There are lots of ways to get your books published and into readers’ hands. Besides traditional publishing, there are vanity presses and hybrid publishers. Then there are companies that provide editorial or publishing services. If you are a small publisher, you can also hire printers, distributors, and warehousing services. Finally there are a number of companies like Ingram or Amazon, which distribute your book. Amazon also sells your book on its website. And in the ebook world, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, are also distributors/sellers. New self-publishers often aren’t sure which services to use, which route to take on the way to being published.
The problem is that someone new to the field might call all of these situations “publishing” or “self-publishing”. That can lead to confusion. It’s important to know what you are getting and what you are paying. Furthermore, some companies take advantage of the confusion, by not being fully transparent about what they do. This deception can run the gamut from questionable sales tactics to actual scams that cost people money!
I hate seeing people post questions on forums and social media such as “My publisher is charging me $2000. Is that what publishers usually charge?” These kinds of questions means someone is trying to take advantage of those new to self-publishing. So in this post, I’ll lay out the different kinds of publishers and publishing services and what to expect from them. That way you can recognize what you are getting into.
Traditional publishers do not charge the author to publish their book. Instead, they take a percentage of the sales of the book (Put differently publishers pay a royalty—usually 10% of the retail price—to the author but also pay all the costs of production)*. That means that the publisher’s income is dependent on the book doing well. If the book doesn’t sell, the publisher doesn’t make money. So the publisher is invested in helping the book sell.
This is why publishers are selective about the books they choose to publish. Large publishers have teams of acquisitions editors whose job it is to read book proposals and pick ones they think will sell. The vast majority of large publishers take book proposals only from agented writers. This adds another layer to the process of finding quality books. For this reason, “published author” has a certain level of prestige attached to it. It suggests that you have been selected out of hundred or even thousands of proposals!
Details of acquisitions vary widely by publisher and by genre. Smaller publishers are more likely to take unsolicited and unagented proposals. In the education field, textbooks are usually publisher-led projects meaning that they don’t take proposals at all, but they might accept an idea for a teacher resource book for example. Publisher websites or a reference such as Writers Digest are great places to find publishers and learn their requirements.
One important thing to realize is that even traditionally published authors are expected to do a lot of marketing on their own. Book signings, media interviews, and giveaways on social media are usually done by the author, though your publisher or agent will often help out, making sure you have books in stock to sell and so on. So don’t expect that being traditionally published means you’ll be whisked away to media interviews and see posters of your face all over town. Unless your books become best-sellers, of course!
A vanity press is a publishing service where you pay for the full costs of production of your book. A traditional vanity press is basically a printer. You provide them a manuscript and they turn it into a book. Nowadays vanity presses offer editing and cover design services. Some will even offer to create marketing materials or an author website for you.
Vanity presses are great if you do not expect to make a profit off of your book. The costs of each book are typically too high to sell at a reasonable price for profit. You may want to create an heirloom for your family, or a gift for your friends. You may be an academic who needs to show proof of publishing. Maybe you work for an organization that needs to publish some materials. Vanity presses are a great solution for that. But they are not the same as traditional publishing, where you hope you will make a profit off of your sales! They’re for people publishing for their own enjoyment, their own vanity, if you will.
Hybrid publishing was born out of the reality that the publishing business is not always profitable and that the author does take on a lot of responsibility to market and promote their own book. Hybrid publishers basically straddle the line between a vanity press and a traditional publisher. If traditional publishing means the publisher takes most of the costs and therefore most of the profit, hybrid publishing means the publisher and author split the costs and also the profits.
If you find this article is helpful, check out all my posts on self-publishing, covering everything from editing to formatting to finding a distributor and more!
