What Does A Self-Publishing Service REALLY Do?

Two articles jumped out at me this week: David Gaughran’s blog post, “The Author Explotation Business,” about how traditional publishers are finding new ways to rip off writers, and a piece in Salon by Ted Heller, “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst,” wherein he bemoans his lack of success with a self-published book. Heller’s article seems (to me) to answer the question raised by Gaughran’s post:

How can anybody be so dumb as to fall for that shit?

Here is what Heller says:

As I write these words, I am now in my seventh week of attempting to spread the word about “West of Babylon.” I have sent emails to many newspapers, from the Boston Globe down to the Miami Herald across to the San Francisco … well, to just about everywhere. I’ve sent emails to newspapers and magazines in England, too, and to websites and book blogs. In each email I send, I announce that “West of Babylon” will be available online only as of early May 2013. I attach the cover image and stellar reviews of my three novels. I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to.

weaselThe author didn’t fall for a publishing scam, but he easily could have. He very easily could be ripe for plucking in the future. I know why. He does NOT understand the Chain of Happiness.

In Traditional Publishing, the Chain of Happiness works like this:

  • WRITER has to make the EDITOR happy
  • EDITOR has to make higher-up editors, the marketing department and the accountants happy
  • Higher-up editors have to make MARKETING happy
  • The marketing department has to make REVIEWERS and the NEW YORK TIMES book editor happy
  • The sales department has to make BOOK STORES happy
  • Everybody has to make the PUBLISHER happy

Contrast that with the indie’s Chain of Happiness:

  • WRITER has to make the READERS happy

Notice what’s missing in the first chain of happiness? If you said “readers,” give yourself a gold star. If that list gives you some hints about why traditional publishing is in such disarray and why some self-publishers are succeeding beyond almost everybody’s expectations, give yourself another star.

And yes, I know there are many traditionally published books that make readers very happy. The point I’m making is about focus and priorities. With most publishers, and especially the Big Publishing Houses, reader happiness is a side effect, not a priority.

The author of the Salon piece is locked in the Trad-pub mode of thinking. What he doesn’t realize is this: Reviewers don’t buy books. Sure, reviews can help get the word out about a book, but I’ve yet to see any evidence that reviews SELL books. By focusing all his energy and attention on people who don’t matter, the author is neglecting the only people who do: Readers.

Which takes us back to David Gaughran’s blog post. Go read it. I’ll wait. Are you back? Did you follow all the links? Got a queasy feeling in your guts now?

Did this passage jump out at you the way it did me?

And it’s much harder to tell the scammers from the legitimate organizations when they are owned by the same people.

Think about the traditional publisher’s chain of happiness. Who does a publisher have to make happy? Stockholders and the board of directors. What makes them happy? Money. Not that there is anything wrong with making money. Money is good in that it can be exchanged for coffee and cookies. So I have no objection to money. When your sole concern is making money and making more money and the desperation creeps in that you need to make even more money (come on, even I have limits to how much coffee and how many cookies I can consume!) then strange and ugly things happen. Such as once legitimate publishers ripping off writers with overpriced or useless “services.”

Self-publishing “services” are in the business of taking as much money as possible from you. That’s it. That is their sole reason for being. They will do anything, say anything, play into all your hopes and fears and dreams and desires in order to get you to pony up the cash.

What you, my friends, need to do is NEVER FORGET YOUR CHAIN OF HAPPINESS.

Before you sign any contract, or fork over a single dime, you have to ask yourself: How will this make my readers happy?

Don’t sit there moon-eyed and slack-jawed and force me to go all Gordon Ramsay on you. Come on, ya donuts!  You’re a reader, aren’t you? What makes you happy?

  • A good book
  • Professionally presented
  • Available
  • At a reasonable price

That’s it. That’s your focus. That’s where all your energy (and your cash outlay) belongs. Writing the good book is entirely on you. Making sure it’s professionally edited, produced and packaged are fixed, one-time costs. Making it available (distributed) is easy through online sales channels; more challenging (but not impossible) in print. Determining a reasonable price for your work is a matter of market research.

