by Harold Underdown
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In your journey toward publication, have you entered the Twilight Zone? When searching for the best route, the paths used to be fairly simple to follow. . . .
On the one hand, there were traditional publishers, who pay writers royalties in exchange for the right to publish their books, assume all the financial risk (which is considerable--thousands of dollars must be invested in a book before publication), and provide all the expertise and people needed to publish successfully (as explained in What a Publisher Does).
On the other hand, there were vanity presses, who expect the author to pay them for the production of a book, and in return deliver the entire print run to them, for them to handle the marketing, sales, and distribution. Vanity presses quite simply invert the usual relationship between author and publisher. They assume no financial risk. The author does. The author pays them, rather than the other way around. Vanity presses are also called "subsidy publishers," which may also mean a slightly different business approach, if the company asks for their costs to be subsidized but then does market the resulting book and pay royalties. In practice the two terms are used interchangeably.
Back then, and this is as recently as the mid-90's, the only other option was working with a printer, which was quite difficult to do. Since then, computer programs that enable publishers to prepare books for printing entirely on computers, coupled with the rise of print-on-demand (POD) technology, mean that the publishing process can be much less costly than it used to be.
Lower costs mean more people can self-publish, and companies have hurried towards this opportunity. Now, when looking for a publisher, you may enter a strange Twilight Zone of companies, not true royalty-paying publisher but not vanity presses either. These companies thrive by working with authors not willing to wait for traditional publication, or wanting more control over their book, or just wanting to get a family story in print. If you are considering entering The Twilight Zone, tread warily. Though a company operating in the Zone may portray itself as a traditional publisher, or as a simple service provider, the underlying reality of how they work may be quite different.
The Denizens of The Twilight Zone
The companies in The Twilight Zone use different financial and technological approaches to both reduce financial risk overall and transfer some or all of the risk that is left to the author. That may not be a bad thing. Taking on some of the risk yourself may be the only way to get a book published. It also may be a way for you to increase your profits. However, you have to keep your eyes open, and choose carefully.
If you investigate a lot of companies, you will find that they all follow one of a small number of approaches. Here's a short taxonomy of the ones I've observed. Figuring out how a company makes its money will help you choose the right kind for you, so as you research the possibilities, keep asking:
Who pays whom, and how much? Who takes the financial risk?
- Grant supported: this is not a large sector, but I've encountered companies that work in this way. Though they pay royalties, they expect authors to help pay for the production of their books by obtaining grants. This approach is most often found in academic publishing, though some grant-supported publishers do publish children's books.
- “Royalty only” – this name actually applies to two quite different kinds of companies:
- Small publishers who do edit, print, market, and do all the other things that traditional publishers do, don't pay advances, but do pay royalties.
- POD publishers, who accept almost anything sent to them, have few staff, and rely on selling small numbers of many titles, mainly due to the efforts of the authors. They pay royalties, but you must put in a lot of work to sell your book.
- See my post on "no-advance" publishers for more on this area.
- Sales requirements —Like the royalty-only POD publishers, these companies rely on their authors to sell their books, but with a twist. You must commit to selling a certain number of high-priced books. If you can't, you buy them yourself. This is really another form of vanity publishing, though you may get a royalty if you sell enough.
- Service providers—you pay them, but these companies are not as expensive as conventional printers, and you have more control over what you get from them. They may provide a variety of services and price levels.
- New alternatives—Crowd-funding and models built around every person involved in a book getting a share in earnings are developing. If you're interested in creative approaches to financing a book, these could work for you.
Note that many of the companies I've looked at offer both POD and ebook options. The difference between them isn't as great as you might think. In POD, a complete print-ready file is prepared, which can then be used to print one, a dozen, or hundreds of copies of a book. No inventory, no large print runs, but high costs per book. That same file can be used to make an ebook. Some authors have gone the ebook route, publishing on Amazon only, or at selected ebook outlets, and circumventing the publishers discussed here completely. Before working with one of the Twilight Zone publishers and service providers, consider that option too, which is quite attractive and may threaten their business model, as discussed in Jane Friedman's The Future of Self-Publishing Services.
Which of these types and subtypes will be right for you will depend on what you want to do. I'm not going to endorse or condemn any one type categorically, with the possible exception of vanity presses. You can always work directly with a printer for less. You must do your research, however, and ask questions. The integrity and ability of companies in any one of these areas varies greatly.
- How much you pay up front in setup fees and the like.
- How much you will have to pay over the life of the contract.
- How long you are locked in--what if your book succeeds, a publisher makes an offer, but you're unable to leave?
- What you get for your money: just the books, or support services as well?
- The quality of what you get for your money (design, paper, printing, binding.
- How much control you have over what you get.
- Your relationship with the company. Are you the source of another book in their catalog, meaning they are the publisher, not you? Or do they work with you to help you self-publish?
It's not easy to find your way in The Twilight Zone. Take your time. Don't jump at the first opportunity. Be wary of companies that advertise heavily. Ask other writers on writer's discussion boards. Check companies out on sites like Preditors and Editors.
Keep asking those key questions—who pays whom, and how much? Who is taking the risk?
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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