When Does Self-Publishing Becoming Publishing Through an Independent Publisher?

An interesting question came up in discussions we held this weekend with a young writer who has an idea for a book and wanted to hear how we transitioned from our past careers to writing and publishing. We told him our tale of the journey but then drifted off into a more ethereal discussion of when does an author/self publisher cross the threshold to Author/Independent Publisher.

The conversation began with a lighthearted question by me “Would Frank Nelson Doubleday, the founder of Doubleday & Co. (Now an imprint of Random House) be considered self published since he authored and co-authored several books, all of which were published through his privately held publishing company, Doubleday?”

We laughed a bit but then realized yes he would, since it is doubtful that any of the ‘gatekeepers’ would have rejected his submission. Thus he was published, good or bad, because he was the publisher!

On a more serious note we examined our own progression. My first novel was rejected by many publishing houses including at least fifty imprints owned by the big six, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan Publishers Ltd, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster. Add to that another 30 or so ‘independent publishers’ from Maine to Scotland (Note: In this article an Independent Publisher is any publisher that does not belong to the big six).

Ultimately, thanks to a persistent agent, one imprint of the big six and two independents came back with proposals. By this time I had learned that the ‘gatekeepers’ of these eighty or so publishers were not rejecting the submission because my novel or my writing was bad or unprofessional, no not at all, 99% of the rejections were driven by return on investment. Simply put, in their opinion, not enough books would sell to justify the investment they would have to make to bring the book to market.

The three proposals reflected this same issue in that the publishers would invest in getting the book ‘out there’ but it would be 95% my job to get the readers to buy it. Therefore, for production and distribution these publishers would take between 93 and 96 percent of the wholesale revenue (about 50% of the retail price) thus leaving me with a two to three and one-half percent royalty on retail.

They were right in making this offer. It was their risk and they were pretty much banking on me to market and sell…a complete unknown to them. I examined the alternatives and decided, with the guidance of that very experienced agent, to go independent.

Since that first book a lot has happened, a sequel was written and independently published, my wife wrote a book of a completely different genre (positive thinking), and most significantly, we studied the publishing business which is changing at warp speed and decided to consolidate our books under the umbrella of a publishing imprint, Sprig Media Group.

Now let me interject here, this progression is nothing new, of the thirty independents I submitted to at least half were born as publishing vehicles of the owner’s books or books written by the owner’s spouse. They had decided, as did we, why waste all that knowledge developed in getting our own books out.

We began with the basics, for those of you that have read any of my past articles on Independent Publishing we see the publishing process from the perspective of eight high level functions, four of which we performed or sub-contracted directly from our first venture into self-publishing; writing the book, editing the book, graphics and layout together with marketing & promotion. For the remaining four, production, distribution, sales and remuneration we depended entirely on third parties and funneled our relationships for those activities through one or two entities.

Our first step was to re-visit the second group of four and evaluate from the business perspective where it was profitable and efficient to eliminate a middle layer (in the world of product and service distribution this is referred to as disintermediation). The greatest opportunity for this lies in the world of e-books, where we can we now deal directly with the retail distributor of e-books such as Barnes & Noble. We format and create the Nook/e-pub file for distribution on Barnes & Noble’s internet site and the vendor of record for all our books is Sprig Media Group. Therefore relative to Barnes & Noble Nook e-book business we are the publisher of Look For The Hook (click the link and scroll down the page to information…there we are, Publisher: Sprig Media Group). The same is true for our other two published books, to see what happens, in Barnes & Noble put in the search criteria ‘Sprig Media Group’, all three of our Nook editions will come up as published by. Therefore, thanks to technology and an upheaval in the publishing industry, for one channel at least, we meet all the criteria for Independent Publisher…ALL!

It is time in this article to examine what those ‘criteria’ are. Let me say that the criteria set down by organizations such as the Mystery Writers of America will be ignored here since they seem terribly dated. Further, they disregard completely a publisher that would elect to publish and distribute only electronically or electronically and print on demand. In addition, on close examination, Frank Nelson Doubleday would have failed on at least three of the criteria for Doubleday & Co to become an MWA publisher.

Our criteria will be dictated by the state of the industry in these early days of upheaval.

One caveat; publishing is a business, writing is an art, for purposes of this article we are only interested in publishing from the publishing perspective, that is, a business.

Let’s first address the old standby criteria, ‘a real publisher uses their own block of ISBNs.’ Not any more, if it will produce a better, more profitable distribution mechanism (i.e. CreateSpace Expanded Distribution) than from a business perspective that is the route to follow. From an e-book perspective it is not even a necessity. As an accountant by education and early career ISBN is an inventory control protocol. I was shocked to find in two independent bookstores we supply directly with paperback editions that they label over the ISBN with their own inventory control ID. I at first thought it was because our Trade Paperback Editions carry the CreateSpace ISBN but on investigation found that every book in house had the ISBN labeled over…so much for the importance of the publishers’ ISBN.

