Paying to Publish

Monday, March 28, 2011

In the past several months, two members of my writing group have decided to self-publish their work using e-book formats, setting aside any doubt about the legitimacy of self-publishing. They are by no means unique. Self-publishing is undergoing a transformation, a natural progression if we consider how the Internet has changed our access to and expectations of all kinds of creative media. YouTube and Vimeo allow anyone to distribute a video; iTunes and CDBaby offer access to independently produced music; search engines, websites, Facebook, MySpace, Reddit, and so on are all vehicles to find creative work that would otherwise remain obscure.

In literary circles, online journals have achieved status that rivals that of print and offer many benefits: the link to an archived piece is available in perpetuity to anyone with an Internet connection. A published article can be quickly accessed and linked, reaching new readers in new contexts. The absence of paper-and-ink printing expense allows articles of any length. And online journals can include audio and video works.

Blogs too have a role in changing how we think about publishing. They can be searched by topic or name, potentially reaching wide audiences. Frequent new posts, real-time comments from readers, and a more informal tone than that of print publications encourage a kind of writing that matches our appetite for immediacy, for up-to-the minute information. In addition, anyone with an idea and a computer can start a blog and envision himself or herself as a writer. The quality of writing is, of course, variable. But online publishing has changed our expectations regarding content and how we allocate the time we have to read.

Just as musicians have rebelled against the restraints and exclusivity of mainstream record labels, writers have their disputes with major publishing houses. Zondra Hughes, in The Huffington Post, cites several successful self-published authors who, like herself, “have all been duped at one time or another by the shady underbelly of publishing.” The website boasts a curated collection of self-published works, which are shipped by the author when a purchase is made. This site features a column of profiles of authors who have made the transition to or from the major publishing houses, such as Lisa Genova, whose self-published Still Alice was rereleased by Pocket Books at Simon & Schuster and debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Another development, print on demand, avoids the accumulation of crates of unsold books—an intriguing option if we consider that the average self-published book sells about 150 copies. Print on demand is just that: when a reader orders the book from a site such as or, one copy is printed and delivered. Various sites offer a range of services: formatting, editing, cover design, obtaining an ISBN (international standard book number), printing, marketing, and distributing. Costs vary, depending on which tasks the author tackles on his or her own and which services he or she hires the POD publisher to provide. The wisdom of doing one’s own formatting, graphic design, or marketing can be debated, but paying a fee to reach the publisher’s distribution network seems more widely accepted.

My writing group peers have decided on another platform, e-books, where publishing is quickly and easily arranged. One of the authors just wants to make a stab and see what happens; so far, he has sold one copy. Yes, to his mother. The other writer has an elaborate and comprehensive marketing plan and a goal of selling a thousand copies. The e-book platform appeals in its amenability to either purpose. Major booksellers provide straightforward instructions and clearly delineated fees on their websites. Amazon offers what it calls the Digital Text Platform to format e-books for the Kindle. PubIt! is Barnes & Noble’s platform for the Nook. E-books for the iPad are a bit more complicated to set up as of this writing. offers ePub formatting for the iPad, as do a number of other services.

In December 2010, Publishers Weekly began publishing a quarterly supplement that lists all submitted self-published works and reviews twenty-five of them. It charges a fee of $149 for each listing. The announcement states, “The processing fee that guarantees a listing and the chance to be reviewed accomplishes what we want: to inform the trade of what is happening in self-publishing and to present a PW selection of what has the most merit.”

The cost of self-publishing a POD title or e-book ranges from about five dollars to several hundred dollars, depending on which services (cover design, marketing, etc.) the author uses. Obviously these amounts are accessible to many would-be authors. And royalties of 70 percent to the author are typical. Over 750,000 titles were self-published in 2009, a 181 percent increase from 2008, while the number of traditionally published titles declined. In the digital age, any perceived stigma of self-publishing may be simply an anachronism.

Still, the writer must determine his or her own goals. The imprimatur of a prestigious publishing house will always have its appeal. But contemporary readers expect instant and complete access to information; they embrace innovation; they demand unrestricted freedom of choice. More writers will find more readers if they can keep up as technology flies. Still, no technology can supplant the soul of writing, the quality of the work itself, and that’s what sustains those of us who labor for the worth of words.