For new writers, in particular, navigating the often murky and sometimes turbulent waters of the publishing world can be bewildering. It’s an ever-changing environment riddled with sharks and land mines. Where do you set your foot down? What step is safe to take?
Some of the confusion has to do with the language of publishing these days: traditional, indie/small-press, vanity, and self-publishing. What do they all mean? Let me try to clear the waters a bit.
Traditional publishing: We think of ‘traditional’ publishers as those who buy a book from an author, pay an advance royalty, and assume all costs of producing that book. Generally the list has included long-standing trade book publishing houses such as: Hachette Book Group, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and MacMillan Publishers. Today there are smaller publishing houses that fit the ‘traditional’ definition and contract the book, pay a small advance, and cover all production costs for the book. You may or may not need an agent to submit your book to traditional publishers. Many of the ‘Big Five’ now have lines that do not require agent submission and accept submissions directly from the author. I should note here that advances are not ‘free money.’ They are an advance royalty that will be earned out on book sales. They show confidence in the book and its ability to sell.
Indie publishing: With the advent of e-book technology in the 1990’s, e-publishers began to pop up. Initially, some required a set-up fee to publish your book, dancing them close to the ‘vanity press’ definition. However, as ebooks grew in popularity, so did e-publishers. Some began to offer small ($25) advances on books, drawing them closer to the more traditional publishing model. The small independent publishing house, by and large, staffed their own cover artists and editors. The writer contracted for two or three years for their book. However, fees were covered in the gross income from the book and writers paid about 30% of the ‘net’. In essence, the author still shares in the cost of book production. Here is a link to an excellent blog post on Writers in the Storm that better details the ins and outs of royalties. http://writersinthestormblog.com/2016/05/royalty-clauses-in-publishing-deals-how-how-much-authors-get-paid/
Some of the small indie publishers initially offered books in e-book formats only. Many expanded to offering both e-book and trade paperback. And some now have expanded into audio books. The term ‘indie publisher’ simply means the publisher stands apart from the larger ‘traditional’ publishing houses. These are smaller sometimes ‘boutique’ publishers. Many are built on a solid business model, while others employ questionable practices. It’s always best for a writer to research the publisher, their contract stipulations, and even talk to a few of their authors.
More and more self-publishing writers are now referring to themselves as ‘indie’ published because they are the sole publisher of their work. That doesn’t make them a publishing house, but many have established themselves under a publishing name rather than using their own name. For example, I independently publish my books under the name of 3rd Act Books.
Self-Publishing: Many more writers are now self-publishing. This has proven to have an upside and a downside, both for the writer and for the reader. Self-publishing, by definition, means the writer assumes all responsibility for publication of the book. This can be done in one of two ways: the writer contracts an artist for cover art and an editor for editing. The other option is that the writer purchases services with a publishing services company. Here’s where the true minefield exists for writers.
A common mistake in self-publishing is believing you can do it all yourself. If you peruse books on an online site like Amazon, you will see beautiful, engaging covers. And then you’ll see the ones that look like third-grader art. Use the ‘look inside’ feature. It won’t take long to distinguish those books that were self-published with the services of an editor/proofreader and those that were not. Some of the books I’ve seen listed are true train wrecks.
Self-publishing writers often cut corners with both cover art and editing. Professional editing services are not cheap, but editing is essential, as is proofreading. We writers tend to read over mistakes because our minds are already set on what is supposed to be there. The writer also needs to be prepared to learn about formatting for a variety of vendors. It’s not that difficult, but it is a learning experience at first. There are legitimate companies out there that offer formatting services for a fee.
Vanity presses: There are also companies out there that call themselves publishers, but are what we know to be ‘vanity’ presses. These are companies that contract with the writer to produce their book, most often with a fee running into a thousand dollars or more. They offer ‘packages.’ Let’s be clear about one thing: These are NOT publishers. They are companies offering publishing services—editing, cover art, listings on vendor sites, and promotion. Most are, in my opinion, scammers feeding off the desire of new writers to become published, many of whom don’t have the patience to take their time and do it the right way. There are a few companies that appear to offer legitimate for-fee services. Writers must be vigilant and do their homework. Ask questions, not just of the company, but of other writers and authors. Learn from the mistakes and experiences of others.
The general rule of thumb is this: The money should flow from the publisher to the author, not the other way around.
The exception may be if you are contracting with a company or individual for certain book services—cover art, editing, distribution, and marketing. Know what you are buying. The self-described ‘publishers’ who offer you a ‘book contract’ to publish your books for only $1295 up front is likely a vanity press. Called ‘vanity’ because they are appealing to the vanity of the writer who wants to get their book in print at any and all cost. The companies that offer services for a fee and not an inclusive contract may be legitimate, but check the prices, search the history of the company—be wary. Do your homework.
Those of us who are driven to write and have a desire to have our work published are like lambs among the wolves when it comes to vanity presses. Many new writers see the end result as the prize and feel that purchasing the vehicle to get there is the only way to go. It’s one way and, in my opinion, not the best way. I’ve talked to many writers who have expressed remorse at spending thousands to have their book produced only to find themselves garnering little to nothing from sales and unable to get back the rights to their work. Most of these vanity presses overprice the book to the point it cannot compete in the commercial market. They also tend to charge the author exorbitant fees to purchase their own books for sale.
Don’t sell yourself and your book short. Don’t take short-cuts and end up with a book that’s poorly edited (if edited at all), cheaply covered, and only promoted in places where you could promote the book yourself. Don’t be taken in by empty promises. Basically, don’t sell your soul to the devil.
Most published authors like myself are more than willing to answer questions and offer guidance based upon our own experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask an author when you’re unsure of which way to go. We’re all in this together.