The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

Chapter 4: Setting Up Your Own Publishing Business

When you self-publish, you are essentially setting up a very small press, which raises all kinds of business questions. Should you establish a formal publishing company? What about purchasing your own ISBNs? We’ll discuss how authors can exhibit a level of professionalism in their efforts, and what’s involved in ISBN registration, copyright registration, and Library of Congress registration. Finally, we’ll look at what it takes for an independent author to acquire a full-service distributor for their print editions, and what distributors are most friendly to small presses run by authors.

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The full chapter INCLUDES:

Are ISBNs important?

Once your book has an ISBN, it can be easily searched and referenced in nearly every book retailer, distributor, and database system.

Interested in the Library Market?

Tips and services to help librarians find your self-published titles.

Which book distributor is best for your self-published title?

Valuable tips on Perseus Distribution, Ingram Distribution, Independent Publishers Group (IPG), Small Press United, SPD, Itasca Books, and more.

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The Authors Guild Guide to Self-Publishing

Chapter 4: Setting Up Your Own Publishing Business
Professional indie authors, especially those who release multiple titles per year, typically establish their own publishing company and list it as the publisher of record at retailers, at distributors, and in industry databases. While it’s by no means necessary or common for all indie authors to do this (and may not have any effect on sales), it does exhibit a level of professionalism and keeps your business income and expenses separate from your personal finances. There may also be other benefits to setting up a company; you should discuss the matter with your tax advisor.

Your business name will be used in two primary ways when working with distribution services and retailers, which you may want to consider when determining the name of your publishing company:

  1. The publishing or distribution service you use is listed as the publisher of record.
  2. If using or providing your own ISBNs (see ISBNs section), your publishing company will be the publisher of record.

It’s possible to use a publishing company name as a DBA (“doing business as”) without creating a formal business entity (such as an S corporation or an LLC). So once you have decided on a DBA as your company name, you can buy ISBNs using that name and simply providing a contact name, address, and so on. There is no formal “registry” or listing of publishing companies that you need to be recognized by. The main reason for taking this step at all—to have a publishing company name even if that “company” goes no further than you and your own email inbox or phone number—is to provide a consistent and professional point of contact for orders, returns, and other business communication that surrounds the sales and distribution of your titles.

When dealing with Amazon, Ingram, or any other publishing service, part of the account setup process will involve submitting your tax information and how you prefer to receive payment. At that point, you’ll need to have made a decision as to whether you’ll be using your own Social Security number, or if you’ll be setting up a legal business entity, which may or may not use a separate tax ID. If you’re unsure about the tax implications involved or the right business setup for you, consult with your tax advisor or accountant. If you don’t have one, then a guide such as the Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook by Helen Sedwick can help you make the right decision.

Assuming you establish a publishing company—whether it’s a formal business entity or not—you should use that name consistently when you self-publish your work through any service or retailer, on the copyright page of your book, and anywhere else the name of the publisher is seen or requested. Long term, a formal publishing business entity combined with a professional website can go a long way toward indicating your seriousness of intent, and can gain brand recognition over time, especially if you release other authors’ works in addition to your own. Remember, though, that as long as you’re focused on building your own author brand and body of work, the author name you publish under should take precedence over the publishing company name.


ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number; as the name indicates, they are the official industry standard identification numbers for books around the world. For books to be stocked or distributed in most retail environments, aside from Amazon, this number is required. Each country has a different agency that handles, distributes, sells, and assigns ISBNs. In the United States, this agency is Bowker.

As critical as ISBNs may sound, some indie authors have dismissed their importance to their business, mainly because authors can sell ebooks through Amazon without ISBNs and even secure distribution without purchasing them. ISBNs have been characterized in the self-publishing community as an out-of-date tool and system that more progressive and digital-era publishers have outgrown. This argument is more likely borne out of frustration at the cost of ISBNs, at least in the United States, where authors can purchase them singly for $125 each or a pack of ten for $250. Large publishers buy ISBNs in bulk (1,000 or 10,000 at a time), which allows them to be purchased at a much cheaper unit rate. So indie authors are mostly boycotting a system that they feel does them no favors. Still, it’s considered best practice by most publishing professionals to use ISBNs on your books.

