Subsidy? Vanity? Self-? On-Demand? Which Publishing Option is Best?

Just reading a long discussion on one of the writers’ forums I’m a member of at LinkedIn and was compelled to post on the ever-popular topic of publishing options.

And there are many!  With all the confusion out there, it seems a post is warranted about what the choices are (in general) and what an author should expect from each.

Mind you, there’s much, much more on each of these on the Web — but here’s a primer to cover the basics.

Subsidy and vanity publishers: These are — essentially — companies that produce a physical book for you, and they charge you $$ to do it. Though they’ll vary in what they agree to do for you, most will not provide editing, proofreading, or marketing/promotion. If you:

  • have a manuscript that’s error-free and is exactly what you want in print
  • are willing and ready to do your own promotion
  • have an existing fan base or ideas about how to build one
  • don’t care what your cover looks like
  • can afford to spend a lot of money
  • have ample dry, clean storage space for all of the copies of the book they’re going to ship you
  • don’t care if your book is never reviewed

… then this option is a good one. Best bit of advice: read EVERYTHING the company has to say about what they do for you. They will not call themselves “vanity” and usually won’t use the word “subsidy” to describe themselves, either. So you need to know what you’re getting into. Keep your eyes open and (didn’t I just say this?!?) read everything — including the fine print in any contract, terms of agreement, or other documentation. Ask questions. Clarify.

The best books for this type of publishing? Hmm…. can’t think of any.

Self-publishing: This is when you take on all of the tasks of publishing your book yourself, from cover design to getting your own ISBN number (if you don’t know what that is or why you need it, this is probably not the best option for you and you can skip the rest of this description) to editing and marketing. You’ll need to create your own publishing company, find your own printing house (could be a local publisher or you could use an on-demand option). If you:

  • have a manuscript that’s error-free and is exactly what you want in print
  • want complete control over all aspects of your book’s production
  • are familiar with or are willing to learn about all aspects of the publishing process
  • are comfortable making decisions about things like print runs, bleeds, cover designs, pricing, etc.
  • want to be a publisher as much (if not more) than being a writer
  • are willing to do your own marketing and promotion
  • have an existing fan base or ideas about how to build one
  • can afford to spend a lot of money
  • have ample dry, clean storage space for all of the copies of the book you’ll have to get printed to make the prices affordable
  • don’t care if your book is never reviewed
  • want to cut out the middleman

… then this option is for you. Did you notice that this is nearly the same list as the one above? The key difference is that you have control — for some people, maybe too much. It’s a lot to do, so unless you’re very interested in immersing yourself up to the neck in the deep waters of publishing, don’t start down this path.

The best books for this type of publishing? Books that require special formatting and can sell for bookoo bucks, because it will cost you some green to get this project into print. Ironically, these are the books that tend to have very narrow markets for potential buyers, so — given all of the work it takes to get from here to there, you need to be really committed to your project.

Exception: Many self-published books are the result of authors who’ve been willing to take on the publishing process themselves, often for two primary reasons: absolute control, and increased profit over other options. Depending on your overhead and printing costs, you can maximize your financial return in ways you can’t control with other options.

Print-On-Demand (POD): Many authors are finding this is the best of both worlds. You retain some control while saving some up-front costs. If you:

  • have a manuscript that’s error-free and is exactly what you want in print
  • want some control over all aspects of your book’s production
  • are comfortable making decisions about things cover designs and pricing
  • are willing to do your own marketing and promotion
  • have an existing fan base or ideas about how to build one
  • want to publish in e-format and/or print but don’t want to figure out the formatting yourself
  • don’t have a lot of money to spend
  • are willing to give over some of your profits to a company that can serve as an online retailer for you
  • don’t care if your book is never reviewed
  • have a clear idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can hire others to do what you need

… then this publishing option is a good fit for you. You can publish for as little as FREE (yes!), meaning you make 100% profit, or you can hire others to design your cover, proofread/edit, and/or market your finished book. It’s up to you. This flexibility is what makes this option increasingly popular.

The best books for this type of publishing? Any. But you will have to work harder in fiction and general non-fiction categories for those sales than if you have a specialized topic and/or defined audience of readers. For example, my book aLearning: A Trail Guide to Association eLearning has actually sold much better through Lulu than my collection of short stories, primarily because my network for the aLearning book is (at this point anyway) much stronger.

Traditional Publishing: This is, of course, The Ultimate option for most of us. It continues to be the standard by which all authors are judged, whether we should be or not: if we answer the question about whether we’ve published with a yes, but that “yes” is because we used a print-on-demand option (for example), then somehow we’re seen as less worthy of being considered “legitimately” published. Too bad. Because traditional publishing is not the world it once was. There are very few major, traditional houses any more, and many (most? all? I’ve lost track) are intimately tied (through mega-corporations) to movie companies, TV networks, and other media outlets, which means they’re not as interested in good writing anymore as they are in what they can replicate through their other markets. Sad but true. And the small presses struggle mightily to get significant shelf space in the bookstores without the mega-dollars the big houses have (yes, those endcaps with those gorgeous displays are FOR SALE)… so what’s the value in traditional publishing? If you:

  • have the patience it will take to first shop your manuscript to agents who will then shop it to publishers
  • trust that the publisher will design the best cover (rarely will you get the chance to provide input)
  • are willing to promote your book (unless you’re a Big Name Writer or Celebrity, you won’t get nearly the marketing or promotion you might think you deserve)
  • have a book that fits the key categories that traditional publishers like to use
  • have a hot concept or theme
  • have built momentum  through your online presence or previous book sales
  • would like to see your book reviewed by major newspapers and magazines
  • would prefer to spend your time writing (and doing some marketing) rather than being a publisher
  • are willing to be a tiny fish in a big, deep pond

… then this option is a good one for you. It’s often worth the try, if you think your book has the right stuff for a traditional house. Research possible agents — don’t waste your time trying to break into a major publishing house without one. Of course, there’s a lot of other stuff you need to know and do to break into this market, but that’s off topic. Just know that you’re entering a serious business world when you venture into these waters.

Best books for this type of publishing? Something that will sell thousands and thousands of copies. If your book is more modest, then steer yourself down a different track. Millions of great books have been turned down by major publishers because the acquisitions folks didn’t think they’d sell enough copies to make it worth their while. Fair? Of course not. But very little is, right?

What do you think? Have we captured the key ingredients for these various publishing options? What would you add? Have your experiences aligned with these descriptions? Why or why not? We’d love to hear from you!

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2 thoughts on “Subsidy? Vanity? Self-? On-Demand? Which Publishing Option is Best?

  1. Ola! Ellenbooks,
    This might be off topic, however, When it comes to publishing your book, there are many options available. For several reasons, Print On Demand publishing is gaining popularity as a publishing medium.
    Cheerio

    • Thanks for stopping by the ellenbooks Blog. Yep, lots of ways to be published these days, and I’m using a few of them :) POD is gaining popularity because (among other reasons) of its efficiency — you’re not ordering nor paying for a bunch of books that are just sitting around. Good for saving space, good for the environment, good for the wallet. What more could a person want? Travel safely!

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