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Types of Publishing: The Good, The Bad, and The Wordy

So far, I’ve been writing this blog for creatives in general. I advocate for the need and wellness of people who dare to dream with words, music, art, etc. I will never stray from that mission.

However, I’ve been getting an overwhelming number of questions from my writing community about the business of publishing. Marketing, agents, and publishers to name a few of the topics that come up often. So I’ve decided to devote my next series of blog posts to the business of writing. For all of you creatives who are not writers, I promise to come back to you later.

On to the matter at hand. Publishers. Oh lord, why did I choose that beast of a topic to go first? This is probably the biggest question I get, and I get it often. How do I get published? My answer to them is always “How do you want to get published?”

With the literary world in flux, the landscape of publishing options evolves seemingly overnight. So when a young (or seasoned) author comes to me and asks this question, I tell them about all of the choices they have, and what they should expect with each one. I’m in no way a lawyer, but I’ve read enough contracts (mine and other people’s) to make me dangerous. There are a lot of charlatans out there, so you should be informed before you sign on the dotted line.

On to your choices... the different types of publishers.

1. Traditional Publisher - The Big Five

Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, J.K. Rowling and the like go this route. When I say the big five, I mean Penguin/Random House, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. Some argue there are six if you go into more international markets, but these are basically the big dogs.

If you go with them, it works this way. They will offer you an advance against royalties for print, audio, media, and distribution rights of your book. What that means is you don’t pay a dime to get your book published, and when it is, you get a percentage (royalties).

What your royalty rate is depends on the contract. Generally speaking, you’ll get about 10% - 15% on your paperback and/or hardback book. The reason for this small return is that the publisher has to pay for a lot. Editing, cover design, print costs, etc. E-book royalties are a good deal higher (normally 30% - 50%). The reason for that is the overhead on an e-book is much smaller since there are not printing costs, but the price is normally a lot lower, so it sort of evens out.

What does an advance mean? The publisher will offer you an amount of money in advance of the publication of your book. Then, you must “earn out” your advance in order to start collecting royalties. So if Macmillan buys your book with a $10,000 advance, you must first earn $10,000 worth of royalties before you start getting royalty checks. Advances can range from $100 to the seven digit range depending on the author. Obviously there is more to it than this, but I’m trying to give a crash course here, and this is the short and sweet version of how advances work.

This sounds like the best way to go, but here’s the catch... it’s very very difficult to get the top five to publish you. You will need a literary agent (more on agents in another post), a fantasticly marketable book, and a lot of luck. Having an agent does not guarantee you a deal. There are trends, publishers’ lists, and acquisition editor’s tastes to consider. When I say the industry is in flux, I meant it. If you try to write a book for a trend, odds are by the time it gets to an editor, that trend has passed. So yes, luck is a big factor. Hitting it at the right moment like lightning in a bottle.

All this is why getting a deal with a big five publisher is very difficult, especially if you are unknown.

2. Traditional Publishing - Indie Publishers

This is a growing part of the publishing landscape. With the invention of print-on-demand (POD), it’s becoming possible for smaller (indie) publishers to jump into the publishing fray. These are publishing houses, that are not affiliated with the top five, but they operate with a traditional publishing model.

You will not pay for editing, cover design, printing, etc. The royalty percentages are about the same, if not higher. Some of these publishers do offer advances, but most do not. The advances tend to be on the small to modest size compared to the big guys.

With any traditional model, you sign over rights to your book for a period of time. The run of contracts tend to be anywhere from 2-10 years. 4-5 years seems to be the most common. After that, your rights revert back to you, and you can continue to publish with them or take your book and walk. Never EVER sign any contract that doesn’t have an end of term date. If you do, your rights could belong to them indefinitely.

The good thing about these indie traditional publishers is that you generally don’t need an agent. Most accept unagented submissions, so any dealings you have with them are direct. Indie publishers are often more open to take risks on unusual and genre-bending books than their larger counterparts.

Many of these (if they are profitable) get bought out by one of the bigger publishers and become an imprint. Imprints are like divisions of a larger publisher. One imprint might focus on romance while another does mystery. For this reason, you now see imprints of big name publishers accepting non-agented submissions for certain genres.

The biggest downside to these are that there are a lot of charlatans out there. If you are submitting without an agent, you have no one in your corner to read your contract and advocate for you. Definitely consult a lawyer before signing anything.

