First, we need to define a few terms and clear up a few things.
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER: This refers to the use of a publisher who takes full charge of your manuscript and turns it into finished book on which you get paid royalties for each copy sold. Depending on the size of the publisher, they may or may not pay an advance on those royalties. Traditional publishers do not charge fees to publish books.
Traditional publishers exist in two basic types: large presses and smaller presses. The large presses now consist of five major publishers (actually publishing conglomerates) plus several medium-sized ones. These are the publishers who have annual sales in the millions of dollars or more.
The smaller publishers, often called small presses, may turn out only a few books a year. Some small presses publish primarily literary works. Others may cater to a niche market or confine themselves to a specific genre or genres such as science fiction or erotica. A number of longstanding small presses are affiliated with or run by colleges or universities.
INDIE PUBLISHER: The term “indie publisher” is short for “independent publisher” and refers to a publisher that exists outside the large publishing conglomerates. Small presses are indie publishers as well.
An indie publisher is considered a traditional publisher if it handles all aspects of publishing, pays the author, and charges no fees to publish the book.
The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) is a group that indie publishers may join. Individuals, as self-publishers, may also join the organization, and this is one way to have access to marketing advice and services. Membership in IBPA is something the serious self-publisher should check out.
SELF-PUBLISHING: This refers to a manuscript being published by the author, under the author’s direction, and employing outside services where needed to produce the finished product. The author retains all rights to the work and collects all earnings from sales. Self-publishing authors are usually considered indie publishers, but “indie published” does not necessarily mean self-published.
Prior to the advent of print-on-demand books and e-book self-publishing platforms, self-publishing was an expensive proposition because it meant doing everything a traditional publisher did: editing, cover design, formatting, layout, and dealing with a printer. Due to the costs of set up for printing, small print orders were not cost effective and one had to print a hundred of copies or more of a book with possibly no effective way to market or sell them.
VANITY PRESS: As its name suggests, this is a company that takes advantage of an author’s desire to be published and prey on that desire. They will publish your book for you, but perhaps the saddest aspect of vanity presses is that they don’t care if the book is good. They’ll accept it, leading the naive author to believe that is must therefore be good enough to publish.
The editing services at such companies are mediocre at best (unless you spend even more money) and will come nowhere near the quality that most traditionally published books have. Claims that they’ll edit your book mean little or nothing. I’ve seen books that clearly had no editing at all done on them.
Since e-books and print-on-demand didn’t exist when vanity presses first came into existence, you had no other option if you wanted to be published after traditional publishers turned you down.
Vanity presses do little or no marketing other than to list your book in their catalog. The only difference from the early days of vanity presses and those now is that now your book is listed on Amazon and other places (and believe me they charge extra to list it).
That’s the extent of their marketing. Everything else is up to you, and you’ve likely paid this faux publisher several thousand dollars for this publication privilege. In nearly all cases, you will never recover your investment, or at best you might break even. Further, vanity presses will take a cut of each sale. Worse, some of these presses may retain the rights to your work as traditional publishers do, so the author must watch for this as well.
Despite what the vanity press will tell you, most bookstores won’t touch a book from such places unless the press guarantees that the copies are returnable if unsold. They may offer you this option, at extra cost. Unlike traditional publishers who will try to take steps to help ensure that they don’t lose money on your book, vanity presses guarantee that they’ll make money even if you don’t.
ASSISTED SELF-PUBLISHING: In recent years, assisted self-publishing has come into existence. What it means is that author works with an individual or group of individuals who will help with the self-publishing process. Sometimes agents have gotten involved in this. If you think of self-publishing as building your own house and sub-contracting the services you cannot perform yourself, then assisted self-publishing is hiring a contractor to oversee the building of your house, but still under your supervision. With a Vanity Press, you simply say “build me a house” after you’ve selected the plans (publishing package in this case) you want.
With assisted self-publishing, it’s a partnership, and you’re working with experienced (hopefully) people who know the publishing business. You still have a lot of involvement, but you make informed decisions. You still pay for the services you need, but those helping you will have reputable and reliable people performing those services. Admittedly, there can be a fine line between assisted self-publishing and vanity publishing. The main difference is that with assisted self-publishing, those involved do have your best interests in mind. They’re there to help, not rip you off (assuming you’ve done your homework and know that these people are not simply a vanity press).
Another difference with assisted self-publishing is that these people will assist with marketing. This form of self-publishing exists in a number of forms, and you need to be cautious when signing a contract (or any publishing contract) and to pay close attention to the control of your copyright. Make sure you retain control of it. Refer to my series on copyrights under the COPYRIGHT category on the left of the blog for more information on this topic.
In part two of this series, I’ll lay out the pros and cons of each type of publishing in an attempt to help you make the best decision for your situation.