There are no tricks or gimmicks or shortcuts. I won’t lie to you. Publishing is a tough business. Successful self-publishers are tough nuts who work their asses off. You can’t buy success. You have to earn it.

Let me tell you what’s really expensive in this business: Ignorance. With so many weasels out to entangle your rights and licenses for the life of the copyright (your life plus 70 years), that ignorance could cost you and your heirs for decades.

Learn the business. Learn about packaging and production. Learn about distribution. Learn about getting the word out and building a reader base. Learn to question big claims and bigger promises. Most importantly of all, learn to recognize anything that stands between you and making your readers happy. If it does, walk away.





41 thoughts on “What Does A Self-Publishing Service REALLY Do?

  1. Oh. My. God. Sheer brilliance. Nuts and bolts. Brass tacks. You’ve nailed the issue, Jaye. I’m blown away, not only by your insight but by your ability to articulate this insight in terms everyone can understand.
    Readers want good reads. They don’t care who publishes a book.
    Not only do these phony baloney author assistance services want your money, they want to stop you from self-pubbing. They don’t even want you to consider it so they dangle this candy-coated carrot. Yuck.

    • Readers really do not care. Book stores might care, reviewers might care, givers of awards might care. Then again, what’s happening with book stores? Who knows who the reviewers are? How many non-publishing industry people can name the major awards.

      Readers have been neglected too long by the publishers. Smart self-publishers will take a lesson from that.

  2. Ahhh, Jaye, as always you’re a quiet voice of wisdom in the cacophony of self publishing nonsense. It always has, and always will, come down to writing books that people–ordinary people–want to read. I’m not proud of it, but I do nothing about PR except clean up more books and put them up on various platforms. I don’t have time to do anything else, and I earn a tidy little living anyway. And the reason I actually half know how to clean those books up is you, and your patient advice.

    Forever grateful,


  3. Hi Jaye:

    Bull’s eye! You’ve served up a one-two punch for self-publishing! Brilliant! Another must-read entry in a vast collection of must-read entries!

  4. I could only scan this quickly (for now) but I CANNOT wait to find out what “chain of happiness” means!

  5. “Let me tell you what’s really expensive in this business: Ignorance.”

    Bingo! And it absolutely kills me when I see people make expensive mistakes that they would not have made if they’d done just a bit of research. Valuable information is everywhere on the internet, free for the reading. My education in the blogesphere and twitter has saved me countless dollars, thanks to the generosity of the indie author community. (And you are tops on that list!) It’s a debt I can never repay.

    • Hi Margaret. The fact is, people are going to make mistakes. Which is really no biggie. As long as it’s a mistake they learn from and it doesn’t end up costing the farm. Or losing the rights to their work. With some of those scams, that is EXACTLY what happens.

  6. David G. mentioned that if you are a reader of blogs about indie publishing you may fall into the line of thinking that “How could these authors be such rubes and fall for these sleazy scams”, but he says that a lot of newcomers don’t think about writing as a business and they get desperate… very desperate. It kills me when you hear about author’s paying thousands of dollars for some publishing package.

    I worry about this sort of thing with our business and that people will lump us in with the scammers. Really have to make sure we uphold our integrity and reputation…

    • Hi Paul. I get frustrated myself and am guilty of thinking, What is wrong with you people? But David G.’s demonstration about how Author Solutions has hijacked Google to funnel people trying to exercise due diligence by researching self-publishing options. That’s very disturbing. I should dial back my frustration and focus on education.

      There is no fine line between people who offer production services (editing, covers, book formatting) and those “self-publishing services”–there’s a chasm of difference. People like me, you (Paul Salvette of BBEbooks), Rob of 52Novels, Joel Friedlander the Book Designer, Tammy Salyer of Inspired Ink, offer a product for a one-time fee. Quite often it is a product that writers either do not have the skill to create themselves or they do not have the time. What we do has zero effect on the writer’s copyright, licenses, distribution or royalties.

