10 Common Pitfalls Every Author should know about Self-Publishing

Written by Deborah E. Johnson, Esq.



In this digital age, many authors are choosing to self-publish.  While self-publishing opens the door of opportunity that many authors would never receive using the traditional publishing method, there are several pitfalls to self-publishing contracts that book authors should be aware of when seeking out services that will allow the author to authentically “self-publish.”


1.      Is it a self-publishing, printing, or distribution service (know the difference)?


The digital world has completely transformed the art of book publishing.   New companies are popping up, offering all kinds of services to self-publishers, such as distribution, printing, editing, marketing, as well as artwork for your book cover.  It is important to understand what service you are contracting. Many printing companies vet themselves as self-publishing services, when really what they are providing is just printing. It is important to know the difference.  Understanding legalese and asking copious questions before you sign an agreement is absolutely necessary. Seeking legal counsel is also highly recommended.  Caveat: there is a rule in contract law called the parole evidence rule that could bar the testimony of oral agreements that were made prior to the written agreement. Therefore, it is extremely important that every agreement, every numerical value, every term discussed is included in the four corners of that agreement.


2.      Copyright ownership

You are the author and rightful owner of your own copyright (please tell me that the first task you completed once you finished your manuscript was to send it to the copyright office for registration – if you did not, please stop reading this article immediately and proceed directly to http://www.copyright.gov/).  Any contract you sign should state that you will retain all copyright ownership of your manuscript. Look specifically for language on copyright ownership within the four corners of the document.



3.      Editing services

Your manuscript should be professionally edited.  Is this service included in your contract?  If so, how much are you paying for the editing service and what other services are included in the editing fee? Is the editing fee in line with market value?  My experience is that most editing services that are included with self-publishing deals tend to be above market value. I highly recommend hiring a free-lance editor. You will have to pay for the editing services out-of-pocket – but hey, you are self-publishing. Everything you need to get your manuscript on the shelf of a big box retailer will require you to pay out-of-pocket to make it big without a traditional publishing deal!

One popular website that offers professional book editing services is: https://www.createspace.com.*  However, book authors should complete their own thorough research and look for reviews written online before hiring a potential book editor.*


4.      Marketing services


Marketing is going to be an important aspect of promoting your new book.  Are the marketing services included in your self-publishing agreement?  Is there an additional fee for marketing?  Look specifically for and ask questions about the marketing plan.  Many self-publishing companies offer marketing services for an additional fee, but you will need to know what marketing services are included with that fee.  If no marketing services are offered, I highly advise you to hire an independent marketing or PR expert to help you promote your new book. 

One popular website that offers marketing for the self-publisher is: https://www.dogearpublishing.net.* Again, I cannot stress the importance of conducting your research of the company you choose and be sure to read what others who have used their services, say about their experience.


5.      If what you really need is distribution


What I have discovered is that many companies call themselves “self-publishing” companies are merely offering distribution services. If what you need is distribution to online outlets, as well as brick and mortar stores, I recommend that you seek out a straight distribution deal.  If the company you are working with wants you to sign a self-publishing agreement, and the agreement is for distribution, by all means have the title of the agreement changed.  Beware of common pitfalls when seeking distribution, such as:


§  Understanding which online and offline vendors the book will be distributed to.

§  The percentage of royalties the company will require to distribute your book.

§  Any additional “hidden” fees/costs.  

§  Accounting:  who will administer the accounting and how often.  When will I get paid?

§  What is the term length (how many years are you bound to this contract)?

§  Is this contract exclusive or non-exclusive?


6.      Know the cost for each service up front


Every service you receive should be quantified and written into the contract.  Period. Contracts that elude to additional service fees that will be determined at a later date should never be signed.  Further, if your contract does not specifically state every service with a quantifiable fee in the contract, you should probably walk away from that deal.  Many companies tack on fees for services never agreed to and will take it from your royalty share. 


7.      Length of contract


Most self-publishing contracts are for mere printing services and will not require you to sign an agreement with which the company holds your hostage for 1-2 years.  If your contract states a term length, you need to find out what the term length is pertaining to.  If the self-publishing deal includes distribution, what you are really giving the company is permission to distribute your book for a certain length of time. This language should be clear.


8.      Beware of exclusivity clauses

If your self-publishing contact includes a clause that states “company has the exclusive right to….”, it is important that you understand exactly what right you have given exclusively to said company. I have seen distribution companies include this language in their contracts because they want to be the exclusive distributor of your product for a period of usually 1-2 years.  A non-exclusive clause would denote that you have the right to self-distribute as well as promote the book to other online and offline vendors, yourself, or through other avenues.


9.      Royalties


Understanding royalty rights should be your second most important concern as a self-publishing author.  This is your paycheck – your hard earned cash.  You have invested a great deal of money to self-publish, you have the right to earn a living from your manuscript, especially if it does well in the marketplace.  Pay special attention to royalty clauses, which give the company the right to keep part of the royalties earned from the sale of your book.  A straight-forward printing service should not request any of the author’s royalties.  A distribution service, by contrast, may require 20-30% of the incoming royalties.  But again, you need to ask the question – what am I paying this company to do?  If they are retaining 30% of incoming royalties, what services are they providing to you, the author, for that 30%?  If the company is requesting more than 30% - RUN the other way!


The other common issue that I encounter with authors seeking legal counsel is that they never see one penny of the other 70%.   You should ask for direct accounting and demand it if necessary. Accounting spreadsheets should be detailed and numbers should add up properly.  Beware of excessive or hidden fees or items you never agreed to (i.e. Excessive shipping fees).


10.  Is digital conversion included


Most self-publishing authors are not aware that the digital version or e-version format of your manuscript is very different from the hard copy format.  Consumers often prefer to download the e-version of books listed online.  As an educated author, you need to confer whether or not this digital conversion of your manuscript is included with the service you have paid for. Again, beware of excessive fees for this service.


In conclusion, here are some important items worth noting:

-         Leave no question unasked.  Take nothing for granted.

-         Anything without numbers need to be quantified.

-         Ask lots of questions and remember the parole evidence rule.

-         All important terms should be included in the four corners of the document.

-         Seek legal counsel.


Self-publishing is a great tool for new authors, but can be a costly experiment if not executed correctly. Thoroughly research the companies you plan to work with. Understand your rights as an author.  Hire a lawyer who understands the business.  You have invested a lot of time and money in your manuscript; hiring a good attorney will be money well spent and time saved in entangled legal battles later.



The Law of Deborah E. Johnson, Esq. is located in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  For general information or to set up a consultation, email:



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*Sources listed in this article are for information purposes only.  The Law Office of Deborah E. Johnson does not personally endorse nor own the copyrights to the sources listed. All rights are reserved by each copyright owner, respectively.

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