An author’s guide to publishing part 2: The many kinds of publishing in 2012

An author’s guide to publishing in 2012
by Amy Rogers

California Writers Club, Sacramento Branch Writers’ Network meeting, June 1, 2012.
Author Amy Rogers spoke on “Getting Published in 2012: What’s the Right Path for YOU?”

You’re a writer and you want your work to be published. Never before in history have you had so many choices about what to do after finishing your book. What does it mean to be “published” in 2012? And which of the innumerable ways to earn or buy publication best suits your individual needs and aspirations?

Dr. Amy Rogers, author, critic, and educator, writes science-themed thriller novels and reviews the genre at Her debut novel Petroplague was recognized by International Thriller Writers as part of its Debut Class 2011-2012.

Part 2 of 3: Getting “published”: the many kinds of publishing in 2012

For most of the history of the printed book, there were basically two ways for an author to get his work manufactured in a bound paper volume and distributed to readers: traditional publishing and vanity press publishing.

After years of acquisitions and consolidation, traditional publishing (trad pub, or if you prefer a new term coined by Barry Eisler, “legacy” publishing) is now represented by only six very large publishing houses, each of which controls numerous imprints (in-house brands): Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

Here’s an outline of how a trad pub deal typically works (for fiction):

  • Author writes a novel
  • Author queries dozens/hundreds of literary agents to find one willing to represent the work.  {Waiting period = months to years}  Representation may or may not include working with the author on developmental editing of the manuscript.
  • Literary agent puts the work on submission to specific acquisitions editors at specific publishers.  {Waiting period = weeks to years}
  • Editor falls in love with the work and convinces other people at the publishing house that the publisher can make money selling this work.  (This includes an explicit evaluation of the potential market—it’s not necessarily about the inherent quality or social/literary value of the book.)  Publisher offers the agent/author an advance and a contract.  {Waiting period = weeks to a year or more}
  • Agent keeps 15% of advance as payment for his services because until now he’s been working on spec.  Author gets the rest.  First novel advances are typically small, often less than $10,000, and usually are not paid in a lump sum but in fractions over time.
  • Publisher provides services to turn the author’s manuscript into a saleable book.  Developmental editing, copyediting, cover design, layout, getting ISBNs, clearing with legal/libel department, advance publicity, distribution to retailers.  Publisher determines size of initial print run; it will be related to the size of the advance.
  • Wait yet again; the time between signing a contract and holding your novel in your hands is likely to be 1-2 more years.
  • The book is published!  If it’s a book the publisher expects to go “big”, it will first be released in hardcover, with paperback following one year later.  Timing and pricing of e-book release varies with the publisher and title.
  • Author typically gets royalties of 10% of the cover price of the hardcover (say, $2.50 for a $25 book) and 7.5% of the paperback price (say, $0.60 for an $8 book).  E-book royalties are being hotly contested, but at the moment the norm is 25% of publisher’s net receipts (NOT the “cover” price); assuming the retailer keeps 30%, that works out to author royalties of 17.5% of the cover price (say, $0.87 for a $5 e-book).  Now reduce all of these royalty percentages by another 15% for the agent’s fee.  And remember, the author won’t actually get a single royalty check unless the amount earned exceeds the amount paid in the advance (which is not a signing bonus, it’s a kind of loan, an advance against royalties).

Until recently, a novelist’s only option outside the trad pub system was to take the manuscript to a vanity press.  The name itself suggests the contempt most people in the business had for such companies; a vanity press would publish books “not good enough” for a real publisher, doing so only to satisfy the author’s “vanity”.  Unlike traditional publishing, the costs of vanity publishing are paid upfront by the author in cash; the author is the publisher’s customer.  In trad pub, the costs are paid by the publisher and are recovered from the profits of selling books; booksellers and readers are the publisher’s customers.

