The Future of Self-Publishing Services

PhotobucketThis past year has seen significant and well-publicized developments for self-published authors. It’s probably not necessary to point out what the high-profile success stories are, but in case you need a reminder:

  • JA Konrath. Formerly a midlist author with a New York house, now a successful self-publishing author on Kindle, who earned at least $42,000 in January 2011 alone. [Read more here.]
  • Amanda Hocking. Started out self-publishing on Kindle, now selling 100,000 e-books per month, and considering a 7-figure deal with a New York house. [Read more here.]
  • Barry Eisler. New York Times bestseller, soon to be self-publishing on Kindle instead of taking a $500K deal from St. Martin’s. [Read more here.]

Guess what? Not a single one of these authors used (or will use) a fee-based self-publishing service. They’re also not depending on print sales or distribution. They are earning significant dollars from low-priced e-books that move in high quantities. You can read more about the mass-market e-book phenomenon from Mike Shatzkin. And if you think these 3 authors are the exception to the rule, then read this post from JA Konrath.

A lot of ink—real ink and electronic ink—has been spilled on whether publishing will die, or books will die, or agents will die, etc.

But what about the impact on fee-based self-publishing services? I’m thinking specifically of the ones that focus on print-on-demand books.

Let’s discuss the history of these services first.

Print-on-demand (POD) became popular in the early 2000s, because it made self-publishing more affordable and accessible than ever before. Print-on-demand technology allows books to be printed one at a time, only after an order is placed, avoiding the necessity for an author to pay big bucks for a traditional print run that probably sits unsold in a warehouse somewhere.

In a publishing landscape without e-books, a POD service can make a lot of sense. The costs are low for everyone since there’s no print run to pay for, and most inexperienced or new authors have no interest in learning to produce a print book on their own. A self-pub service package makes the headaches go away, and for not a lot of money, usually less than $1,000. (That $1,000 won’t get you a well-edited, well-designed, or well-marketed book, but I’m strictly addressing the friction of, cost of, and access to production/distribution.)

Right now, Author Solutions is the biggest self-publishing/POD service company in the world. Over the last decade, they’ve bought up the most significant competitors, such as iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford. Their growth has been astronomical and reported on by outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Inc. magazine.

To keep growing their business, they’ve been soliciting and establishing partnerships with traditional publishers, to set up new self-publishing brands that they exclusively service, such as Harlequin’s Horizons and Thomas Nelson’s West Bow. They’ve also started an author education arm.

But this is appearing more and more like a huge scramble to squeeze a few more profitable dollars out of a service that is no longer needed, that is incredibly overpriced when compared to the new and growing competition, and has less to recommend it with each passing day, as more success stories come from the e-publishing realm where author royalties are in the 70-85% range. (An author typically earns less than half that percentage for royalties on a POD book.)

Furthermore, the cat’s out of the bag when it comes to the “value” of the package services you get from a fee-based company. Take David Carnoy of CNET, for instance, who plainly says:

Buy as little as possible … Self-publishing outfits are in the game to make money. And since they’re probably not going to sell a lot of your books, they make money by selling you services with nice margins. … Personally, I’d never work with BookSurge’s in-house editors, copy editors, and in-house design people. That doesn’t mean they’re bad at what they do. But if you can, it’s better to hire your own people and work directly with them. Ideally, you should be able to meet with an editor, copy editor, and graphic designer in person—and they all should have experience in book publishing.

Undoubtedly, service companies like AuthorSolutions can and will respond to this post by touting a range of success stories, and showing off beautiful books they’ve produced, but for how long can that save their revenue? What new or established author would pay for a service package when they read about the success of an Amanda Hocking or a JA Konrath, who have done exceptionally well without such help?

The answer is: No informed author.

That’s why today’s fee-based self-publishing company will be forced to change its service, the value of its service, and/or the price of its service—or otherwise become irrelevant (and die). Just how fast such services decline depends somewhat on how quickly e-books become the preferred format for a majority of readers.

