A Personal Perspective on SELF-PUBLISHING
For almost any research, academic, or journalistic professional, "getting published" is a continually mandatory career-defining event. For an aspiring novelist, getting that first offer or advance may start a whole career. For "getting published" makes a private person into "somebody" outside of the boundary of family, significant others, and business and social contacts. For someone who ultimately wants to expand himself beyond just a "family first" experience, "getting published" is that ego-ratifying event that gives one fame or notoriety.
In the eyes of common law, getting published putatively makes one a "public figure." It represents a transition. It thereby may somewhat limit his privacy rights (the public may have a legitimate right to know, for example, how he makes a living or made one before publication), but it creates a commercial value in his publicity rights.
But publishing has always previously been associated with professionalism as recognized by others in various disciplines. People rarely get published with successful non-fiction works on science, business or politics until they have already established themselves in some particular field-using by playing the advancement game but sometimes (as with Wade Cook) with entrepreneurial, practical, money-making ventures. Both journalism and fiction have, in different ways, come to be recognized as informal "professions" for which there are standards of credibility and ethics.
This may be changing, and for two basic reasons. On the one hand, conventional large publishers are becoming less interested in new authors or in "mid-list" writers because of the Wall Street-style pressure for big quarter-to-quarter profits. On the other hand, personal computing technology (that is, Bill Gates) has placed book publishing in the hands a person of relatively average means, even in youth.
So in the 1990's, we have sometimes seen self-published fiction works take off and sell big, and soon win reprinting contracts from the biggies. Two examples: James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy, and very recently, Vince Flynn's thriller Term Limits. There is also Steve Thayer's Saint Mudd (1994). With self-published fiction, the expectation of the author for large commercial success is likely greater (hence Thayer's comment that self-publishing is like waving a red flag, an act of desparation!). In the 19th Century, poet Walt Whitman published himself. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, and James Joyce—all mainstays of English classes-- also self-published their work. Jane Friedman writes in the May 2003 Sell Your Writing, “Many other writers might never have been discovered if it hadn’t been for their own determination and motivation to get their work into print. Self-published or not, quality work speaks for itself.”
We should distinguish between "self-publishing," where the author arranges and manages all the production himself (or herself), and "subsidy" publishing, where you pay a company (Vantage Press, and in the past, Exposition Press) to publish and promote your book. Subsidy publishing (also called "vanity publishing") tends to be very expensive compared to what an author can arrange on his own, by negotiating with proofreaders, typesetters or other providers of desktop-publishing services, and printers (preferably "book manufacturers" who, using web presses or similar efficiencies charge much less for low-volume, high page-count books than typical small printers). In some cases, the author does not even retain the right to distribute his own subsidy-published book! (Jenkins Group refines the description further: Vanity publishing is seen as local book production for family, church, or peer group for very limited circulation, and subsidy publishing is underwritten by the author with relatively little creative control by the author.) And he/she may have to sign an indemnification clause protecting the publisher (just as if it were a trade publisher) against the costs of frivolous litigation. Negotiate, because prices vary widely, even within any specific part of the country. Many book manufacturers are located in more rural areas, or at airfields and in industrial exurban areas. Another variation is cooperative publishing, where a publishing company puts up part of the cost of a book project but expects some investment from an (unproven) author. (Both subsidy and cooperative publishers retain many ownership rights and control and may require authors to sign indemnification clauses.) A more recent enhancement of cooperative publishing involves the publisher’s assisting certain selected authors with enhanced manuscript copyediting and marketing services, for slightly more (but still modest) investment from the authors. A very recent development is "on-demand printing" where a publishing service typesets (with "docutech") and holds electronic copies of a book and individually laser-prints and binds copies upon specific orders, obviously effective in eliminating inventory costs and making publishing much less risky financially for the publisher. On-demand printing can be done in such a manner that the author retains complete control and becomes the “publisher”; however some on-demand services define themselves as publishers and retain publishing (at least for print) rights and pay royalties in a traditional manner (and these “cooperative” publishers usually require authors to sign indemnification clauses, just as do trade publishers). These possibilities are discussed in detail in the November 2000 Writers’ Digest, “Publishing Success.” On-demand and electronic books (or “e-books”), while they may be very effective in making a new author’s ideas generally known to the public and may be able to stimulate social and political debate in many areas, may have difficulty attaining high sales volumes or high sales ranks on e-commerce sites, and some self-published books, especially those with a great appeal to a local or a target audience, still do better with print runs, which are always more economical with book manufacturers rather than other printing businesses (even those with varieties of web presses and mini-webs). ( Self-publishing, however, is real "publishing" to the extent that intellectual property is offered to anyone who will pay a fair market price for it. Print-on-demand service straddles cooperative publishing and true self-publishing. A manuscript distributed privately among friends, or a family website requiring a password for entry does not constitute "publishing" in this sense.)
