It Could Happen To You! (It Almost Definitely Will NOT, Though…)


My absolute, all-time, number one favorite movie is The Truman Show. I just love, love, LOVE that movie, and I think that Big Brother and the age of reality TV, docu-soaps, etc. is the worst thing that ever happened to it, because it diluted its impact. It was soooo ahead of its time back in the mid-Nineties that still today, I watch it and am stunned—STUNNED— by screenwriter Andrew Niccol’s insight into where televised entertainment was going. Nowadays, the idea of being raised in front of TV cameras isn’t strange at all, it’s actually happening. (I’m looking at you, Mini Kardashians.) And then there’s its themes of exploring our world, reality being only what we perceive it to be, and the backdrop of the picture-perfect town of Seaside, and—

I just want to go watch it right now.

(It’s on the DVR. Totally watching it tonight.)

But back to this blog post. One of my favorite scenes in The Truman Show is when Truman finally plucks up the courage to get the hell outta town, and goes to the travel agent to book at ticket to Fiji or, well, anywhere really. Now if you haven’t seen Truman, everyone is conspiring to keep him in Seahaven, so the travel agency isn’t exactly designed to encourage people to travel. Hence the giant poster on the wall depicting a plane getting struck by lightning with the message “IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU!”


Self-publishers—or pre-self-publishers, to be more accurate—seem to waste a lot of time worrying about a lot of stuff that theoretically could but in all likelihood will never happen to them. On its own, this unnecessary paranoia wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that nowhere near as much time is spent worrying about what they should be worrying about, like the quality of their book, whether or not there’s even a market for it, whether their cover design can compete with bestselling books in the same genre, pricing, marketing strategies, etc. etc.

I often use the example of a writer I saw on Twitter, who had “designed” the worst e-book cover my eyes have ever seen. It was terrible. Just awful. More the shame because she could write, and I thought there was a decent market for the book. But the cover would make corneas bleed. Yet her main concern? She was desperate to find out if publishing to Kindle would affect the sale of movie rights later on.

Um… movie rights?

How about a cover that bears at least A SLIVER OF SIMILARITY TO ANY OTHER BOOK?

How about we start with that, eh?

Admittedly, movie right concerns are an extreme case. Generally I find that pre-self-publishers, those writers who are on the cusp of deciding to self-publish but are still struggling with some of the fears they have about it, are concerned about one or more of the following things:

  • Copyright 
  • Defamation/libel
  • Piracy
  • How it might affect getting a traditional deal later on
  • Scare stories about Amazon.


Please print out the following two sentences on a business card-sized piece of paper and stick it in your wallet to refer to whenever a concern about copyright crosses your mind.

  1. If you wrote it, you own it. 
  2. CreateSpace, Amazon KDP and Smashwords operate non-exclusive agreements.

There is no need to formally copyright your work by registering it officially or mailing it to yourself by registered post, á la Quiz Show. (Another good movie…!) A copyright notice at the start of your book will do. That notice merely states what is already true: that because you wrote the book, you own the copyright to it.

What you don’t own the copyright to are quotes, poems, music lyrics, images, etc. that someone else created. If you want to use them, you’ll have to track down the copyright owners and get written permission. Otherwise they can sue you for infringing on their copyright.

A non-exclusive agreement means that you can publish with, say, CreateSpace, and then publish that same book all over town, if you want to. The only thing CreateSpace owns is the ISBN, if they’ve given you it for free. That means you can’t re-use the same ISBN for, say, Smashwords. But you can’t do that anyway because each edition is supposed to have its own unique ISBN.

(I know someone will come along and leave a comment telling me why we should all be concerned with copyright above all else. And I just won’t understand it, because why are we worried about? Seriously, what do you think is going to happen? I’m honestly asking; I’m genuinely curious. But in the meantime:)

If you wrote the book and use CreateSpace, Lulu, Smashwords and/or Amazon KDP, you don’t need to worry about copyright.


I’m always suspicious when soon-to-be-self-published writers bring up the issues of defamation, slander, libel, etc. because I fear they’re using self-publishing as revenge on those they feel have slighted them. But if you’ve written non-fiction and have genuine concerns about how real people, companies, etc. might feel about the content of your book, no one in publishing can help you. What you need is a lawyer. You especially need a lawyer if you live in the UK, because the courts there are famously on the side of the person who feels they’ve been defamed.

