Understanding Self-Publishing: a Beginner’s Guide to Retailers, Vanity Presses, and Surviving as a Self Pubber

EyeOfGodCover_ideaSketch1b-CJHSurviving as a professional or as a hobbyist in the publishing industry is hard. It breaks far more people than it makes. There are a lot of things new authors need to know to avoid being scammed. There are a lot of things new authors need to know to have a chance to get lucky.

I'm writing this to help beginners understand some of the critical parts of self-publishing: the actual publication process. Retailers are the lifeblood of a self-publisher. Retailers are places like Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, and similar stores. They are how your book reaches your audience.

Starting out as a self-publisher can be pretty tricky–and murky. People are intimidated by dealing with retailers, so they turn to publishers. This is the foundation of traditional publication; authors work with the traditional publishers, signing their rights to the publisher in exchange for their work being edited, cover art being made, marketing being done, and books being placed predominantly with retailers.

Self-publishers have to do this all on their own. There's no one to help pick a cover artist, an editor, or watch out for scams. There's no one to help determine which retailers are good choices.

This is where the vanity press comes into play. Vanity presses are presses who are out to take advantage of those who want to be published. In short, they charge a fee to get a book created for sale. Depending on the vanity press, they may or may not actually distribute the book. They might use a website where users can order copies of a book on demand.

Lulu is a great example of a vanity press. It, unlike many of its peers, actually has a good reputation. You're charged by copy for the book–when you buy, and only when you buy. This is how it should be. Createspace is another example of a legitimate vanity press. However, Createspace links into Amazon's system, which makes it a self-publishing retailer in addition to being a vanity press. You never pay up front for the right to have a copy of your book printed. You pay when you have the book printed. It's covered in the total sale price of your title.

This is known as print on demand publishing, and it is a self-publisher's best friend. Createspace's integration with its Amazon storefront makes it an exceptional one for self-publishers. There are other print on demand services available for self-publishers that also tie into major retailers.

The waters are pretty murky when it comes to vanity presses versus retailers. In some cases, they're the exact same thing. In other cases, the vanity press is a great way for you to spend money on a package without your book actually making it to a retailer. Vanity presses can be a hive of scum and villainy, and unless you take steps to educate yourself, you'll get burned–badly.

Let me help you educate yourself. Preditors and Editors is a great site for identifying publishing houses; the good, the bad, and the ugly. It's good for learning about traditional literary agencies as well.

Here is an example of an entry from Preditors and Editors:

Accurance: Not recommended. Concerns received from authors and expressed, for example, in this thread. A fee-charging publisher.

This highlights a major problem in the publishing industry: fee-charging publishers. In the standard author-publisher relationship, the publisher picks up the risk of signing the author. The author never pays a cent for the work done to make their book publishable. Fee-charging publishers are no better than vanity presses–they're equal on the scam meter, frankly.

Yes, I understand the lure of wanting to be published. But, if you're going the self-publishing route, you do not pay a vanity press for the honor of publishing your work. That's a scam.

If you're going the traditional route, you do not pay a traditional publisher for the honor of publishing your work. That's a scam.

There's a huge difference between hiring for a service and paying to publish.

This is where it gets murky, quick.

So, in order to demonstrate the differences between a service and a scam, I'm going to have to go into all of the nitty gritty details on what is needed to publish a novel. This may not be a complete list–I am creating this list based on what I do when I publish a novel. Your mileage will vary. You'll have to decide for yourself what is right for you.

Cover Art

Cover art is a necessary part of a book; it is what you use to lure readers into checking out the description, ultimately getting them to read the sample and (hopefully) buy your book. There have been many debates on whether authors should make their own covers or hire professional designers.

Either way, cover art is necessary. There is nothing wrong with hiring a cover artist. In fact, I recommend it. I find a good cover will pay for itself, given time. Here's a post on how I work with my cover artist, and here's a post on how I work with my typography designer. Here's another post covering my very first experience with Chris Howard.