Corporations (ranging from software vendors to restaurants) often engage in self-publishing. Software vendors write software books for both limited consumption on customer sites or in training courses (they call these “unpublished”) and also for general public sale. Some persons might consider such practices monopolistic. Insurance companies sometimes publish books and manuals for agents to give to consumers but not for general sale to the public.
There are many sources on self-publishing. Generally, they do not adequately discuss some of the more subtle legal risks, such as inadvertently adopting a business or Internet domain name that violates another party’s trademark claims. They tend to emphasize the idea of setting up a business with enough scale to become profitable quickly, and tend to imply that it should not be undertaken part-time or while someone is still “working,” as if earnings gave credibility to the professional quality of self-published content. Since bookstore chains somewhat resist buying from self-publishers (as opposed to “small presses”) unless the books are placed with book distributors, there is also a paradigm for “self-distribution.” Self-publishing may also involve setting up investor groups in a manner similar to what is done with independent films, and sometimes investment contracts may be written in such a way that, in exchange for not participating in content issues, investors are released from any possible liabilities if the author is sued.
But more often a self-publisher's motive may not simply be financial, but also to articulate a point of view, for official public record, about which he or she is passionate. This was the case in my own Do Ask, Do Tell book. As far back as 1972 it was true of Paul Rosenfels (Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process). At times, this was even true of Walt Whitman. It is fairly inexpensive and simple to get self-published books into RR Bowker's Books in Print and various other indices (including the Library of Congress with a catalog number), as well as into virtual online bookstores like amazon.com.
A self-published author may be more concerned about putting down and organizing all the knowledge about a particular problem (without supervisory editing or censorship from others), just to show publicly how to do this, than in selling large numbers of books. (Depending on the material, the author may also feel he is avoiding certain other problems, such as signing indemnification clauses often required by publishers.) This is somewhat the " eternal feminine" approach to solving problems, getting at the whole truth. This does not mean that the author does not care about sales. But rather than through conventional mass-marketing ¾ the kind that requires big advertisers and discounts from the Postal Service ¾ the author takes a chain-letter, geometric progression approach from the grassroots. What matters initially is who reads the book, not how many. People who really understand a particular message will then sell it by word of mouth. Initial readers need not always be "credentialed professionals," but may be creative people or students who are building their own new networks of contacts. Sometimes small businesses (such as restaurants) will "self-publish" their own cookbooks or how-to books, which are not exactly "literary." While Writer’s Digest has cited such books as good examples of self-publishing, to me this is corporate publishing, not individual self-publishing.
All this leads, of course,
to discussion of Internet publishing. It has become very simple and cheap to
set up one's own web site (even one's own ".com" domain name), which
may reach enormous numbers of people through search engines if set up well
enough. The Internet has indeed given the "town crier," speaker for
himself without the approval of anyone, a real place in debate, a possibility
to reach millions of readers simply because of the mathematics of binary
searches, which allows networking hardware and software to quickly locate one
among hundreds of millions of "domains." A very recent variation of
Internet publishing will be electronic books, usually composed in a language
like WinHelp, RoboHelp, or
modified HTML and downloaded (with a special security lock) and then possibly
copied onto the recently invented hand-held "electronic book" reader.
There is more information on electronic books at http://www.blueglasspublishing.com/ (previous known as Ominmedia
Digital). Electronic books avoid the
cost and inflexibility of printing (although note the comment above about
"on-demand" printing) and provide enormous indexing and
cross-referencing capabilities, and can be easily reissued in
"releases" by publishers. Electronic books that resemble table-thin
notebooks and that also play CD's and
There are threats to this opportunity, even though so far the Supreme Court has sided with Free Speech in striking down the Communications Decency Act in 1997. For many interests still claim it is dangerous to allow people to present controversial materials (even if not obscene or even "indecent") to impressionable others. Indeed, throughout history, the free flow of ideas has always been considered dangerous. As recently as World War I, people could be put in jail for criticizing conscription. Many people still feel that resolving moral conflicts (such as shared sacrifice) is what democracy is for; once a question is settled, it need not continue to be discussed. But the, this constitutes "tyranny of the majority." (So we have more experts - the Judiciary - to take care of that! See how quickly politics gets polarized.) More recent threats have been the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, and a recently (1999) proposed Feinstein-Hatch Methamphetamine Anti-proliferation Act, which may make it a federal felony to knowingly link to a site providing certain illicit drug information.
