Books by Melissa Bowersock

Friday, September 27, 2013

Definitions of Publishing

In many of the writers' forums online, there is continual discussion about the various forms and phases of publishing, and unfortunately it's not uncommon for newbies to get switched onto tracks that may do more harm than good. I have seen a lot of the popular terms for publishing tossed about incorrectly and have seen a lot of newbies that are obviously confused about what they mean. As a public service, I thought I'd attempt to bring a little clarity to the issue.

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING - A medium to large publishing house, generally with a recognized name and a history behind it, that offers to enter into a contract with a writer in order to publish a book. A traditional publisher may or may not offer an advance, and the amount of any advance varies widely. The advance, if offered, is exactly that--it is funds that are advanced from the projected sales of the book. What that means for the author is that s/he will see no royalties until the earnings have repaid and then exceeded the advance. Once that occurs, the author will receive royalties as spelled out in their contract.

Generally with traditional publishing, an author may feel that s/he is signing away their book, relinquishing it to the publisher to do with it as they will. Except for the top-earning authors, this is more likely true than not. The traditional publisher will often claim (in the contract) full authority over the cover design of the book, the title, and the packaging. In return, they will agree to handle all aspects of publishing--editing, design, printing, binding, distributing, promoting and marketing. All of these aspects may be done to varying degrees.

My first two books were published by a NY house back in the 1980s. While it was an exhilarating experience to be traditionally published, it was also a rude awakening to discover how little input and control I had over my own books. 

Typically a traditional publisher does not like to gamble. They like proven genres by proven authors. They're not eager to think outside the box and take on an unknown, nor do they like multi-genre or difficult-to-define books. They base their decisions on past data: what's been selling, what's been trending, what or who has proven to bring in sales. They are generally not open to new, unproven ideas. 

A traditional publisher will never ask an author for money. NEVER. They will not agree to publish a book unless they believe it will be a money-maker for them (and you). They do not charge for any of their services to you, the author, but hope to recoup any expenses on the sales of the book. If you are negotiating with a publishing outfit that is asking you for money, see Vanity Publishing, below.

SMALL PRESS PUBLISHING - Virtually the same as traditional publishing, with the exception that small presses are (obviously) smaller and more agile than their behemoth brothers, are more willing to take a chance on a new writer, yet may be limited in scope, resources ($), and manpower. The way this translates to the writer is that (1) a small press might be more open to taking on a new writer and promoting new ideas, (2) they may have a smaller staff, which can sometimes mean a more personal experience, and (3) they may offer a tiny or even no advance. As above, they will never ask an author for money. As above, if they agree to publish a book, it will be because they truly believe it will sell and they will be able to recoup their expenses through sales. 

The good news about small presses is that they very often will work closely with an author and be more open to collaboration on the design and title issues of a book. The bad news is that they likely have a very limited budget, and will expect the author to the do the lion's share of  promotion and marketing. I've had a few of my books published by small presses, and most of the experiences with them were good, although sales were generally low.

VANITY PUBLISHING - Basically, think "pay to publish." If a writer approaches (or is approached by) a publisher that promises to produce their work of art for X number of hundreds (or thousands) of dollars, that's a vanity publisher. The problem with vanity publishers is that, once you've paid them up front, beyond carrying out the clauses of the contract to produce and publish your book, they have very little incentive to sell your book. They've already got their money. The royalty split in your contract is gravy to them, gravy they have little interest in expending any effort on.  You, the author, will be left with every bit of the promotion and marketing grunt work. 

In addition, vanity presses frequently offer additional services which, of course, mean additional money. They will offer upgraded editing packages,design packages, distribution packages. It all sounds great, and it all adds up to a lot more money and very little return. They still have no incentive to sell your book.

Early in my career, I did hook up with a vanity publisher. This was ages ago, before self-publishing had come into its own and before there was much in the way of warning signposts for up-and-coming authors. Again, it was an expensive lesson, but there were some positives to the experience. This particular publisher really did go all out to drum up promotional opportunities for his authors, although it was up to us to pursue them. While I would not recommend this publisher at this point, back at that time it was another stepping stone that has since brought me to where I am today, and I won't complain about that.

SUBSIDY or HYBRID PUBLISHING - Actually just a euphemism for vanity publishing. Some vanity publishers (pay to publish) bill themselves this way, saying they are a hybrid or bridge between self-publishing and traditional publishing. 

SCAM PUBLISHING - While vanity publishing can be easily defined by the "pay to publish" benchmark, that is not the only red flag when it comes to scam publishing. One of the biggest scams out there is PublishAmerica, which boldly says, "We don't want your money; we want your book!" And it's true; they don't want your money--yet. They will agree to publish just about anything (I heard someone submitted a manuscript that was nothing but lorem ipsum, and they agreed to publish it, but have no proof of that), and they will hold up their end of the contract. Your book will be produced, it will be published, it will appear on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers. However, the gotcha comes in the form of the inflated retail price they set, often three times more than a book should cost, and their only very aggressive marketing plan is to sell to you, the author. They will bombard you with weekly, even daily, e-mails, announcing all sorts of "sales" if you buy your own book in bulk numbers. Because they have priced your book far beyond the realm of normal, you will see very few, if any, sales. 

If you've fallen for this, don't beat yourself up too badly over it. I fell for it, too, years ago, before I completely understood self-publishing. It was a fairly expensive lesson, but extremely educational.

SELF-PUBLISHING - This is often where newbies become confused. I frequently see in some online forums where a new author says they are self-publishing their book through XX for xx amount of dollars. Generally, after some discussion, it becomes apparent that they are actually dealing with a vanity publisher. This is not self-publishing, not in the truest sense of the term. Self-publishing means the author does (or hires out) the work of editing, formatting, titling, designing, packaging and uploading their book to a company that then produces the actual book. The self-publishing company acts as a printer, hired to produce a book as they would by any publishing house. But in this case the author is also the publisher. The author sets the retail price, retains full control over the property and generally enjoys much higher royalties from sales.

And because so many writers are confused about the definitions of self- versus vanity publishing, they are often unaware that self-publishing can be extremely affordable. I work exclusively with CreateSpace, Amazon's self-publishing arm, through which you can literally publish for about $10, just the cost of a proof copy and shipping. Really. That's not a typo. $10. There is an expanded distribution channel (about $25) that is absolutely worthwhile, but it's purely optional. 

The catch here, of course, is that the author either does or contracts out all the work involved. ALL of it. (That's why they put the self in self-publishing!) 

RESEARCH - My advice to all up and coming writers is: do your homework. Research the publishing companies you're considering. Make sure you understand how they work, what they do, what's left to you to do, and the cost. An excellent resource is Predators & Editors. If you still have questions, check the online forums in LinkedIn, browse through the extremely helpful posts of Indies Unlimited, or comment below or send me an e-mail. There's a great big family of writers out there with years of experience and hard-won knowledge, and we're happy to share. If we can help steer you through the mine field and help you avoid the pitfalls, we're happy to do so.


  1. Melissa, thanks for summing it up so well. Sharing! :)

  2. Hey, thanks for sharing! I've seen quite a bit of confusion about this lately, so hoped to clear it up a little.