Paying for cover art isn't a scam–just make sure you know exactly what rights you get when you buy the cover. Some artists and designers will only allow you to use the art for your book, not for any supplementary usages, including advertisements and banners.


There are many types of editorial, including developmental, line/copy, and proofing editorial. The point of editorial is to make your story as strong as possible. While there are some folks really good at self-editing, I'm not one of them. I hire two to three different editors for each novel I do. My developmental and copy editor is the same person. Once she chews through my story, it goes to one or more proofing editors.

It's better to fix the mistakes before release than to have to do so after release.

Editorial is a legitimate business expense. I typically earmark at least $700 for editorial for each novel project.

Traditional publishers do not charge editorial. Some retailers, like Amazon, offer some editorial services.

For a self-publisher, editorial is paid out of pocket long before the book ever reaches the compiled, formatted version.

Vanity presses often try to lure unexpected authors in by offering editorial services and then surprising their victim with high charges and expenses prior to publication.

Retailers do not charge for the right to publish your novel. They take a cut out of your royalties. They never charge for the right to sell your book except out of your royalties.

Sites that charge to place your book predominantly in front of customers are either scams or promotional venues. More on this later.


This is something you can handle for yourself as a self-publisher. It's something like $60 to register your copyright. Don't sell your copyright to anyone if you're a self-publisher. YOU give the rights to copy to retailers–and you should control the rights of your story, which means you have the ability to revoke the copyright whenever you want.

Beware of the fine print. Smashwords, for example, has a two week period of time to exercise your demand to remove your story from their affiliated retailers. They do not necessarily guarantee to obey your copyright demand. See this post for more information on what happened to me when I had to fight to get them to remove one of my novels from distribution.


Formatting is pretty important. It's the interior design and layout of your novel. I use scrivener's compile function, modified to my needs, to build my basic files for submission to the various retailers.

This is a legitimate service. Formatting can be free, if you choose to do it yourself. It's a little persnickety, but it really isn't terrible. I've gotten my method down to requiring five whole minutes from start to finish for formatting. Yes, it can be that easy.

Formatting can cost anywhere between $10 (for a template you fill in yourself) to $1,400. $1,400 was the fee I was quoted for the creation and execution of a template from a book design company.

In my opinion, you should never pay more than a few hundred dollars for a custom template and interior design of your book. A professional worth their salt can easily do this work in a day. That said, it can take longer if you're writing non-fiction or if you have a lot of unnecessary mark-up in your novel.

This is a legitimate service, but know what you're paying for. Many companies will charge a lot of money for something you could probably do given four hours and some patience. Think about that really carefully.

There are loads of resources online to help authors get their novels formatted.

Createspace is an excellent source for how to format for print, too. Print formatting is much harder than ebook formatting. This is important to know, as print formatting is what usually costs a lot more.

Paying Upfront for Publication

There is nothing legitimate about paying to have your novel submitted to retailers. Nothing. Zip, zilch. Retailers get a royalty cut for listing a book. For example, Amazon charges 30%. The author (or publisher) receives 70%.

Now what is legitimate is the taking of a cut from a distributor. A good example of a legitimate distributor is Draft2Digital. Draft2Digital sends your files to their retailers. When you sell a copy of your book, Draft2Digital receives the appropriate royalty amount. Let's make an assumption that the royalty for the sale is 70%, as it is with Amazon.

Let me make this clear: A distributor is a person or group who distributes your works to retailers. They're a middleman. They're paid middlemen, too. Good ones, such as Draft2Digital, only get paid when you're paid.

Distributors sometimes charge fees to distribute to retailers. This is very murky at best for a self-publisher. Considering the number of free distributors out there, don't take unnecessary risks, in my opinion.

As payment for handling the distribution of your title, Draft2Digital will take a cut. For the sake of this example, I'm going to use 5%. So, Draft2Digital would take home 5% of the royalty earned while you take home the remaining 65% of the 70% royalty earned by you and Draft2Digital. (These are made up numbers. The numbers depend on the retailer and the royalty they pay out.)

