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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Self-Publishing, Independent Publishing, Book Proposals and Using the Stories of Others

Q: When you spoke at a conference recently, I heard you refer to self-publishing. Isn’t “independent publishing” the correct term now?

A: Yes and no. An independent publisher is a small publisher that may or may not publish the works of the owner, but it always publishes the works of other authors, as well. When you publish only your own books, you are self-publishing. I know the distinction is vague; in either case you have to set up a company and be a publisher, but an independent publishing house accepts the works of others, as well as the works of the owner.

Also, when you use a firm that helps you publish, so that you don’t have to set up your own company, you are a self-published author, as opposed to a traditionally published author.

In the end, we are simply talking semantics. If you spend any money at all toward the printing of your book, you are self-published. Being self-published used to carry a stigma, and perhaps that’s why some people don’t want to use the term, but the market has changed over the years, and people’s attitudes have changed with it. At a time when selling a book to a traditional publisher is almost impossible, yet printing your own book has become easier than ever, self-publishing has taken on a whole new character and lost much of its prior poor image. Nowadays the only stigma comes from a poorly written or unedited self-published book. If the book looks good, reads well, is thoroughly edited, and sells well, who cares who paid for the printing?

Q: I am in the process of writing a book about [subject removed]. I am looking for people who will share their stories to be published in this book. Do I need to get signed permission to use their stories? How would I go about this process?

A: Yes, even if people voluntarily send in their stories, you need their signed permission to use the stories and need to exchange something of value in return, either money or at least one free copy of the book. The issue is a legal one, though, so check with an entertainment attorney or get your hands on the agreements used by such series as A Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Q: I am working on my book proposal. From my research, a prospective agent would like to see books similar to mine so she/he can have some hope that money will follow. One difficulty that I am having is finding the book sales ($ or quantity) for my comparables. Any tips?

A: I have never known an agent or publisher to expect a writer to crack the code for sales volume of comparable or competitive books and come up with specific quantities and sales figures. Instead, Michael Larsen, in How to Write a Book Proposal, says to speak in terms of cover price and success (the books’ rankings on or whether the books became bestsellers) as well as the shortcomings of the competitors and why your book is better.

The Internet is a terrific resource. Start with and then go to the publishers’ sites and see if they tout any awards or bestseller status for the books in question.

Other great resources include independent booksellers (if you can find a small bookstore that is still in business) or your local librarian. Ask which books are popular that are comparable to yours. Ask if anyone said anything negative about those books, and use that information to your advantage, providing your book fixes the shortcomings noticed by readers of similar books.

–Bobbie Christmas is a book doctor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, and she will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at



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