The Publishing in Self-Publishing

Dorothy ZemachThe Publishing in Self-Publishing

Dorothy Zemach


I think when some people think about the term “self-publishing,” they find it very empowering, because of that word “Self.” You have control over your content; you choose your own deadlines; you set your prices; and you keep all of the money earned.  

But in this article I’d like to talk about the other half of the term, the “publishing” part. Yes, you either do the work or source the work yourself – but what exactly is that work? And how does one go about doing it or making sure it gets done?  

I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that you’re responsible for coming up with an idea, and then writing your book. But even at that stage you need to think as a publisher and not just a writer – meaning, you need to consider your potential audience. Ideally, you would do this before you ever write a word, while you’re writing, and after you finish. Who are you writing for? What do those people want to know, or want to read, or want to learn – and how do you know? What steps are you taking to ensure that you’re fulfilling these wants? Will you get test readers (sometimes called “beta readers” or “cold readers”), or can you get a colleague to teach from some of your materials, or will you hire a developmental editor?  

Have you taken stock of existing materials in your area? How does your work offer a fresh variation of their strengths, and avoid or improve upon their weaknesses? What are people buying now (because your book doesn’t exist yet), and how will your offering be an improvement?  

These questions inform one area of the marketing department of a traditional publisher. When you’re self-publishing, you become your own marketing department. While you won’t have the reach of a large publisher, you can leverage social media and your networks of friends and colleagues to help answer those questions. But if you don’t do that work at all, you risk pouring time and energy into a book that isn’t actually what people want.  

Even if you don’t work with a developmental editor who helps shape your work as you’re writing, you’ll want an editor to work on the finished manuscript. Yes, even if you’re an English teacher. Even if you work as an editor yourself. A person who acts as their own lawyer has a fool for a client, as the saying goes – there’s some truth to that, too, for writers who do their own editing. You’re so close to your own work that you just don’t have the objectivity and perspective that another person does. The novelists who win a Pulitzer or the Booker prize have editors, and it’s not because they’re not good with words.  

If you were writing for a publisher, you’d get a developmental editor, a copy editor, and a proofreader. But you can hire people to do that work for you, too. In fact, these days the larger publishing houses are laying off editorial staff right and left and hiring freelancers. So you can not only hire the same level of expertise, you can in many cases hire the identical experts used by the big publishers. I do think it’s important for ELT writers to have an editor who knows the field, though. If you’re writing a guide to setting up an extensive reading program, you’re going to want an editor who knows what extensive reading is. After all, they need to be able to judge the effectiveness of your materials. As self-publishing becomes more common, though, more freelancers are specifically positioning themselves to work with indie authors.  

You’re going to need a cover for your book. If it’s an ebook, that will be a single “page” – an image and some text. For a paperback, you’ll also need a back cover, with a description of the book, and a spine. An audiobook will need a special version of your cover in the correct size.  

Cover design is not easy – especially if you’re not a designer. Not that it’s hard to find an image and place text on it, but the challenge is to create a cover that both represents your book and sells your book. I advise people to check the list from Amazon or Apple of the top 100 books in their genre and see what those books have in common. Those are books that are selling; you want to sell too! Do the top books have abstract covers? Are they using photographs? What colors are associated with different levels? I’ve seen authors really dig in at this point and say, “But I want to use this photo because it’s one I took myself of my favorite place to sit and think about reading—it’s the underside of the bridge by my department!” Well, fine, that’s meaningful to you – but it’s not going to mean anything to your customers.   

I started out doing my own covers, but these days I work with a cover designer. A good designer has some knowledge of what looks are selling; they’ll also have access to far more fonts and photos and drawings than you can find on free sites (and perhaps even a paid stock photo site, as designers often subscribe to more than one). In the course I teach, I do take people through the process of creating their own cover, but that’s partly to get a cover done and partly to understand just how much goes into one – so people can get a feel for what they can do but also what they cannot do. You need to know when to turn to an expert.  

It does cost something to hire an editor and a proofreader and a cover designer. However, those are one-time fees, and if your book sells, you’ll be making money year after year. It is, of course, completely possible to skip all those steps and still wind up with a product that you can upload to retail sites. But if you aren’t interested in doing the work of publishing, I’d suggest that your work might be better suited for blogging or posting on your own site. If you publish on a retail site, you are declaring to the world that your work is worth someone’s money and time; and you therefore have a responsibility to make sure you have created something of quality.  

The final piece of the process is sales. I feel this is perhaps the hardest area for self-publishers, but then it’s also hard for traditional publishers, even those armed with a global sales force. The challenges are greater for indies, though. How do you reach potential customers in other countries? How can you get the word out that your book even exists? As with your initial market research, here is where you can draw on social media and your existing networks, but for most people, those are not places to push sales, not beyond an initial announcement or two. While editors and even cover designers for indie ELT authors have started showing up, I haven’t yet come across anyone working seriously in sales and marketing for indie ELT authors (there’s a market niche for someone enterprising!). However, a look at the Amazon top 100 lists for ELT materials will also show you how many self-publishers are able to reach buyers. So while it may not seem easy, it’s definitely possible.  

