Self-publishing is the publishing of books and other media by the authors of those works, rather than by established, third-party publishers. Although it represents a small percentage of the publishing industry in terms of sales, it has been present in one form or another since the beginning of publishing and has seen an increase in activity with the advancement of publishing technology, including xerography, desktop publishing systems, print on demand, and the World Wide Web. Cultural phenomena such as the punk/DIY movement, the proliferation of media channels, and blogging have contributed to the advancement of self-publishing.
The key distinguishing characteristic of self-publishing is the absence of a traditional publisher. Instead the creator or creators fulfill this role, taking editorial control of the content, arranging for printing, marketing the material, and often distributing it, either directly to consumers or to retailers. Less often, the author prints the material, usually using a xerographic process or a computer printer. In some cases, books are printed on demand with no inventory kept. This places the bulk of the financial risk for the venture on the creators, with many self-publishers ultimately subsidizing it rather than making money from it.
True self-publishing means authors undertake the entire cost of publication themselves, and handle all marketing, distribution, storage, etc. All rights remain with the author, the completed books are the writer's property, and the writer gets all the proceeds of sales. Self-publishing can be more cost-effective than vanity or subsidy publishing and can result in a much higher-quality product, because authors can put every aspect of the process out to bid rather than accepting a preset package of services.
A subsidy publisher distributes books under its own imprint, and is therefore selective in deciding which books to publish. Subsidy publishers, like vanity publishers, take payment from the author to print and bind a book, but contribute a portion of the cost as well as adjunct services such as editing, distribution, warehousing, and some degree of marketing. Often, the adjunct services provided are minimal. As with commercial publishers, the books are owned by the publisher and remain in the publisher's possession, with authors receiving royalties for any copies that are sold. Most subsidy publishers also keep a portion of the rights from any book that they publish. Generally, authors have little control over production aspects such as cover design.
Short run printing is also called Print-on-demand (POD) or Print Quantity Needed (PQN). POD publishers generally do not screen submissions prior to publication, and many are web-based. They accept uploaded digital content as Microsoft Word documents, text files, or RTF files, as printing services for anyone who is willing to pay. Authors choose from a selection of packages, or design a unique printing package that meets their requirements. For an additional cost, a POD publisher may offer services such as book jacket design with professional art direction; content, line, and copy-editing; indexing; proofreading; and marketing and publicity. Some POD publishers offer publication as e-books in addition to hardcover and paperback. Some POD publishers will offer ISBN (International Standard Book Numbers) service, which allows a title to be searchable and listed for sale on websites.
Many critics dismiss POD as another type of vanity press. One major difference is that POD publishers have a connection to retail outlets like Amazon and Books in Print that vanity presses generally do not.
Vanity publishing is a pejorative term, referring to a publisher contracting with authors regardless of the quality and marketability of their work. They appeal to the writer's vanity and desire to become a published author, and make the majority of their money from fees rather than from sales. Vanity presses may call themselves joint venture or subsidy presses; but in a vanity press arrangement, the author pays all of the cost of publication and undertakes all of the risk.
In his guide How to Publish Yourself author Peter Finch states that such presses are "to be avoided at all costs." Because there is no independent entity making a judgment about their quality, and because many of them are published at a loss, vanity press works are often perceived as deserving skepticism from distributors, retailers, or readers. Some writers knowingly and willingly enter into such deals, placing more importance on getting their work published than on profiting from it.
Many self-published books utilize printing and binding techniques which are chosen for their suitability for short press runs. They may be printed with a xerographic process rather than offset printing. In many cases, the covers are designed by amateurs, or a standard template is used. Recently, the majority of the self- and subsidy-published books have been perfect bound, although some are hardbound, and some are still saddle-stitched (large metal staples in the fold), comb, or coil bound. Technology has enabled high-quality short-run print jobs to become less expensive, but they are still more expensive per copy.
Because professional-quality typesetting suites (such as LaTeX), are available as free software, the typesetting may be as good as a traditionally published work. However, these tools require some technical skill, and many self-published works are formatted using a word processor, which can give less appealing results by comparison. The development of relatively low-cost desktop publishing software has also made more powerful tools available, but without any guarantee that they will be used to professional standards.
