Self publishing

My essay will explore self publishing through two major points of view: one of the publishers’ and one of the author’s.

The option of self-publishing has stirred a lot of controversy amongst the publishing industry’s professionals and authors. Authors prefer to have more control of their own book, to have their hands on the manuscript while it’s being edited and published, rather than to leave it all to the publishers–if an author choses to self publish their book, they have to support all the upfront costs. However, publishing professionals feel that the phenomenon of self publishing is devaluing the written word, and devaluing the quality of the print book, as the self published book hasn’t been trough proper editing, proofreading and typesetting.

My essay will start with an overview on how self publishing was introduced to the publishing world. I will talk about how important projects like project Gutenberg and important figures like Virginia Wolfe who started Hogarth Press in order to publish her own books have pioneered the phenomenon of self publishing. I will also mention how the appearance of POD (Print on Demand) has made self publishing even more possible and accessible to almost anyone. Furthermore, I will explore what means of self publishing there currently are.

Self publishing – what it involves

Self publishing is the publication of a book by its own author, without the help of an established publisher. The author is in control of the entire publishing process: the design of the cover and interior, proofreading and editing, distribution, formats, marketing and public relations. What distinguishes self-publishing from the traditional publishing is that the author decided to publish their book independently of a publishing house. The advancement of technology made the self publishing process easier to be accomplished. Almost anyone can write something and post it on the web as an ebook for free.

The two means of publication, that have made self-publishing easier and more possible are ebook publishing and Print-on-Demand. With the advancement of ebook publishing, anyone can post what they write online, at a minimum cost, almost for free. Anyone has the opportunity to read an ebook on their smartphone, laptop or eReader. Print-on-Demand is a printing technology and business process that allows copies of the book to be printed when an order was placed. The books are then delivered to the customer.

Self-published books have to have ISBNs when made available in a shop or online, unless the author is selling the books directly to the public.

The most used mean of self-publishing, by far, is ebook publishing and it’s the quicker and most cost effective, as ebooks can be created and published with no up-front cost. There are a variety of formats for ebooks and the means to create them are endless, especially nowadays.

Ebooks publishing platforms include: Pronoun, Pubit, Bookbaby, Lulu, Smashwords, Blurb, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, CinnamonTeal Publishing, etc. Ebook formats include: e-pub, mobi and PDF.

Print-on-demand allows authors to offer to their readers a self published book in high quality print, as needed. There are numerous companies that offer printing of single books at a cost not much higher than those paid by publishing companies for large print runs. Such companies are: LighteningSource, Createspace, Blurb, Lulu, iUniverse, etc.

There is also the option of paying someone be your publisher, e.g. vanity presses (also known as subsidy publishing). In this case, the author pays a vanity press to do the publishing process for them: turning a manuscript into a book and making it available through major distribution channels.


In 2008, more books were self published than published traditionally. One year later, approximately 76% of all books published were self published, making publishing houses reduce the number of books they publish. Let’s take a look back to when this new trend of self-publishing started.

It is being said that authors have been self publishing for ages, in fact at the beginning of times that was all they could do, as there were no publishing houses to aid with the publishing process. It all started 3000-2000 B.C. when ancient scribes were picture-writing on clay tables and papyrus scrolls.

A bit later, in 1450 Johannes Gutenberg changed the course of publishing by improving the mechanical printing press with the movable type. The course of publishing history in the West was forever changed, as the first mass production of books were printed.

Benjamin Franklin wrote and published the yearly pamphlet Poor Richard’s Almanack, a compendium of essays, weather forecasts, household tips, aphorisms, and proverbs, many of which are in our spoken language today.

William Blake self-published some of his best known works: Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1783-1820). Apart from being an author, he was also the illustrator for his works. He designed all the accompanying illustrations and etched them onto copper plate. He printed and coloured the pages by hand, in order to create illuminated manuscripts.

Jane Austen chose the vanity press route in order to publish her first novel Sense and Sensibility. Even though her novels were popular, she received little recognition for them in her lifetime. She struggled to publish her first novels, therefore offered to pay the publisher in order to have them printed.

