Popular advice states that in any publishing relationship, money should flow toward the author. It’s easy to see how that applies in the case of notorious vanity presses like Author Solutions, Austin Macauley, and Outskirts Press, companies with a reputation for extracting as much money from authors’ pockets as possible. However, the idea that paying for any publishing service is inherently bad is emphatically not the case.
So, when should you pay to publish your book, and how does the ‘money flow toward the author’ rule apply?
A La Carte Services:
The term ‘self-publishing’ is a bit of a misnomer. Few people have the aptitude or experience to handle every aspect of a book’s production, and so most authors rely on outside help. Whether that’s hiring an editor, a cover designer, a marketing service, a distributor, or any other service.
For money to flow toward the author it doesn’t mean you should never pay someone as part of your book’s production. It only means that those services must be cost effective and add to the author’s bottom line. Authors must be confident that any money invested will return in the form of sales.
A la carte services can be essential to maximizing your book’s sales. It easy to see the value of these services when they are part of an isolated transaction. You pay a company x, you receive y, and the value received for your purchase is determined. It’s that straightforward. If the work pays for itself in a reasonable time, then money is flowing toward the author, and you have received value for your investment.
A full-service publishing package carries a daunting price tag, and should provide a level of service that justifies the cost. Before you invest your money, look for evidence of other successful books the company has produced. Are they selling well? Do they have ample reviews? Have they reached and sustained a relatively high sales rank on Amazon?
Don’t purchase a publishing package without a clear idea of how many copies of your book you’ll need to sell to recoup the cost. And the evidence that you’ll be able to do so in a reasonable amount of time. If most of a company’s books are tumbling into the bottomless pit of obscurity, question if you can trust them to elevate yours?
All-in-one publishing packages are frequently padded with high-cost, low-value fluff, which complicates the task of evaluating whether a package is worth your investment. Watch out for items like:
ISBN numbers - These should be owned by the self-publishing author, and are obtainable directly from registrars like Nielsen (in the UK), Bowker (in the US) and Thorpe-Bowker (in Australia).
Copyright filing - There are a number of Copyright Service Companies available in the UK for copyright your draft manuscripts. Once published your work is automatically copyrighted to you. For Authors selling in the US you can register a formal copyright online for a $35 fee, in under 15 minutes. Some companies may charge hundreds of dollars for this service, then hide the cost among the rest of the publishing package services so be aware.
Inclusion in catalogues and websites:
Few services have the reach and fan base to promote your book this way, particularly an obscure small press or relatively unknown service provider. But keep in mind that quantity isn’t everything as the ultimate goal of any marketing is not just to reach large numbers of people, it is to reach the specific audience most likely to buy your book. 3 million Twitter followers won’t make a difference to your book’s sales if those followers are not interested in your genre. Or they are spammers and bots looking for a ‘follow back.’
If the publishing package you’re considering is holding these services up as valuable considerations, reflect on how much of the fee can be broken down into the discrete services whose value you know. You may be better served by an a la carte service where you can shop for the best value, and know exactly what those services are costing you.
These services may be a useful investment in the production of your book, but being able to determine whether money is indeed flowing back to the author is the key to separating a good service from a substandard one.
Readers pay little attention to the publisher or the imprint of the books they select. Factors like cover appeal, description, and reviews carry far more weight than the publisher’s name, particularly a smaller imprint that’s not widely recognized.
Under no circumstance should an author pay solely for the right to be published under an imprint. This is the essence of vanity publishing, and a key difference between a contracted self-publishing service provider and a traditional publisher. Whereas a service provider is simply performing a service for payment, traditional publishers have a greater responsibility for the works they issue.
If the ability to pay is the primary criteria used to determine whether someone will be published under an imprint, then that publisher cannot make any claim to the prestige of their imprint. And if they are curating what they publish on the basis of profitability, and are confident in the success of the book, why are they demanding the author pay?
Which brings us to the final category…
Subsidy publishing, also known as hybrid publishing, claims to offer the benefits of traditional publishing arrangements, but requires the author to pay some or all of the publishing costs. In theory, the author receives a greater percentage of royalties in compensation.
Because there are countless bad actors attempting to reframe vanity publishing as ‘hybrid publishing,’ the ALLi Watchdog Desk advises extreme caution when presented with this type of arrangement. There are some reputable hybrid publishers and small presses operating in this way, but distinguishing this ethical minority from the exploitative majority can be quite a challenge. The ALLi Watchdog’s chief concern about hybrid publishing is that it can disproportionately shift the burden of risk onto the author without there being any compensation.
In traditional publishing, the publisher bears the responsibility for ensuring that a book is profitable. They undertake the cover design, editing, the production, distribution and other publishing responsibilities, but keep most of the book’s sales as compensation. If the publisher fails in their responsibilities and the book does not sell, it’s the publisher who takes the loss. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to ensure the success of the book.
In self-publishing, third-party service providers are responsible only for delivering the services they are contracted to perform. The transactions are clear-cut, and the provider’s obligation generally ends once the service has been delivered. The author retains overall control of the process and bears responsibility for the success, or failure of the book. They reap the rewards of their investment in the form of much greater royalties.
With hybrid publishing arrangements, the author pays the publisher up front, and thereby assumes nearly all the risk. If the publisher fails to deliver on their promises, and the book does not sell, it is the author who bears the cost, and the loss. Worse, the publisher already has their profit in hand, so has that much less incentive to invest in the book’s success. And to cap it off, many hybrid publishers also retain a significant chunk of the royalties. The author is financing the production of the book and absorbing the risk, just as they would in self-publishing, but is giving up a measure of control, sacrificing royalties, and may not receive value commensurate with the risk they’re undertaking.
Hybrid publishing is an important example of why the ‘money flows toward the author’ statement is a crucial guideline. In traditional publishing, that assurance in built into the contract. Money either flows from the customer to the publisher then to the author, or it doesn’t flow at all. And, the publisher’s profit is dependent on selling the book. But in hybrid publishing and self-publishing services, there is no guarantee built into the arrangement. And a one-way flow of cash from the author is a real and omnipresent danger meaning the author must take great care to verify that money flowing away from them will return, multiplied.