If your book is in Ingram and some customer wants that book, goes to the bookstore, and asks for it, they will look up the title in their inventory and if it is not there they will go to the Ingram database and look for it there. That is the only important aspect of distribution and you do not need to have your own block of ISBNs to have that happen. Many distribution and fulfillment organizations bring that about by having their lists included in Ingram’s database.

Next, a publisher will get your books into bookstores. Watching what is happening to brick and mortar bookstores I would say that is a diminishing criteria (however it is a definite criteria of Mystery Writers of America “The initial print run by the publisher for a book-length work of fiction or nonfiction must be at least 500 copies and must be widely available in brick-and-mortar stores (not “special order” titles). In other words, print-on-demand publishers and Internet-only publishers do NOT qualify.) However, any publisher can get their books into bookstores if they are willing to take on the entire risk. ‘Sales’ to bookstores are 100% returnable. They are called sales not consignments for reporting purposes under the Uniform Code of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles but believe me, except for the name they are in every other way consignments.

Sprig Media Group ‘calls it what it is’ and we ship or deliver our books to receptive bookstores on consignment at the industry accepted percent discount from retail, paid for 30 to 60 days after sale.

I think it is clear where I am going with this.

Since the publishing gatekeepers no longer concentrate on quality (if they ever did) and spend their time now calculating Return On Investment (ergo celebrity books, etc.) if three independent readers say you have a good or great book, you have passed the only gatekeeper that matters.

Now if you start to take on more and more of the underlying tasks of the eight functions noted above you wake up one morning and your ‘self publishing’ adventure has morphed into an Author who happens to have an ownership interest in their Independent Publisher.

…and that in my opinion is when authoring/self-publishing becomes Authoring published through an Independent Publisher. What do you think?

  • I couldn’t agree more, Hugh. The traditional publishers will worry about ROI and publish celebrity books. Good for them! Who can deny the human need for gods, goddesses, and celebrities? On the other hand, “if three independent readers say you have a good or great book, you have passed the only gatekeeper that matters.” That’s precisely the point. Thank you for your story.

  • Hugh,

    First of all, thank you for your cogent and refreshing comments on the past, present, and future of publishing.

    I so pity the writers who have been bullied and bamboozled into believing that ‘the query letter’ is going to get them anywhere.

    I realized the proportional reality of waiting to be tapped by an agent at the 2010 PNWA conference in Seattle when FIVE out of five hundred attendees raised their hands as having connected with an agent in the previous year. And experience since has only collaborated that ratio. Nathan Bransford’s departure from Curtis Brown noted, more recently I listened to Kristen Nelson of The Nelson Literary Agency wax on about the THREE emerging authors she and her business partner had hand-selected from their bot-based search engine that electronically screened the 36,000 query letters they received in 2010 [BlogTalk Radio ‘Angels & Warriors’ April 28].

    I self-publish. I am an independent publisher. Translation: I do not use Lulu, or other contract vendors to get my books into the hands of my readers. Somewhere along the way Lulu, Llumina, Taggert, and others coOpted the term ‘self published’. The craft of independent publishing is just that – a craft.

    If a writer can get around the gatekeepers [and a 3:36000 ratio is sure as hell gatekeeping!] and get to their 3+ readers, well then, they DESERVE every pat on the back they get!

  • Thank you Ron and Emily. We are fortunate to be part of such a dramatically changing industry.

  • One extra stipulation I would add: For my “self-publishing” is trying to do everything by yourself, including design, formatting, cover, editing and publicity marketing. Bookstores and readers are hesitant to get behind a “self-published” title because it’s virtually impossible for a writer to be good enough at all of these things to present a high quality finished product. “Independent publishing” is when an author hires or outsources much of the skill-based tasks. Thus while not under the umbrella of a traditional publisher, it isn’t the case that they are doing it all themselves. This may include developing their own imprint, as you guys did, or at least being ready to invest in your book to make it as good as possible (there’s really no excuse for typos and spelling errors in an indie-published book, although they will probably be there). Raising the bar for our own projects will help get rid of the stigma against indie publishing faster.

    • (I’m embarrassingly prone to typos, as you can see in the above comment).

  • Derek, I agree with you once again. Independent publishers should, to the extent they can, outsource the skill-based tasks they aren’t prepared to do on their own. Unless, of course, they’re willing to spend a lot of time and effort learning how to bring themselves up to speed on those tasks — and cut into the time and effort they’d more profitably spend on writing and reading.

