I've been fielding a lot of email questions about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of self-publishing lately. I have written a whole book on the subject, The IndieAuthor Guide, but it would be pretty obnoxious of me to answer each query by saying, "Buy my book and flip to page such-and-such," so I do my best to provide answers when I have them. Still, rather than answering the same questions over and over again in private messages which don't benefit the self-publishing community at large, I've decided to blog a series based on content from my book. I can't just copy and paste everything from the manuscript, because the thing is 300pp long and heavily illustrated besides. But I will present topics from the book to the extent of detail possible in a blog post. Note that I'm not covering editing, designing your own book cover, creating your brand or publishing to the Kindle here, since those topics are already presented on my website in the form of free pdf guides. First up in the series: Publishing Options.
Go On An Run Yo Mouth, I Ain't Got Nuthin' But Time Version (Can't Promise It Won't Go On Forever):
Vanity, Subsidy, POD, Oh My!
The terms “self-publishing”, “subsidy publishing”, “vanity publishing” and “print-on-demand” are often used interchangeably when people speak of self-publishing, but these terms aren’t synonymous. Rather, they describe different self-publishing options or processes.
In common usage, “self-publishing” has become a catch-all term. People using it may be talking about subsidy publishing, vanity publishing or print-on-demand (POD), but ironically, they’re rarely talking about true self-publishing. In the strictest sense, self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like: doing your own publishing. This is also known as “desktop publishing,” since it’s generally done with an ordinary computer, or ‘desktop’ computer. Typical self-publishing projects include club or family newsletters, brochures, booklets and research papers, any of which can be created using a standard word processor. There are also dedicated desktop publishing computer programs that enable the user to create more sophisticated and lengthier publications.
Either way, desktop publishing isn’t a workable solution for book manuscripts because binding options are severely limited. Office supply stores and print shops offer several types of binding, and can generally bind up to 300 pages. However, all their binding options are more fitting for reports or business documents than books. The pages may be hole-punched and placed between two report covers, or drilled for comb- or spiral-binding. The finished product will have a binding, but even if you customize the report covers with artwork and a book title, it won’t look like a book. You won’t be able to duplicate the look of a “real” book, which has pages glued or sewn into a wrap-around cover at the spine. Furthermore, having manuscripts bound individually is very expensive.Vanity Publishing
Vanity publishing is the process whereby an author pays a publishing service to format and publish a minimum number of copies of his book. The publisher usually offers related services on a fee basis, from editing to cover art design and even promotion. The author is essentially paying to have his book printed, and so long as he’s willing to pay the required fee, the publisher will not turn him away. It is because of this fact that as a group, books from vanity publishers are presumed to be of poor quality.
This bias is the primary downside to vanity publishing, but expense comes in at a close second. An author who chooses to go with a vanity publisher must pay all production costs for a minimum ‘print run’ of his book, generally at least 200 copies. Cost per book goes down as quantity goes up, but in most cases the author can expect to pay anywhere from US$5 - $10 per copy for a trade paperback edition and between US$8 - $16 for a hardcover. Multiply those figures by 200, then add hundreds more dollars in flat fees for project setup, optional ISBN assignment, proof corrections, project management and delivery. Add another thousand or two if the author pays for related services.
The third downside to vanity publishing is distribution, or lack thereof. When the print run is finished, all the books are delivered to the author and it’s up to him to store them, sell them, give them away, or otherwise dispose of them. With few exceptions, brick-and-mortar bookstores won’t stock any type of self-published book. They’re particularly leery of books from vanity publishers, all of whose names are widely known in the publishing and bookselling industries.
More recently, vanity publishers have begun addressing the distribution problem by setting up online bookstores to stock their clients’ work, but the sites don’t get much traffic because they only stock the vanity publisher’s books, and again, most people assume those books aren’t very good. Enterprising authors can turn a profit selling their books themselves, on their own website, at community fairs, through direct mail and so on. Occasionally one will even do well enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher, but this is very rare.