“Vanity” publishing:

Some famous writers have used vanity presses but this publishing model suffers from a couple of major problems:

  • Excessive or fraudulent expenses charged to hopeful authors
  • Book distribution is left up to the individual author so books are not carried by major retailers, and the author may be unable to sell her books
  • Profound lack of respect for the work (sometimes well-deserved, of course)

Publishing, unlimited

But now the floodgates of publishing choice are open.  Traditional publishing continues much as I described earlier, but with less editing, smaller advances, poorer promotion, and a focus on safe, celebrity-driven blockbuster titles more than ever before.  The rest of the publishing ecosystem has exploded with diversity.  Our vocabulary to describe the many paths to publication has not kept up; here, I’ll outline some of the choices a writer has to publish a book in today’s world.


This is the buzzword on everyone’s lips, but what does it mean?   I find that many people are using the term “self-published” to broadly describe any book in any format that does not have the imprimatur of a Big Six publisher.  But this fails to account for the various degrees of self-publishing and also the new untraditional, professional publishing options out there.  So let’s begin by breaking down what I consider to be types of self-publishing:

1.  100% pure self-pub:  Writer handles every aspect of book production, possibly setting up her own small press.

  • Editing is probably the biggest difference from trad pub, and may include:
    • No editing
    • Self-editing by writer
    • Using unpaid friends/family as editors
    • Hiring editor(s) for pay.
      • Paid editors range from inexperienced to professionals with a history in traditional publishing.
      • Paid editing may include copy editing only (spelling, grammar, punctuation) or developmental/substantive editing (analyzing story structure, flow, etc.)
      •  Cover design
        • Writer does it or hires someone to do it
        • Layout
          • Writer must learn technical aspects of book design: margins, page numbering, fonts, recto and verso arrangement of pages, get ISBN number, etc.
          • Paper and e-book formatting require separate skill sets, both of which require a substantial investment of time and intelligence by the writer
          • Distribution
            • E-book: writer must get book in proper digital formats for various devices (mobi, epub, pdf, etc.) and must work separately with any online retailers to get the work listed for sale
            • Paper: writer will not have access to traditional bookstores because the self-published book will not be carried by the big distributors (Ingram, Baker & Taylor).  Writer can make arrangements for POD (print on demand) sales via amazon but primary sales venue will be in-person sales by the author.

Advantages of pure self-publishing:

  • Total control of content, design, pricing
  • Can do e-book only, print only, or both, with e-book only being the easiest
  • All profits go to author (after retailer commission is paid, if using amazon, Smashwords, etc.)
  • Fast, once you know how to do it.  Write something today, publish it tomorrow.
  • In dollar cost (not time cost), the cheapest way to self-publish

Disadvantages of pure self-publishing:

  • To produce a professional product the first time requires enormous investment of time and effort by the writer (easier once the skills are learned)
  • If writer wants to hire help, finding trustworthy, competent editors, graphic artists, book printers, etc. is a challenge.  Hiring help requires cash up front.
  • Tough to sell the final product.  Need a platform, and/or a really good publicist, and/or hundreds of hours of time to spend on promotion.

2.  Assisted self-publishing:  Writer hires a “general contractor” to manage all the stuff listed above.  This category includes pay-up-front models (subsidy publishing), and royalty-sharing models.

Using a subsidy publisher: writer pays a company for a complete package of services to produce the manuscript as a paper and/or digital book.  This is what used to be called vanity publishing, but that term is no longer used much.  Unlike old vanity publishing, subsidy publishing today is widely available, widely used, and has many competing companies providing services.  This change is primarily due to print-on-demand (POD) technology.  Whereas a “vain” writer in the past had to cough up some serious dough to physically print some copies of his book, writers now can choose to publish in digital formats only, or to print copies of their books only after a sale has been made (on demand).  This makes it possible to “publish” paperbacks and sell them on amazon without actually paying for the printing of a single copy in advance.  Amazon’s inventory of such books is virtual, and a copy is manufactured only when a customer buys the book.  POD keeps authors’ upfront costs lower, though it makes their books more expensive for customers because the per-copy cost of producing a few books is higher than for a large print run.