There are two key ways to secure ISBNs for your books:

  1. The cheap method is to use a publishing service, retailer, or distributor who will give your book an ISBN for free or at a very low cost, usually not more than $10 or $20. (For example, if you distribute your ebook through Smashwords, the company will give your ebook an ISBN for free if you don’t have one of your own.) However, the drawback is that the entity that grants you this ISBN almost always becomes the publisher of record. This makes some indie authors feel as if their book isn’t really their own, although this is more of a psychological barrier than a logistical one. Even if you don’t really “own” the ISBN applied to your book, for all intents and purposes, you remain the publisher of the book, and can always take the book off sale or out of distribution and later apply your own new, fresh ISBN if desired. (At that point, you do technically publish a new or different edition.)
  1. Another option is to buy ISBNs yourself through Bowker, ideally purchasing ten or 100 at a time, depending on your needs or what your budget allows. ISBNs never expire, and as you use them, you log in to Bowker’s site and fill out the title information. You don’t need to know the title information when you buy the ISBNs; generally, publishers buy ISBNs far in advance of the publishing date. Keep in mind that when you buy ISBNs, you are buying them as a publishing company. Those ISBNs will forever be identified with a specific publisher—the one that you identify for Bowker as the purchaser. Once you assign an ISBN to a specific book edition, it is permanent and can never be changed. The book’s information may be updated or revised if needed, but you can never reuse an ISBN.

Most book titles require, at minimum, two ISBNs: one for the print edition and another for the ebook edition. Bowker and others inside the publishing industry sometimes recommend having a separate ISBN for each and every ebook edition or distributor, but nearly every self-publishing author ignores this recommendation. So generally, you should plan on using a unique ISBN for each format (print, ebook, audio, translation, and so on) rather than each retailer or distribution method. On the copyright page of each edition you release, it’s good practice to list the ISBNs of all the editions available, so that retailers, distributors, and other customers can easily and quickly find other editions or place orders based on the correct ISBN. The ISBN also commonly appears on the back cover of the print edition, next to the barcode.

Once your book has an ISBN, it can be easily searched and referenced in nearly every book retailer, distributor, and database system.

It is also possible for anyone with access to look up print book sales based on the ISBN via Nielsen BookScan. (You can see these numbers yourself, even if you don’t subscribe to BookScan, by logging in to Amazon Author Central, assuming you’ve properly claimed authorship of your books through your Amazon Author Central account.)

A side note about industry statistics

ISBNs are so standard across traditional publishing that they can be reliably used to track title counts. Bowker and Nielsen regularly release reports on publishing industry activity based on ISBN usage. When it comes to self-publishing activity, however, because ISBNs are not regularly used by indie authors, these are a poor and deceptive metric. Always keep this in mind when studying the latest figures based on ISBN usage. The biggest “publisher” of self-published material by far is Amazon KDP, and, as noted above, it doesn’t require or issue ISBNs for the ebooks it sells.

Completing the ISBN registration for your title

This section only applies to authors who choose to secure their own ISBNs. After you buy ISBNs from Bowker, eventually you’ll need to go back to your account, log in, and enter and update title information for the books you publish. You’ll find four pages of information fields that you’re asked to complete for each title—you can only complete these fields when you know everything about your book, including its final title, pricing, format, and so on. Not all of Bowker’s fields are required or necessary to fill in, but here’s an overview and explanation of the most essential.

Title and cover
Enter the title exactly as it appears on the book cover. Don’t add any other information, such as the subtitle, edition number, series number, etc. That comes later. You can also upload the cover image (JPG format), as well as a full book interior (PDF). While not required, by uploading these files, you’re creating a more complete picture of your book and making it more discoverable and visible to the librarians, booksellers, and others who use Bowker’s database. You have nothing to lose (and much to gain) by providing it.

Main description
While optional, do not leave this field blank. You can fill it with the back cover copy, the Amazon book description, or something similar. You’re limited to 350 words.

