Tag Archives: self-publishing companies

The Paperwork of Publishing (part two)

Copyright symbolThere’s a long discussion about copyright in my guild to independent publishing, Publish Your Book Your Way but here’s the core lesson you need to know—you are not required to register your work with the U.S. Copyright office in order for your rights to be protected.

HOWEVER, if you ever get into a dispute over copyright, the entity who registers it with the U.S. Copyright office has the stronger case.

That’s why we recommend you handle this part of publishing yourself. You can do this online here: U.S. Copyright office.

Now, traditional publishers generally do this for their authors, and under these circumstances, it’s legit as long as you understand that you’ll never have complete control over your own work again. This is how traditional publishing works—they pay you money, you relinquish rights in return.

If you’re publishing your work independently, then please register your own copyright. It’s $35 if you do it online, $65 if you do it through the mail. The copyright form is pretty straightforward. Just remember to send them two copies of your book when it’s published.

The real rub over copyright comes in the self-publishing realm. Every self-publishing company brags about the fact that “you retain your copyright” to your work. And it’s true that some of them will register your work in your name with the U.S. Copyright office.

But there’s a significant percentage of self-publishing companies who will register your work under their name. In essence, they are stealing (yep, let’s call it what it is) the rights to your work.

Our advice from here is simple—buy your own ISBNs and register your own copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. That way, there’s no question who’s in control of your work.

Who Controls Your Book?

In this age of audio, electronic, web-ready and paper books, how do authors control their work?
iUniverse crossed out
The most direct answer is this: The one who controls the master file that makes a book manifest controls the book.

So what in the heck does that mean?

Let’s start with a familiar example to help explain this important concept. All books-on-paper are now printed from digital files (PDFs) that function just like the digital files you have on your computer. Chances are that you’re using word processing software of some sort to write your book. When you do that, you are creating a digital file that makes your book manifest (real).

This is an important concept in copyright law as well.

As long as your work is on your computer and your computer alone, there’s no question about control. It’s yours. You control it.

But what happens if you take that word processing document and send it to a self-publishing company such as iUniverse so that they can turn it into a “real book”?

If you go this route (and we sincerely hope you do not), you will send a sizable check to iUniverse for their work, and they will create a PDF of your book’s interior and a PDF of its cover.

Let’s be clear about this—if you choose this path to publishing, you will be paying a company to make your Word doc into a hold-it-in-your-hands book-on-paper. So the digital file that gets used to print your book should be yours to control, right? In other words, you’ve paid for this work so the result should be controlled by you. Right?

Nope. Not even close.

Every self-publishing company touts the fact that authors who use them always own the rights to their work. Theoretically, that’s true (in most cases). What you don’t own are the digital master files—that you’ve paid for—that are used to make copies of your book.

So what if you’re unhappy with sales on the iUniverse website and want to print your book somewhere else? iUniverse will give you those files—for an additional fee—IF IF IF your contract allows for that.

Or you could be stuck…forever.

This is standard procedure in the self-publishing industry—you pay to create your work but you don’t really own the results.

There’s gotta be a better way, right?

Copyright vs. Publishing Right

Books in red
Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

For an author, the term “copyright” usually means being recognized as the creator of a work.

To a publisher, however, the term “copyright” has everything to do with the buying and selling of rights to publish a book.

Here’s a partial list of the multitude of publishing licenses inherent in a single author’s copyright.

• Hardcover book on paper

• Softcover book on paper

• Electronic book

• Audio book

• Movie rights

• Foreign language rights

• Television rights

• Magazine rights


When an author seeks a traditional publisher for her or his work, that author is seeking a buyer for their publishing rights. That is the basic exchange spelled out in a publishing contract.

Now, most authors are way too excited about landing a contract from a traditional publisher to consider all of the implications of this exchange so before you head off to look for a pen, let’s talk about this while your head is clear.

When you sell a company the license to publish your book, that license is exclusive to that publisher and in this day and age, it’s rare for a traditional publisher to buy anything less than all the publishing licenses for a book in perpetuity.

Here are some of the implications inherent (and unwritten) in a traditional book contract:

• Authors are forbidden from selling copies of their book directly to bookstores, libraries and most other retail venues.