I would stress that this is only in extreme cases. It goes without saying that even in fiction, real people should not be included in books without their written permission. That’s asking for trouble, and why would do it? Even for Mousetrapped and Backpacked I sent copies to my friends prior to publication, just to make sure they were okay with their real names being used.

But if you do have any concerns, hire a lawyer. Or write something else.


Only a lawyer can help you with concerns about libel, slander, defamation, etc. Save yourself the bother and take the real people out of your book. 


Oh, piracy. Why are we all so obsessed with you?

I have a theory. Countless times I’ve met self-publishers who have had material lifted off their blog or website or from online articles, and seen it passed off as someone else’s work, included in an e-book that’s for sale or even published in a magazine. The idea of putting more work into a digital file that can be e-mailed, passed around, etc. is horrifying to them, and I get why they feel like that.

But we’re not talking about publishing things to the web. We’re talking about using online services to self-publish books, which is a totally different thing. And if your work is stolen or republished somewhere else without your permission, that’s wrong, and you can contact whoever is responsible and get them to take it down or, if they won’t, sue the arses off them. (Or in a more effective move these days, shame them publicly online.)

As for your DRM-free e-book getting passed around readers without it being paid for, all I can say is (i) yes, this does happen and (ii) CHANCE WOULD BE A FINE THING. Piracy is the scourge of the world’s best-selling authors. You, the self-publisher, will soon discover that it’s difficult to give your book away for free, let alone get people to pay for it. Convincing them to break the law to chance downloading an illegal copy? Again, CHANCE WOULD BE A FINE THING. Unfortunately no one is scouring torrent sites looking for our book, especially when we’re charging so little for it in the first place.

If you’re convinced it will happen—although it most likely won’t—set up a Google alert for the title of your book. Google will then alert you if it comes across it on a file sharing site, and you can contact them and make them take it down. Or sue the arses off them.


Millions of people illegally downloading your book for free? You wish! Don’t worry about it.

What About My 6-Figure Deal?

If only self-publishers spent as much time worrying about editing as much as they do about phantom book deals…

Here’s a tip for you: the only people who have to worry about traditional book deals are the ones who currently have an offer of a traditional book deal on the table. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.

If you must worry about it, think about all the people who’ve dabbled in self-publishing before getting a deal. Some of them had published e-books; some of them had published paperbacks. Some of them had published the actual book they got the deal for; some of them had self-published other books. Some had self-published with Kindle; some had stuck to Smashwords. Some had sold millions of copies; some had only sold a handful before their agent got them a deal. Some of them owned their own ISBNs; some had taken the free one.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? If not, let me spell it out for you. If you take the question will doing THIS blow my chances of getting published later on? and replace THIS with virtually any aspect of self-publishing, chances are there is a writer out there who did that and got a deal already. So don’t worry about it.

The only time a self-publisher might run into problems is if they’ve published with one of these evil vanity presses that claims copyright for the duration of the universe’s existence, and then a few more years after that. But if you publish with CreateSpace, Lulu, Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Pub-It or Smashwords, this won’t happen because—say it with me now—they operate non-exclusive agreements. And you can’t accidentally publish with an evil vanity press. You can only fail to properly read the contract they provided you. If they do something that wasn’t in the contract, sue the arses off them.

Another question self-publishers often ask is: how will self-publishing affect my chances of getting a traditional deal? This is impossible to answer, because it depends on how it goes. If it goes badly (no sales, bad reviews, general unprofessionalism displayed by you online) it will of course work against you. It if goes well, you might improve your chances, yes. But self-publishing success is far from a guarantee of traditional publishing success and because of the amount of work that has to go into it, it ain’t a shortcut either.


As long as you don’t do anything silly, self-publishing won’t close the door on a traditional deal. Do it right and it will help you. But the only people who should spend longer than five minutes worry about this are people with deals on the table.