Original publication date
Choose the year when this particular book edition will be published and made available for sale. For example, if you’re producing an audio edition several years after making the print edition available for sale, then the ISBN for the audio edition should state the publication date as the year it is released, not as the year of the print edition’s release.

Copyright year
If you registered the book’s copyright with the Copyright Office (and you should), indicate the year the registration was granted. (For additional information, see Copyright and Copyright Registration.)

Library of Congress Control Number
It can be difficult for self-publishing authors to secure this control number on their own, since the Library of Congress technically does not accept registration applications from individual authors. However, it’s still possible to secure one, and if you’ve got it, then be sure to include it. (For more information, see Library of Congress Registration.)

Contributor details
Books authored by a single person only need one contributor to be listed: the author. It is not necessary to add the names of freelancers who worked on the book, especially if you’re not listing them in the book itself. Normally, contributor names are limited to those who made very significant and visible contributions, such as an illustrator for a children’s book, an audiobook narrator, a translator, and so on.

Format and size
You must indicate the medium and format of your book. Your choices will be:

  • Print: hardback, paperback, loose-leaf, spiral bound, pamphlet, leather/fine binding, board book, rag book, bath book, novelty book (and more)
  • Ebook: electronic book text (later you can specify file type, such as EPUB, but this isn’t required)
  • Audio: audio cassette, CD audio, DAT, audio disc, audio tape, MiniDisc, CD-Extra, DVD Audio, downloadable audio file, pre-recorded MP3 player, pre-recorded SD card
  • Digital: CD-ROM, game cartridge, diskette, online resource
  • Packs & multimedia: kit, mixed media product, multiple copy pack, shrink-wrapped pack (and more)
  • Video: videodisc, DVD video, VHS video, Betamax video, HD DVD, Blu-ray (and more)
  • Other: everything from soft toys to microfiche

There is also an even deeper level of detail you can give on format and packaging, but unless these are critical qualities that you know are essential for retailers and distributors to know and to distinguish among various editions, then don’t worry about specifying a more precise format beyond print hardback, print paperback, ebook, and so on.

Primary and secondary subjects
These are what are known in the industry as your BISAC codes. You must indicate a primary subject, and you should also choose a secondary subject. (See Creating Metadata for Your Book to learn more about BISAC codes.)

Editions and volumes
It’s not necessary to supply any information here, and for most authors, these fields will be left blank. However, they are important to complete if the book is part of a series or if it’s a revised or updated edition of a previously published book.

Sales and pricing
You can indicate sales and pricing data for six countries: United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Canada. For U.S.-based authors writing in English, you’ll want to (quite obviously) provide information on U.S. pricing. Adding information about the other countries is at your discretion, assuming you will distribute outside the U.S. As a general rule, the more information available about your title, the better.

For each country of sale, you are required to note the following:

  • Publication date: This is the day the book first goes on sale to consumers. It can be a date in the future.
  • Target audience: Most authors should choose “trade,” which means the book is for a general adult audience and is suitable for mainstream bookstore placement. If you’re publishing a YA book, choose “young adult audience.” Other options are related to better identifying the proper age or education level of the target readership. You can fill in optional fields related to the book’s target age group and academic grade, which is important for any title being marketed to schools, teachers, or other educators.
  • Title status: Nearly all authors should choose “active record,” unless they are not actively selling the book. If you stop actively publishing and selling a book, you would change the status to “out of print.”
  • Price data: You must indicate the price/currency. Use the retail price printed on the book or the standard retail price you intend to charge for the edition, no discounts applied. The other options related to price availability, distributor, and discount code are rarely used by self-publishing authors.

It’s also possible to indicate a title’s ship date, on sale date, return date, out of print date, return ability, and rights information. Most self-publishing authors do not complete these fields, as they are rarely applicable to them. However, if you’re working with a service or distributor that accepts returns, then indicate that the title is returnable.

Copyright and Copyright Registration

Authors create copyrights as soon as they set words (or images) with minimal creative expression into or onto a tangible medium. Copyright gives the author the exclusive right to make copies of the work, to create derivative works, to distribute copies of the work, to publicly perform the work, and to display the work.