Very short run, usually xerographic, printing techniques are approaching off-set quality for black and white, non-halftone jobs, though there are still visible differences for more complicated work. Authors using lower-cost short-run techniques are often focused on content rather than appearance. They may wish to avoid a polished appearance for reasons that have little to do with cost, such as maintaining an anti-establishment aesthetic.
Authors who plan to distribute their books through mainstream distributors and bookstores often strive for an overall appearance similar to that from major publishing houses. This requires a larger press run, usually offset, hoping that larger sales will compensate the cost of professional design and editorial work. On the other hand, many successful self-publishers avoid traditional retail outlets, and market directly to their target audience.
Promotion and marketing of self-published books are critical. Authors must undertake book publicity which means developing lists of editors and book reviewers within various media, as well as looking for ways to get coverage "off the book page."
There are several other difficulties faced by self- and small-publishers. Bookstores cannot afford to deal with tens of thousands of small publishing companies. They tend to buy from the larger publishers, distributors, and wholesalers. But even these aggregators cannot deal with the recent flood of new publishers. The competition to get into bookstores is extreme, and the terms of trade (discounts and return privileges especially) can be financially onerous.
Self-published books do not necessarily reveal their origin. Subsidy press books do, via the ISBN records or the imprint. Therefore, subsidy published books may face additional obstacles on the way to the bookstore shelf, beyond those discussed above.
Commercial publishers must be confident of sales of several thousand copies to take on a book. A book may not have this potential for many reasons:
Authors may choose to self-publish because they want control, because they want access to their customer list, or because they love the business of publishing. When working with a publisher, an author gives up a degree of editorial control, and sometimes has little input into the design of the book, its distribution, and its marketing. This has been a substantial motivator in the rise of comic book self-publishing. In the late 1970s, creators such as Dave Sim and Wendy and Richard Pini chose -- in spite of offers from publishers -- to self-publish because they wanted to retain full ownership and control, and they believed they could do the job more effectively than a publisher. This was facilitated by the development of comic book specialty shops, and the distribution network that serves them, which is more open to small-publisher and self-published material than traditional bookstores have been. Numerous cartoonists have followed their example, and by the late 1990s the majority of comics in terms of titles were self-published. They remain a small percentage of overall sales, however, with sales of a given book often falling short of 1000 copies. A similar movement took place in the music industry during the same period, coming largely out of the punk rock phenomenon.
Authors in a specialist area may be confident of a certain number of sales but also realise that the maximum number of sales is limited, and wish to maximise their earnings. In this situation, authors may risk a significant amount of their own capital to self-publish. This avoids a publisher taking any part of the proceeds and, if also self-distributed, avoids distribution fees as well. The payoff is a much larger percentage of the sale price being returned as profit.
Business professor Philip M. Parker has patented a method to automatically produce a set of similar books from a template that is then filled with data from database and internet searches. He self-publishes these books and prints them on demand. In January 2008 he was listed as the author of 85,000 books at Amazon.com.
The first systematic defense of one’s right to publish, John Milton’s self-published Areopagitica of 1644, identified three areas of tension, political, business, and academic, that render self-publishing highly controversial.
Survival of an ideology-based state hinges on its tight control of ideas, which is impossible to affect if self-publishing is allowed: “it is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth, to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men … I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”
Business-wise, a viable option of self-publishing undermines the entire business model used by publishers, “publicans that have the tunaging and the poundaging (i.e., taxing) of all free spoken truth,” in which publisher wedges himself between the author and the public, and uses his position as marketplace’s gatekeeper to take most of the profits generated by sales of a book.
And finally, self-publishing flies in the face of the notion of professionalism, which acknowledges only the credentialed authorities in a given subject-matter as permissible contributors to the public debate and public instruction. As to the non-professionals, “What need they torture their heads with that which others have taken so strictly, and so unalterably into their own purveying”?
Other well-known self-publishers include: Stephen Crane, E. E. Cummings, Deepak Chopra, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.