August 31, 2009

book-publishingNot everyone wants to start up a publishing company. Many just want to publish one book that they or a family member wrote. A lot of authors just want to get “out there.” That’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with putting a toe into the water. But as with so much in life, know what’s in the water into which you dip your toe. In many cases there are sharks, alligators/crocodiles or piranha!

If you decide to skip the traditional publishing model (having someone publish your work) you have three options:

1. True Do-It-Yourself (hereafter referred to as DIY publishing). That means you buy the ISBN, get a copyright, have editing done, get the interior design done (which is both typesetting and design), get a great-looking cover created, get the book printed, get the book into the book distribution channels and do all the marketing so the book sells.  There is a very steep learning curve – which is great for the independent-minded.

2. Assisted publishing: This is where you hire a book packaging company and/or a book shepherd to help you with all of the above. A book packager does all the things to turn your manuscript into a book – or you can hire them to do only things you don’t want to be bothered with. A book shepherd takes your manuscript and works with you to make the project sell – as well as create a great-looking book. (Disclosure: my company provides both services). This is the best of both worlds. You don’t have to have the expertise up-front. You can leverage other people’s knowledge to get yourself the best book possible. You will still buy ISBNs and make decisions, but you’ll have help.

3. Subsidy publishing: These companies are also referred to by the misnomers: vanity publisher, self-publishing company (it’s not self-publishing if you don’t do it yourself!), POD publishing company and several other dodges. For x number of dollars, they will turn your manuscript into a book-shaped-object. I don’t call it a book, because most will give you something that is unacceptable to the book trade. Many of these companies will charge a lot for poor to mediocre service, have no editorial control (if your book is caca, it will be caca in print), and really don’t care about you/your project. For the majority of the customers of these companies, the average sales are less than 50 books.

–> Update 9/1 and a critical element of subsidy is that THEY own the ISBN. Because they do, they are the publisher of record. No matter how often they tell you that you are the publisher, that is simply an untruth. If you don’t own the ISBN, you are not the publisher.

Which one is the right way to go? It depends on what you want to accomplish.

If you just want to create a few copies of grandma’s recipe book and memoir – a subsidy press is fine. Subsidy also works pretty well if you need to print your dissertation or other academic work. You don’t need many copies – only a few to prove you’ve done something, and possibly a limited availability to sell. You can do DIY or book packaging in you are so inclined – and you might learn enough to discover the joys of publishing.

If you want to get into bookstores and Amazon and e-books and all that Jazz – then you really should consider DIY or assisted publishing. In this way, you can get a quality, professional-looking book that is of a cost that is affordable to sell in the marketplace.

In Part II, I’ll address things like discounts and returns.

[Just a note: my apologies for the length of time between my last post and this. Things have been busy and chaotic here lately, but I pledge to do better for you through the Fall!]


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  • The line between “assisted” and “subsidy” can be blurrier than you make it out to be. Some companies (like the one I work for) offer a range of services, which authors are free to pick from. For instance, they might find their own cover designer but get copyediting through us. Or, they might have us handle the cover design but refuse copyediting.

    We STRONGLY encourage them to get copyediting if they haven’t gone to a professional for this before working with us. But we don’t make them. 🙂

    • I will amend my post. But the final line between subsidy and assisted is – the author owns the ISBNs. If some other entity or company owns the ISBN, then this is not SELF-publishing in any way. It’s subsudy.

  • I’m always glad to see another post that explains the difference between DIY self-publishing and subsidy publishing; Walt Shiel also posted about it a few weeks ago. This can’t be explained enough. Too many people hook up with “self-publishing” companies and truly believe they’ve self-published. They don’t understand how they’ve just limited their options.

    Another category of publisher for those who are trying to get traditionally published: vanity/subsidy publishers masquerading as traditional publishers. PublishAmerica comes to mind. Always check Preditors & Editors before signing a contract.

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