Self-publishing is the publication of any book or other media by its author without the involvement of an established publisher. A self-published physical book is said to have been privately printed. The author is in control of the entire process including, for a book, the design of the cover and interior, formats, price, distribution, marketing, and public relations. The authors can do it all themselves or may outsource some or all the work to companies which offer these services.

Self-publishing is not limited to physical books. E-books, pamphlets, brochures, websites, and other media are commonly self-published.

The history of self-publishing

Despite technology making it both easier and cheaper to self-publish books, going down the independent road is nothing new. In 1931 the author of The Joy of Cooking paid a local printing company to print 3000 copies. Later Bobbs-Merill Company acquired the rights, and since then the book has sold over 18 million copies.[1]

The contemporary trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James was originally published online as Twilight fan-fiction before the author decided to self-publish it as an e-book and print on demand.[1]

Business aspects

The key distinguishing characteristic of self-publishing is that the author has decided to publish independently of a publishing house. In the past, self-published authors had to spend considerable amounts of money preparing a book for publication, purchasing bulk copies of their title, and finding a place to store their inventory. Print-on-demand and e-book technology have allowed authors to have a book printed or digitally delivered only when an order has been placed.

In 2008, for the first time in history, more books were self-published than those published traditionally. In 2009, 76% of all books released were self-published, while publishing houses reduced the number of books they produced.[2] According to Robert Kroese, "the average return of the self-published book is £500".[3] Niche genres tend to sell the best.[4]

Technological advances

Types of self-publishing

Unless a book is to be sold directly from the author to the public, an ISBN number 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;[5] it may be in the best interest of the self-published author to retain ownership of ISBN and copyright instead of using a number owned by a vanity press. A separate ISBN number is needed for each edition of the book.[6]

Electronic (e-book) publishing

Main article: E-book

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. E-book publishing platforms include Pronoun, Smashwords, Blurb, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, CinnamonTeal Publishing, Papyrus Editor, ebook leap, Bookbaby, Pubit, Lulu, Llumina Press, and CreateSpace.[7][8] E-book formats include e-pub, mobi, and PDF, among others.

Print on demand

Main article: Print-on-demand

Print-on-demand (POD) publishing refers to the ability to print high-quality books as needed. For self-published books, this is often a more economical option than conducting a print run of hundreds or thousands of books. Many companies, such as Createspace (owned by, Blurb, Lulu, Llumina Press, and iUniverse, allow printing single books at per-book costs not much higher than those paid by publishing companies for large print runs.[9][10]

Vanity publishing

Main article: Vanity press

Reputable publishing companies generally paid authors a percentage of sales, so it was in the company's interest to sign only authors whose books would sell well. It was extremely difficult for the typical unknown author to get a publishing contract under these circumstances, and many 'vanity publishers' sprang up to give these authors an alternative: essentially, they would publish any book in exchange for payment up front from the author.

Vanity publishing differs from self-publishing in that the author does not own the print run of finished books and is not in primary control of their distribution.

James D. Macdonald started a campaign of educating other writers about the problems of vanity publishers. As part of this campaign, he coined Yog's Law, which states, "Money should flow toward the author."

The line between vanity publishing and traditional publishing has become increasingly blurred in the past few years. Currently there are several companies that offer digital and/or print publication with no up front cost. However, most of these companies also offer add-on services such as editing, marketing and cover design. Self-publishing companies that fit this model include CreateSpace (owned by, iUniverse, and Lulu. An author who simply hands a book over to one of these companies, expecting the company to make it a bestseller, would meet the previously established definition of vanity publishing, but it's unclear how many authors fit this description.[11] Further blurring the distinction between self-publishing and traditional publishing was Penguin's 2012 purchase of Author Solutions.[12]

Increasingly, vanity publishing is defined as a behavior rather than a definition of certain companies or individuals, although there remain a handful of companies that clearly qualify as vanity publishers. These companies offer the cachet of being published and make the majority of their income on fees for intangible services paid for by the author, rather than sales revenue.

