Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing

Congratulations. You have written a book. You have tackled the challenges of voice, pacing, and structure. More kudos to you if you are self-publishing. You are ready to grapple with copyediting, layout, cover art, and ePub.

As a self-publisher, you now face new challenges—legal issues as wide ranging as copyright, defamation, and taxes.

Perhaps you are surprised to find out that you are starting a business. You have questions about incorporation and crowdfunding, not to mention hiring freelancers and deducting expenses.

What about author platforms? How do you write blog posts that are provocative, but not defamatory? How do you find eye-catching images without spending a fortune? Does your website need a privacy policy, and what do DMCA, COPPA, and DRM mean anyway?

Dozens of books and blogs offer advice on designing covers, editing content, and tweeting effectively, but few will tell you how to protect your Social Security Number or spot a scam.

I am a business lawyer with 30 years of experience assisting clients in setting up and running their businesses, legally and successfully.  I do not go to court, and no one is ever going to produce a movie about the exciting life of a business attorney. But I get a great deal of satisfaction by keeping my clients out of trouble, so they can focus on their businesses, their creative projects, and their lives.

Writing and publishing a book is a significant investment in both time and money. Don’t lose money (or sleep) by hiring the wrong self-publishing service company or getting sued for copyright infringement.

Many posts will help a traditionally published writer who is blogging, tweeting, and creating content for internet distribution.

But I need your help. What questions do you have about the various legal issues of self-publishing? Is it important to register your copyright? How do you get permission to use song lyrics? Can you deduct the cost of grammar books? I welcome questions and suggestions in my COMMENTS section below.


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18 responses to “Guide to the Legal Issues of Self-Publishing”

  1. KB West says:

    I know you’re in CA and not on the East Coast. I’ve been writing for years but am just now publishing (had to work up the courage). I very much want to keep my personal life separate from my author life. I have a pen name KB West and I’d like to stay as anonymous as possible for as long as possible. I’ve done considerable reading–most posts say LLCs are the way to go. Your blog is the first I’ve read that suggested and EIN. In addition to keep my personal and author lives as separate as possible, I’d also like to keep the finances separate to avoid any nasty tax issues. My pen name is nowhere close to my real name… I don’t want to give Amazon or any other site my personal information. My novel is copy written also. It just seems like a very large mountain for one small person (me) and I have no idea where to start…

    So I guess the first question is… the book is ready to publish. How do I maintain my anonymity, how do I avoid tax pitfalls (assuming the book is successful, should I worry about this after I’ve sold a couple thousand copies?), what’s the best method to maintain separation between authorship and my real identity? Thanks for your insight. I’ve found your blog most helpful even though I now have more questions. 🙂


    • KB, these are all important questions and you are smart to address them up front. But the answers are going to be specific to your situation and state. Does your state or community have an attorneys or accountants for the arts organization? Or a small business advisory organization? If so, they can probably give you the help you need at no or low cost. If you can’t find that help, email me through my website.

  2. Scott Ewing says:

    Hi Helen,
    I recently wrote a kids picture book and tried to go the self-publishing way.

    The company that I’m dealing with is horrible to say the least. They’ve missed deadlines, did a poor job editing, had delay after delay because they didn’t respond to my questions and they have quite frankly not lived up to their “step-by-step guidance through the publishing process” which has led to missed sales during the upcoming holiday season.

    Do you have any advice for a new author going through some tough times with their publisher?

    All I want is to get my book out to the public.

    Thanks in Advance,


    • I would terminate the contract and start over with a new vendor. If they have screwed up this much, there’s no reason to think they will do any better moving forward. Take a look at the terms of service or other agreement on how to terminate and move on.

  3. Marguerite Pearson says:

    Is it okay to fictionalize the life of an imaginary descendantof a historic figure?

  4. NV says:

    I’d like to self publish under a pen name (e.g. Jane Doe) and I will set up an LLC to publish my book. Do I own the copyright to the book, would it be the LLC, or would it belong to “Jane Doe” (who is essentially me)?

    • You own the copyright. You may register it in your own name, pen name, or both. If you published through the LLC, you would be granting a license to the LLC to publish your book. A license is permission, not a transfer of ownership.

  5. Marc says:

    I wanted to write a book about taking real life problems large corporations like NIKE, Apple Amazon..etc face and come up with design solutions to these problems. In doing so I would ideally like to use their logos and names in the book. Do I need permission to use company logos in my book? and are there any other things to watch out for when talking about real life companies?

    • Marc, What you are describing sounds like Fair Use. As Fair Use, you may use work subject to copyright and trademark protection for the purposes of commentary, critique, education, etc without permission of the copyright or trademark. I cannot guaranty that Fair Use would apply, or that each trademark owner would agree with me, but that’s the general rule.

  6. Emma Grace says:

    I am planning on self publishing a self help book, but I want to avoid a lawsuit in case someone claimed they were injured by following my advice. Will adding a disclaimer to the copyright page offer enough protection? I was hoping to not have to create an LLC, but do you think that would be the safest option? Thank you!

  7. Bill Vargus says:

    Hi Helen…
    I am writing a book based on the interviews I did with families all over the country. Unfortunately, the book releases they all signed were destroyed when my basement flooded. My self-publisher insists I must get new releases signed by everyone before they will publish. Some of the contact info for the interviewees has been lost. Others have simply not responded to the self-addressed release forms I sent them. So I’m stuck right now. What can I do?

    • Bill, That’s a problem. Have you tried searching for people on different social media platforms? Another source of information is political donations. Sites like show donations and cities. There are other sites as well.

  8. George Mozes says:

    Dear Helen,
    I enjoyed reading your blogs; I found them to be very informative. I am 81 and just finished my autobiography. I have decided to self-publish it. I am not interested to do more writing, yet I still want to do what is needed to make the book successful. To this end, I want to have my own imprint. I will also purchase my own ISBN and, of course, copyright it. I have a question.
    How can I make sure that the ISBN will have my imprint as the publisher’s identifier?
    Thank you very much,

  9. Kristin says:

    I am writing a fictional story about characters who will meet at a wedding, and I wanted to use a real life place as a venue for the location – would there be any legal objection to stating the name in the book? (e.g. “The wedding is at ______, a beautiful resort, etc. etc.)

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