• Authors receive a set number of copies of their book (usually 50) from their publisher. After that, they agree to pay a certain price (usually 40% less than retail) to purchase additional copies of their book from their publisher.

• The final say on editorial changes, retail price, royalty rates, the size of a print run, distribution, covers, back cover copy, interior design, and title belong to the publisher.

• Authors are expected to actively market their books. In fact, most publishers seek authors who are active marketers. It is rare for a publisher to contribute funding toward an author’s marketing campaign.

• Publishers are responsible for sending out review copies of an author’s book. Authors are expected to suggest review outlets. Sending out review copies generally constitutes the entirety of a publisher’s marketing efforts.

• The active marketing cycle for most books is 90 days from publication date in traditional publishing. After that period of time, active marketing support for a book diminishes until it doesn’t exist at all.

• Even though publishers drop most marketing efforts for a book after 90 days, they still retain the exclusive right to publish it. This right exists even if there are no copies of a book available for purchase by readers.

• Writers can buy back the publishing rights to their books for a price. Sometimes that price is very low. Sometimes it is high.

• If your publisher goes out of business, goes bankrupt or is sold to another company, the publishing licenses it holds are considered assets of the company and stay with the company. They do not revert to their authors.


Self-publishing companies operate in a somewhat shadowy realm between traditional publishing and independent publishing. We’ll get into more detail about them later on but for now, here’s what you need to know about the implications of signing a contract with a self-publishing company.

• The author agrees to pay a certain amount of money to the company for services such as editing, cover, interior design, and marketing.

• The company creates the formats in which a book is made available to readers, usually a PDF for books-on-paper and ebook files

• Self-publishing company contracts stipulate that they are the “owners” of all original formats (PDF or ebook file) from which books are made available to readers EVEN THOUGH this work is paid for by authors.

• Distribution of self-published books is usually limited to the company’s website and online retailers. Most bookstores will not stock self-published books. Libraries will not buy them.

• Some self-publishing company contracts allow authors to purchase the original formats of their books—PDFs and ebook files—for a price that’s not included in the service agreements that authors have already paid for.

Yep, if you want them, you get to pay for those files twice.


It is vitally important that authors understand their rights before venturing out on any publishing path. There is no room for sentiment here. Copyright is all about business. It is what you, as an author, are selling. Wearing a hard hat is recommended.

That being said, here are two pieces of advice to take with you if you decide to explore options in either the traditional or self-publishing realm.

• Seek the services of a reputable agent or copyright attorney before you sign any contracts with a traditional publisher.

• Don’t go anywhere near self-publishing companies.

Options, Options, Options

Spiral clockSonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

Before there was such a thing as digital printing or online sales, there were only two options open to authors who wanted to see their work in print:

• Acceptance by a commercial publisher who paid for the editing, design, printing, marketing and distribution of books in return for a share of the proceeds of their sale.

• Paying a “vanity press” to oversee the printing of her or his book. In return for their money, vanity press authors got hundreds of copies of their book, most of which sat in a garage or attic getting dusty because there was no way to distribute or sell them.

Nowadays, the publishing jungle positively teems with options for the ambitious author as well as scams designed to capture the uninformed. The following is a description of the most important options.

While there’s no hard-and-fast definition of private publishing, there is one distinguishing characteristic of this option: The number of copies printed is small and most if not all are used as gifts.

There are ways to make privately published works available for sale online (where they may be referred to as “zines”) but the bulk of this type of publishing is targeted at an audience personally known to the author. There are a number of ways to privately publish a book on your own but these are the main categories.

• Handmade Books
The least expensive and least technical way to publish your own book is to write it by hand on sheets of plain white paper that are then copied, collated, and personally distributed.

This type of private publishing is often used for a poet’s first chapbook or for short books meant as gifts for family members.

• Word Processing
If you’re minimally savvy on the technology front, you can create digital files in word processing programs that can be copied and bound in book form by your local copy shop.

Though books printed this way can be sold through online booksellers, this method works best for limited print runs with personal distribution.

• Letterpress Printing
From the time of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (1450) until offset printing became the norm in the early 1900s, the mass printing of all works on paper was done by letterpress.

While not as important as it once was, letterpress printing is thriving as a artisanal craft. This type of printing works best for short books with limited print runs.