If you are the sole owner of the copyright to a work, you are the only one who may lawfully do these things, or sell or license the rights to someone else to do these things. (Doing one or more of these things without the copyright owner’s permission is called copyright infringement.)

Your work doesn’t need to be formally published for you to create and own the copyright to it under U.S. copyright law.

However, to be afforded all the protections of the law and before bringing a lawsuit—should you discover infringement—you need to register your work (either published or unpublished) with the U.S. Copyright Office. Whether it’s a good idea to register an unpublished work is a matter of debate, but it’s best to register for copyright on published books within three months of release. You can do so online at a cost of $35 per project; it can take 3–18 months for you to receive your official registration.

Every book should include a copyright page (usually right after the title page) that lists who the copyright holder is and the year of copyright registration. The author of a work remains the copyright owner unless he or she assigns the copyright in writing. Instead of assigning your copyright, the standard practice in the industry (with the exception of academic publishers), is to grant an exclusive license to a publisher, or a non-exclusive license to distributors if you are publishing the book yourself (with the exception of KDP Select, which requires that you distribute exclusively through Amazon).

Library of Congress Registration

If you believe your book should be carried by libraries or is a strong contender in the library market (and most authors are inclined to think so), then you’ll hear about CIP data (or the LCCN), which makes your book library-friendly and ready for acquisition.

CIP stands for “cataloging in publication,” which is a set of data that makes it easy and efficient for libraries to acquire your book, since the cataloging information is already completed. It includes what’s known as the Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN), a unique number assigned to each published title. The CIP data and LCCN must be applied for prior to publication; the information is then sent to the publisher within six weeks, ideally in time to be included on the book’s copyright page.

CIP data can only be requested for yet-to-be published books and only by publishers of at least three titles by three different authors that are already carried by libraries. If you can’t secure CIP data prior to publication, normally the first library that acquires your book will complete the cataloging data on your behalf, which is input into a centralized database that other libraries can tap into.
However, self-published authors can still participate in the Preassigned Control Number program (PCN), if they register themselves as a small, U.S.-based publisher with the Library of Congress and if they have bought their own ISBNs via Bowker.

Once you have a PCN for your book, it’s possible to pay a third party to prepare your CIP data, although this data will not be distributed to libraries (as the Library of Congress does). Still, if you’re planning a significant marketing push into the library market, it can be worth the expense, since it reduces librarians’ resistance to acquiring your book when the cataloging is already complete.

For Authors Interested in the Library Market

Accessing the library market is difficult for single authors with just a few titles. While indie authors can gain some access to libraries by making their books available through major library distributors such as OverDrive, that doesn’t mean that those books will be purchased. In many ways, getting self-published titles into libraries hasn’t changed since the ebook revolution: authors still have to prove that they have quality products that fit the collection. And, unfortunately, authors still face the stigma of self-publishing: there’s a long history of patrons offering to donate handwritten poetry collections or memoirs to their libraries. Here’s what you need to understand before tackling the library market.

First, your genre makes a difference to your success. Those writing commercial fiction are better positioned.

Self-publishing success stories are predominantly within genre fiction, and that’s where patron demand often lies, as well.

Also, it’s easier for librarians to assess the quality of adult fiction than nonfiction. With nonfiction, librarians need reassurance that someone is vouching for the integrity of the information, as well as the author’s credentials. And children’s books have to reflect an understanding of children’s learning and development. (Some librarians we’ve spoken with have said that self-published genre fiction has achieved professionalism, whereas self-published children’s literature has not.)

Second, discovery rarely happens through library databases. Librarians will not necessarily see or go looking for a self-published ebook just because it’s available through a service such as OverDrive. It becomes invisible in a sea of thousands of titles. Librarians have to know that the title exists, and that it is of quality, before they seek it out. And here we come to one of the most common challenges that librarians face: how to determine which self-published books to buy.

Traditionally, librarians find out about new books through trade publications such as Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. But most self-published titles are not reviewed by these journals, leaving librarians to come up with their own methods of discovery. So there isn’t a trustworthy one-stop source for finding self-published titles, and librarians typically have more pressing concerns than staying on top of the indie market.

