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the last few years, the publishing industry has been changing exponentially. The traditional publishing houses are now scrambling to establish a presence on the Internet and position themselves in an arena they've vastly underestimated.

The surge in blogging, podcasting, e-books, Internet radio shows, social networking forums, and a multitude of other ways to market a book online has created more opportunities than ever for an author to promote her book. With the power of Amazon sales, the easy accessibility of book production freelancers, and the widespread use of digital and print on demand technology, the secret curtain has finally been pulled back, exposing the great and powerful Oz of traditional publishing as not so great, and no longer as powerful.

This is good news for writers. But with the increase of viable publishing choices, there is also a personal responsibility to thoughtfully research each option.

The structure and process of the traditional publishing model is the most familiar, and the path most writers pursue. If you would like to read an amazingly detailed analysis, check out Deconstructing the Big Houses from the March 2007 issue.

The focus of this article will be on the paths less traveled.

Some writers:  those frustrated by the difficulty of acquiring representation by an agent; those who are unhappy with their advance/royalties/contract terms from a traditional publishing house; those who want more control and a larger cut of their book sales; those writers, are the ones who begin looking around for other ways to get what they want—to get their books into the hands of readers.

If an author decides to take an alternate path, these are her options:

  • Subsidy/Vanity Publishers
  • Self-Publishing
  • Independent Publishers
  • Book Shepherds

There are distinct pros and cons to each. And by examining the differences, an author will be able to determine which choice suits her specific publishing goal.

Vanity publishing now has a new name:
Subsidy publishing…

Subsidy/Vanity Publishers

Vanity publishing has been around for decades and has been spurned by the traditional publishing community from the beginning. Books that were published through a vanity publisher were considered substandard, both in writing and production quality.

Vanity publishing now has a new name: Subsidy publishing, though they often market themselves using the terms “self-publishing” and “POD (Print On Demand) publishing.” A Google search using these terms will result in page after page of companies offering to help authors publish their books. Some of the most well-known and largest subsidy publishers, in no particular order, are: Authorhouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Outskirts, and Trafford.

In a couple of ways, these companies function like traditional publishers—they pay royalties to the author for books sold and they hold the rights to the work by providing the ISBN. However, there are some significant differences.

A traditional publisher purchases the manuscript (pays the author an advance) and provides production services such as editing, cover and interior design, layout, typesetting and printing, limited marketing, distribution, etc. The publishing house, after having taken the risk gambling that the book will sell, and providing the production services, then takes the lion's share of the profit from the book sales, the agent takes her cut, and the rest goes to the author in the form of a small royalty per book.

An author using this publishing model only makes money on volume.

An author using this publishing model only makes money on volume. Without a bestseller, or numerous books in print and throngs of devoted fans, the average bookstore shelf life for an author is three months.

A subsidy publisher requires the author to pay for all production services for the book. Most subsidies entice authors by offering what appears to be a "quick, easy, and affordable" way to have their books published. The subsidy will low-ball a package costing only a few hundred dollars; however, the more services an author wants, the more it will cost, and the price quickly rises from the hundreds into the thousands.

The subsidy house provides an ISBN and that makes them the publisher of record. (Which is the #1 reason they should not be allowed to misappropriate the term self-publishing.) Often the wording in the contract grants the subsidy the rights to an author's work. They take the lion's share of the book sales and they pay the author in the form of a small royalty if any of the books sell from the subsidy house website or Amazon.

Subsidy publishers have the books printed using on-demand printing technology and they don't keep a stock of books from an offset print run stored with a wholesaler or distributor as is customary with traditional publishing houses. It is also important to note that when I say “have the books printed” it means they do not print the books, they farm out the print work to actual printing companies who use digital technology that allows for printing books one-at-a-time, as they are ordered.

Subsidy/vanity publishing is not

This is the part of the subsidy publishing model that makes the least sense: after already paying exorbitant amounts of money on book production services, there is little or no physical product delivered to the author. Some subsidy publishers give the author a set number of books, usually under 20, or the author is “allowed” to buy the books at a discount to resell at full cover price. But if top-notch editing and book design contracted with freelancers runs between $3,000-$4,000, and an average offset print run of 2,000 books costs approximately $4,000 to produce, and a subsidy publishing house is charging in excess of $10,000 for their services and not actually printing any books until someone orders them—then where does all the author's money go? Even for someone who wasn't very good at math word problems in school, it just doesn't add up.

Often the subsidy contracts are worded to assure authors that they can cancel and leave at any time. But the fine print delivers the final shakedown. If an author chooses to leave a subsidy house, no matter the reason, whether to take her book to an independent publisher or to establish herself as a self-publisher, the book's ISBN, editing, cover and interior design, layout, and any other work created by the subsidy house remains in their possession even though it was paid for by the author. To move forward with her book, the author will have to purchase her own block of ISBNs, and pay again for someone to edit, design, and format the book.