Services like Author Solutions have reaped enormous profits from charging hundreds or thousands of dollars for their services, because until now, there wasn’t a viable or cheaper alternative for an author who wasn’t interested in learning the ropes of the publishing business.

We’re now reaching the point where fee-based services can stay alive only by banking on the ignorance of authors—not that they haven’t done so, to some extent, up until now!

But they can’t continue to charge the same amount for the same service that has decreasing value over time, not when Smashwords, PubIt, and Kindle charge zero. Not when Amazon’s CreateSpace offers POD services for next to nothing. Not when an author can now, more easily than ever, find and hire quality help.

There will always be some level of demand for full-service, fee-based publishing companies. But it’s now a mature business that has seen its peak, and that will sharply decline. Given the transformational changes taking place throughout the industry, very desirable industry professionals (agents, editors, many others) will find ways to offer high-quality services that can make a perceptible difference to an indie author’s book marketing and sales. And let’s not forget Amazon, Google, and Apple. And other tech-driven start-ups like Smashwords, Blurb, BookBaby …

See what I mean?

Want more insights on the self-publishing issue? Here are a few posts to get you started:

I’ll also be pontificating on the whole future of publishing in my own self-published e-book, to release on April 1, for $1.99. Stay updated here, or subscribe to my “3 Happy Things” newsletter.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s aussiegall

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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with a lot of this, but it seems to leave out the fact that the vast majority of readers still read paper books, and authors who aim to only publish electronically leave out a huge percentage of the market. Also, it’s possible for an author to offer a book at a very reduced cost, but if the quality isn’t between the (virtual) pages, they’ll never grow a loyal reader base.

    I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential in the ebook arena, but there will be a flood of low-quality material. In many cases, people will continue to look at traditionally published books as a sort of litmus test for what they should read.

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  2. says

    Thank you for this insightful article. I’ve been following all this buzz with fascination. As a niche reader (historical non-romance) who has trouble finding books, I know that even print books have so much competition (so many titles published per year) that getting the word out about your own book is difficult. Ditto with ebooks.

    Are there any trends or emerging ideas on ways readers and writers can connect, especially people who read in a niche that isn’t well served?

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  3. says

    Excellent post! I really think the landscape is undergoing a change that will be felt for a long time. I’m certainly not interested in POD and I knew it was a rip-off before the ebook choice became readily accessible.

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  4. says

    @Erika – Yes. As I mention in the post, the decline of these services partly depends on how quickly e-books become the preferred format. While I don’t think paper books will die, I do think e-books will eventually outsell paper books.

    That said, as long as the publicized success stories from the self-publishing arena continue to be from the tech/digital side of the fence, that will also speed the decline.

    When was the last time you read, in a major media outlet, about an author who became wildly successful using a print-on-demand company?

    @Brenda – I agree that the No. 1 difficulty facing authors now is marketing, not publishing. Are there trends or emerging ideas on connecting with readers? You can read about them every day on dozens of writing/publishing blogs!

    Most emerging ideas relate to online marketing. Here’s a recent post over at No Rules that talks about 7 not-to-be-missed sites when promoting your work:
    http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2011/03/07/7DontMissSitesForOnlineMarketing.aspx

    If you’re looking for a long-term plan to connect with readers, then I recommend getting coached on author platform from an expert (e.g., Christina Katz and Dan Blank run courses).

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  5. says

    Excellent post, Jane.

    Did you happen to see yesterday’s deal announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace regarding Amanda Hocking?

    * Children’s: Young Adult: USA Today bestselling self-published ebook phenomenon Amanda Hocking’s WATERSONG series, to Rose
    Hilliard (St. Martin’s) in a four-book deal, at auction, reportedly for over $2 MM, for publication beginning in Fall 2012, by Steven Axelrod

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  6. says

    Thanks for a thoughtful assessment of the state of the industry. Could you recommend a resource for developing a marketing strategy for ebooks, particularly for commercial fiction?

