stores can also order books from IngramSpark at wholesales prices for sale in their own venues. It is run by Ingram Content Group.
Apple sells books via its App Store which is a digital distribution platform for its mobile apps on its iOS operating system. Apps can be downloaded to its devices such as the iPhone, the iPod Touch handheld computer, and the iPad. Apple pays authors 70% of its proceeds at its Apple iBookstore where it sells iBooks.
Smashwords is a California-based company founded by Mark Coker which allows authors and independent publishers to upload their manuscripts electronically to the Smashwords service, which then converts them into multiple e-book formats which can be read on various devices. Authors control what price is set.
Scribd is an open publishing platform which features a digital library, an e-book and audiobook subscription service. It began as an online sharing site for books, and evolved into a store; books published there entitle an author to 80% of the sales price.
Print-on-demand (or POD) publishing refers to the ability to print high-quality books as needed. This is usually the most economical option for self-publishers who expect sales to be sporadic over time. An alternative is to hire a printing press to do a print run in which a large number of books are printed at one time, such as a hundred or a thousand copies, which can result in a slightly lower per-book printing cost, but risks holding onto unsold inventory for an extended period of time. Print-on-demand means that a book is printed only after it is purchased, lessening the risk, which eliminates the need for expensive warehouse space. Many companies allow single books to be printed at per-book costs which are not much higher than those paid by publishing companies for large print runs. Ingram is the largest book distributor, and it can help self-published authors get access to 39,000 bookstores, according to one report. The physical quality of print-on-demand self-published books is generally the same as that from an established publisher, although quality can in some instances vary.
Generally self-publishing works best with e-books because, unlike print-on-demand self-publishing, it solves the twin problems of price and distribution. There are a variety of e-book formats and tools that can be used to create them. Because it is possible to create e-books with no up-front or per-book costs, this is a popular option for self-publishers.  When a person buys an E-book, the buyer does not own the book, but owns a license only to read the book. Formatting standards for e-books continue to evolve; at present, there have been compatibility problems with some digital e-book readers. For example, a recent EPUB 3.1 e-book format is not compatible with earlier e-book readers such as the Kindle. E-book formats include EPUB, MOBI and PDF, among others. In 2017, there was a report in the Chicago Tribune that e-books sales are continuing to increase. Epublishing distributors allow an author to sell on multiple platforms, often providing conversion and formatting services, usually charge no fees upfront, and make money by taking a small percentage of each book sold.
Users pay to have their books published. While a commercial publisher's market is the book-buying public at large, the vanity publisher's market is the author himself or herself. Some authors buy substantial copies of their own book which are then used as giveaways or promotional tools. The term vanity press is considered pejorative since it suggests that a person who hires such a service is unqualified or unable to have their book succeed in the market, and that the author is printing the book only out of vanity. In this business model, there can be elements of fraud, such that some vanity presses masquerade as legitimate publishers, and pretend to be selective and choosy in their book selections, and prey upon a would-be author's desire to be published. If a vanity press charges a higher amount to print a run of books than a regular printer, it can be an indication of deception and fraud.
CreateSpace was Amazon's print-on-demand book publishing service. Authors could sign up for an account, and the online software guided an author through the steps of publication, such as uploading a cover, selecting distribution channels and setting prices. Books uploaded to CreateSpace became part of Amazon's online catalog and were made available to book buyers around the world. Amazon collected revenues from book sales on behalf of authors, and then deposited royalty monies directly into an author's account, usually after a few months or so after the sale. CreateSpace offered additional services to help authors, such as cover design and copyediting ($120+) as well as converting the manuscript file to a Kindle-compatible e-book file ($70). CreateSpace offered authors free book identifying numbers or ISBNs without extra charge, or authors could buy their own ISBN numbers. In August 2018 CreateSpace was absorbed into Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).
Smashwords publishes and distributes e-books. Smashwords authors keep 60% of the sale price, and Smashwords keeps 10%, and the retailer keeps 30%; if a sale is made directly through Smashwords, the author keeps 85% of the sales price. Smashwords provides a list of freelance assistance services. In 2017, it distributed 250,000 titles for 60,000 authors to most of the world's e-book stores in exchange for a cut of the author's profits. Smashwords books can go on sale a few minutes after they're uploaded.
I believe every writer is great and wonderful and has something to share with the world. Readers will decide if what they're sharing is worth reading.
Lulu publishes print and e-books and offers publishing-related services such as website design, cover design, editing packages, and strategies for social media promotions. It was founded in 2002. Lulu charges nothing upfront, and each time a book is sold, it keeps 20% of the profit and pays 80% to the author. Lulu offers additional services such as editing ($450) and cover design ($130) and other services such as design and formatting which can cost from $700 to $5000. Lulu enables authors to print books not only in paperback form, but in hardcover and comic book forms as well.
