This article looks at what is usually meant by “traditional,” “self,” and “subsidy” publishing and how to know which is right for you.
When you have a project, you must determine what manner and method of publishing will work for you and your publication. There is nothing inherently good or bad, right or wrong, about each type of publishing; however, one method will be best for your book. I know several publishers who started with one method, then switched to another for subsequent editions of that first book or for later projects.
Different types of publishing don’t fit in to neat little boxes, and a short article can’t begin to cover all of the complexities of publishing. However, we’ll take a look at what is usually meant by “traditional,” “self,” and “subsidy” publishing.
Traditional publishing refers to books put out by established presses, such as the large New York publishers. Authors (or their agents) submit proposals and manuscripts, and the publisher selects the ones to be published. The publisher controls the timing of the book’s release and decides how many copies will be printed. The publisher may have the final say on the design of the book, including cover art, and even on the editing of the book. The author is not responsible for any of the costs of printing and distributing the book. He receives a royalty on each book sold, and may receive an advance against those royalties when the book is accepted by the publisher. Although the publisher may do some marketing of the book, most authors find that they must actively promote their books (often at their own expense) in order to make sales.
Self-publishing means that the author takes on responsibility (financial and otherwise) for all aspects of producing the book. Some or all of these tasks may be delegated to others (e.g., an artist may be hired to design the cover); however, ultimate responsibility rests with the author/publisher. This means that the author/publisher must get the book laid out and designed, obtain ISBNs, choose a printer, set up distribution, handle all marketing, etc. The author/publisher retains full control of her book, and also bears the financial risks and rewards of publishing.
Subsidy or vanity publishing might be considered a form of self-publishing. You send your manuscript to the publisher, they produce the books, and you pay for them. Although this is sometimes not a good idea if you want to make money with your book, it can be an easy way to get your words in print or to test before making the investment to self-publish. Subsidy publishing has generated lots of fraud and abuse of authors over the years; however, there are now several legitimate companies that do subsidy publishing for a reasonable price. These include iUniverse, Xlibris and 1stBooks. The subsidy publisher is the publisher of record. They set the price, handle distribution, and pay royalties on sales. Authors may receive a small number of books (e.g., one to five) as part of their contract, and may purchase additional copies at a discount from the retail price.
These are the basic categories, but there are variations and hybrids among them. For example, book packagers often work with publishers, assembling the writers, illustrators, editors, designers and others needed to produce a book. Partnerships and co-publishing arrangements between publishers and authors, where risk and return are shared–not subsidy publishing, but not traditional publishing, either–have also been tried successfully.
Earlier, I said that each type of publishing has its place. How do you know which is right for your project? You have to make that call, but here are some tips on when each is appropriate.
Traditional Publishing: You’ve written a mass-market book (e.g., mainstream fiction, romance, mystery) and you don’t want to take on the responsibility of self-publishing. You don’t want to invest in publishing your book, and are willing to be paid a percentage of the book’s sales. The publisher will control production and distribution. You will have to take some or all responsibility for promoting and marketing your book, but you won’t have to learn about aspects of the publishing business that may not interest you.
Self-Publishing: You want to have all of the responsibility for producing the book and obtaining distribution. Of course, that also means that you keep control of your book and decide what it will look like, how it will be priced, when it will be published, etc. You take all the financial risk of publishing, and that means the potential for greater financial rewards.
Subsidy Publishing: You want to get your book published, and you don’t want to shop it to publishers or learn about self-publishing. This is the perfect choice if you simply want to get your book in print to give to friends and family members. It can also be a good way to test the book and see how well it sells. The downside is that reviewers and others may not take your book seriously, because they know that subsidy publishers will publish anything they receive as long as they are paid.
There is not a “one size fits all” solution in publishing. The choice you make is up to you. Before committing to any publishing arrangement, make sure you understand what your rights and responsibilities are, and how you stand to benefit.