      Self-publishing services, such as Author Solutions, are much, much, much different. I’ll have to research the details about what kind of packaging “services” they offer and how much they charge. The biggest difference is in distribution. Many scams state: You keep 100% of your royalties by publishing through us! The catch is, that is ONLY for royalties received from sales off the scammer’s site. Funny how none of them mention that NOBODY SHOPS ON THEIR SITE. The gotcha is the 30-50% cut they take from royalties earned from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc, PLUS, they control the books and the payouts. Plus, many have onerous contracts that can entangle a person’s rights to their work.

      A hallmark of the scam services is that they skew the difficulty of distribution. They make it sound as if ONLY they can properly distribute the work into the retail markets. The truth is, in less than an hour, any self-publisher can distribute their work into every major retail site that exists on the internet. With a little more effort, they can get their work into libraries and print-distribution catalogs.

      So, Paul, I guess we have to keep hammering away at education.

      • Yes, smarty-pants, you do know a thing or two. (Readers, I feature Paul’s book on ebook formatting in the sidebar. If you are interested in learning how to produce beautiful ebooks, start with his book.)

      • Well, I know some stuff about non-sexy technical issues (like using jQuery to bind event handlers – yeah, that will get you a date), but still learning quite a bit about the book business in general. I’m glad there are lots of great folks who have been involved in publishing for a while and have jumped ship to the indie side. You can learn quite a bit from these people. Thanks, Jaye, for sharing your wisdom! This is a great blog.

      • I have a bad feeling reading your post and this comment, Jaye. I´ve produced an enhanced eBook, and I cannot distribute it myself, because Amazon KDP doesn´t allow to upload eBooks with audio and video content. I signed a contract with Vook, which offers to distribute my eBook to Amazon, B&N and iBooks for $500, but they will be keeping 10% of my royalties and controlling my book and payouts as well. I´m feeling very uneasy about this service – although I haven´t found any negative reviews about them -, but I don´t see any other choice. For several months I tried to sell my eBook in my blog, but nobody buys it. Do you think this company could be a scam, or it could be the only alternative to sell an enhanced eBook in major retailers?

      • $500 sounds expensive just for distribution. Did they create the enhanced eBook for you? That might be worth it, but it is still a bit high. You can publish EPUB3 type eBooks with Audio/Video on iTunes, but Barnes & Noble doesn’t allow video/audio publishing unless you are a publisher or some such nonsense. Liz Castro talked about this on her blog recently if that helps. Good luck! http://www.pigsgourdsandwikis.com/2013/05/video-in-kindle-books-thanks-to-epub3.html

      • I haven’t given enhanced video ebooks much thought. I am still looking around, trying to figure out why Amazon would allow Vook to distribute v-books, but not individuals. Seems to me, the danger of consumer dissatisfaction would be the same no matter who put the book up. That said, $500 to produce an enhanced ebook is a tad high, but still reasonable, depending. But Desperate, you already had the ebook, right? So the $500 is for what? That’s a gotcha that makes me highly suspicious. A cursory look at Vook’s site makes it appear to be similar to an aggregator such as Smashwords, with terms that don’t appear on the surface to be outrageous. I’ll have to check into their terms of service.

  7. I am at a loss for words, really, you and aunt Jules saying that I don’t care, well ok once I get my hands on a good book either on my kindle or a proper book, I don’t really give a shit how it got there, just that it did. I do go out of my way to tell people what I have read and by whom, good or bad…. But as a reader all the other stuff is quite incidental and really of no great importance

    Sorry if that ruffles a few feathers, but once again Aunty Jaye calls it like wot it is and the way she does it so even a plebeian reader such as I can understand (but not care) is just sooooooo good Oops goosebumps again xxx

    • Hidey ho, Tom. I notice who publishes the books I read–if it’s crappy or poorly produced. Then I make a mental to be cautious about purchasing more of that particular publisher’s products. If it’s wonderful, though, the only name I remember is the author’s.