Hogarth Press was the first renown example of a press started by an author. Virginia and Leonard Woolf started Hogarth Press in order to publish her books and other authors’. Her initiative inspired other authors like Kelly Link (Small Beer Press), Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s).

The invention of the World Wide Web is when the first seeds of online self-publishing got planted. In 1993, it was announced that the technology was made freely available to everyone.

The year of 1997 marks another key point in the history of self publishing: the founding of Lightening Source, one of the largest print-on-demand (POD) companies in the world. The POD technology allowed books to be published one at a time. This technology has opened up the market giving the opportunity to more small presses to be created. This service has made self publishing even more possible.

In 1999 the blog-to-book phenomenon is born. Blog hosting services like Blogger, LiveJournal and WordPress are giving people the opportunity publish themselves on the Web.

In 2006 the first Expresso Book Machine was introduced to the printing world. The EBM can print a book within a few minutes, at the point of sale. It can be found in locations around the world: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and the NYU Bookstore in New York City.

The Expresso Book Machine explained

Ebook gave self published authors the possibility to have their content available online, freely. Companies like Smashwords and BookBaby make it easy for writers to self-publish and distribute e-books worldwide.

Next, I will cover how self publishing affects the traditional book, how publishers are perceiving this new type of publishing, and what is the future of the book if self publishing comes into the picture.

Publishers and self publishing

Why are publishers so eager to proclaim their role and relevance in the publishing process these days? It is mostly because of the increased competition, and one of their biggest competitor nowadays is self publishing and ebooks publishing.

Approximately 20 years ago, the only way to publish a book was to print it and sell it on store shelves. The book publisher was the only one who could help make this possible, they were the key to publishing a book: they were editing the book and then distributing it. The author had to go through the selection process the publisher had in place, hoping that their book gets picked –there was a high chance it would not be. Nowadays, anyone who has Internet can write a book and then publish it on a blog, as an ebook or pdf and have it for sale at the world’s largest online book seller, Amazon.

Today, the role of the publisher is put at question. The authors have various ways to publish their book, they can take it all in their own hands and self publish the book online and in print,  they can go the way of vanity publishing, where they basically hire a professional publishing house to do the tedious work of editing, designing, marketing and also distribution. They don’t have to work hard in order for their book to be picked by the very thorough selection criteria of a world renown publisher.

Traditional publishers have to remind authors about their fundamental role in publishing the book. They help pick and curate the best titles, they edit the book professionally and bring to the market a high quality end product. Traditional publishers have been concerned that self publishing will devalue the market for many reasons. First is that not every book is worthy to be published. When an author self publishes a book, they are the ones making the decision to publish or not. The second most important reason is quality assurance. Is the book in a good enough state to be published? It is being said that the author is the least qualified person to make this decision.

Random House on  why authors need to work with professional publishers

Traditional publishers will have to refocus on what they can do best,” he said, “helping an author to publish. They will be service providers for those authors who choose to concentrate on writing. They will be responsible for the right publishing strategy that maximizes the value of the author’s work.”

Authors and self publishing

For an author, self publishing is regarded as a much desired opportunity. They can finally publish their book online/ print without having to wait years to be approved by a publisher. Self publishing democratizes the publishing market and takes the control from the publisher and gives it to the author. Through self publishing, authors have the opportunity to enter into publishing.

Also, self publishing is becoming more and more easier as there are so many companies that offer to help authors self publish their book. Smashwords is a company that distributes books to all the major ebook stores, and give authors 70.5% proceeds on sales. They also provide marketing advice (vital for a self published books in order to garner sales) and provide authors with tools to manage the marketing for a book.

Dr Geuppert argues that: “The main reasons for choosing self-publishing are creative freedom and control; simplicity of process; fun; and the speed of publishing. Self-publishing authors agree that through self-publishing, they have been able to strengthen their capability to work independently as well as their creative competencies.”

However, authors are not aware that when they self publish they are, in a way, cluttering this industry with books that perhaps, should never be published. There is no selection criteria when it comes to self publishing, and companies who help authors self publish their book, have no concern when it comes to the question: should this book truly be published? This might result in a devaluation of the book, all thanks to self publishing.