Make no mistake. Subsidy/vanity publishing is not self-publishing, no matter what terminology they use to describe their publishing model. A subsidy/vanity publisher is easily defined as any publishing company who requests fees or requires an author to pay for a publishing package of services and then places their ISBN on an author's book.

Now, with that said, there is nothing wrong with choosing subsidy publishing if that particular publishing model suits your goals.

“The economics of a subsidy-publishing model also does not allow for success selling
through traditional trade channels…”

Subsidy publishing is a viable option for an author who has no desire to delve into the production aspect of publishing and only wants a few overpriced books to give to relatives and friends.

If an author would like to pursue traditional brick and mortar stores, this is where the subsidy-publishing model fails to be a reasonable choice.

In the publishing industry, there is still a prejudice and stigma associated with subsidy/vanity publishing. The top reviewers— Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, ForeWord, and Booklist will not review books published by a subsidy house. Ingram and Baker & Taylor, the two major wholesalers who provide books to the bookstore and library markets do not consider subsidy published books.

The economics of a subsidy-publishing model also does not allow for success selling through traditional trade channels where providing a 65-70% discount is necessary for distributors to get the book placed in stores. The distributors require a 25-30% discount, retail bookstores require a 40% discount and full guarantee they can return unsold books, and Amazon requires 55%. When you look at the retail cover price that is needed to turn a profit from a subsidy-published book with an already higher per-unit production cost, it is clearly priced out of being competitive with other comparable books in the marketplace.

According to an article in The New York Times, only 84 titles out of 17,000 published by iUniverse sold more than 500 copies. Not good odds. However, there is always a success story that keeps the flame of hope alive. Laurie Notaro, the author of The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club, first published with iUniverse before being offered a two-book deal by Random House. So, miracles do happen.

Yes, subsidy publishing is an option, but there are others.


There is only one definition for self-publishing:  it is a publishing model where the author pays the cost of and makes all decisions regarding editing, design, production/printing, marketing, and fulfillment/distribution for her book.

Self-publishing is a big task with a learning curve. It requires research, a huge time commitment, and the financial means. However, taking on the production side of creating a book is not nearly as difficult as the traditional and subsidy publishers would like authors to believe.

“…an author can establish herself as a publisher by coming up with a name
for her publishing company and
applying for a block of ISBNs…”

Although this is a giant oversimplification, essentially, an author can establish herself as a publisher by coming up with a name for her publishing company and applying for a block of ISBNs—a simple 10-digit series of numbers (now 13 digits as of Jan 2007). An International Standard Book Number appears on the back cover of every book and is unique to each title, identifying the title and publisher to the sales channels in the marketplace. A block of ISBNs should be purchased through Bowker. Buying ISBNs anywhere else will result in assigning someone else as the publisher of record, so don't do it. The smallest quantity is a block of ten for $275. A separate number must be assigned to each format in which your title appears: hardback, paperback, audio book, a revised edition, etc. So, even if an author only plans to be a one-book wonder, she could potentially use four ISBNs for one title.

Of course, there is more to establishing a micro publishing company than selecting a name and buying ISBNs. The standard business steps of choosing an imprint logo, drafting a business plan, filing a fictitious name statement, acquiring a business license, reseller's permit, and a federal tax ID number all apply. There are also specific publishing related business filings that need to be completed.

“I'm wondering why any author would be crazy enough to do all this. Oh yeah… for the lion's
share of the profit. Now I remember why.”

There will be freelancers to hire, vendors to source, accounting to set up, warehousing, shipping and fulfillment to establish—and…all of a sudden, I'm wondering why any author would be crazy enough to do all this. Oh yeah, for complete creative control, uncompromised rights to one's written works indefinitely, the ability to keep a title in print for as long as the author chooses and as long as it sells, and the lion's share of the profit. Now I remember why.

The business aspect of creating a publishing company can seem daunting, but once the initial foundation is built, the author's future works will have a channel to reach their audience with ease. Because an author/publisher has complete control of her works, she can determine her publishing strategy. A micro publisher may choose to do an offset print run of 1,500 to 2,000 books and warehouse them in her garage, doing her own fulfillment of orders received. She can choose to use digital printing technology through a company like Lightning Source Inc. (a company that is used by traditional publishing houses) and have them print and fulfill orders on demand with low to no out of pocket printing expenses. Many author/publishers launch their first title digitally with print on demand and then switch to a large offset print run when their marketing hits a stride and their book begins selling well.

The key to volume sales is the focused effort put into marketing directly to a book's target audience. With traditional publishers doing less and less to promote an author, it's up to the author to make book sales happen. That kind of tireless and dedicated effort should reward the author, not the publisher. But as a micro press, the author works for herself and keeps every penny of her efforts.

Most authors know exactly who will read their books—the reader who identifies with the plight and experience of the main character and the reader who is seeking the information the author is providing. This is where the author/publisher has an advantage over the traditional houses. The author can reach out to her audience because she knows who they are, where they shop, how they think, and what they want. It's a powerful position to be in if it is handled properly.