A little homework can help you sift through the publishers out there. Here are some helpful tips and things to look for:

- Covers: You can’t always judge a book by it’s cover, but you can a publisher. If the covers are terrible, that’s a good indicator they aren’t putting the money into quality cover design and editing. Some young publishers can’t afford great covers at first, but are good publishers. My advise is to keep an eye on them and see if they improve over time. That’s when you know they are here to stay.

- Website: Two things here. First, is their website professional in appearance? You want the publisher who promotes your book to do so professionally. Second, are they catering to authors or readers on the site? Publishers who seem to be advertising to writers to publish with them often are running a scam. That doesn’t go for everyone one of them, but if you are publishing books, your focus should be on selling them rather than selling your publishing services. Often times, those who say “publish with us!” are vanity publishers disguising themselves as traditional publishers. More on vanity publishing below.

- Longevity: How long has this publisher been around? It’s sad, but a lot of indie publishers go under within 3-5 years. I myself have had two of my publishers shutter their doors. If they have been around longer than that, and seem to be growing, that’s a good sign.

- Reviews: How are their books rated on Amazon and other sites? Are they getting Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or Foreword Reviews coverage? Do they get their books in the hands of librarians, booksellers, and bloggers? These are all good indicators of the amount of marketing they are willing to put behind your work. You will have to do a lot of marketing yourself (this it true with every kind of publishing including with the big five), but a traditional publisher should be invested in partnering with you to sell as much as possible.

3. Self-Publishing

This type of publishing is probably done more than any other. It’s name tells you all you need to know. You do everything yourself. You hire an editor, you hire a cover designer, you set it up for e-book and POD. All the marketing is on your shoulders as well.

In today’s age of publishing, you don’t need a publisher. Modern technology makes it easy and affordable to create your own book and list it on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, etc. for everyone to buy. All of the cost is on you, but all of the profits are yours too. That means after overhead costs, you get 100% of everything you sell and all rights belong to you.

This used to be a taboo in the industry. It was considered to be what lesser authors did because they couldn’t get through the rigorous screening of a publisher. That is not the case anymore.

While there is still a small stigma in some circles about self publishing, the financial success of such authors as Andy Weir (The Martian), Hugh Howey (Wool), and E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey) have changed the stereotype.

The plus side of this is that the author reports to no one. They are the boss. While all the financial responsibility falls on them, so does the success. Self published writers are often the ones who want to control everything about their book.

The dark side of this is that for every success story, there are thousands of self published books wasting away in obscurity. We used to publish a few hundred books a year. Now, we publish a few million. Getting noticed and selling books is extremely difficult (this goes for all types of publishing but self publishing is the most vulnerable). Those who succeed get great covers, great editors, and market market market.

4. Hybrid Publishing

Hybrid publishing is something that has been growing rapidly in the past ten years. There are a lot of opinions on this type of publishing and what it means. Some say it’s just a pretty word for vanity publishing, while others say it’s turning the most profit for devoted authors.

Hybrid publishers offer you services to publish your book. Basically, you pay for editing, cover design, layout, etc. Sometimes this is through a package deal and sometimes it’s in an a-la-carte plan. Unlike self-publishing, where you are in charge of finding your cover design and the like, a hybrid publisher has a stable of professionals they use to work on your book. In short, they take care of everything.

With a hybrid publisher, you will get a higher royalty rate than with traditional publishing because you paid for everything up front. I’ve seen rates that go from 60% to 100% as far as royalties go. In my personal opinion, I would never sign a hybrid contract that offers you less than 60%. You should retain all rights to your book as well.

Here are a few things to look for when vetting a hybrid publisher.

- Covers, Editing, and Marketing: Pretty much everything I said above with traditional indie publishers applies here. Look for professionalism and quality.

- Discerning Tastes: A big thing that is supposed to differentiate hybrid and vanity publishers is that hybrids don’t publish just any book that is submitted to them. Part of the appeal of going with a hybrid is having a publisher’s name on your book and not just your own. There’s no point in that if the publisher accepts just any old book. You might as well make your own LLC and publish it yourself.

- What do you get: Read the the fine print and see what you get vs what you pay. Some publishers make you pay an arm and a leg and then still want to keep 30% of your royalties. For what? Are they marketing your book? Are they getting you reviews? Do they advertise you on their site and in a newsletter? Are they doing anything other than offering you a publishing service? If the answer is no, they shouldn’t get a chunk of your royalties. That’s just a vanity publisher in hybrid clothing.