The question remains: is the book devalued by self publishing?

Authors regard self publishing as one of the greatest opportunities as they have the chance to do something they have wished for: publish their books and also, be in total control of the of the publishing process. This would not happen if the author is taking the traditional way to publish a book. They will have to wait, perhaps, years in order to get published and also, allow the publisher to be in control of the publishing process. 

Publishing houses are concerned because they are directly competing with self publishing sites. They risk to go out of business if authors will choose to go the traditional way of publishing. They are also concerned about the quality of the self published book, which can directly affect literature. Self published books are not being professionally edited and published, the author is making the decision when the book is ready for print. Self publishing is cluttering the book industry with books that should not be published.

In conclusion, the publishing industry is changing due to the appearance and popularity of self publishing. Traditional publishing houses have to remind authors about their fundamental role in publishing the book. They help pick and curate the best titles, they edit the book professionally and bring to the market a high quality end product. The future of publishing with self publishing in picture, is yet unknown, but one thing is certain: authors have to understand the risks and downsides of self publishing and what this could mean for the books market.

2 Replies to “Self publishing”

  1. Aniela, thank you for this engaging piece on self-publishing.

    In general, the article was well structured and easy to follow. The chronology was a good tool through which to tell the story, though I feel you could have included more analysis as it unfolded. For example, why was it significant that movable type was invented–what was the impact on traditional publishing as we know it today and, in particular, self-publishing operations? I was also very happy that you mentioned subsidy publishing (vanity presses) as another form of commercializing self-publishing. With that being said, I wanted you to incorporate subsidy publishing as a larger part of your article. I think this would have been helpful when writing up your conclusion on how traditional publishers and authors who want to self-publish can possibly move forward.

    The traditional book publishing sector has been co-existing with self publishing for quite some time now. You alluded to this in the form of Jane Austen paying her publisher to produce her first book. I thought this would have been a good opportunity to talk about the modern day relationships of publishers and the authors who want to self-publish or have self-published, drawing on examples in history to compare and contrast solutions. In recent years, some books were self-published before getting signed by a traditional publishing house. See: “Fifty Shades of Grey: The New Publishing Paradigm”: How is this similar or different from the occasions on which it occurred in the past? Additionally, there are some established publishing houses with divisions focused on subsidy publishing/self-publishing. An example of this is Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing: How is this similar to Jane Austen’s situation those many years ago and/or how is it different? Is this a trend among publishing houses? I think this kind of discussion could have helped you in formulating your conclusion.

    Though the future is unknown there are examples from the past and present that can help us suggest/presume a trajectory. I would have liked to see the chronology lead into a trajectory/forecast of what is to come within the self-publishing space and quite possibly how publishers and authors who want to self-publish continue to work together. Does Wattpad, Tablo and Scribd become publishers? Are they already publishers? Do we re-adjust our thinking of what it means to be publishers?

    Just two final notes:

    1. Capital concerns could have been incorporated more into the discussion. What are some of the expenses faced by persons who go the Print-on-demand route vs. those who do ebooks. This would have probably helped in underscoring the massive personal undertaking that is self-publishing, which isn’t always the “easy as pie” situation some think it is.

    2. The “universal” culture of wanting to share stories. You alluded to this with the
    picture writing reference from 3000-2000 B.C. Chronicling and sharing lore have been popular human practices for quite some time. Self-publishing exploding in the 2000s due to the advent of new technologies is not that much of a surprise when you think of it.

    I think a paragraph or two addressing these two concerns/ideas could have added a lot to the article.

    Again, thank you for this piece. It was informative and thought provoking. I look forward to see/hear about the projects you get involved with.

  2. This essay presents two modes of self publishing, along with a summarized version of this chronology of important moments in self-publishing. It concludes with some thoughts on how the value of books is affected by the emergence of self-publishing. This final part, which really forms the heart of the essay, makes a lot of assumptions and generalizations about what authors and publishers think and feel, but does give us a good insight into the essay’s author’s view on the subject.

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