  8. A great post, Jaye, I love your ‘Chain of Happiness’ line, that’s a good one to remember. Another one, (and it’s an oldie, I know, but still relevant) is ‘Money flows TO the author, not away.’ And I think, in the desperation so many of us have to be published, a lot of us forget that. Sure, we may have to spend some money on Indie Publishing a book, for instance on cover design, editing, etc, but we have to get away from thinking that paying a company to publish a book for us is Self Publishing, or Indie Publishing. Because it isn’t, it’s Vanity Publishing.
    I’m holding my hand up here, and saying, yep, been there, done that. Back in 2007, just before ereaders really took off, I paid a company to publish my novel as a POD book.
    Still got a pile of them in my cellar. These people promise so much, but deliver so little.
    Another piece of the ‘Chain of Happiness’ is of course, promoting the book, as you touched on in your post. We were discussing this on the Kindle Books Facebook group earlier today. Those endless ‘buy my book’ tweets are a pain in the backside for everyone, and put people off. Social networking needs to be used to give added value to our readers, not bully them into buying a book.
    Another link in the ‘Chain of Happiness.’

    • Hi Ken. You are absolutely right. The thing that really rattles my cage about so many of the “self-publishing services” is they add insult to injury by not only charging all expenses to the writer (usually for piss-poor products), but then many take control of the book, too. They set the price, they decide where to distribute, they control the accounting, and then really put the screws to the writer by charging them an arm and a leg for author copies. Outrageous.

  9. That Salon “article” was incredibly regressive. The things that Heller complained about–lack of exposure, marketing, taking control of your own career–have been addressed and discussed for years, now, with constructive solutions available to everyone. To me this was a second (see the whine-fest of http://www.salon.com/2013/04/02/im_a_self_publishing_failure/) odd choice by Salon to highlight another author’s failure in self-publishing, rather than a dissection of, a) why they didn’t succeed, or just a simple, b) profile of success. There are plenty of “b’s” to choose from.

    We (using the term loosely) seem to have a ready-made cultural belief system that the only good writer is a long-suffering, unsuccessful one–which might explain why so many would-be novelists fall for the scams mentioned in Gaughran’s article. God forbid you achieve some modest success through hard work, skill, and persistence…if you don’t suffer for your art, you might be happy, on your way to financial independence, and doing what you love, but you’re not truly a success in the eyes of the Salons of the world.

    • Hi Matthew. It’s that old mythology that “art” is never “commercial,” and if something is popular then it can’t be any good. The truth is: EVERY WORK OF FICTION HAS LIMITED APPEAL. Think about that for a minute. As wildly popular as Stephen King is, there are readers who wouldn’t touch his stuff if you held a gun to their heads. There are people who have no idea who Stephen King is. If a million people in the US buy his latest book, that means 299 million people did not.

      Some books have a wider limited appeal than others. It’s got nothing to do with quality or artistic merit or cultural significance. It’s got everything to do with the number of people who happen to like a particular type of book.

      There is a very real genre of fiction that has extremely limited appeal. Some call it “literary” fiction. (and should it–heaven forfend!–find a wider audience, it’s then shunned by the literati and called commercial trash, for which the much financially enriched author is horrendously ashamed for ‘selling out.’) The literary novel’s audience is the literati, including the major newspaper and magazine reviewers, academics and publishing insiders. I suspect the publishers and writers of such fiction are perversely proud of the fact that it is much too sophisticated and cerebral for the unwashed masses to appreciate. That it loses money is a badge of honor.

      I worry about the fate of writers such as Heller. Publishers are losing the ability financially to indulge in publishing fiction with such limited appeal–no matter that such books often win big awards and bring a lot of prestige in certain circles. Self-publishing is rarely the answer, since the literati has requirements that include a certain number of stamps of approval before they will deign to accept a work, or its writer, into their exalted circles. So when you have Randomly Housed Penguin, for instance, offering a kind of, sort of, stamp of approval, there are writers who will jump on it just for the chance to get within shouting range of the name.

      • I have to disagree with this statement:

        ” Publishers are losing the ability financially to indulge in publishing fiction with such limited appeal…”

        No, that’s not right at all. More than ever before, publishers have the ability to publish fiction with limited appeal. All they have to do is go digital. And double their prices because the literati would totally buy the whole “you are so discerning you get to pay double for this crap” scam. The thing that bothers me most about big pub is not that it is run by a bunch of scam artists (that’s true about a lot of industries), but that it is run by a bunch of lazy, unimaginative scam artists. I mean, seriously, price fixing and vanity press scams are the best they can come up with? Lame.

