Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
Q. Could you please go over the difference between a subsidy/vanity publisher and self-publishing? I have heard that the first is sleazy, and the second is commendable, but don’t they both involve the author paying her own money to get the book made?
Yes, both do involve the author paying money to get the book published.
Here’s an overview:
Subsidy or Vanity Publishing–the terms are used interchangeably–is when the author submits a book to a publisher who “accepts” the book for publication, but then charges the author a set amount of money to publish the book. This amount varies from publisher to publisher but it’s not uncommon to see sums ranging from several hundred to $5,000.
For this, the publisher may or may not copyright the work, may or may not set it up for distribution through distributors such as Ingrams, and may or may not agree to promote the work. Some charge extra fees for copyright, distribution, and/or promotion of any kind.
Very often in these contracts, the publisher retains the right to set the price on the book. That causes challenges, because they typically print a flat cover in trade paperback and the price they set on the book is not competitive with other books of similar quality/format in the market.
For example, I recently was approached for help by an author who published through one such publisher. Her book is 200 pages, a trade paperback, and the retail price on the book is $23.95. On pricing, that is way out of the realm of the ordinary fiction title in trade paperback. Odds of selling the book to anyone beyond family and friends? Unfortunately, very low. I have seen nonfiction subsidy/vanity published priced much, much higher.
The author had no recourse. In was in the contract that the publisher set the price, and now that author is stuck with it. I recommended seeking literary legal counsel to see if the contract could be broken or amended. The outcome is still uncertain. But in the interim, the book is tied up and not selling because it’s priced out of the market.
An author choosing subsidy/vanity publishing needs to really do his/her homework to make sure s/he understands exactly what s/he is signing. When the author goes into this, it should be with reasonable expectations and their eyes wide open to reality. Uninformed authors discover quite often, I’m afraid, the only person who makes money on these deals is the publisher. That’s not always the case, but it is often the case.
Now, there are cases where the author does make money and cases where making money is not the author’s objective, so be cautious of the advice of anyone who speaks about this publishing venue in absolutes. There are occasions when it’s perfect for a specific author, with a specific objective, on a specific project.
Self publishing is where the author in essence establishes his/her own small press, and then pays a printer (such as Lightning Source) to print the books. The author prepares the book for the printer, and then receives the finished product. Distribution and marketing is then up to the author. Typical business licenses and such are required so if you choose this route, be sure to investigate the process thoroughly before committing. Actually getting the books into bookstores can be a challenge. Chains and discount stores have specific guidelines and regulations on this. Some will not accept self-published works, or small press works. Independent booksellers are more open, but they are selective, so the work really has to be superior.
A popular method now is to set up a small press, have the books copyrighted and printed, and then sell them on the net. For a rare few that has been extremely beneficial and their works have then been picked up by the major publishers. For most, it’s a time-consuming struggle to do sufficient marketing to get the book to earn out. I’m not saying that some haven’t done well; they have. But by and large, those individuals either already had name recognition in the marketplace, a reader base established, or they spent enormous amounts of time marketing their books.
For any of these types of publishing, you have to determine your goal for publishing at all. Then really do your homework so you know exactly what you’re getting into and what it will require from you.
As I said, for some writers, these are terrific alternatives. For others, they’re time-consuming, expensive, and often disappointing. The best way to determine which, if either, is right for you, is to get smart on the details so you have realistic expectations and all the information necessary to make wise choices.*