The big players in this market are CreateSpace (amazon), AuthorHouse (which includes Xlibris and iUniverse), and Lulu.  For e-book only self-publishing, other influential players are scribd, BookBaby, Smashwords, PubIt, and Kindle Direct.  There are many, many smaller, independent outfits now providing packages of self-publishing services to authors for a fee.  The big guys are not selective at all; they’ll print whatever words are given to them (barring anything that might get one of their executives arrested).  Some of the smaller companies pick and choose their clients or screen the work; at times there is little distinction between these companies and small independent presses.

In my hometown of Sacramento, we now have a new self-publishing option courtesy of our public library.  The I Street Press ( is an entire self-pub operation built around an Espresso machine.  This is a kind of Xerox machine for books.  You give it a formatted digital file of your book, and in about four minutes it spits out a fully formed, bound paperback book just like one you’d find in a store.  At a cost of roughly $9 per copy (plus set-up fees), it’s comparably priced with other small print run publishing options.

Advantages of assisted self-publishing:

  • Frees writer from acquiring the skills needed to do layout, design, digital file conversion, etc.
  • Writer doesn’t have to find/hire cover designer, get an ISBN, etc.
  • Writer can get his book out fairly quickly (weeks to months)
  • Writer retains control over content and cover design
  • The big subsidy publishers have online POD distribution so writer can sell books nationwide, often worldwide
  • All profits go to the author (after retailer commissions are paid)

Disadvantages of assisted self-publishing:

  • A minefield when it comes to choosing a publisher and a package; costs are often opaque, quality of design/layout/paper book bindings unknown until you see the proofs or hold the final product in your hands.
  • While some packages include “editing,” don’t expect much.  You may still need to hire a professional editor before submitting your work.
  • Overpaying is a constant risk.  Subsidy publishers make money selling extra services, especially advertising and publicity.  These services always sound good, usually are expensive, and rarely are worth the cost.  But it’s easy to be tempted and parted from your money.
  • Per-copy costs to the author who wants to hand-sell copies of her book are generally going to be higher than if she truly self-published, because the subsidy publisher controls the printing operation or contract.
  • If you’re not happy with the final product or the publisher, you can’t easily go it alone; the publisher usually retains rights to the cover and interior design, so you’re back to square one and must start over.
  • Tough to sell the final product.  Need a platform, and/or a really good publicist, and/or hundreds of hours of time to spend on promotion.  (I’m repeating this line like a refrain; it pretty much applies to all publishing models.)
  • On the same note, bricks-and-mortar bookstores generally will not stock subsidy press titles on their shelves

Assisted self-publishing: Royalty-sharing

Recently, several literary agencies and agents have started offering themselves in the role of general contractor to get their clients’ work “self-published.”  Typically the agents describe themselves as “consultants” but definitely not “publishers” because a firestorm of controversy has flared around the potential conflicts of interest inherent in agents becoming publishers.

But the fact is literary agents are well-placed to assemble teams of skilled editors and book designers to independently publish their clients’ backlist books,  and pieces too short for a traditional publisher, experimental works, or books rejected by the Big Six.  Dystel & Goderich, Andrea Brown, and BookEnds are early leaders in this type of venture.  The financing arrangements are in flux but generally the agents are not charging upfront fees.  Instead they claim a perpetual commission from sales, just as they do with books sold to a traditional publisher.

Assisted self-publishing:  Boutique Services.  I predict we’ll soon see a number of insiders from the traditional publishing industry creating teams to sell packages of professional-quality services directly to authors without becoming “publishers” per se.  There is a market for this niche; a writer who wants to avoid the subsidy publisher minefield could put up the money to get a professional-quality book edit and design without having to hire each expert separately.  This luxury boutique approach to subsidy publishing would be attractive to any self-publishing writer with enough cash on hand—especially those who are leaving traditional publishing to go it alone.  For one classy example, check out, a nontraditional publisher launched by industry insider (and author) J. E. Fishman.  (Be sure to read Folio #5 of Fishman’s “Publishing Primacy” blog series.)

3.  Not self-pub: Small presses

The next level closer to a traditional publishing arrangement is publishing with a small press (any that is not owned by the Big Six).  University presses, regional presses, niche publishers and many others fit in this category.  It’s not uncommon for such companies to only publish a few titles per year.  The key distinction that makes this “not self-pub” is the publisher, not the author, pays the costs of getting the book out there.

Because the publisher is investing its own money in developing the book, small or indie presses accept titles with an eye on the bottom line.  That means that unlike self-publishing, the author must provide a manuscript that is commercially viable.  (You can self-publish the alphabet written backwards if you want.)  This gatekeeper role is common to all publishing models that put the publisher’s money at risk (as opposed to the author’s money) and it remains a defining distinction between self-pub and all other publishing models.  It is also at the heart of the prestige question.  If self-pub works get less respect (note I said “if”), it’s because no objective third party has evaluated the works and decided that they are “worth” publishing.  While gatekeeping certainly keeps trash out of the publishing pipeline, it sifts too finely because publishing value is determined not so much by the “quality” of the book as by its marketability.  Celebrity-endorsed drivel will get published because it will sell, not because it’s good, and hundreds of quality first novels will get rejected because the publisher knows most readers buy books by authors they’ve already heard of.

Advantages of small / indie press:

  • May pay an advance (though many do not)
  • Professional editing, formatting, cover (quality will vary)
  • Access to the big distributors to potentially get paper books in stores
  • Publicity support (quality/quantity will vary)
  • Gatekeeper role confers some prestige

Disadvantages of small / indie press:

  • Advance may be small or nonexistent
  • Must share royalties with publisher
  • Author has less control over cover design, price, release date
  • High failure rate of small presses has left many an author with unpaid royalties or other administrative/legal problems; research your publisher carefully before signing
  • Gatekeeper role: they may not want your book
  • Tough to sell the final product.  Need a platform, and/or a really good publicist, and/or hundreds of hours of time to spend on promotion.  (True of all books in all formats!)

4.  Digital-only full-service publishers

This category didn’t exist until a few years ago and it remains under the radar.  Digital-only publishers operate like small presses but only release their titles in e-book formats.  This keeps their costs lower and allows them to take on riskier projects—such as first novels—that may not sell enough copies to catch the attention of a Big Six imprint.  My own publisher, Diversion Books, is a leader in this category.  Diversion is selective and prefers agented manuscripts; they provide all the services you’d expect from a small press.  If a title breaks out, Diversion can work with the author to produce paper books as well.  If not, the author retains all rights to self-publish in paper.  This creates an interesting situation; my science thriller Petroplague is currently on sale with two different covers and two different publishers, one for the professional e-book with Diversion and one for the paper books I produced at my own expense with a subsidy publisher.

Advantages of digital-only full-service publisher:

  • Professional editing, formatting, cover (quality will vary)
  • Writer doesn’t have to learn the technology of e-book distribution; publisher will get the title in all digital formats in all the major e-stores
  • Publicity support (quality/quantity will vary but will be less than trad pub)
  • Better royalty split on e-books than from a traditional publisher
  • Speed; time from acceptance to publication as little as 1-2 months
  • Gatekeeper role confers some prestige

Disadvantages of digital-only full-service publisher:

  • Usually no advance
  • Must share royalties with publisher
  • Compared to self-pub, author has less control over cover design
  • Tough to sell the final product.  Need a platform, and/or a really good publicist, and/or hundreds of hours of time to spend on promotion.  (True of all books in all formats!)

Part 1: What’s going on with publishing in 2012: Disruptive technology
Part 2: Getting “published”: The many kinds of publishing
Part 3: So you want to publish your book: what’s the best path for YOU?

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