How Self-Publishing Made Today’s Small Independent Presses Possible

5 04 2018

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This post was made possible by a sponsorship from Reedsy.

When you look around at the most beloved books of the past decade, the books that seem destined to be classics, one thing becomes clear:

Small presses are amazing.

Whether we’re talking about the more literary side of things (like Citizen or Grief Is A Thing With Feathers, both published by Graywolf) or weirder sci-fi projects (like Subterranean Press raising a $72,000 Kickstarter for John Crowley’s translation of The Chemical Wedding), some of the coolest things happening in the book world are happening by way of the small press.

Some of the coolest things happening in the book world are happening by way of the small press.

We’re also seeing some pretty crazy sales numbers in the indie book world, supporting the idea that small presses are riding a huge wave right now. Between February 2014 and May 2016, the percentage of eBook sales attributed to the Big Five publishers fell from just under 40% to below 25% In that same window of time, indie publishers went from producing under 25% of eBook sales to being responsible for just below 45%.

While the burst of small press publications we’ve seen over the last 10 years or so is undoubtedly a good thing, one thing that often gets overlooked is just how it came to be — and more specifically, how modern self-publishing made it all possible.

To understand all of this, you need to know what makes modern self-publishing different than the self-publishing of 10 years ago.

How Self-Published Authors Became Book Marketing Experts

In recent history, the only real marketplaces for books were controlled by major publishers. If you were an author who wanted to sell copies of your book, you needed major bookstores to carry it, and that could only happen if you went through a traditional publishing house. Self-publishing, as a result, was reserved for people who didn’t care about selling copies.

With the rise of the internet, and Amazon in particular, self-published authors found a way to sell books that didn’t involve negotiating with bookstores. And when a real sales channel opened up, dozens of book marketing strategies soon followed:

  • There was suddenly a premium on having a good author website, where you could blog or give away free writing to build a massive email list of readers.
  • Authors like Mark Dawson began using Facebook Ads to sell books, A/B test covers and to drive signups to their email lists.
  • Amazon released their own advertising platform (multiple, actually) that authors were able to use to boost their sales.
  • Authors began compiling “street teams” of their friends and colleagues, who could seed their book with reviews and social shares to get the ball rolling when a book debuted.
  • The position of “Freelance Book Publicist” was, for the first time, not just a job title you made up to sound employed.

Self-published authors were approaching book marketing the way a startup might approach marketing their company, and they were killing it.

Self-published authors were approaching book marketing the way a startup might approach marketing their company.

It didn’t take long for the success of self-published authors to trickle into the small press world. After all, most small presses are started by a couple of friends who’d like to publish other writers’ work — typically with the same processes self-published authors use.

From Self-Published Authors To A New Generation of Presses

Literary magazines, anthologies, and full-blown presses start popping up at an astounding rate, and some pretty amazing writing was published as a result.

The Adroit Journal, one of the most popular literary journals in America (especially among young writers), was started by a group of teenagers and originally published using a print-on-demand publishing service.

Through some popular events (like letting writers submit unlimited amounts of work to the journal for one weekend), they were able to create a massive subscriber list, and laid the groundwork for an insanely successful journal.

Sibling Rivalry Press, the amazing small press that published Ocean Vuong’s first chapbook, Burnings, uses Ingram — one of the biggest platforms used by self-published authors for book distribution — to distribute their books, and has built a massive community by publishing multiple literary magazines under the Sibling Rivalry umbrella.

And countless small presses use ecommerce platforms like Big Cartel, Shopify, and Squarespace to sell books directly to their readers — something that was previously only done by people who couldn’t get traditional publishing deals, i.e. self-published writers. Here’s an example from the amazing Two Dollar Radio, who recently published Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and host their entire store on Shopify:

All of this points to the same thing. What modern self-publishing has done — whether we’re talking about the small presses listed above or the new generation high-quality hybrid publishers like Bookouture and Mascot Books — is democratized our ability not just to publish books, but to market and sell them.

Modern self-publishing has democratized our ability not just to publish books, but to market and sell them.

As a result, some of the best writing of the last century has been published and championed by some of the coolest presses ever put together.


“Self-Publishing” vs. “Printing” a Book

13 08 2014

Re-post from:  The Cadence Group

A couple of weeks ago we wrote a blog titled “The true costs of self-publishing.” It got a lot of comments and activity – in particular in several LinkedIn Groups. Some people agreed with our assessment, some didn’t. We don’t expect people to always agree with us but were thrilled to see so much discussion.
However, there was a running theme in the comments that I think is vital to address. And it breaks down to “self-publishing” vs. “printing” a book.
Several authors/publishers mentioned that they “published” their book for free or for only the POD set up costs.  My hat is off to them and I do wish them all the best in their publishing endeavors. I hope that they are very successful. We’ve seen great books brought to market very inexpensively.
But I also think it’s also very important to really look at
“Printing” vs. “Publishing” a book.