However, there are two services to help librarians find quality self-published titles. One is SELF-e, a joint venture from Library Journal and BiblioBoard. The drawback with SELF-e for authors is that it will get your ebook distributed, but it will earn you nothing except exposure through libraries. Another option is eBooksAreForever, started by indie author J. A. Konrath. An important element of both programs is curation. Librarians don’t have time to sort through a database of thousands of titles, nor do many have the budget to add hundreds of titles at a time. Plus, they have to make acquisitions in light of their current collection’s size and balance.

This partly brings us back to square one. Self-published books need to succeed on some level or be vetted by reviewers in order to come to the attention of these programs. The best way to appear successful is to make sure your book is reviewed and talked about online—on book blogs and social media. The process of being recognized by the library market isn’t necessarily different from that of getting traction with readers and retailers.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that getting a book added to a library’s catalog is just step one. Even if libraries help books get discovered, what does the library do to make patrons aware of new books? Before you market yourself to any library system, study how it publicizes new additions to its collections. Does it have displays or endcaps, informational newsletters, events or interviews with authors? It’s one thing to get your book added to the collection but quite another to generate interest and make it something that the community wants to read.

Securing a Book Distributor

There are two types of distributors of interest to self-publishing authors: (1) those that make a book available to be ordered by retailers, such as IngramSpark, and (2) those that actively represent and pitch books to retailers. The first option is a given for all authors who are serious about self-publishing, and it costs little or nothing to achieve.

But it is more or less impossible for a first-time, self-publishing author to secure this second type of distributor, since there’s no established sales track record and no industry credibility. However, for authors who have been publishing for years (whether traditionally or independently) and/or have a regular output of titles with a consistent sales track record, it may be possible to strike a deal with a distributor and secure sales and marketing services or support. This will come at a cost (a middleman always has to be paid a cut of sales), but these services can be worthwhile if they achieve significantly wider distribution—through brick-and-mortar sales outlets—and, of course, higher sales. Such distribution has to be supported in most cases with a marketing plan and an offset print run, with the ability to accommodate returns (not to mention a budget that accounts for the losses entailed by returns).

Essentially, what happens in this kind of situation is the author becomes “big” enough to match the sales volume of a small press. In extremely rare cases, it may be possible for an author with a single title to get “big” enough to acquire an active distributor (but good luck finding such an example today). A distributor relationship almost always requires multiple titles to be worthwhile for all involved.

These are the most well-known distribution companies that indie authors should be aware of.

Perseus Distribution and Ingram Distribution

Perseus serves more than 600 publishers, with estimated sales of $300 million a year, including the distribution operations of Publishers Group West, Consortium, Legato Publishers Group, Perseus Academic, and Constellation digital services. Ingram—best known for having the largest book inventory and warehousing system in the United States—purchased the Perseus distribution business in 2016. (Ingram already had a distribution division, Ingram Publisher Services, with more than 100 clients.)

If you’re interested in working with Perseus:

If you’re interested in working with Ingram Publisher Services:

Small Press Distribution (SPD)

SPD is a nonprofit that operates as an arm of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). It focuses on the distribution of literary titles and represents more than 400 independent presses. Its annual sales approach $2 million, and 60 percent of those sales are poetry titles. To apply to be distributed by SPD, fill out its online form.

Independent Publishers Group (IPG) and Small Press United

IPG operates several distribution programs to meet the needs of specific types of publishers and markets. Of these, Small Press United is of most interest to independent authors, since it supports start-up publishers. To learn more and contact.

Itasca Books

Compared to the other distributors discussed above, Itasca is fairly new to the market, established in 2004, and actively welcomes new independent publishers to get in touch. Find out more.

Additional Resources

The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) is an excellent nonprofit organization serving the small press community with 3,000 members; many are independent authors. Whatever questions you have and education you need, IBPA is a good place to start your search. It lists distributors and wholesalers on its website.

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Chapter 5: Producing and Selling Print Editions»