    Much of the common advice from PR professionals addresses nonfiction authors writing in a niche.

    Or maybe just a reality check on the cost of marketing an ebook? Because I believe you’re correct in saying that marketing is the largest challenge for ebook authors.

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  7. says

    I believe there’s a real opportunity for agents to offer services to authors that reflect the changing market realities. They could offer editing and design services, as well as rights brokerage, where the rights equation separates electronic and print rights in much the same way that different foreign rights are sold separately. This would leave the author in the role of deciding what business partnerships to execute.

    What if the agents simply formalized much of the work they are doing in the realm of pre-production preparation as services?

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  8. says

    J A Konrath does actually use CreateSpace to make his indie published e-books available in paper, as well. And he highly recommends other indie authors doing the same. Though the fees for that kind of service are quite minimal, from what I’ve heard.

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  9. says

    @Carey – Yep, heard the announcement about Hocking!

    @Mari – A marketing strategy for an e-book has to be built on your own strengths as well as the audience you’re trying to reach. This is a topic I cover frequently on my blog, NO RULES. If you want a good book-based resource, then I recommend GET KNOWN BEFORE THE BOOK DEAL by Christina Katz. It sounds like it’s about getting traditionally published, but it’s really about building a platform for marketing, and reaching readers over the span of a career (both online and offline).

    @C.L. – It’s a fascinating though. JA Konrath and Barry Eisler both suggest this is how the agent model will change.

    @Anna – Yes, you are correct! I don’t consider CreateSpace a fee-based self-publishing service—at least not in the same category as AuthorSolutions—since through them you can make a POD book available for next to nothing, basically for the same fee you’d pay if you were a traditional publishing house.

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  10. says

    @Anna: yes, if you’re going to self-publish an e-book it would be foolish not to also offer it in paper since CreateSpace, Lulu etc. don’t charge any up-front fees.

    @Mari: A platform is extremely important but the first rule and the only rule is Write A Good Book. Konrath has a few other “rules” (good description, good cover, etc) but the first rule is the important one. Amanda Hocking is blessed by the gods, but she didn’t break the first rule.

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  11. Vaughn Roycroft says

    This is just a wealth of important and fascinating information, Jane, as usual. Thanks for your thoughtful exploration, and for providing all these links.

    Erika is right that most books are still paper, and trad-pubbed authors have achieved a standard that has value. But I also think that, as publishers rein in spending in a shrinking market, opportunites for new authors will necessarily shrink, as will marketing dollars for traditionally pubbed new authors.

    I also believe that the deluge of poorly written ebooks is a less of an issue than it has been touted to be. Few who don’t take the trouble to study craft and polish their writing will take the trouble to put any great or skillful effort into marketing their work. The free market will take its toll in the long haul, and those who don’t build a loyal readership by offering a quality product, at whatever price, will simply disappear.

    These shall be interesting times in publishing. Both routes offer great challenges, but, due to the niche-genre of my work and my newness to the industry, I’m grateful for the growing diversity of opportunity.

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  12. says

    GREAT post, Jane. I’m seeing this with many of my writers as well–huge e-book successes. One of my authors, with his Military Sci Fi book, has sold 20,000 downloads. It just sort of snowballed. That made my ears perk up!
    Do you see this leading to the POD houses just being used for printing a few books at some point? Just so a writer can hold something of her own?

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  13. says

    @Susan – In short, yes. POD will be ideal for having a few print copies on hand, or providing that service for the readers who prefer print. But the service won’t be the high-fee situation it is today. It’ll be like the CreateSpace model: Pay this nominal fee, and we’ll make print copies available to you and your readers.

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  14. says

    I agree with everything in Jane Friedman’s post but want to make one small comment about “the decline in quality” or epub producing too much “bad writing.’

    That’s true in one way, but as a part time rock critic over the last 40 years, I would propose an analogy to recorded music.