Author Solutions sells services such as editing, e-book production and marketing services. According to one report, it served 170,000 authors who wrote 200,000 titles as of 2017. Penguin Random House, a mainstream publisher, once bought, then sold, Author Solutions.
FastPencil sells editing services, as well as consulting services related to publishing and distribution, for a fee.
Reedsy is a British online author services firm which connects authors and freelance professionals. It has a network of vetted editors, cover designers, illustrators and book marketers and takes a 10% cut of each contract between author and freelancer. In addition, it offers online software tools to help authors convert files for publication in print and in e-book form, and offers training courses by email to help authors navigate the self-publishing process. The firm checks the credentials of publishing freelancers such as story editors, cover designers, marketers and others, by verifying their previous work experience for mainstream publishers as well as their overall track record in the publishing industry. Reedsy checks the credentials of writing contests as well to help writers avoid wasting time with fake contests and prizes. In addition, it offers online software tools to help authors convert their manuscript files to files suitable for publishing e-books, such as EPUB and PDF formats, as well as learning programs to help authors navigate the self-publishing process. In 2016, the Reedsy community included 20,000 authors and 500 freelancers, and had helped them publish 3,000 books. Reedsy began in 2014 after being funded by Seedcamp, founded by Emmanuel Nataf, Richard Fayet, Matthew Cobb and Vincent Durand. While the start-up firm is headquartered in London, it is a "completely officeless business" such that its staff is physically distributed in different locations, and conducts business via cloud computing.
Matador is the self-publishing imprint of Troubador Publishing Ltd, a traditional publishing company based in Leicester, United Kingdom. In the last 19 years Matador has published over 5000 titles in book and ebook formats, approximately 500 titles a year. The company not only has print 'on demand' distribution, but sales representation by Star Book Sales and distribution to retailers via Orca Distribution. It published Louise Walters second novel, A Life Between Us, in 2017, as well as Polly Courtney's Golden Handcuffs and Ben Hunt-Davis' Will It Make the Boat Go Faster, which sold over 40,000 copies.
There are a variety of freelance professionals available through the Internet who can assist with a wide variety of publishing-related tasks.
The largest, by far, percentage of authors are making less than $500 a year self-publishing, because there's a glut. There's over 350,000 books being self-published every year and readers are not finding them. There's just no way to expose people to all of these books.
There is wide consensus that since the market is flooded with titles, the most difficult task facing self-published authors is attracting attention to their book. Some authors have tried unconventional methods to cut through the clutter. For example, self-published author James Altucher offers to pay readers if they can prove they bought and read his book; he explained that people are more likely to value what they pay for, and this offer entices them to actually read his book. While he takes a small loss each time a reader accepts his offer, overall he feels it promotes sales. Experimentation helps. One strategist suggested that an author should have a creative marketing campaign and try one tactic each day, while studying those tactics undertaken by successful self-publishers. One author spends roughly $70,000 annually creating and promoting her books, and hires a dozen freelancers for various parts of her operation. Another self-published author gave 80 books to friends, who told their friends, to generate positive publicity. A strategy that helps many self-published authors is to write a series, making the first installment free, and charging for subsequent versions.
Authors have tried numerous approaches to promoting and marketing their books, including...
Most book contests are open only to books published by established publishers, but there are a few contests open to self-published writers. One is the Illinois Library Association, in conjunction with BiblioBoards and with Reaching Across Illinois Library System, which sponsored a prize for best self-published novel; the contest is open to Illinois-based self-published writers. The British newspaper The Guardian, in conjunction with selected publishers, has a Self published book of the month award, which began in 2014; entries are submitted digitally and must be in the English language, and the contest is open only to residents of the United Kingdom.
Self-publishers include a wide variety of persons. Some retirees are self-publishing the story of their life, to leave as a legacy to their offspring after they're gone. Sometimes adults help write and edit the book for their parent; for example, Arthur Chiang helped his mother describe her life as an immigrant, adding photos, and helping with the technical aspects of preparing the manuscript for publication. There have been instances in which parents, to give their teenaged children experience with writing and to involve them in fun projects, acted as "publishers" for their children, paying some of the costs to have their offspring self-published. Eleven-year-old John Ruskin sold a book of poetry he self-published with his father. Author Brooks Olsen chose Amazon after writing her self-published book, which was edited in part by her parents, with a cover design from her boyfriend, saying she liked having Amazon's clout behind her. The motivations of self-published writers are many, and include building a career as a writer and satisfying an ambition, along with money, which isn't usually the top reason.
While almost all self-published books do not make much money, there are dozens of self-published books that have broken through to huge audiences and success, and which get much media attention. The number of authors who have sold more than one million e-books on Amazon from 2011 to 2016 was 40, according to one estimate.
