What Does “Self-Publishing” Even Mean??

As we embark on a new year, many writers are assessing where they are in their journey and determine where they want to go in the year ahead. For some, that means publication.

Most writers are familiar with traditional publishing, and usually the Big Five (formerly the Big Six) comes to mind: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. But a myriad of mid-size and small presses fall under this umbrella as well. Only a small percentage of manuscripts are accepted for publication each year, and with the Big Five, the author must have an agent prior to submission. There is no financial risk to the author, but he or she does lose his or her publishing rights for a negotiated period of time after publication.

But today, authors have a staggering number of self-publishing options available, which is a real coup for the thousands of books that otherwise would never see publication. However, along with the many options available, the term self-publishing is bandied about so freely that authors’ heads are spinning. And it’s no wonder. So what does “self-publishing” even mean??

First of all, true self-publishing is just that: you, the author, are the publisher. This means that you handle or contract out all aspects of the publishing process: editing, proofreading, design, indexing, printing, marketing, and distribution–in addition to writing a good book. You assume all the responsibility and risk, but you also receive all sales proceeds and retain all publishing rights.

The following options are also referred to as self-publishing. However, although the author does not assume all the responsibility, he or she still assumes all the risk with less profit and, in some cases, a loss of publishing rights, at least for a specified period of time, as in traditional publishing.


As the name implies, books are printed when there is demand rather than authors stockpiling their garage with books that they need to hustle to sell. The companies that provide this service are ideal for the author who doesn’t have the cash, time, or inclination to do the printing, design, and distribution. Some POD companies allow authors to use their own ISBNs, which means that the author is listed as the publisher and can print his or her book elsewhere as well. In addition, authors can often set their own price, which, in turn, means higher profit for the author.

Subsidy (or Vanity) Publishing

In this option, the author relinquishes responsibility for all aspects of the publishing process for a fee paid by the author. However, with some companies, their ISBN appears on the book and they hold the publishing rights, albeit nonexclusive and terminable at will. The company sets the pricing, and the author is paid a royalty.

These options are considered self-publishing because the authors themselves are ensuring the publication of their book rather than waiting for a traditional publisher to accept their manuscript. The key is to be aware of the various options and their differences when one hears the term self-publishing. Also, keep in mind that the delineation between print-on-demand companies and subsidy publishers is oftentimes murky.

True self-publishing, print-on-demand, and subsidy publishing are viable options for the do-it-yourself author. However, do extensive research into each option before making a decision as to which path to pursue. Bottom line: know your options, research them thoroughly, and determine your responsibility and risk comfort level.