  10. Pingback: Writers and Books and the Chain of Happiness « Under An Outlaw Moon

  11. Hey, William, don’t forget non-compete clauses, and licensing rights to themselves so that the authors get pennies in royalties, and basket accounting, and gaming the New York Times best seller lists so that it is entirely possible for a best seller to never make a penny beyond their advance, and, and, and… That the big pubs are reduced to climbing into bed with the likes of Author Solutions tells me all I need to know about their prospects.

  12. Great post! Thanks for cutting through the bull$*** and getting down to brass tacks. My first 5 books were traditionally published (2 by a NY house, 3 by small presses) but my last 5 have all been self-published and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve actually grown to like marketing, now that I know who, exactly, I am marketing to. I hope other indie writers will see the truth and not fall for the ego-stroking they get from these money-grubbing companies. It is possible to do it all, do it well, and succeed.

    • Hi Melissa, I appreciate the hell out of the big publishers when they bring me offerings from my favorite writers. But it chokes my craw when those writers aren’t treated well. Their climbing in bed with scam publishing services has caused me to lose all respect for them. The pity of it is, if they’d just focus on what it is they do best, instead of chasing after get-rich-quick schemes, they’d survive and thrive.

  13. Pingback: What Does A Self-Publishing Service REALLY Do? ...

  14. David Jay Ramsden,
    Great article, the chain of happiness is so true. As an indie author with 10 books on Amazon I write for fun and I dont take myself to seriously. When I first started writing I decded that if I made 1 person happy with my work then I had acheived what I set out to do. All the indie author bashing that goes on is silly. The ratio of successful writers is very, very low if you measure it bysales but if you follow your chain then if all the indie writers put a smile on just one persons face hen we are ALL a huge sccess. Ease off and enjoy what you do.

    • I’m with you there, David. Our writing has to entertain, educate or inform. If what we produce entertains or educates or informs even a very limited audience (and seriously, it’s the rare book or writer that has mass appeal) then it’s a success.

  15. Hi, Jaye & Paul. Thanks for your replies on May 17. I tell you a little more about my problem: My enhanced eBook works fine in iPads and iPhones, but it doesn’t pass an epub check. There are some errors, that I don’t understand, such as “The a element must not appear inside a elements” and others related to the language of the eBook (not English). At first, Vook wanted $500 just for distribution. I agreed with it, because it is the only company distributing enhanced eBooks to Amazon. I haven’t found any other. They are aggregators and eBook producers as well. Since my eBook has errors, they offered me a package for $550, which I didn’t find bad and I thought I would be sparing a lot of time.
    When I received their mobi and epub previews, I didn’t like them. I can’t play the audio and video material in the Kindle app for iPad or in the Kindle Previewer (for the devices which play audio and video), and there are some issues in the epub file as well. They say everything would work when the eBook is sold through Amazon, but how can I be sure? I haven’t read anything about money-back guarantee in their terms of service, and our agreement is not specific about that. What if I approve a preview that I don’t see correctly, and it doesn’t work in Amazon? A month ago Vook released a free enhanced eBook with download and video issues.
    Do you think the eBook could be fine, even if the audio and video files cannot be played in the iPad and Kindle Previewer? By the way, these files are embedded, not external.

    • Hi Desperate:

      I hope that Jaye and/or Paul can correct me on this, but, if your publishing house is telling you that an ePub3-specific book will work on an iPad and iPhone when the book is in its final form is selling you a lie. To my knowledge, there is currently no e-reader device or e-reader software that is ePub3 compliant. And I know of no way to make an ePub3-specific file fully functional with existing ePub2.1 software on dedicated e-readers or otherwise. In my humble opinion, you’ve been ripped off. I hope I’m wrong, for your sake. Good luck, and please keep us informed.

  16. I’m going to send this comment to a guy who understands audio/video far better than I (which is not much at all). Maybe he’ll have some useful information.

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