  • I totally agree with everything you have said here. Last November I self-published through an Independent publisher and have never regretted my action. As a refugee from the agents badly written letters I decided that my novel couldn’t be all that bad. I obtained a professional evaluation and after a few changes, launched myself onto the world of fiction. I have done pretty well with my novel, both in Australia and overseas. Now I am about to publish my second novel with the same company, who distributes, sets up, designs, formatts – all the things I don’t know how to do and don’t want to do – and I can only say that I am delighted with the effort and patience this company has put out on my behalf at a good compeetitive price. I shall be launching my third one with them as well. Not all self publishers are scams!!!!!

    • Congratulations Diana. The beauty of tody’s publishing landscape is that every writer can find what works for them. The objective is getting our creative work in the hands of as many appreciative readers as possible…and there have never been so many options and so few boundaries to accomplish taht goal as there are today.

      • Hugh, you are so right! The sky is limitless and we are flying 🙂

    • Hi, Would you be willing to tell ‘the folks at home’ who your publishing service is that you are so happy with? It does make a difference in confidence level; doesn’t it, knowing that you’ve made a good match between your writing skill and a production/publishing company’s trade skill. Congratulations, Diana.

  • Diana, Congratulations on your success. I will definitely add your titles to my Goodreads list.

    I am an IndieAuthor and CONTRACT publisher who wanted to take a moment to suggest that the firm you are using to publish your on-the-way-to-success-books is actually a CONTRACT publisher. Using ‘self-publisher’ as a term for publishing outfits who do publishing on contract is outmoded since the IndiePub movement entered The Golden Age [April Chartrand, Bay Area reporter].

    For instance, I self-publish MY OWN books, but CONTRACT publish my clients books. That allows everyone to step away from the term ‘vanity press’ which is what ‘we’ would have been called twenty years ago.

    Just a small point, the real issue is that you are finding success by NOT staring balefully at the mail box waiting for a letter from a beleaguered agent. Again, congratulations. I wish you the best!

    Emily Hill

  • Hi Emily,
    A contract publisher? Yes, I guess that is exactly what he is! And I am an Independent Author – very actually LOL

    I think it is the most satisfying moment to actually hold MY novel in my hands and terrifying to open it and go through the ” OMG, I could have put that better!” “OMG, why did I put THAT?” “Oh stuff it, I used “great” in two consecutive paragraphs” Ooooooooooooh.

    And the fact is that 99% of readers don’t notice these things. If your story is exciting enough, that’s all they care about 🙂

    Thank you so much for your kind words and good wishes,


  • Now that Borders, Barnes and Noble (I believe) and Angus & Robertson here in Australia (Red Group they call themselves) have run into difficulties, we still have Dymocks, Queensland Book Depot and Bookworld left as retail shops. Lurking in the shadows are Doubleday who charge anything up to $55 per by mail order. The usual online suspects are still in evidence – Booktopia and the Book Depository (also in the UK)

    I wonder what the publishers are going to do now? No longer are they going to be able to ship hundreds of books to their outlets, secure in the knowledge that there will automatically be sales for them. Australia has Penguin, Hachette Livre, Allen & Unwin and I’m not sure who else. The fact is, of course, that these companies rarely publish new authors, being only interested in well known names. I can’t blame them for that – they need to sell books – but what is to happen when the well known authors retire? Or do authors ever retire? I have to say I could name several famous authors whose latest books I have read, who maybe should think about retiring!

    The market is going to get very crowded indeed as authors turn increasingly to contract publishing – myself of course as one of this stampede! What I sincerely hope is that Independent Authors will continue to strive for excellence in their product! That we will continue to work diligently through writing workshops and get professional appraisals of our novels before we launch them onto the outside world.

    It would be all too easy for sloppy writing and bad editing to lower the standards which, quite frankly, established publishers have maintained and which the discerning reader is accustomed. This is not to say that one occasionally finds a typo or missed word in a novel – this happens in the best of edited books – but I am referring to maintaining a high standard of product generally from Independent Authors.

    Most mainstream reviewers do not care to assess “self published” books. Their perception is frequently set in stone – SP novels are badly written, badly edited and not worth any time and effort. This has no doubt been true on many and earlier occasions, but now that the world of literature in all genres is undergoing a major upheaval, it is up to we, the authors of “self published” novels, to constantly strive for excellence in our craft, to shoot the reviewers down in flames, keep our readers begging for more and become the forefront of the new age in publishing!

  • Diana,

    I have to smile at your ‘do well known authors retire?’ musings.