Hybrid publishers may present themselves as a partnership between publisher and author. They may even organize themselves as a kind of collective. Or they may present themselves as publishers that sell publishing services to the author. This latter model is certainly a legitimate way of looking at hybrid publishing (you could see traditional publishing in that light too), but it is easy for an author to be confused or even scammed, so look out for any red flags (see below) and don’t be afraid to ask for a clear list of all costs and their royalty policy. You can even ask if they are a hybrid publisher or not. You can also check out these guidelines from the IBPA on what makes a reputable hybrid publisher. They’re written for the publisher, but they give you an idea of what to look for as an author, too.
To produce a book, you may need a number of services: an editor or multiple editors, a book designer, a cover designer, an ebook formatter, a distributor, a marketer, a publicist, or more! If you go with a traditional publisher, they provide these services. A hybrid or vanity press might provide some or all these services, as a package or à la carte. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to do it yourself or hire people or barter with friends or something.
I think it’s important to discuss publishing services for that reason and because people sometimes mistake these service providers for publishers or don’t realize that distributing isn’t the same as selling or marketing, for example. And because service providers can scam you by pretending to be publishers, nickel-and-diming you, or by promising things you never get. So, it’s important to be clear that if you hire a company to produce your book for you, that’s not traditional publishing. It’s actually closer to vanity publishing than anything else. And that’s fine, as long as that’s actually what you want!
You can hire professionals individually, as you need them. Sites like Reedsy or Fiverr are great places to find freelancers. You might find a professional who can do multiple jobs. Many editors will do a broad range of editing, and a book designer may also be able to do your cover. Or you can hire a one-stop shopping company like Bookbaby which provides a variety of packages of services. They’ll even help you get your book up on KDP. But they are not a publisher, meaning they don’t represent you in anyway, and they don’t take any of your profits.
So what’s a scam?
I don’t actually think vanity presses or publishing services are scams, as long as they are upfront about who they are and what they do. Some people are perfectly happy to pay for a nice-looking book and they don’t expect or want to make a profit. My cousin published a beautiful history of her town including our family’s role in the founding, to gift to members of the family and various local libraries and museums. She used a vanity press and she was quite pleased with the result.
Red flags that indicate you might be dealing with a scammer
- Pretends to be traditional publishers, but ask you to pay them a fee. Remember that you NEVER pay a traditional publisher upfront.
- Promises to get you into bookstores. No one but a bookstore can guarantee that.
- Charges high prices to do things you can do yourself while giving the impression these services require special expertise or contacts, for example uploading your book to IngramSpark or putting in on KDP. They may also make it sound like setting you up with a KDP account is something special as opposed to a standard step in self-publishing.
- Claims to be affiliated with Amazon or Ingram or Apple. Amazon used to offer editorial services but no longer do. None of the big companies have editorial or publishing partners. That being said, some publishers do offer vanity publishing or hybrid publishing services. However, using those services is not the same as being actually published by them!
- Suggests that they worked with big name celebrities or well-known best-selling books. It’s easy to research whether Dan Brown or JK Rowling published with EasyBook Publishers for a low fee of only $10,000! (Spoiler alert: They did not).
- Makes hollow or deceptive promises like making you number one on Amazon, and then scamming the system to make your book temporarily a best-seller in an obscure category. Social media mentions are another area of abuse here. Getting mentioned on social media X number of times is not guarantee of sales!
- Some vanity publishers have an online store where people can purchase books they worked on. That’s not necessarily a scam, but if they pretend that online store will somehow make you big sales, it’s highly unlikely. It’s just there for you to sell to friends and family.
- Guarantees book awards or reviews or social media mentions. There are a lot of book awards out there and there’s debate whether awards do much for sales or not. However, some scam publishers actually run the book award and give an award to every book they work on. That is going to impress no one.
So I hope this clears up some confusion and helps you decide the best way to get your book published. Most importantly, I hope it prevents you from getting scammed, or even simply avoiding disappointment!
And let me know if you have any questions in the comments-or share your stories about the highs or lows of sorting through publishing offers!
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* In fact, publishers often pay an advance to the author based on what they think the book will earn. An author will only earn royalties when, and if, book sales have covered the advance. Authors usually don’t have to pay the advance back even if book sales never cover it.