• Publishing Limited-edition Books Online
There are several online companies that make it easy for folks to put together full-color, limited edition books with their own photographs and text.

Because the printing costs for this type of publishing are high, it is recommended for special occasion publishing such as preserving family or personal history, to accompany an art exhibit or to commemorate a special event.

Works that are openly published are meant to be available for sale to the public. This type of publishing includes electronic books as well as books on paper.

While investigating these publishing options, it is wise to pay attention to the way in which your work makes its way from you to your potential readers. This part of the process is called distribution, and how it’s handled makes a great deal of difference when it comes to sales.

As you might guess, most books are openly published because most authors want to share their work—and get paid for it. There are three categories of open publishing—independent publishing, self-publishing (aka vanity publishing or print on demand*), and traditional publishing. All three of these options are used to produce books on paper or electronically.

• Independent Publishing
Independent publishers create their own companies for the purpose of publishing books on paper, electronic books or audio editions of their work. Independent publishers retain all of the rights to their works, and do not share the proceeds of sales (royalties) with anyone.

The hallmark of independent publishers is their attention to quality. A professionally produced book that is published independently is indistinguishable from anything from a traditional publisher when it sits on a bookstore’s shelves no matter whether that shelf is online or in a physical store.

Please notice the inclusion of the phrase “professionally produced” in the above description. Not too many years ago, there was a dividing line between authors who were traditionally published and those who were not, and the traditionally published looked down on those who were not.

That has changed. Nowadays, the bright, white line of difference lies between authors who publish professionally (independently or traditionally) and the amateurs who do not.

• Self-publishing (also called vanity publishing or print on demand*)
The most important difference between a traditional publishing company and a self-publishing company is this—who pays the production costs of a book.

In traditional publishing, the company pays. In self-publishing, the author pays.

In both cases, authors lose creative control of their work. In some cases, author lose the copyright to their books forever—which is a very long time. (And this happens more often than you might suspect.)

If you hire a company to edit, design, and print your book, the quality of the book is dependent on the quality of the company you hire. And those standards are usually unclear until it’s too late.

This is an area where you need to proceed with lots of caution and lots of information.

*What does print-on-demand really mean?
Many folks think the term print-on-demand refers to a type of publishing. Not so.

Print-on-demand is another name for digital print technology, and it’s used by everyone in the publishing business. In fact, if you own a printer and a computer, you own a form of print-on-demand technology.

Print-on-demand technology is all about printing and should never be equated with any particular form of book publishing.

• Traditional Publishing
With all the new avenues open to authors who wish to publish their work, the industry once known simply as “book publishing” has evolved into what we now call “traditional book publishing.”

In traditional publishing, a company contracts with an author for certain rights to an author’s work then pays to have that work edited, designed, printed, and made available for sale. In return for this, the publisher keeps a portion of the book’s sales revenue.

• Electronic Publishing
The world of digital books is changing while you read this sentence. While some of the dust has settled in terms of what companies use which technology to produce ebooks, it’s still the wild, wild west when it comes to sales, distribution, royalties, exclusivity, author rights and pricing.

If your budget for publishing is zero or close to zero, ebooks are really your only alternative—but only if you are willing to invest your own time in this venture.

Now that we’ve identified the main paths to publishing, we’ll take a closer look at each one starting next week with traditional publishing.

The Wild, Wild West of Book Publishing

Books in red

If you take a little tour of self-publishing companies just to see what they’re up to (making sure that you never give them any contact information whatsoever or you will be haunted by sales calls and emails), you’ll notice they all stipulate that “authors retain all their rights.”

And in a way, that is correct—in most cases.

But the publishing world is as full of miscreants as any other industry. And with the Wild, Wild West atmosphere now ruling this once staid industry, there’s a lot of room for scam artists of all varieties.

That’s why we always recommend that you—and only you—register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. That way, there is no question at all who owns the rights to your work.

You see, the unscrupulous self-publishing companies know that whoever is the registered copyright holder is the entity whose rights to it are recognized by the courts.

It’s also a good way to separate the unscrupulous from the scrupulous. If you do choose to use a self-publishing company (something we never recommend but that’s your choice), then a good litmus test of their legitimacy is how they react to you registering your own copyright.

It will be the best $35 you ever spent on your writing career.