Self-Publishing vs. Printing a Book

Just uploading your Word document through an eBook or POD provider such as CreateSpace is not publishing your book. It’s printing your book. And it’s the very practice that is giving self-publishing a bad name.  I’m guessing that statement won’t win me many friends, but it’s a fact.
The very nature of POD actually makes it easier than ever before to truly publish a book. And between CreateSpace and IngramSpark, there are wonderful avenues available to authors. But it still takes more than a simple manuscript upload. It means that an author must take off their “author” hat and put on their publisher hat.
Publishing or Self-Publishing a book means actively taking ownership of the book publishing process. It means developing, editing, creating and publishing a product that is top quality and that will engage readers – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
Publishing a book means making sure you DO have a professionally designed cover. It doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive. We have seen great books go nowhere because their cover designs just don’t work. The cover MUST stand up in your category and be designed and marketed to your reader. A good designer knows how to do that. There are companies that specialize in book cover design. There are also some great designers on different job bid sites that do great work for very little money.
Publishing a book means having it edited. No book, ever, should see the light of day without a thorough edit. This includes both a copyedit and a proofread. Publishing a book that has typos and grammatical errors is unprofessional. Editing your own book is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Authors are intimate with their work and that makes it extra challenging to address errors, omissions and editorial changes.
Publishing a book means having it designed. One of the challenges that many self-published authors have is that by simply uploading a Word document, they have sacrificed design. Readers notice things like weird fonts, bad spacing, unprofessional margins, missing page numbers and so much more. There are some great programs that allow authors to design their own interiors. There are professional designers that do it as a full-time job. However it is done, the end book layout should look professional.
Publishing a book means having a long-term plan. It doesn’t mean uploading your Word document to a POD site and calling yourself “published”. It means knowing your market, identifying your sales and marketing plan, and ensuring that your finished book is the best that it can be.
Publishing a book means making strategic, and sometimes difficult, decisions around format (hardcover vs. paperback), Price (NEVER price a book to recoup your investment, price it to sell), trim size, title and subtitle.
There are a growing number of authors out there who will absolutely disagree with this assessment of publishing a book. They believe that uploading their Word document through the (very easy) POD process is publishing. I believe that’s printing.
Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can print something – whether it’s on a home printer, at the library, at a Staples or Kinko’s or at an offset or digital printer. There’s no quality control check or process or plan. You hit print on your files and it’s done. That’s also what many authors are doing through eBook and POD companies and calling it publishing.
We love POD. We think it’s is a great option (and often the right option) for a lot of authors. The printing, trim sizes, paper, and cover stock have come a really long way. You can absolutely publish a professional and marketable book via POD. It’s just very important that all of the pieces are in place.
Publishing can, and should, be approached like any other activity. Play to your strengths. No single person is good at everything. That includes writers. Chances are that a great writer is not also a great designer and a great editor. There’s nothing wrong with that. And, in fact, it’s how we are all built.
Publishing a book doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. There are a number of ways to build your publishing team inexpensively – from design bid sites to freelancers to trading skills/experience.
Book publishing is a great avenue for sharing really fantastic content with readers. It’s a way to engage readers, introduce children to the written word, provide advice or entertainment and remind people that reading (and books) is important.  Because of that, authors and publishers have an extra responsibility to be true stewards of the written word and to publish strong books with great content and top quality.


26 02 2013

On Saturday March 9, 2013 I will be the Guest Speaker for the Northern California Publishers and Authors Association.

Attendance is free, if you would like more information about attending, please contact me.  I will be speaking on the Five Things You Need To Understand About Book Printing:  How to make a savvy print buying decision.

Five Things You Need to Understand About Book Printing, Part 2

15 10 2010


If your have been told to send an RFQ to 20 printers, you are wasting your time and will be more confused than you ever dreamed.  It is recommended that you narrow the number of printers down to 3-5.  Understand that printers have many different types of presses and each of those presses is designed for certain trim sizes and run lengths.  Choose the right printer/equipment/specifications for your project; below is a quick guide to the types of decisions you will need to make.

Printing type:

*Digital printing is designed for runs of 1-1000 copies depending on the page count.  Digital equipment is either roll stock or sheets, when a roll is used, the speed of printing is faster (this is okay for longer runs, text only, not so hot for quality).  Also, if you have halftones, roll printing is not recommended if you expect high quality reproduction or color.

