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Should I Self-publish?

You have two choices
You can self-publish your own book or you can pursue a publishing contract with a  traditional publishing house. This site can show you how to do either. Understand going in—landing a contract with a traditional publisher is a challenge, but it could be well worth the effort. You can even pursue a contract after you self-publish. 
Actually, you have three choices: The third option is vanity publishing.

Ron Pramschufer at provides a good
comparison of vanity publishing versus self-publishing. Vanity publishing just doesn't add up.

To be a true self-publisher, you must own the ISBN. Vanity publishers won't let you do that—a true self-publishing company (facilitator) will usually insist you own the ISBN. At the very least, they will make it clear up front that you can use your own ISBN. Vanity publishers squirm when you ask if you can use your own ISBN. Then they will give you several bogus reasons why you should let them "assign" an ISBN to your book. None of the reasons will benefit you. Buy your own ISBN! Read why you need your own ISBN.
If you own the ISBN, you will be listed as the publisher, even though you are paying a publisher to produce your book. That publisher falls under the category of  a "self-publishing facilitator." It can be confusing. Just make sure you buy your own ISBN and the rest will fall into place. Vanity publishers will fade away once you insist on using your own ISBN.
Never forget—there is no good reason to let a publisher "assign" an ISBN to your book.
If your book sells, you will need a distributor. The first question a distributor wil ask is, "Do you own the ISBN?" If you say, "No," the conversation is over. The distributor will know you have an "assigned" ISBN and won't touch you. They will not deal with a vanity publisher.

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Going for a book deal with a traditional publisher

If a traditional publisher wants to publish your book you don't need to own the ISBN. As a matter of fact, you won't own the ISBN. No problem. They will pay for everything and then pay you for each and every book sold. They will market your book to major bookstores and take all the risk. You risk nothing. Just make sure you get a good contract (get advice from a publishing contract attorney). You should be able to re-negotiate many of the terms if your book has potential. If it sells well, you will be in an even better negotiating position for your next book.

Note: In the past, the only practical way to approach a traditional publisher was through a professional literary agent. Today, due to the eruption of self-published books, many agents and major publishing houses  are beginning to notice self-published books that are selling well. As a result, more and more agents and a number of traditional publishers are pursuing successful self-published authors.

If you want to bypass self-publishing and go for the gold, I can show you how to properly approach and, hopefully, secure a literary agent. If an agent agrees to represent you, he will sell your book to a traditional (commercial) publisher and the money will roll in (maybe)—See more on the Traditional Vs Self-Publishing page. 

Who cares about the ISBN and why does it matter?

It only matters if you self-publish.
Every order for the book goes through the publisher (the actual owner of the ISBN) and that publisher gets a "piece of the action" from every book produced (two to four dollars on average). That "piece of the action" belongs to you, the author, not some vanity publisher that did not invest a dime. If you publish with a true self-publishing company, you keep all the profit minus actual print costs. And those print costs are not 50% off the retail price. They are more like 70% off retail. In other words, a $12 book should cost about $3 to print, not $6. Guess who pockets the extra $3. Good guess if you said "vanity publisher."

The ISBN identifies the book title and who published it. The ISBN is used to track a book title throughout the book industry from publisher to seller and everywhere in between. 

With the proliferation of digital printing technologies and Print-On-Demand (POD), many new companies have sprouted up.

These companies offer many different combinations of book creation services that can confound and trap an eager writer.

Unsuspecting authors wind up paying top dollar for a so-so book or, far too often, a sub-standard book. Either way, neither bookstores nor distributors will touch it.

Basically, you need a publisher who can provide professional editing, front and back cover design, and interior layout (sometimes referred to as "typesetting").

Then you need that publisher to get you listed in the Ingram database used by every bookstore to order books. Listing with Ingram also automatically makes your book available on every online bookstore, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. That's about it.

Finding a publisher that will do all that for you while letting you use your own ISBN is the trick.

Most won't. There are a precious few publishers that will. Again, a short list can be found on the Author Resource Links page.

The good news is this: Self-publishing can be a door to a contract with a traditional publishing house.

In today’s book industry, there is a stigma attached to self-publishing that must be overcome.

The stigma comes from the proliferation of poorly developed, poorly edited, and poorly designed books that are being produced by vanity presses, online publishers, and sloppy self-publishers. For the last several years, there has been a growing trend of self-published authors being noticed by traditional publishers. Self-publishing can often be a door to a traditional publishing contract.

The key to overcoming that stigma for self-published authors is to produce a quality product that is indistinguishable from any other book produced by trade publishers. (That means an expert edit and professional cover design and interior layout.)

If a vanity press is publishing your book, there might be a stigma associated with that particular company and there is not much you can do about that.

Fact is, there are few, if any, vanity presses  that do not have a recognized stigma within the book industry.

Bookstores will not typically stock books produced by vanity publishers (mostly because they are non-returnable, but also because of the typical inferior quality).
Vanity publishers don't even require editing. I recently worked with an author who paid a vanity publisher over $900 for editing. It looks like a fourth-grader did the edit. I found multiple typos on every page, including misspelled words and misplaced punctuation. These people have no shame.

What can happen to your book if it is recognized as being published by one of these vanity publishing companies?

Mainstream book reviewers, distributors, wholesalers, and retailers may (will most likely) ignore your book.

Distributors, in particular, won't consider your book if you don't own the ISBN. 

If you  self-publish using your own ISBN and imprint (publishing name), there is at least an opportunity  to avoid the vanity press label. In such a case, you are responsible  as a self-publisher to produce a quality book and beat the stigma associated with self-publishing.

That is doable and I can show you how. The manager of our local Barnes & Noble bookstore was so impressed with the cover of my first book, he took it home to read and three days later called to say he was putting ten on the shelf, face-out. They were non-returnable.  

QUESTION: What if a major publisher like Random House wants to publish my book? 

THEY will own the ISBN, THEY will be the publisher of record, THEY will pay for everything and THEY will make most of the money on your book. That's okYOU will make lots of money too, and maybe, just maybe, you will be a guest on OPRAH. (While you are waiting to hear from Random House and Oprah, plan on self-publishing.)

NOTE:  As I mentioned, self-publishing is not your only option.

You can seek representation by a professional literary agent and possibly land a contract with a commercial publisher. The detailed process is found in the GO FOR THE GOLD menu. It's always worth a shot. You have nothing to lose but time. Just develop some thick rhino skin to help you deal with rejections.

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♦ Next, learn How to Self-publish .

You are on the Why Self-Publish? page.

Updated June 22, 2015