    As the radio and phonograph became accessible, it allowed hgih culture music like symphonies to be recorded and broadcast, but it also allowed the recording and distribution of folk, blues, doo-wop, punk, and so on.

    Some of that “low culture” music was carefully thought out and polished, and some of it was off-the-cuff. Some of those off-the-cuff recordings caught a moment in time that we still find, well, timeless.

    Maybe quickly written genre fiction selling for 99 cents on Amazon should be judged with aesthetics and dynamics appropraite to the form. I don’t think that will eliminate Phillip Roth.

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  15. says

    Hi Jane. Really interesting article, thanks for posting. It certainly was a different landscape out there for self/indie authors before eBooks.

    All the best

    Adam Charles

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  16. says

    Print books will always be in demand as gifts. Maybe the potential for the limited edition book, might grow- if print services take the opportunity to introduce some innovative ideas and develop some fresh service models for self/e publishing.

    Perhaps CreateSpace could offer a ‘cover ready’ print version, for example. Authors can attach their own covers, designed and sourced locally, to their own specification, with a pocket for a hand written note from the writer, that kind of thing.

    Could even be a designer cover created for an author, which is then used for any books that he/she publishes, with room to add in individual titles, with pre printed insert cards with different titles.

    I don’t think it is unrealistic to expect specialist services to spring up in this area, giving writers another option for a portfolio of products to offer loyal, enthusiastic readers.

    If you are part of a writing community, or association – you could invite a few corporate branding or stationery suppliers in, and see what they can offer you in terms of book products (covers, bookmarks! etc)

    The future is bright…. or have I had too much caffeine today?!

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    • says

      Diana, yes, the future is bright, and really interesting.

      I agree with what you’re saying. Conventionally printed and POD books will still have a place in the scheme of things, but the demand for them will rely more and more on how appealing their print-version-only characteristics are: the texture and thickness of paper for the inside and the cover, the smythe-sewing and perfect-binding, the special paper for inserts, the six- or eight-color plates, or maybe even the slightly embossed printing all throughout.

      Take the hardcover Taschen book The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, for example. After seeing a limited preview of it at Amazon. For a book lover it’s kind of hard to not order a copy for delivery, even if there might be an e-reader version available that one can look at and manipulate on a smooth touchscreen.

      As for “reader” and “book lover” I once thought that these terms have the same meaning. Now, it seems to me that the former applies more to voracious consumers of disposable text and images, while the latter is reserved for the more genteel—quaint, if you may—company of those who collect, appreciate, and love printed books not just as a medium but as an art form.

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  17. kris says

    I particularly like and appreciate the last paragraph of this piece, as I know it’s true. I currently work in this field as a marketer, with a terrific book shepherd/editor who does great work for independently published authors–basically, all the work Amanda Hocking did for herself until she got tired of doing it. (Who can blame her? A writer writes.)

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  18. says

    I was talking to my husband yesterday about this. How interesting that in basically the same week, one major author went from traditional to self-pub while the other went from self-pub to traditional? These are options an author would’ve never had 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s interesting to me to see how publishing’s evolving, even though the importance of marketing, editing, etc., continues to be a constant.

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  19. says

    @Susan… Obviously we all want to write good books. But plenty of so so stuff sells, and sells well. My question was more to the, I have a good book and a good cover and a good description, so now how do people learn about it?

    Folks browsing kindle can’t search by name unless they have heard of the author or title. So what specific work goes into creating a name or brand for a fiction writer? Anyone know what sort of pr investment the indie authors with big hits typically made before their sales skyrocketed? Because they must hire marketing or pr services. I highly doubt they sit home and just tweet their way to sales in the hundreds of thousands.

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  20. says

    I appreciate so much everything I’m learning from people like Jane and her contacts/followers. You are setting a wonderful example of generosity and willingness to help others. While I may be old in years, I’m young at this writing endeavor, and for what it’s worth regarding the topic, some of us have no choice but to use the free services available.