*Offset:  The three types of printing are Non-heat set (roll), heat set (roll), highest quality Sheetfed; see below for a discussion of each type.

Non-heat set, web:  Ink is applied to paper, perfs and folds down into signatures.

(pros)  Efficient pricing for runs over 1000

(cons)  Ink is wet when sigs are folded, some offsetting may occur (ink on the facing page) and ink may appear slightly grey, however the quality is acceptable.

Heat set, web:  Ink is applied to paper, paper goes through a dryer, then it perfs and folds down into signatures.

(pros)  Efficient pricing for runs over 1000.  Ink density of black is good, providing a sharper/crisper image (photo) and type.

(cons)  When ink is introduced to paper, moisture goes into the paper causing it to expand.  When the paper proceeds through the dryer, the moisture is removed which causes to paper to contract.  This process can sometimes create what is called “web growth”.  That means that if, after the book has been trimmed, it is exposed to moisture, the paper can once again expand leaving the text exposed slightly beyond the cover.  Of course, we aren’t too concerned about humidity in the desert; however, you have to consider where the book is being printed.  Does the climate there tend to be humid, did the delivery truck pass thru any areas where it was raining, etc.  This is not a huge concern, however I believe it is important for you to understand the possibility of web growth.

Sheetfed:  Highest quality of printing.  (Most covers are printed by this method).

(pros) Control of ink density, color matches, high quality photo reproduction.

(cons)  Cost efficient for runs over quantities of 500 (depending on page count). Prices tend to be higher for this method of printing, however, if you shop carefully, some printers are able to print at prices comparable to web.  This is the first choice for coffee table books.

PAPERS:  Printers have different “house” stocks, so ask for a recommendation, which can save you money.  You should check paper weights, opacity and bulk (ppi), etc.  Note that if you choose a special order stock, there may be a lead time of 2 or more weeks.  If you choose a special order stock, please make sure to sign your quote and get it to the printer prior to submitting your files in order to keep your schedule on track.  Quotes are normally good for 30 days only to allow for changes in paper pricing.

BINDING:  Standard bindings are saddle stitch, perfect bound and case bound.

(case bound: round back, flat back, adhesive or smythe sewn, this method of binding as well as optional bindings will require additional manufacturing time)

Optional:  Wire-O, Spiral Wire, Plasti-coil, Otabind, Semi-concealed Wire-O, etc.

(optional bindings can be quite expensive)

(Prices for embossing and foil stamping are based on the image area).

COATINGS:  Varnish, Aqueous, UV and lay flat film lamination.

  • Ask your printer for recommendation on choices that fit your budget.  Every time you consider a binding choice, ask yourself:  “is this binding going to realistically affect the sale of my book or am I cutting in to my profit margin?”  Sometimes it is better to start out basic and improve the features of your design when the book has proven saleable and you have the additional dollars in your budget.  Remember, you should be working with design professionals while preparing your book; it is not the printer’s job to make design recommendations after the files have been submitted.

This is a brief overview of the printing process, so please:

  • Ask for more details from your printing professional.
  • Ask about their best trim sizes and run lengths.
  • Ask if you can request reprint pricing on your original RFQ.
  • Ask if they are printing in 16 or 32 page signatures (some presses do run 24 and 48 page sigs).  Best rule of thumb, design your book to be equally divisible by 16, again, please talk to the printer before sending an RFQ to make sure they are a good fit for your project.  Choosing a printer should never be based on pricing alone; consider the level of customer service you will receive, are they known for good quality, meeting deadlines, good customer interaction, willingness to make suggestions to save you money and are they giving you the same treatment that their large Publishers are receiving.

Five Things You Need to Understand About Book Printing

14 07 2010

Today, as an introduction to The Book Expert, I’m going to start the first part of a five-part series, a reprint of a report I wrote for the members of Arizona Book Publisher’s Association. See below!

If you would like to receive a full copy of this report, please email me @

Five Things You Need to Understand About Book Printing, Part 1

14 07 2010


You’ve finally written your first book, now what? Please make sure that you find an editor, book and cover designer that “specializes” in working with books. Be certain to interview them, get samples of their work and talk to their references before making your choice. Ensure that they are willing to “communicate” with your printer of choice, to make sure that the files (see #3 below) are prepared to the printer’s guidelines. (File preparation instructions should be found on your printer’s website). Experienced book & cover designers should understand that some design features can be very expensive (make sure they are aware of your budget) or a manufacturing nightmare. An enticing book cover will typically generate 80% of the sales of the book, so the front, back and spine should be equally interesting.