    Actually, joining the stampede to The Dark Side [1930s movie house organ for scary music, please] here in The States is Barry Eisler, Lisa Gardner, and even the now infamous Amanda Hocking is smart enough to keep her fingertips in the self-publish realm while she waits [and waits] for St. Martin’s to put her into the TradPub market. We won’t see her coveted titles with a St. Martin’s trademark until late 2012. Time. Goes. So. Slowly. ;D

    According to a survey Publishers Weekly conducted during this past winter’s New York Book Fair 90% of the attending agents were being asked by their clients [well known authors] how to get out of their publishing contracts so that they could ‘go Indie!’ and enjoy the royalty split that we’re getting with Amazon et al. Again, that was 90% of the agents! Ninety percent. Mind. Boggled.

    At that point, enter stage right: The ‘perpetual rights’ issue and the ‘electronic royalties’ issue. Then, to entertain us all we have the reputation of mainstay author, Michael Connelly, sullied by his own publisher who uploaded MC’s titles in eBook format and priced them at the same price as hard/soft cover. What. A. Dummy! That earned poor Michael the ole ‘one-star’ campaign from IndieAuthors who have suffered with $2.99 and even $.99 books for … hmmm…how long?

    Enough opera for everyone! Is THIS what the music industry went through when Napster was the hot topic? Loving talking shop with You, Diana!


  • So grateful for the insights here.

    1. Is it true that an ISBN is needed to sell on Amazon though?

    2. If so, is it unacceptable to buy just one ISBN (or more depending on how many formats) through the company that shows the publisher as Independent Publisher? I thought I read somewhere that this raises some kind of red flag and is not a good thing. I’m not using POD or any of the companies like Lulu et al. We had editing help, found a book designer and will use a local offset printer.

    This ISBN thing though is still troubling. We want the book to make money but I think selling it via the internet, Amazon makes more sense than a bookstore.

    Also, if a publisher does decide to pick it up later, won’t they use their own ISBN?

    Thanks so much for any additional insights.

  • Emily Hill

    Dear Kathy,
    ISBNs (used for hard cover books) and their cousins ASINs used for eBooks are interesting critters. They are merely the numbers used by each vendor to track sales and inventory. For instance I published a historical novel through nearly every outlet possible which has at least six numbers assigned to it. Amazon CreateSpace will have an ISBN number (you can provide it to them from your block of numbers-or you can let them assign the number-it makes no real difference. CreateSpace publishes in soft cover – and so does Ingram. So, for my Ingram version of the same novel I used a fresh ISBN number.

    eBooks have a sales-tracking number as well. For eBooks you will have ASINs. My ASINs are separate and distinct for Smashwords, Kindle, and Nook. Sometimes I let the outlet assign an ASIN and/or ISBN and sometimes if it’s more expedient I use one of my own ISBNs.

    Smashwords makes it interesting if one is ‘selling’ free books. They will give you several options on who and how (you or them) is the assign’er of the ASIN.

    ISBNs and the questions that swirl around them are a big area for confusion and misunderstanding. No need to get at all territorial about ISBNs…unlike copyrighting and your Library of Congress number.

    I wrote a segment regarding ISBNs on my blog…I invite you to my website to check it out and glean any other information that might be helpful, as you proceed.

    In the meantime, I wish you The Best in your IndiePub endeavors.

    (iPad submission)

  • This is a great post about a somewhat complicated subject. In the end, I don’t think it matters too much if an author chooses to go indie, traditional, or self-published. What matters most is understanding exactly what the choice does and does not offer, and being prepared. That means doing research–a lot of it.

  • A word of warning! Indie authors, be careful not to stray into the “How to Avoid Indie Writers” Amazon Forum!

    I went there the other day and was astounded by the vitriol – spite, hatred, vicious – comments from the posters to that Forum. As far as they are concerned, there is not one good indie author alive! Of course, idiot brain here jumped in – I was furious – and allowed caution and common sense to overtake me by issuing a challenge to them to read my novels and give an HONEST review!

    Oh boy, I felt like a little antelope who has gone to a waterhole filled with crocodiles 🙁 The comments they made about me and the abuse which was showered on me like confetti – within minutes of my post BTW – was so vindictive and hurtful that I retracted and deleted my post.

    Even that wasn’t enough for a couple of them, who said I was making sure that my post stayed on there long enough to scam the unwary on their Forum into reading my books. This was 10 minutes after I agreed to delete my post, mind you 🙁

    Since then I have read on an authors forum posts from several authors who have been an incautious as I have and paid the price.

    So ladies and gentlemen, stay away from this mob, they’re a bitter, unhappy, lethal group and you don’t deserve to be treated in this manner.

    • Diana, I went to the forum you warned about and thanks to your advice viewed the exchange only.

      As a boy growing up my father told me, when words would upset me, “Take it from whence it comes”

      These folk appear to have issues far beyond their contempt for independent authors so your advice is good advice. We shall leave them to wallow in the mud with their own element…all of whom to be not the brightest lights in the tanning bed.

  • A right bunch of little charmers, aren’t they, Hugh 🙁
    Your dad was a very wise person.