- Cost: How much they cost is also a big indicator. I’ve seen hybrids charge anywhere from $2K to $20K. Yes really. The whole point of a hybrid publisher is that they are invested in some capacity in your work. If they want to charge you over $10K to publish your book, they sure as hell better offer you something special in there that you couldn’t get on your own or with a vanity publisher.

- Affiliation: Is the publisher affiliated with a larger publisher? In the recent years, traditional publishers have been offering hybrid options. Maybe you can’t get an offer from them for a traditional contract, but you could go through their hybrid imprint. Some call this a cash grab for publishers, but others say it’s a way to get your book out there with the prestige of a larger press behind you. Like anything else, do your homework and see what they offer versus what you pay.

5. Vanity Publishing

I’ve talked a lot about vanity publishing above, so here we go. Vanity publishing is a bad word in the literary community. So much so, you have a lot of vanity publishers posing as hybrids or even traditional publishers.

Vanity publishing is where you pay a publisher to publish your book. For a fee, they do all the editing, cover design, layout, etc. They give you the files, and most help you publish it as an e-book and POD. Basically, they do everything for you.

A lot like hybrids, right? Well, there’s a few differences. Vanity publishers accept any book. Merit is not a factor. That’s why it’s called vanity publishing. Anyone can hire them to publish their book. And generally, they do zero marketing for you. Some say they will, but that’s normally bogus unless you pay for a marketing service.

Another difference is that you get 100% of the profit. This is a service you are paying for. You get all of the royalties and keep all of your rights. If a vanity publisher takes anything off the top, don’t go with them. Normally, they will post as your publisher, so you still get the added prestige of having a publisher’s name on your book. However, if the publishers is a well-known vanity publisher, that name doesn’t mean much.

Here’s the thing, and it may be an unpopular opinion. There’s nothing wrong with a vanity publisher if that’s what you want. If you want the control of self-publishing but don’t want to go search out the talent you need to put your book together, go find a vanity publisher to do it for you.

Often times, they are called self publishing presses since “vanity” is a bad word, but there are some good ones out there. Make sure you do your homework. What do their covers look like? How is the quality of their editing? What sort of distribution channels do they use? If possible, go buy one of their books to see the quality. Read reviews from other authors that went through them.

6. Co-op Publishing

This one is fairly new and very confusing. I haven’t heard one hard and fast definition of co-op publishing, and the examples I’ve come across are varied.

The purest version I’ve seen is this. Co-op publishing is where a collection of authors work together to produce each others’ books. Often times a publishing house is born from this collaboration where the members chip in with their varied talents. Little to no money is paid, and the publishing house as a whole takes a small percentage of the royalties for website and overhead costs.

What this boils down to is that each member must contribute something as payment. Maybe you are good proofreader or cover designer. Maybe you are all about blogging. Marketing might be more your bag. Either way, everyone chips in to produce each others’ books.

This can be with larger co-op publishers and small. The larger ones are almost like traditional publishing houses in that you must be screened for merit and participation values. If they are in need of cover artists, and you are a good cover artist, you have a better shot at getting in.

This model can be used by anyone really. Any group of writers can create a co-op publishing LLC easily. As long as everyone is willing to contribute something, the cost should be little to nothing and the rights to your book are all yours.

I have seen hybrid publishers boast a co-op imprint or a co-op model of publishing. Those I’ve read about don’t seem to jive with the example above, which is why I say the definition seems to be varied.

The hybrids who offer this co-op plan sell it as a hybrid setup with extra cost for them to team with you on marketing. Personally, that seems like an upsell to me rather than a co-op model, but that’s just my opinion from the examples I’ve seen. There might be co-op options with hybrids out there that don’t follow this route.

In the end, co-op publishing should be what it stands for. Cooperation.

That’s it! Those are your choices... for now.

Have I burned a hole in the back of your brain with all this? I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s a lot for me to write down fourteen years worth of publisher knowledge into a blog post. Just know, you have options. Choosing a publisher path is a deeply personal decision. Do you have the stamina to shop a book to publishers for years? Do you want to take the reigns and do everything yourself?

Homework homework homework. I can’t stress this enough with all forms of publishing, but especially indie publishing. Talk to authors who worked with them, ask questions about how much you pay, and what rights do they hold. How long does your contract last?

It’s all up to you. It’s your choice. In a way, that’s what is beautiful about the publishing world today. You have choices. Your book can reach readers that will love it. Just don’t jump into it blindly.

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