There has been recent writer-community criticism of the explosion in rapid-fire self-publishing, whether in print or on the Web (such as when Robert Schnakenberg, in American Writer, Fall 2000, “The Real Scoop on Dot Coms” tries to debunk the idea that “content is king in cyberspace”). Of course, there are quality control problems, and there can be problems of deceiving the public. A self-publisher should not give targeted professional advice in law, financial planning, medicine, electrical wiring, etc. outside of the area of his or her (licensed) professional expertise, but this is largely a concern of the “how-to” sites and books rather than of literature as such. Readers should always seek professional advice on the details of their own particular situations. But there is a real place for new voices in compiling and interpreting material political and social issues, particularly from the slant of unusual personal experience, and with the emphasis on pointing out the interrelationships of many public issues. A good example of the discussion of professionalism and freedom for writers occurs in another article, “Keeping Writing Standards High: Bucking the Tide of Corporate Influence,” by Michael Frome, in the same issue of American Writer. Corporate and political lobbying or advocacy interests, when presenting a problem from inside the boundaries of their particular issues, can never give the breadth that independent writers can, even when dissecting rather special public policy problems (in my case, Internet censorship and gays in the military as two examples). We have in the writing and publishing field the same battle over independence better known in film, the spirit of American Movie, the roles for the “Lagoons and Uptowns” (well known theaters in the Twin Cities specializing in independent film exhibition).
A subtler problem can occur because speaking out this way can cause problems in the workplace. It might be considered unethical to criticize the industry you work for, or even it's targeted customers ¾ this is seen as biting the hand that feeds you (for possible future gain). As Internet self-publishing grows, it's inevitable that there will be testy problems in the workplace. If a person's controversial writings become known, for example, that person's presence might conceivably contribute to a "hostile workplace," especially if that person has direct reports. I haven't heard of this yet, but it is conceivable that some employers will start running Internet search engines to find out what people say about themselves (on personal web pages) when unsupervised (although there are ways to keep search engine robots out). Companies will have to draw up policies to deal with these issues in the near future. So it's understandable that many people regard becoming a "town crier" as actually undesirable, dangerous, and a copout substituting mental masturbation for real involvement with others.
Of course, one must use some judgment in guessing
when self-publishing is really intended to seek publicity (indeed, that
obnoxious "drawing attention to myself" of opinionated people like
me!!). A "free" web site containing only family pictures does not; a ".com"
site promoting a book probably does. Somewhere in between, perhaps, is
something like Hometown
The old paradigm of publishing was based on simple commercial concepts, sales volume and making money. You weren't considered "published" unless a separate corporate party of some mass produced your book and displayed in large volume on shopping mall bookstore entranceways (and paid your way for a book tour). Bureaucracy (as German sociologist Max Weber conceived it) or "separation of functions" was necessary to give an opus its credibility; the distributor, manufacturer, editor and author should never be the same person(s); most of all, the author should not be able to control the physical delivery of his material to the public. Only established businesses or institutions skilled in actual production and marketing could actually manufacture, wholesale, and distribute the material with reasonable assurance of acceptable production standards for the consumer. (Indeed, the Chicago Manual of Style gives a lot of attention to the details of good book manufacturing, from editing, typesetting, and binding to the use of acid-free paper.) People felt that this situation tended to give the idea of "getting published" credibility; you needed a commercial third-party's infrastructure, approval (and pragmatic editing) to get this kind of recognition. Now, a person can publish himself initially to take an official stand on a particular problem, gradually gain public recognition ("publicity rights") and only then try to break into commercial writing or publishing to make money. Some people may feel that "making a name for oneself" by self-publishing while still working in a salaried capacity is inherently unethical, because the only way a person could eventually succeed commercially is to drag other persons and institutions (especially employers) in from his own life (putatively not necessary for a person who has actually proved he can make a living by writing as a "profession.") Therefore (and I've heard verbal statements that imply this although none that directly say it), it may (according to some views) be unethical to self-publish in technical, economic, political or social issues while still employed as salaried-exempt, or perhaps if employed in the same place for a long time. (Remember, here, the libertarian nexus between social and economic freedoms and their ties to technology). Hence, the notion "self-publishing doesn't count" (and perhaps could be limited by the erection of “Chinese walls” concerning the use of an author’s own money). This underground view, perhaps more motivated by turf-protection than ethics, is indeed rarely articulated plainly, however, and there is almost no case law supporting it. Remember, though, that two hundred years ago authors regular paid publishers time and materials to produce their works (but publishers still decided what they wanted to publish).
