Last month’s The Lady or the Tiger kicked off my guest-series on Publishing Choices by talking about authors’ need to take responsibility for their choices and careers. Today we’ll take a closer look at some of those options.
Twenty years ago, being an author (or novelist) always meant your work was produced in printed form by a traditional publishing house. Today, that’s no longer true. Authors’ careers take many forms and venues.
This doesn’t mean that every path is right for every author and every work. On the contrary, more options means both more ways to succeed and also more opportunities for the incautious to crash and burn.
As options multiply, smart authors take the time to learn about the available paths before choosing which one to take.
1. Traditional Publishing.
Traditional publishing houses (sometimes called “royalty-paying publishers”) are what most people think of when they hear the phrase “published book.” A traditional publisher can be large, like Penguin or Macmillan, or a smaller royalty-paying press like Midnight Ink.
Under a traditional publishing contract the publisher produces the author’s work in print, e-book and/or other formats and pays the author royalties on sales of the work. It’s the payment structure – not the format the finished work will take – that distinguishes a traditional publishing deal.
Traditional contracts sometimes offer the author an “advance” – technically an advance payment against future royalties – which the author receives before the work is published. The amount of the advance is then deducted from royalties due until the author’s share of sales equals the advanced amount. (In traditional publishing, this is called “earning out” the advance, and it’s a large part of what makes a publisher consider your work a success.)
Whether or not the author receives an advance, a traditional publishing contract has three basic hallmarks:
- The publisher is responsible for final editing, cover art, and the costs of producing the finished work for sale.
- The publisher pays the author royalties, meaning a stated percentage of each sale of the author’s work.
- The author does not pay money to the publisher to cover the costs of producing the work.
2. Self-Publishing and Author-Owned (“Indie”) Publishing Houses.
The self-published author is writer and publisher rolled into one. An author who chooses self-publishing assumes full responsibility for everything from writing the story to editing and cover art. Because there is no “publisher” involved, the self-published author must edit, typeset, format, print, market and distribute the work.
For a great description of the self-publishing process, check out Author Tammy Salyer’s blog. In Publishing Pains, Part Two Tammy chronicles the production of her short story collection, On Hearts On Scorpions, with an in-depth look at the self-publishing process.
Successful self-published authors don’t walk this road alone. Most hire cover artists and other professionals to help with specified tasks. Almost all arrange for a third-party service to publish and distribute the finished work. Some authors hire publicity managers to help with marketing and sales.
Clearly, the self-published author wears more hats than traditionally-published writers, who can rely on their publishing houses to handle the nuts and bolts of producing a finished work. That said, self-published authors have more control over appearance, format, and scheduling releases. Traditional authors work on the publisher’s schedule and surrender control of the titles, art, and certain kinds of editing.
The terms “self-published” and “independent” (or “indie”) author are often used interchangeably in the publishing world. To most people, and for any purpose that matters, their meanings are the same.
That said, I make a personal distinction between the terms in my legal practice.
- When I refer to a self-published author, I mean a writer who publishes works himself (or herself), either using a service like Amazon or via a POD publisher like Lulu or Xulon Press.
- I use the term self-represented author for writers who pursue traditional publication without the services of a literary agent.
- Finally, I use the words Independent (and “Indie”) for authors who self-publish but create their own imprint or entity to do so – an option we will discuss in more detail in a future post.
3. Print-On-Demand (“POD”) and Hybrid Presses.
“POD” or “print on demand” refers to a publishing house which produces an author’s work on a print-to-order basis. Sometimes these publishers require the author to pay fees up front, but the fees are generally limited and very clearly defined. Some POD presses offer editing services, some do not. Where such services are available, they come with an extra fee.
Hybrid presses are an emerging form that will probably increase in popularity as more authors learn of their existence. Like POD and subsidy houses, the hybrid press charges fees for publishing services, but unlike subsidy houses legitimate hybrid presses do not require exclusive publishing rights and make no claim to copyright on the author’s work. The author controls the size of the print run, whether or not to pay for services like editing and cover art, and manages the process in much the same way an e-book author controls the way Amazon and Smashwords handle digital works.
Some hybrid presses also review authors’ works and refuse to offer services to those which aren’t actually ready for publication – something subsidy presses do not do. However, hybrid presses are not generally sales outlets – like other forms of self-publishing, the hybrid author usually has to arrange for distribution and marketing of the finished work.
Reputable POD and hybrid publishers represent legitimate options for authors whose goals focus less on mass-market sales numbers and more on targeted distribution. We’ll talk more about those goals in next month’s installment.
4. Subsidy Publishers. Subsidy (sometimes called “vanity”) publishers require the author to bear the costs of production and distribution, and seldom turn down any author’s request for publication. The author pays the publisher up-front fees to cover publishing costs and receives a percentage or share of sales.
Be careful – even though the author receives a percentage of profits, a subsidy contract is not a traditional publishing deal. Unscrupulous subsidy publishers often pretend to be offering “royalty contracts” – but a traditional contract never requires the author to pay the publisher a fee.
Subsidy publishers’ contracts often include an exclusivity and/or copyright clause – meaning the author grants the publisher the exclusive right to produce the work for the term of copyright (or, sometimes, the term of the contract) and sometimes an interest in the copyright as well.
In many respects, subsidy contracts mimic traditional contracts – except for the fact that the author bears the publishing cost and the subsidy publisher doesn’t provide any editing or marketing assistance (or if such assistance is available, it comes at an extra fee).
Before the rise of reputable POD and self-publishing services, authors who didn’t want to pursue traditional publishing (or were unable to land a deal with a royalty-paying traditional house) often opted for subsidy contracts in order to see their books in print. Today, legitimate POD and self-publishing houses often offer the same result at lower cost and without the author having to agree to exclusivity or other dangerous losses of rights.
Not all subsidy publishing is a scam, just as not all POD and traditional publishers offer an honest deal. Authors must be extremely careful about signing contracts with any publishing house or service.
Never sign a contract or agree to a publishing deal without having the terms reviewed by an experienced attorney (or agent).
Lots to think about, indeed.
Some of you are doubtless asking “BUT HOW DO I CHOOSE??”
Don’t worry, help is on the way. Tune in May 30, when we’ll start clearing the minefield and getting down to the nuts and bolts of how to decide which option – or options – will work for you.
Disclaimer: Mention of a specific publisher, press, publishing company or other business in this post does not constitute a referral or recommendation, and is not intended to express an opinion – positive or negative – about the company’s reliability. Authors should investigate publishing options thoroughly and carefully and should make decisions based upon a thorough personal and professional evaluation of available options.
Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author who practices in Sacramento, California. The debut novel in her SHINOBI mystery series, in which a Japanese ninja and a Portuguese priest must save a teahouse entertainer accused of murder, will be published by Thomas Dunne in Spring 2013. Susan blogs about writing and publishing law at http://www.susanspann.com and tweets @SusanSpann.