This is a terrific time for self-publishing. The barriers for entry are low and the market for creative and innovative materials is wide open. You will need some resources to help bring your product to the market—but it’s possible to do so. Those interested in joining the 2021 iTDi course I’m running on self-publishing for ELT professionals can click here. Hope to see you there! And your books for sale. 

Which is Better, Writing for a Publisher or Publishing by Yourself?

Dorothy Zemach
Dorothy Zemach

By Dorothy Zemach

Recent years have seen a boom in self-publishing, or indie publishing. Pretty much anybody with a computer and Microsoft Word can crank out a book and put it up for sale on Amazon. Does this mean the death of traditional publishing (called in the biz “trad pub”)?

Heck no. At least, not for ELT textbooks. The nature of our materials is very different from a novel, which is basically just text. At the same time, though, I think self-publishing is bringing back the type of book that disappeared around the 1980s as big coursebooks took off.

So if you’re a materials writer, what type of publisher is best for you? And if you’re a materials buyer, from which type of publisher will you be able to find the most suitable materials?

I’ve written a good 20 or so textbooks for trad pub, everything from workbooks and teacher’s guides to skills books to coursebooks; and then I’ve self-pubbed fiction and ELT materials, and now in fact run a micropress that publishes my own work and that of other authors. I also work as an editor for trad publishers, my own authors, and independent authors. Drawing on that experience, then, here’s what I would advise:


Traditional Publisher

Go here if you have a big project (such as a book with several levels; or a book with many components, like a student book, workbook, website, teacher’s book, and so on). Big publishers are skilled at herding all the cats necessary to handle big projects like these.

Likewise, trad pubs are better able to handle things like audio, video, and some art requirements (like illustrations instead of stock photos) that require both expertise and a big budget.

Trad pub is also what you’re looking for if you want to write—and just write. Yes, publishers take a hefty cut of the profits; most ELT publishing contracts award only 10% or even less of the net profit to the author. A book that retails for $50 might actually earn only $2.50 or so, after all the expenses have been paid; the author’s share, then, would be .25. Some books earn more, but those figures are not atypical for the sorts of books I have published. But in return, the publisher handles at a minimum editing, proofreading, recording, design, formatting, and sales and marketing, and sometimes more, including concept and approach.



Because your expenses are lower (I assume you’re not maintaining a large home office in London or New York as well as sales offices around the globe), you can handle smaller projects—ones that wouldn’t make enough money to be worth it to a trad pub, but would still make good money for you. Think of “one off” titles; things that aren’t series. Think too materials for specific audiences, such as niches of ESP or bilingual materials meant for one country. The bigger publishers are more and more reluctant to invest in books that aren’t multilevel series; but then some of the smaller audiences with more specific needs wind up without targeted materials.

Many indies publish ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks, rather than doing a print run of 25,000 copies. That means that indie publishing is ideal for time-sensitive material—something you want published very quickly, or something that needs constant updating. If I want to change something in a self-pubbed book, I can have those changes rolled out in 24-48 hours. For a trad pubbed book, I’d have to wait for reprints or a new edition, which could take anywhere from several months to several years to never.

Ebooks are especially suitable for short books. You don’t need to include a long introduction about the history of teaching pronunciation in the world if that isn’t necessary. I’ve published ebooks around 5,000 words long (so, roughly five times the length of this article). I say what I need to say, and then I stop. That saves the customer both time and money.

You’ll make more money per copy sold with self-publishing. Current royalty rates for ebook authors are 60-70% of cover price (not net!), and for paperbacks, once the printing costs are met, you can set your own price, and know instantly how much you’ll earn per copy.

Want to do things your own way? Self-publishing gives you that control. You decide the content—as well as the artwork, the cover, and the price. And all of those things are easy to change if you change your mind later.

Remember, though, that as an indie, you do have to do all the things. Self-publishing is more than typing. You are now the one responsible for arranging an editor and a proofreader, and then once the book is published, you’re the one in charge of marketing and publicity. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say. Think honestly about whether handling everything would be stressful for you or fulfilling.


Middle Ground

Ebook and print-on-demand technology has also given rise to small publishers, which can be a good compromise for those authors with smaller, more targeted projects who don’t wish to handle all of the non-writing aspects of the job. The publisher will still take some of your royalties in exchange for providing services, but royalty rates are generally higher than for the big trad pubs (my little company, for example, offers 50% royalties on ebooks and 40% on print, for most projects).


I love self-publishing, and I’ll only do more as the years go on. At the same time, though, I love the projects I do through traditional publishers as well. I just use different channels for different types of materials.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be an author—or, for that matter, a consumer, because so many more types of works are now available to you.

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If you’re interested in exploring self-publishing in-depth, I’m doing a one-month course for ELT teachers through iTDi. We’ll do everything: evaluate your materials for suitability; write the book (“we” in this case obviously means “you”—you will write your book); edit and proofread it; format it for ebook publication; design or source a cover and add interior art; discuss distribution, sales, and marketing; and finally create a finished product. It’ll be a busy month, but even if you go through the process with just a few chapters, you’ll know how it’s done. For more information, click here.