In fact, at least one major electronic publishing
service, Netlibrary.com, reportedly
refuses to carry "self-published" books. (Similarly, as of this
writing, Independent Gay Forum
publishes only previously commercially published articles, although it now
offers lively discussion boards for substantive unedited postings). In Doreen Carjaval's "Racing to Convert Books to Bytes," The
New York Times, p. C1,
During the 1999-2000 period there seems to be increasing public and legal concern over the concept of “fair competition,” particularly in the software industry (sometimes as part of anti-trust litigation), and an expression of the concern over the risks to consumers, professionalism, and to public safety that may be posed by the unsupervised nature of the Internet and the intellectual property, publications, products or services offered on the Internet. In the Microsoft case, for example, Microsoft was taken to task for “giving away” its browser to put away competition. Various laws are proposed and litigated regarding pornography, protection of children, weapons information and drug information. Concerns are expressed that some small new-economy concerns are “burning money” and disrupting legitimate businesses. Back in the 1930’s motion picture studios were prohibited from owning their own theaters! Could these concerns eventually effect self-publishing. Well, maybe. An individual self-publisher is not Microsoft and cannot dominate the book world, but a self-publishing entity might dominate one small but important intellectual area and reap a sudden windfall, so the paradigm matters. So will there someday be a temptation to say that writers should not distribute their own books without a third party’s supervision? Will the ideas about “separation of functions” or “Chinese Walls” now being explored in the accounting and securities world some day apply to publishing, journalism, and even to entertainment? This would be hard to enforce, but the focus points could be the Library of Congress registration system and the ISBN agency process. (The screenwriting and directing contests run by Project Greenlight now allow and even require contest entrants to review material submitted by other contestants, but contestants must agree not to identify themselves on their manuscripts, to do good faith reviews of the work of others and presumably not to review material by others whom they happen to know. However, non-contestant amateur and professional reviewers are also used at various stages.)
Digest has run a couple of special issues about self-publishing, both in
1997 and again in November 2000. The magazine sponsors self-published book
contests (I have not entered). Some of the advice, from various sources, is
controversial. In the Aug. 1997 Writer's Digest, Tom and Marilyn Ross
("11 Ways to Avoid Failure") counsel "write what other people
want" and "few care about your life history and opinions."
! In the 2000 edition, there is the
suggestion that self-publishing should not
be done part-time (as I did not), and that one should be comfortable about
approaching investors or sponsors, especially friends, business associates and
relatives (p. 30) A business plan and earnings expectation should be in place
even before subject matter is chosen! Writer’s Digest lumps in how-to books
(like, especially, cookbooks) with literary works, and it might be argued that
these are not the same animals! If a
small company (like a restaurant) “self-publishes” is this the same process as
for an individual? On the other hand,
for a literary, individually authored self-published or an electronic book,
compelling content alone might carry the day. Suspense novelist Diana Kirk says
(p. 71), “I guess the one thing that I didn’t predict was the disdain with
which other authors (traditionally published) held toward e-published authors.
It has been said that electronic authors had not paid their dues, did not write
‘real’ books, and were simply
There will also be more exploration of the best use of both print-run self-publishing and on-demand publishing models. Although on-demand publishing is turning into a very low cost way to enter the market, there are some kinds of books where an inventory for physical presence in bookstores is essential
There has also been a
growth of cottage-style “self-publishing” in film making, where films (often
A news story by Bob
Sullivan on MSNBC (and on the NBC Today show)
Conflict of Interest
Authorship and the sales of content to the public often involves risk and low returns at first, which tends to mean that authors will continue working, either in conventional jobs or in self-employed fashion. There can, in the minds of some people, exist an ethical tension between providing editorial (or even investigatory) content of one’s own and providing professional services (“non content”) for others. There is more about this at http://www.doaskdotell.com/content/empint.htm and http://www.doaskdotell.com/highproductivitypublishing/coirules.htm and http://www.doaskdotell.com/personal/blogging.htm .
Issues with sexually oriented content and minors; threats implied in fictitious works
Elsewhere COPA (linked to above) is discussed on this site. COPA would apply to commercial sites (those set up ultimately to sell things or at least advertising space). A related subtle issue that may crop up in some state laws is solicitation of minors. A few states may have worded their solicitation statues vaguely enough that a site that provides sexual information could conceivably be construed as an indirect solicitation. A site that presents historical personal narratives or speculations might present more of a target for this kind of misinterpretation. In such cases, the appearance of a legitimate motive might provide an affirmative defense. Ironically, the ability of a site to earn money or to have third party support (as opposed support of self-publishing) could give a site more legitimacy. This seems like a murky area.
