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What About No-Advance Publishing?
by Harold Underdown
Recently, companies presenting themselves as "no-advance" publishers have appeared. I've written this article in response to a recent discussion in a Facebook group, but have shaped it to address the subject more generally, as background and guidance for anyone looking at this kind of publisher. No- (and low-) advance publishers have grown largely due to advances in technology, as I'll explain. Are they a good alternative for authors, or should you look elsewhere? I'll discuss key things you should know and evaluate.
Traditional publishersIn order to make clear what no-advance publishers do and don't do, I'll start with what "traditional" publishers do. Traditional publishers don't just pay an author royalties on books sold, though looking at which way the money flows is a good idea; money should flow TO the author. Traditional publishers also provide capital (the money needed to pay an advance to the writer and possibly an illustrator, and to pay to print and bind the books) and expertise (help with editing your book, designing it, finding and working with an illustrator, printing it to high standards, selling it, and marketing it). To provide that expertise, publishers typically have staff, and that means they have overhead. Between the capital needed to invest in each book and their overhead, publishers are spending thousands of dollars for each book they sign up, and they have an interest in making that money back. They, not the authors, are putting their investment at risk.
Traditional publishers also have access to distribution, so that their books can sell to bookstores, libraries, and other markets. I mention this separately from their expertise and investment, though it contains elements of both: they have to work with distributors and they have to be able to maintain their business while waiting for payments from distributors. Distribution of this kind is a huge issue for self-publishers and can't be assumed with no-advance publishers.
No-advance publishersIn contrast, no-advance publishers have found ways to reduce their investment in a book. In the past they did this only by not paying an advance, making an author wait until after the book was released to make money from it. However, this didn't eliminate their investment in producing and printing the book or their overhead, so they still had significant "skin in the game." Like advance-paying publishers, they needed to make sure that the book sold to make their money from it.
More recently, no-advance publishers have found other ways to reduce their investment. Using print-on-demand (POD) technology, they can avoid printing books until they are ordered, meaning no print run costs and no warehousing expenses; ebooks, of course, can just be sold directly via Amazon and other outlets. They can also reduce their overhead by not having an office with staff in it, but instead working with a roster of freelancers. In traditional publishing, publishers need to recoup at least $10,000 to $50,000 in investment and overhead before they make money, depending on the type of book. I estimate those costs can be reduced by 90% or more by taking this "virtual" publishing approach I've briefly outlined. This smaller investment means publishers can be less selective and need to put less of their own effort into making a book a success. They can publish more books and increase their chances of one of them being a big success. And of course they can rely more on the efforts of authors to sell their books, because they can make a profit by selling fewer copies.
Authors may still find considerable advantages in no-advance publishing. Authors do not have to invest their own money, though they may have to invest their time and energy. Unlike in self-publishing, authors do not have to pay for the things that a traditional publisher does. When self-publishing, some people do just that by paying a company that is essentially a publishing services provider to do those things, which is convenient but means accepting their quality standards. Others contract directly with specialists who edit, art direct, and so on. In both cases, authors can end up investing thousands of dollars just to create a book, and then must find ways to market and sell it.
Look carefully at how much a no-advance publisher is actually investing in your book. The more they invest, the more effort they are likely to put into a book's success. Look carefully at what a no-advance publisher provides in publisher expertise, marketing, and distribution. Without their investment and their skills, you might as well publish on your own.
What to look for from no-advance publishersIn general, you will be better off with companies that have actual full-time staffs, rather than relying heavily on freelance project workers, as some of the no-advance publishers I've encountered seem to do. Here are some things to look for in specific areas:
- Editorial: To start with, are their editors selective? Do they pick a few titles from a large number of submissions in order to feed their publishing program, or do they sign up a lot of titles in hopes of finding a few that will take off? Also, do they provide both developmental editing and copyediting, or do they tell you how wonderful your story is and that they can't wait to put it straight into production? Read samples of their published books. Are they well written and edited?
- Design and art direction: Some POD systems spit out pages with standardized designs. You want to see that a publisher's books have distinctive, individual designs. If your book requires illustrations, how will they source them? Do they hire people to produce generic computer-created art, or do they make an effort to work with illustrators with strong portfolios? Again, look at their published books.
- Production: Do their books have nice paper and good bindings? Is any full-color art clear and bright? If the publisher is relying on POD technology, you won't get what you can get with traditional printing and binding. Do they commit to producing print books, or do they place ebooks on Amazon and do print only if they get demand?
- Sales: Do they have a sales team, either dedicated to their books or working on commission, who get their books to booksellers, libraries, and schools? Or do they put their energy into putting their books onto Amazon and other online booksellers, and leave the rest to you?
- Marketing: Do they have a catalog? Do they send out review copies? Do they do press releases and special promotions for books that have news-worthy content? Or do they expect you do those things?
- Contract: Contract terms are important. Do they take all rights to your book and avoid making any commitments? Specifically:
- Royalties--do you start to earn royalties from the first copy sold, or do you have to wait? Do you earn a lower royalty to start, and then see the percentage go up after a certain number are sold? You may be seeing the publisher making sure they recoup their investment in such things as illustration, design, and production.
- Rights granted--must you give the publisher the right to all the traditional subsidiary rights, without any limitations or a requirement that they be returned to you if unsold after a certain period of time?
- Your obligations--what do you have to do? Do you just have to deliver a clean manuscript, revised following their guidance, or do they expect you to sell a certain number of copies?
- Out of print and return of rights--how does the contract define out of print? Since books can stay in print indefinitely, you should be able to get your rights back when sales fall below a certain number, such as 300 copies sold in a year. Can you get those right back on request, or is there a process you must go through?
- Publisher's obligations--what does the publisher commit to doing? Will they publish the book by a certain date? Do they commit to creating a print as well as an ebook edition? Do they commit to providing editorial, design, and other expertise?
What works for you?
Compared to self-publishing, no-advance publishing may be a good option for you. You don't have to invest your money--possibly thousands of dollars--in producing a book. However, you need to go into it with your eyes open. It is not necessarily equivalent to working with a traditional publisher. You may not be able to rely on your publisher for their expertise. You may not be able to count on them to distribute and sell and market your book after it is produced, and you may end up having to do those things yourself, much as you do when self-publishing. Choose carefully.
- What a publisher does and what you would need to do.
- Do Traditional Publishers Market Their Books?
- Some guidance about publishing options in the "Twilight Zone" between traditional and vanity presses.
- Comprehensive Rundown of Publishing Options.
Related resources can be found on the Self-Publishing Index page, the Writing Articles Index page, and the Publishing Articles Index page.
Comments? Questions that weren't answered? Contact me.
This article is copyright © Harold Underdown, 2017 and may not be reproduced without permission. Single copies may be printed out for personal, non-commercial use.
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