Amazon Scare Stories

Amazon is a mammoth global capitalist machine, and that can seem very scary when you’re just one, lowly self-publisher entering into an agreement with them. But you have nothing to worry about so long as you play by the rules. For example, set the same price for your e-book everywhere, i.e. charge the same on KDP as on Smashwords. Only publish work that’s your own. If you enroll in KDP Select, make sure that your e-book is ONLY for sale on Amazon Kindle for the 90 days of the enrollment period, because that’s what you’ve agreed to. Do this and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.


A ‘but’ which brings me to the reason for writing this post in the first place.

My tip for avoiding self-publishing paranoia is not to believe everything you read, and to go directly to the source for the more reliable information.

The blogosphere is such that the echo of a story can have much greater traction that the story itself. Take for example a comment left on my recent Ask Catherine: The Answers post by Experienced Tutors (not to pick on you but this was a really good example!):

My last post … concerned a lady who had found a publisher after her book on Amazon started to sell well. Amazon then offered refunds on her previous sales, which she has to pay for.

Your first reaction is probably something like: WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT?! Followed by shivers up your spine as you imagine a future in which your Amazon Kindle book, currently selling well, attracts a traditional deal and then you find yourself faced with a bill for refunds for every single self-published book you’ve ever sold.


And it would be, if it were true.

But let’s examine what actually happened here.

The author and book in question are Jamie McGuire and Beautiful Disaster. After getting a traditional deal, Beautiful Disaster was no longer available as a self-published title, and the traditionally published version was on sale for $7.99, higher than what Jamie had been charging for it. Then one day, Amazon sends out a mass mailing to everyone who bought the self-published Beautiful Disaster, encouraging them to return it and download the newer, trad-published edition instead, with Amazon covering the difference in price (as in, the customer didn’t have to pay extra). Great for the customer, but Jamie believed she was liable for the refunds. She’d have to pay for them. You can read her post about it here.

Still terrifying, except more understandable, at least from an Amazon customer point-of-view. This isn’t the very first I’ve heard of Amazon customers being offered a newer edition of a book they’ve already downloaded, for free, when the newer edition becomes available.

(And let’s never forget, that’s who Amazon exists for. The customer.)

But three days later, the situation was resolved. Amazon admitted it was an error, and presumably stopped doing it. Jamie blogged about here. Now whether or not it really was a mistake or whether they just decided it was after Jamie found out about it, we’ll never know. It’s not clear to me still whether or not these counted as standard refunds and that Jaimie would have been liable for them. And I’m not saying Amazon doesn’t misbehave sometimes—it does.

What I am saying is that this story was still doing the rounds online AFTER it had been resolved. AFTER it was no longer happening. So that means that hundreds if not thousands of self-publishers are now worrying about having to cover refunds when they get a traditional deal, even though (a) this isn’t what happened and (b) STOP WITH THE MYTHICAL PUBLISHING DEALS ALREADY.


If you read about something scary happening to an author online, go to that author’s blog to get the real story before you freak out. 


Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Self-publishing is a lot of lot of hard work, with plenty of real concerns to worry about (the number one being, how are you going to sell any books?) without adding ridiculous ones to the mix. Yes, sometimes terrible things happen to authors, but that’s true in all walks of life: sometimes, bad things happen. But for the vast majority of self-publishers, the experience is trouble-free. If you do hear of something that genuinely concerns you, find the source and see what they have to say about it before you go into full melt-down mode.

Have I left anything out? What scares YOU about self-publishing? 

26 thoughts on “It Could Happen To You! (It Almost Definitely Will NOT, Though…)

  1. whacknoodle says:

    You’re becoming the much-needed Mommy to the pre-self-pub world, I think—telling the straight truth when it needs to be told. A slap of reality doesn’t hurt. Actually, it helps.


  2. Mary says:

    What about ‘fair use’ in copyright? Would you please write about that – limitations etc..?

  3. Mandi Lynn says:

    The hardest thing about self-publishing for me is going at it on my own. I’m 16 trying to publish my novel and obviously I don’t have a nice college degree on my side and my parents only know what I tell them about the industry. But in a way I’m extremely excited to start this journey and be able to look back and say I did it without the help of a big name publisher!