Another possible area would occur with self-published works of fiction – stories, novels, plays, or screenplays, posted on the Internet or distributed by the author without the usual controls and reviews and accountability in established publishing and media industries. It is conceivable that is some extreme circumstances some persons might construe a crime embedded in such a story or script as an actual threat or lure. Controversial personal narratives, since they can be perceived as affecting associated people, might be seen as invading the privacy of others if they do not go through the more careful standards of due diligence review that were followed more consistently before inexpensive publishing became available through technology. Again, there seems to be little legal precedence with these notions at the federal level or in most states.
Production and Business Standards.
As more individuals mount their own soap-boxes upon the village green, there are bound to occur questions about professional credibility. One does not need a "license" to write, and there is no organization which makes sure that published materials (whether printer or electronic) are a fair value for the consumer as a production value.
But one can pose a few questions (and the answers of these can change if one uses a cooperative e-publisher)::
and authoring involve artistic, literary, business, legal, self-concept,
publicity or “limelight,” professionalism, and public trust issues. There will
always be some tension among these elements.
Media Perils Insurance
Self-publishers may be able to obtain media perils insurance, although, based on experience to date, underwriters have sometimes been unwilling to insure writers of “controversial material” (especially gay and lesbian material), investigative reporting, or authors who do not have significant third party legal supervision (and note that investors are often not in a position to monitor authors for legal risks).
Associations for Self-Publishers. (7-8-2002)
I am continuing to look into associations for small publishers. Here are two references:
At this time High Productivity Publishing is not a member of any such association since it also works with an outside cooperative publisher.
An independent publisher’s association would conceivably be able to work on the media perils insurance problem (with “controversial material”) by arranging third-party legal supervision. To do this, an association would probably need to establish minimum standards of documented financial performance and owner (or proprietor) conduct (especially with regard to outside employment and conflict of interest) for any self-publisher who would apply for such a service. It would not be easy for an association to do this economically, but I will keep tabs on this issue. It should be noted that when self-publishers raise money from outside investors, private placement investment contracts are often written so that the investors have no participation in the published content and therefore no liability, whereas trade and cooperative publishers are always liable for torts of their authors (which is why they require indemnification clauses).
There is an Association of American Publishers, which apparently does not accept presses that publish only one author’s work or that do not produce significant operating revenue. There is an Author’s Guild that does not accept members who have not been published by separate royalty-paying trade publishers or nationwide periodicals. Actually, the Guild requires that authors who qualify with book publication also show that they can obtain advances from future royalties, and it clearly excludes authors who are self-published only. The Guild, however, may have been set up specifically to advance income-ability for writers at the higher end (that is, authors who write for a living or who became public figures first in some other profession and then write occasionally for royalty based on that profession), and not necessarily to criticize the concept of self-publishing. Indeed many famous writers in earlier times (like Walt Whitman) who focused more on original content than on commercial motives were self-published, and self-published books (with physical print runs, at least) have sometimes become commercial successes over and above the value of their content as controversial public speech. However there has never, to date, been a wide agreement in the industry that third parties are necessary to make “publishing” legitimate.
Bell, Patricia. The Prepublishing Handbook: What You Should Know Before You Publish Your First Book. Minneapolis: Cat’s Paw Press, 1992.
Cardoza, Avery. The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing: How to Cretae, Print, Distribute and Make Money Publishing Books. New York, Cardoza Publishing, 1995.
Faler, Rich. The Complete, Authoritative Guide to Self-Publishing. Greenville, Pa., Beaver Pond, 1996.
Poynter, Dan. The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book. Santa Barbara, Para Publishing, 1979 rev. 1996.
Ross, Tom and Marilyn. The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing. Cincinnati, Writers' Digest, 1994, rev. 1998. See also their article in the September 1997 Writers' Digest.
Stulz, Russell A., Writing and Publishing with your PC. Dallas (Plano), Woodware, 1998. See Chapter 11, "Self-Publishing," pp. 295-302. Stultz mentions Self-Publishing Partners, http://www.electriciti.com/fmcnet/spp.htm, dedicated to selling self-published books.
Writer’s Digest Special Issue, Nov. 2000, “Publishing Success: the Writer’s Guide to Self-Publishing, E-publishing.”
Here are some companies that provide cooperative and self-publishing services: iUniverse, Xlibris, Infinity Publishing, Clear Creek, GreatUNPublished, Jenkins Group.