The majority of self-published authors knows their niche and are successful at selling their books without ever stepping into a traditional bookstore. Many self-publishers also speak on specific topics and themes addressed in their books (both fiction and nonfiction) and make significant back of the room sales by selling their books at their seminars.

There are many opportunities for a micro press author/publisher to achieve success with their books. With the help of great resource organizations like PMA-The Independent Book Publishers Association (see a review of PMA in this issue of WOW!) and networks of independent publishers across the United States linked together through professional groups and the Internet via trade discussion groups like the Self-Publishing Forum (sponsored by SPAN) the future of publishing will continue to change in favor of the micro press author/publisher.

A List of Self-Publishing Must-Reads:

The Self-Publishing Manual, by Dan Poynter
The Publishing Game: Publish a book in 30 Days!, by Fern Reiss
Book Design and Production, by Pete Masterson
The Permission Seekers Guide Through the Legal Jungle, by Joy Butler
Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers, by Tad Crawford

A List of Book Marketing Must-Reads:

Plug Your Book, by Steve Weber
Grassroots Marketing For Authors and Publishers, by Shel Horowitz
Beyond the Bookstore, by Brian Judd
Aiming at Amazon, by Aaron Shepard
1001 Ways to Market Your Book, by John Kremer

[These books are on my desk and I've found them to be invaluable resources.]

Web Resources:
The Reference Desk for Publishers
New Self-Publisher's FAQ

Independent Publishers

Independent publishing companies, also known by the terms “small press publisher” and “micro press”, function much like traditional publishing houses. They select manuscripts that fit with their imprint/list, provide production services (usually contracted out to freelancers rather than done by in-house staff), and pay royalties to authors.

Though independent publishing companies can be queried without going through an agent, they often offer a very small or no advance. Independent publishing companies can range in size from having a single title to a hundred titles or more.

The benefits of going with an independent publishing company are the relationship between author and publisher who work closely as a team to promote the success of the book, and a greater opportunity for the author to participate in the creative aspects of the design process.

Two drawbacks of pursuing a deal with an independent publisher are the challenge to find a publisher who is the right fit for your book, and the difficulty in persuading them to take a risk and gamble on the selling power of you and your book. Hmmm…that sounds a lot like the way it is with traditional publishing. I guess this is an isolated case where size doesn't matter.

“You're not losing your mind.
There is crossover.”

You may notice as you read through the sections on self-publishing, independent publishers, and book shepherds that there seems to be a lot of crossover. You're not losing your mind. There is crossover. Authors who decide to self-publish and establish their micro press very often go on to publish the work of other authors or they assist new self-publishers through the process by acting as book shepherds.

Book Shepherds

Sometimes referred to as “publishing consultants” and “book packagers”—a book shepherd acts as a self-publishing travel guide. Many book shepherds are also independent publishers who, for a fee, help authors navigate the self-publishing process. Some are freelancers who do cover and interior layout design, are familiar with the publishing process, and choose to provide shepherding services. Some have an extensive background working in the book printing industry and have decided to use their experience to provide shepherding services to authors taking their first steps toward self-publishing.

“…a true book shepherd will never make any claims to an author's book rights…”

With the proliferation of companies popping up on the Internet overnight, and all of them seeming to offer the same services, there is an important point that easily distinguishes a book shepherd from a subsidy publisher—a true book shepherd will never make any claims to an author's book rights, they will not expect exclusivity, nor will they angle for any portion of the book sales.

A book shepherd provides services such as content development coaching (usually for nonfiction authors), necessary business filings for ISBNs, barcodes, U.S. Copyright, Library of Congress Number, etc.—all under the author/publisher's name. They often provide referrals to freelancers for editing, cover and interior design, make recommendations for printing companies and prepare print quote requests. Some also assist in setting up a website for an author by securing a domain name and a hosting service (in the author's name), and contracting a web designer. Additional services also extend to helping craft a bio, create a media kit and press releases, and set up Amazon and other online retail accounts.

Services and rates vary depending on the book shepherd selected. The decision to work with a book shepherd is a smart choice for an author who wants to self-publish but needs or prefers guidance from someone who is familiar with the process. Using a book shepherd will be a slightly more expensive route for an author than if she learns the self-publishing process herself, but it will reduce the overall publishing timetable, decrease the chance of first-timer errors, and free her to focus on what she does best—write. And, of course, market her brilliant book.

In Conclusion

Now that you've survived the journey through the myths and truths of self-publishing, you are poised at the beginning of an alternate publishing path. It's up to you to take the next step and explore this new territory to see if another world of publication is waiting for you. Before I start making lame, disjointed analogies about westward expansion, living your dream, and going for the gold, I'll end here by suggesting that you consider your options. And I encourage you to ask questions, lots of questions.


Annette Fix is a contributing editor for WOW! She is an author and spoken word storyteller based in Laguna Niguel, CA. An excerpt from her e-book, The Hungry Writer's Guide to Tracking and Capturing a Literary Agent was featured in WOW's September 2006 issue. Annette's memoir, The Break-Up Diet published in 2008 from her micro press Orange Curtain Publishing.


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