This is how working with retailers and distributors should work.

However, there's an exception to this: the bulk orders of printed books. They follow different rules. If they're distributing to major retailers, and books are returned or marked as destroyed, you're still paying for the service. I won't delve into the details–I don't use these types of services, but there are many legitimate big-name printers who do this. It can be legitimate, but you want to make certain you're working with a reputable company in the major retailer distribution systems.

This is complex. I looked into it once, and I gave up after I got a severe headache.

Identifying Retailers vs Scammers

Now that I've gone over some of the nitty gritty, I'm going to discuss the issue of vanity press scammers and legitimate retailers.

Amazon is a legitimate retailer. Barnes & Nobles is a legitimate retailer.

Publish America is a well-known scammer vanity press. Here is the start of Preditors and Editors entry:

American Star Books / PublishAmerica (aka PA, aka AmErica House): Conflict of interest. Also runs literary agency. A vanity press with a poor contract. Numerous writer complaints. Author mill and plagiarist. Strongly not recommended. Rated F by the BBB. “A royalty publisher capable of offering publishing contracts to all varieties of authors. Royalties paid, no fees ever charged, no agents required.” Claimed in an Associated Press article that it pays an advance up to $1,000.

Publish America, to my knowledge, really doesn't charge fees in advance, but… it's bad news. This is just one example of the dangers of vanity presses.

You can lose your copyright. Yes, you can sell away your copyright, and you might be in a serious legal battle to get it back.

Beware of vanity presses. Many will have clauses in their contracts requiring you to sell your copyright away–and once you do that, it takes a lot to get it back.

Don't get caught in a trap. Check every available resource you can for the reputation and standings of a press or retailer before you publish. Contracts are binding. That's why traditionally published authors work so hard to get an agent.

When you self-publish, you are your own agent, and it would be wise that you never, ever forget that fact. The only person who can protect you from the big bad wolves of the world is you.

That's why I only work with retailers directly or with Draft2Digital. Draft2Digital delivers as promise, charges no fee, and takes a cut from my royalties earned. It is in their better interest to do well by me, as my loss of revenue is their loss of revenue.

When you pay a fee to be published, they've already made their revenue. They take no risks. Never forget this.

What if I want a full-serviced vanity press?

I'm going to use Createspace for an example of how a vanity press can get you started with self-publishing, taking a lot of the load off your shoulders. While I wouldn't use this service–I cherry picked my staff–it's possible to pay a fee for services while preparing to publish.

Note: You're paying for services, not the right to publish and distribute to retailers.

Here's what Createspace offers:

Createspace services

These are legitimate services. They may not be as high of a quality as I like, but they're legitimate services. I've heard decent/acceptable things from the work done by Amazon on these packages.

They're reasonably priced. You won't be saving a lot of money, but you won't be ripped off either.

But seriously, if you have questions about what a full service stop for vanity publication, ask Createspace to call you. Their reps are super nice and will take the time to answer your questions. I've put them to the test a while back–maybe that's changed since I made my call to ask some questions, but my experience was good.

What Createspace doesn't do is charge for the rights to publish. They simply charge for the services rendered to get your book up to standards for publication.

Ultimately, the quality of your novel is your responsibility.

A Quick Recap

The things To Do when self-publishing:

  1. Pay for Services or do it yourself (Editorial, Cover Art)
  2. Research your Retailers/Distributors/Vanity Press (Pred-Ed)
  3. Know your Contract (Don't give away your copyright.)
  4. Understand your Rights (Copyright, royalty payments, etc.)
  5. Read. Learn. Understand. Educate yourself about publishing.

The things To Not Do when self-publishing:

  1. Pay for Distribution
  2. Pay for Retailing (There are no shelving fees on Amazon. They're paid in royalties.)
  3. Sell/Giveaway your Copyright
  4. Pay a Fee for the Privilege of Publication

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