Lastly, even though vanity publishers are only providing services for a fee, they act like conventional publishers when it comes to contracts and rights. As part of the publishing arrangement, the author will be required to sign a contract granting certain, exclusive rights to the publisher. The contract may stipulate that the author cannot publish the same work in the same format, or any other format, for a set period of years. In this way, the publisher ensures the author must go back to the same publisher to order additional print runs if the book is successful enough to sell out its first print run. The contract will also specify whether or not the author can buy his way out of the contract before the term is up, and if so, what it will cost. This stipulation lines the vanity publisher’s pockets in the event a mainstream publisher wants to publish the book.
Subsidy publishing is virtually identical to vanity publishing, except that subsidy publishers will not publish every manuscript submitted to them. Instead, they accept submissions (sometimes for a fee) and choose the manuscripts they wish to publish. Subsidy publishers sprang up as a legitimate self-publication alternative to vanity publishing. Subsidy publishers aren’t all created equal, however. Some are hardly more discerning than vanity publishers, while others are so selective as to rival mainstream publishers.
The worst subsidy publishers are ripoff artists par excellence, assuring every prospective client her manuscript is a diamond in the rough that is practically guaranteed to become a bestseller if she will only pay for professional editing, artwork, promotion, and other services—all of which just happen to be offered by the publisher or a company referred from the publisher. The best subsidy publishers truly strive to distinguish themselves by putting out quality books and dealing fairly with authors, but even in that case the author must contend with all the same downsides as she would face with a vanity publisher. She must pay for a minimum print run and related services, she must sign over at least some of her publication rights in a contract, and she faces all the same distribution challenges as a vanity-published author.
Print On Demand
While vanity or subsidy publishing is fine for a book with a built-in customer base, such as a textbook published by a college professor for use in his class, Print On Demand (POD) is the best way to go for an author who intends to sell her book to the general public. As with vanity publishing, an author who chooses POD is essentially paying for printing services. There is no selection process on the part of the publisher. Also as with vanity and subsidy publishers, POD companies may offer related services for a fee, and the published books aren’t likely to be carried by brick-and-mortar stores. That’s where the similarities end, however.
There is no minimum print run to order and pay for with POD because the publisher stores POD books in digital format. Individual copies of the book are printed and bound by automated systems “on demand”, meaning each time an order for the book is received. The author doesn’t pay to have on-demand copies produced. Instead, the printer keeps a share of the book’s price to cover its production costs and pays the remainder to the author as a royalty.
POD publishers may offer services related to publishing for a fee, but they are also prepared to accept print-ready files from authors. This is where the author can save thousands of dollars, by doing as many of those related tasks as he can for himself instead of paying for services. Some POD publishers don’t even charge set-up fees. In that case, the only expense that must be shouldered by the author is the cost of proof copies, which must be printed in order for the author to review the book before approving it for publication.
With a POD publisher, the author retains all rights to his work. If there’s any contract at all, its terms are limited to the details of fees, royalty payment, services provided and the responsibilities of each party. If your publisher requires you to order a minimum print run or sign over any of your publication rights, it’s a subsidy or vanity publisher. Most POD publishers have distribution relationships with major, online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble, through which the bookseller agrees to sell the POD publisher’s books on its website. Some POD publishers only offer this as an optional service, and only for a fee. Another service some POD publishers offer, always for a fee, is ‘guaranteed returns’, whereby brick-and-mortar stores are allowed to return any unsold copies of POD books to the publisher. This is supposed to encourage brick-and-mortar stores to carry POD books, since many cite ‘un-returnability’ as a reason not to carry them, but in reality the centralized purchasing departments and computerized inventory systems of chain bookstores present obstacles at least equal to concerns about money lost on unsold copies. My previous blog post, Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch, provides rationale enough not to invest too heavily in courting big chain bookstores.
All POD publishers can print paperback books in various, standard sizes, both in black and white and full color, but only some of them can print books in hardcover editions. When the hardcover option is available, the production cost for it is much higher than that charged for paperbacks. Since an author who goes the POD route can still opt to pay for certain related services as desired, vanity and subsidy publishers have no advantages to offer the typical indie author. Why pay stiff fees upfront, warehouse your books, and sign away your publication rights if you don’t have to? POD book production is also 'greener', in that no books are printed until they're bought and paid for by actual customers. There are no crates of returns going back to the publisher, no overstock being marked down or remaindered, no unsold copies headed for the dumpster.
Next Time: Rights, Royalties and Advances
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