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  21. says

    @Mari – Both Amanda Hocking and JA Konrath have been extremely generous in detailing what they did that worked (or didn’t work) in online marketing.

    Konrath also has frequent guests (both successful and not-so successful) who talk about their experiences. Very few are hiring professionals to help them.

    If you read the backlog of posts on these 2 blogs alone, I think you’ll glean some very valuable insights:

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/
    http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/

    What becomes clear, however, is that there is no one formula that works for every author. Even if you take the time to read and learn from those who have succeeded (and you should), that doesn’t mean you can replicate their methods and achieve the same success.

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  22. says

    @Jane Thanks for the links. Amanda’s very forthright that she works 40 hours plus a week as an author, which of course includes promotion and marketing. I’m glad her hard work is paying off so handsomely. She maybe the exception but it’s still strangely comforting to know that talented, tenacious indie authors can get their work noticed without mortgaging the house to pay professional marketing people.

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  23. says

    I think that self-publishing services is a niche that will grow, not become obsolete. One of the biggest problems that I see with self-publishing remains the quality of the final product. I’ve read Amanda Hocking’s books, and I think she’s one of the first to agree that they could be helped by better editing. Also, another reason Ms. Hocking is turning to traditional publishing is because it will free her up to spend more time writing. Just because authors can do it all doesn’t mean they are going to want to. I do think that more authors self-publishing will mean more demand for quality services and will hopefully create competition between companies offering those services, thus driving down the prices.

    What it means for me as a writer is that there are so many amazing opportunities right now that I am only limited by my imagination. And those opportunities will only grow with time.

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  24. says

    Based on all that, I think I’ve got Eisler beat since my last two book deals totally $850,000 and I’m walking away from NY. No antagonism. Two main reasons: timing and the future. Timing is that I can have my Civil War novel out in time for the 150th anniversary of the start of the war on April 12th and no NY publisher could do that– I saw a book deal for publication in 2014 recently on PW Deals. The future because 99% of the pundits have been off on their predictions for the future of eBooks. Of course, since most of them make money in the traditional publishing world, that is to be expected.

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  25. says

    After looking at several POD services, I chose CreateSpace because of the choice between ‘free’ and low-cost Pro Plan.

    The only other service that I currently pay for is editing. I’m doing everything else myself at this point in time, though I hope to ‘farm out’ cover design and formatting for ebooks in the future. And possibly marketing, too.

    It seems logical to me that POD would become the way to print of choice for traditional publishers, simply because it would be more cost effective.

    However, I don’t foresee a point in time where I’ll ever pay for other service through CreateSpace. Most extra services offered are just far too expensive for most self-publishers.

    Maybe that should be ‘most informed self-publishers’? I know there are some who do mortgage the house, as another said above.

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  26. says

    The article is well written and certainly timely, for which the author, Jane, is to be thanked.
    One can do both physical book and e-book.
    iUniverse, now Author House are expensive and pursue you with offers to promote your book (videos for over one thousand dollars) and that would seem to be where the money lies.
    On the other hand, Lulu is very cheap, and most authors like to see and feel their work. It also allows one to edit the work, before changing its format and morphing it to an e-book.

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  27. says

    As a newly self published author I am excited about the possibilities that ebooks and self publishing are creating for authors everywhere. I want to thank you for sharing this with us and as well as those that have posted here so that a newbie can learn a trick or two….. I hope.

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  28. says

    I disagree, and not just because I’m in the business of providing those services to authors.

    Amanda Hocking just signed a book deal. Why? Because, for all the money she’s making, she has to spend ALL of her time now on that marketing and polishing and schmoozing. In her own words, she doesn’t have the time to write anymore and it scares her. There will always be authors who are unable or unwilling to do all the side work, and simply want to write.

    That said, I think an upfront fee is horrid, as is a high lifetime royalty, as someone mentioned in the comments. A percentage of sales, tagged to timeframe and number of sales, with a diminishing return.