Traditional publishers can offer editorial guidance, marketing muscle, and access to well-established channels of distribution, and have been the preferred choice for writers for the past century. Still, there are increasing advantages for self-publishing, and there are increasing instances of writers moving between both the traditional and self-publishing models, for various reasons. Self-publishing is an increasingly likely choice for authors who are "midcareer, midlist, middle-aged, more or less middlebrow, and somewhat Internet savvy," writes journalist Neal Pollack, who extols the promise of being able to reach readers directly. Elizabeth Prybylski, publisher of Insomnia, an indie press, describes the main difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing is "who puts up the overhead of production."
If the author doesn't have the money, time, or inclination to do all of those things for their book and to pay the costs of production, a publisher's experience and knowledge can make up for that gap.
Analyses have been made suggesting that self-published authors' earnings have been comparing favorably to earnings from established publishers, and this may be a factor causing established authors to switch to the self-publishing approach. While a self-published author can typically keep 70% of the sales price, a typical contract with a publisher will be payment of an advance sum such as $5000 to $10,000, plus receiving 25% of digital sales and 7% to 12% of the list price for bound books, which the author will receive after the publisher recoups the money paid for the advance to the author.
Authors being published the traditional way have seen their income from publishing decline in recent years. A survey from the Authors Guild found that authors with contracts with established publishers were making 30% less money in 2015 than they had been making in 2009. Talented writers in traditional publishing, who have won prizes and awards, are earning less, with some living at or near the poverty line. Some books sell only 5,000 to 20,000 copies, some less than that. Factors identified as dampening the income levels of such authors include the online piracy of digital material, major publishing houses consolidating to focus more on profits, and the rise of Amazon and self-publishing.
Some writers have been dissatisfied with the marketing efforts of a traditional publisher. One writer got fed up when the publisher made basic mistakes with a book launch, and so he "decided to take his book back" and self-published it. He hired the firm Reedsy to redesign his book The Pink Marine, and went on to form his own imprint. Novelist Louise Walters felt that traditional publishers were "debut-centric" and obsessed with celebrities. David Mamet, whose book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture had been on the New York Times bestseller list, chose to release his novella by self-publishing. He had been dissatisfied with the marketing efforts of his traditional publisher. There was a report that suggested that traditional publishers have lessened their marketing efforts on behalf of authors. Another example is romance novelist Courtney Milan who switched to self-publishing because she wanted to have "more agency over the background of her characters" and her stories. Some photographers, who felt hemmed in by the traditional photo book publishing world, have started up their own imprints as a way to publish their own books. Writer Sarah Grimm moved away from the traditional publishing approach to self-publishing because she wanted greater control over cover design, publication dates and the story content.
My first book went through so many different changes that when it released, I no longer felt like it was the story I originally set out to tell.
Novelist Louise Walters explained why she switched to the self-publishing mode, after her publisher rejected her second novel, describing self-publishing as an "exhilarating change":
Footing the bill to bring out the book means the responsibility is on my shoulders, but at the same time it's incredibly freeing. I can market this book in any way I choose; I have real input into every decision regarding my work; I'll even earn a fairer share of the proceeds from each sale … It's only a book, after all, and self-publishing is a whole lot of fun.
Still, it is likely that when a self-published author creates a bestseller, that he or she will accept an offer from a major publisher. Some traditional publishers troll the lists of bestselling self-published titles to look for new books to sell. Smashwords president Mark Coker predicted that it will become more difficult for traditional publishers to entice the best self-published authors, simply because traditional publishers don't pay as much. Successful self-published authors have been courted by literary agents and publishers offering substantial sums of money. It's getting harder for established publishers to woo away successful self-published authors since the royalty structure they offer may not match the profits to be made from publishing on their own.
Authors are no longer bound in their storytelling by what the traditional publishers think the market can bear ... Instead, because we can go straight to the reader now, we can write exactly the books that we want to write and exactly the books that our fans want to read. We don't have to worry about whether an agent can sell the book, or if an editor and publisher want to buy the book, or if a retailer wants to stock the book. Personally, I think this new open market can – and does – make for much more interesting storytelling.
With self-publishing you don't waste your time trying to get published, which can take years of query letters and agenting, and all this stuff. You go straight to the real gatekeepers, which are the readers. If they respond favorably and you have sales, you can leverage that into a writing career. If they don't, you write the next thing. Either way you're not spending your time trying to get published, you're spending your time writing the next work.
You risk looking like an amateur ... Good writers need even better editors. They need brilliant cover designers. They need imaginative marketers and well-connected publicists. All these things are provided by a traditional publisher, and what's more, it doesn't cost you a penny. They pay you! If a self-published author wants to avoid looking like an amateur, they'd better be prepared to shell out some serious cash to get professional help in all the areas where they don't excel. And I mean serious.
You have to forget writing for a living ... Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool ... The vast majority of indie authors have tweetstreams that are 90% adverts, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they must spend 90% of their time marketing ... Good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship.