Friday, June 19, 2009

The difference between self-publishing and subsidy publishing

I frequently get phone calls and emails from burgeoning self-publishers who are confused--or completely unaware--of the difference between self-publishing and subsidy publishing. They are not one in the same.

A subsidy publisher (sometimes called a vanity press) takes payment from the author or self-publisher to print and bind a book. With subsidy publishers, it’s the writer’s cash, not the quality of his or her work, that counts since they publish anyone who can pay. Typically, they provide no book editing, book marketing/promotion, or book warehousing services. They are a book publisher for hire, not a self-publishing company.

Some publishers that fall into the subsidy/vanity category include:
• AuthorHouse
• Xlibris
• iUniverse
• Trafford
• Vantage
• Dorrance
• Outskirts
• Booksurge

Their use of the term “self-publisher,” which they and their authors are not, is misleading at best and dishonest at worst. They are even so bold as to imply that authors have only two choices: publish with a traditional house or “self-publish” with a subsidy publisher. Subsidy presses deceive authors into believing they are “self-publishing” when in fact they are not. Self-publishing your own book implies that you, yourself, are the publisher. If you use a subsidy press, they are the book publishing company, not you.

If you have visions of your book becoming the next bestseller—or if you’d simply be satisfied just turning a modest profit—a subsidy press is not the best route to go. Books printed by subsidy presses rarely make it into bookstores. If your book does make it into a bookstore, you may find that it is not shelved in your intended genre, but rather, it has been placed in a catch-all category called “local authors.” Potential buyers often ignore this category because they perceive these books as being inferior in overall quality, which they often are. Sometimes the book bindings themselves are shoddy or less than professional. Cover art is noticeably amateurish at times, and the typesetting and font selection is not enticing for the reader.

Review copies of books sent to columnists by subsidy publishers generally go directly into the trashcan. Reviewers realize that very little editing has likely been done, and they also know that promotional efforts will be practically nonexistent and the book will not be available through the usual book distribution channels. A subsidy publisher name on a book is pretty much the kiss of death.

When you choose a subsidy publishing company, there is another issue to consider: Since they own the ISBN for your book, they usually set the price. They literally will tell you what to charge for your own book! This is more than a loss of control—it can even damage the sales of the book if they set the price too high or too low. Once an ISBN is set and printed on the back cover, and imbedded in the UPC bar code, you cannot change it.

It boils down to three types of publishing.
1. Traditional publishers. An author who signs a contract with a traditional publisher usually receives an advance against future royalties. The publisher owns the ISBN, but the copyright is in the author’s name. The publisher pays for and makes decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and production. Sales channels generally include book wholesalers and retailers, as well as inclusion in the company’s catalog. Authors are expected to do a good deal of book promotion and publicity—although they are often not aware of this until it’s too late.

2. Subsidy publishers. Authors who are “accepted” by subsidy publishers—and 99.9 percent of them are as long as they have the cash—pay to have these companies publish their books and get royalties on copies sold. The publisher generally owns the ISBN, although the author retains the copyright. The author pays for all steps in the publishing process, but the publisher makes most or all of the decisions on editing, cover, size, price, and production of the book. Sales channels are usually limited to the Web since these books are generally ignored by reviewers and others in the book trade. Authors must do their own promotion and publicity. Since they make money up front, subsidy publishers take no risks, and they have no incentive to design an outstanding book or fix typos or other problems.

3. Self-publishers. Self-publishing authors assume all responsibility for all aspects of their books—and they keep 100 percent of the profits. They also own their books’ ISBNs and copyrights; they pay for and make decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and printing, and they can use a wide variety of sales channels, including the Internet as well as all routes available to traditional publishers. Self-publishers know up front that they will be responsible for marketing, promotions, and publicity. Self-published books that sell extremely well may be noticed by traditional publishers, who might want to buy the rights from the author/publisher.

Authors choosing subsidy publishing really need to do their homework to make sure they understand exactly what they are signing. But if you intend to make money selling your book, and if you want value for your money as well as a credible product, self-publishing is likely the best way to go. If you do selfpublish, ensure your book’s quality by working with a reputable self-publishing company. Doing anything less can be a costly and career-threatening mistake.


  1. very good article. I'm still trying to decide what I want to do on publishing a series.

    Johnny ray

  2. Sue:

    I would disagree with your statement "Since they make money up front, subsidy publishers take no risks, and they have no incentive to design an outstanding book or fix typos or other problems." A good businessperson knows that the only way to grow a business is to do a good, if not superb, job at what he or she does. A good subsidy publisher (and heaven knows these can seem to be few and far between) does just that and provides its authors with professional book design and editing. I'm part-owner of a subsidy publishing company/book packager, and I've seen some bad books come out of the places you listed above. Some were downright godawful. But that's their business model--it's not everyone's.

    Why are they still in business? Because they promote the illusion that publishing a book should be quick and easy and cheap, just like fast food. It's immediate gratification. But just like fast food, publishing a book without taking the time for proper design and editing is bad for you.

    My two cents.

    Cris Trautner

  3. Johnny ray--Thanks for the post. Please let me know if you have any questions I might be able to answer for you.

    Cris--Thanks for the post. There are definitely grey areas, and as you said, there are probably are subsidy publishers that provides good design and editing services. I speak from experience, though, in dealing with potential clients bringing their subsidy press product to my office and feeling badly that I have to turn them away because the quality of the book--inside and out--is so bad. I like your "fast food" analogy; a colleague called them "puppy mills," which I also think is appropriate!