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  29. says

    I’d just like to reiterate that not all aggregators are made equal. BookBaby’s fee structure is significantly different than Smashword’s (as in, a lot), and both charge more than doing it oneself. Some of the services – such as Author’s Solutions – have been featured with good reason on sites like Author Beware. Others have not been featured… yet.

    Shop around, and remember that “recommended” aggregators are not always the most author-friendly ones.

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  30. says

    @Steven – Thanks for jumping in.

    To clarify, if the post confused the issue: Both BookBaby and Smashwords sell themselves as “free” services in one form or another. Smashwords charges no money upfront, but then takes a cut of sales. (Their cut usually amounts to something like 15% of your price.) BookBaby charges a small fee up front ($99 currently), but lets you keep 100% royalties. Each author has to decide what makes the most sense.

    I wouldn’t call them aggregators. They’re acting as distributors.

    Services like AuthorSolutions will not be able to compete effectively against such services as BookBaby or Smashwords without dramatically changing their value proposition or fee structure.

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  31. says

    While I agree that the vanity presses take advantage of authors, I’m also not a fan of free or low-cost services because quite frankly, you get what you pay for.

    I think there’s a big distinction between vanity presses and custom publishers (full disclosure: I own Authority Publishing, a custom publishing firm). Authors who want to achieve some level of success need to produce their books in a professional manner. That includes editing, custom cover design, and custom interior design (no templates!). And if you pursue cheap vanity publishing options, you get cheap results.

    Also, we’re all clinging to the few ebook success stories from JA Konrath (who already had a following based on his traditionally published print books) and Amanda Hocking, whose target audience is young and living in a digital word! The reality for the vast majority of authors is that if you’re going to self-publish, you need both ebooks and print books for the best exposure, and both should be professionally produced. Anything less and your results will be underwhelming.

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  32. says

    @Stephanie – Your argument assumes that print books will be important to most/all authors (both in terms of reach AND profit), as well as continue to hold value in the market when the industry is undergoing dramatic transformation.

    Custom self-publishing a print book doesn’t address the critical problem an author will encounter: Distribution in major retail outlets. Even the best custom job can’t ensure distribution, and too many authors waste their money producing print editions when there is no place to sell them, and no demand for them. It’s an investment and a risk unless you know what you’re doing.

    When it comes to “cheap” e-publishing options (which you’ve termed “vanity,” I guess just because they’re cheap?), when the cost is zero, there isn’t much at risk except one’s time and energy.

    Finally, JA Konrath has thoroughly discounted the fallacy that e-publishing success is rare. I’ve linked to his post above where he demolishes the argument that he (or Amanda Hocking) are somehow unique/special.

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  33. says

    Hi Jane,
    An interesting discussion but for the most part, I disagree. I view eBook publishing to be too volatile now. It reminds me of the cassette tape days and the days of Betamax versus VHS and now Blue Ray versus regular DVD, to wit, there are too many formats. I see all kinds of services out there that tell authors to publish their eBook for $ X where X is small, but they end up with only the Kindle format. Until the format issue is settled or the number is reduced to something reasonable (this word is always loaded with subjectivity and oft determined by marketing forces–Betamax was the better format, for example, but it lost), I would advise every author to hedge their bets and do both a pBook and an eBook for now.
    Another point: minimal POD services like CreateSpace are just that–minimal. People do judge a book by its cover, for example, and there are some POD services that will take one’s idea and do a nice job on the cover. As a reviewer, I can state that many authors, both POD and eBook, should also take advantage of the inexpensive editing services offered by the publishers.
    Finally, I don’t consider that I’m ignorant about the publishing end. Both POD and eBooks are variations on a theme, namely digital publishing. They both give an author tremendous control over a good part of the publishing process. I am ignorant about marketing. In this very competitive market, many authors like me need help–and that is usually expensive!
    Take care…
    r/Steve

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  34. Samara blanke says

    what do you think of going publishing or self publishing and what companies would be the best and fairest

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