Creative aspects

The author as a self-publisher also takes on many of the creative tasks to complete the finished works. These tasks include creative writing as well as choosing writing software, editor, marketer and cover designer. To be considered a self-published author, an author need not complete all of these creative tasks themselves, however. Authors can outsource this creative work to other skilled professionals. These professionals can be located through search engines, freelancing websites (such as Reedsy[13]), word of mouth, finding out creatives who worked on already-published books, or searching relevant forums.[14]

Technical aspects

The technical aspects of self-publishing include formatting for printing and digital conversion, as well as distribution and marketing/PR.[15] Successful marketing may involve building a web presence and a mailing list, and promoting e-books through targeted giveaways.[16]

Self-published best-sellers

Title Author Notes
Golden Handcuffs[21] Courtney, Polly
The Celestine Prophecy[21] Redfield, James
Shadowmancer[21] Taylor, G. P. Later published by Faber & Faber
The Shack Young, William P. First million copies published by Windblown Media; subsequently on The New York Times best seller list.[22]

See also


  1. 1 2 Balson, Ronald H. (8 October 2013). "Bestseller Success Stories that Started Out as Self-Published Books". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 22 July 2015. In 1931, Irma Rombauer wrote "The Joy of Cooking," with her daughter, who not only illustrated the book, but also helped test the recipes. Ms. Rombauer used half of her life savings to pay a local printing company to print three thousand copies. A dollar a book. Five years later, Bobbs-Merrill Company acquired the rights. Over the years the book has sold over 18 million copies. .... Erika Leonard (E.L. James) has sold more than 70 million copies of her "Fifty Shades" trilogy worldwide. She started out writing fan fiction stories and publishing them on her website. She then wrote "Fifty Shades of Grey" and self-published it through a small Australian company, which released it on eBook and print-on demand. After her passionate fan base (pun intended) had driven the book to extreme levels of popularity, the rights were acquired by Vintage Books.
  2. Publishers Weekly (4 April 2010). "Self-Published Titles Topped 764,000 in 2009 as Traditional Output Dipped". Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  3. Kroese, Robert. Self-Publish Your Novel: Lessons from an Indie Publishing Success Story.
  4. "Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know - CNET". CNET. Retrieved 2015-11-05.
  5. ISBN
  6. "The Easiest, Cheapest, Fastest Way to Self-Publish Your Book - Mediashift - PBS". Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  7. "How to Self-Publish Your E-Book - Mediashift - PBS". Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  9. Rich, Motoko (28 February 2010). "Math of Publishing Meets the E-Book". New York Times. Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  10. Rosenthal, Morris. "Print on Demand Publishing". Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  11. Neuburger, Jeffrey D. (10 September 2008). "Court Rules Print-on-Demand Service Not Liable for Defamation". Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  12. Greenfield, Jeremy (19 July 2012). "Penguin Buys Self-Publishing Platform Author Solutions for $116 Million".
  13. Baddeley, Anna. "Reedsy could offer self-published authors a professional edge".
  14. Rugers, Scarlett. "How to Find a Book Cover Designer". Scarlett Rugers Book Design Agency. Retrieved 23 July 2015.
  15. "The Real Costs of Self-Publishing a Book - Mediashift - PBS". Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  16. "DIY: How to Market Your Self-Published Book". Retrieved 15 May 2015.
  17. 1 2 3 4 5 Patterson, Christina (18 August 2012). "How the great writers published themselves". The Independent. London. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  18. "To her, PA means personal assassin". The Sunday Times. July 2014.
  19. "How To Self-Publish A Bestseller: Publishing 3.0".
  20. "How Hugh Howey Turned His Self-Published Story "Wool" Into a Success (& a Book Deal) |". Retrieved 2015-11-05.
  21. 1 2 3 Brown, Helen (2010-01-08). "Unleash your inner novelist". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 16 September 2011. Polly Courtney [...] made money self-publishing her novel, Golden Handcuffs, in 2006. [...] Courtney now has a three-book deal with HarperCollins [...]
  22. Rich, Motoko (2008-06-24). "Christian Novel Is Surprise Best Seller". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-06-24.

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