  4. jfbrown123 says:

    Oooh, I’m dying of curiosity about the horrible book cover you mentioned, but I understand your desire for it to remain anonymous. Want to give you and your readers a heads-up about a fairly new URL:

    It recently migrated over from tumblr. The horrible covers, and the snarky comments, are truly hilarious and also educational. I’ve been checking this site every day for my morning snicker, after I log in to Caltherine, Caffeinated.

  5. Imelda Evans says:

    Ah, Catherine, you say the sooth! There are too many real things to be awake to in publishing – like rights-grabbing contracts – to be wasting energy on things that won’t happen. Excellent post, as usual. Tweeted.

  6. Pamela DuMond (@CupcakesNovel) says:

    Great post! My fave irritation is all the time writers (okay, myself included) spend trying to find the magic potion, the big secret to getting more people to read their book. When it seems the best way to do that is to… write another book. The more out there, the more people will hear your name. Crazy! And, I’m back to writing another book… Keep up the good work, Catherine!

  7. Megan Cashman says:

    Awesome advice!

    As a self-published author, I still worry about selling books and getting good reviews. There are a lot of scary stories out there, but they seem to be a one in a million story. But overall, I hope in the long run, I’m not being a fool for self-publishing in the first place.

  8. susankayequinn says:

    I just heart this post five ways to Sunday. Also: I need to watch the Truman Show. Adding that to netflix immediately.

    THIS IS AWESOME: Millions of people illegally downloading your book for free? You wish! Don’t worry about it.

    AND THIS: Self-publishing is a lot of lot of hard work, with plenty of real concerns to worry about (the number one being, how are you going to sell any books?) without adding ridiculous ones to the mix.

    If people spent as much time on figuring out what books sell and why, or simply writing that amazing story that speaks to their heart, their path through self-publishing (or ANY publishing) will be much smoother.

    Thanks for the great post!

  9. J.D. O'Byrne says:

    Hey, great post. My biggest fear is not to get readers… I mean spend a lot of time doing the selfpublishing stuff and the marketing job and not getting readers or money reward (and I don’t mean millions, but something). As English is not my first language, I am looking for a translator now. And meanwhile I am preparing to publish in spanish. I think all we need is perseverance. And an inside voice saying non-stop: DON’T GIVE UP.

  10. shereenielsen says:

    Catherine, first of all, great name. My middle name is Katherine, named after my grandma Catherine. (Mom got cute and changed the first initial).

    Love your blog. Of the blogs I follow, I find yours down to earth, and a wealth of information.

    Great post today. One question. You talk about copyright (using someone else’s quotes, lyrics, etc.) What if I wanted to use a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (God rest his soul); would I need to search out who own the rights to his quotes?

    Thank you.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I’m really not an expert so I can’t say for sure. If I were me, I’d use the quote as long as it was a quote (i.e. 1-3 sentences) and not an extract of an essay. If you look in the comments above I put a link to a fair use checklist which might be useful too. But my guess — my GUESS — is that’d you be okay with an Emerson quote.

  11. Valerie says:

    I sure do love that movie! The kitchen scene was a bit scary, but when he’s in the car smiling and says “…they just keep goin’ round and round!” I crack up every time.
    I know this was not THE point of your post, but I enjoyed it. 😉

  12. Teri says:

    I’m getting ready to hit “publish” in the next week or so on my e-book through CreateSpace, and so this article came at the perfect time for me. It’s been so much work, and I’m riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, but reading through your experiences here on your blog has definitely helped to calm my nerves (a little).

    Thank you!

  13. David Michael Williams says:

    Excellent, EXCELLENT article. I wish self-published writers put as much thought and worry into their craft as the potential pitfalls their self-purported masterpieces will surely face. There are so many sub-par novels out there that it makes so much more difficult for genuinely good ones to get noticed.

    I know, there’s a certain subjectivity to “good,” but it seems to me there are too many people who want to be a published — albeit self-published — writer and not enough who want to be a phenomenal writer, regardless of readership.

    Perhaps one test is this: If you spend more time imagining your future successes than brainstorming how to make your work better, you probably aren’t ready to publish.

    And here’s another: If this is your first novel, you definitely aren’t ready to publish.

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