Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing:
What's the Difference?
by Moira Allen
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You've written a book. It's a great book. You know it's needed, that
people would buy it. But you can't persuade a commercial publisher to
agree. So now you're considering investing your own money to have the book
When you look at advertisements for "publishing," however, matters
become confusing. Many "Publish Your Book" ads look alike -- yet some are
for subsidy publishers and others are for printing companies that help
authors "self-publish" their work. How can you tell them apart?
A commercial publisher distributes books under its own imprint. It
purchases manuscripts from authors, and handles the cost of producing those
manuscripts: Cover and interior design, typesetting, printing, marketing,
distribution, etc. The author is not expected to pay any of these costs.
The books are owned by the publisher and remain in the publisher's
possession until sold; the author receives a portion of sales in the form
A subsidy publisher also distributes books under its own imprint.
However, it does not purchase manuscripts; instead, it asks authors to pay
for the cost of publication. With the exception of certain types of
publishers such as university or scholarly presses, any publisher that
requests a fee from the author is a subsidy publisher. As with commercial
publishers, the books are owned by the publisher and remain in the
publisher's possession; authors receive royalties.
A self-publisher is an author who pays for the cost of designing,
printing, and distributing his or her book. Frequently, the author invents
and registers a publishing "imprint." Self-published books are the
property of the author and usually remain in the author's possession; all
sales proceeds belong to the author.
A "printer" or "book producer" is a firm that works with
self-publishing authors to produce professional-quality books. To confuse
the issue, some printers call themselves "publishers," but are not
publishers in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, they offer a
range of book production services (such as design, typesetting, and
printing), and may also offer marketing, distribution, warehousing and
fulfillment services. ("Fulfillment" includes order processing, book
shipping, and customer invoicing.)
Whether you self-publish or use a subsidy publisher, you need to
know what types of services you are paying for. Be sure to ask the
following questions before signing any contract:
- Who owns the book? Subsidy houses not only charge for their
design, printing, and distribution services, they also claim various rights
to your book. Printers and book producers charge only for their services;
all rights to your book remain with you.
- Will I receive royalties or all sales proceeds? If the answer
is "royalties," you're dealing with a subsidy house. Subsidy publishers
pay authors a standard royalty of around 10-15% (which may be based on the
retail price of the book or upon a discounted price). When you
self-publish, you receive all sales proceeds (although this does not
necessarily translate into profit).
- Where will the books be housed? A subsidy publisher will retain
all books except for a few "author copies." A printer or book producer
will give you the option of storing the books yourself, or paying for
warehousing. In either case, the books belong to you. (Warehousing is a
good option if you are using the printer's fulfillment and shipping
- How much control do I have over the production process? With
commercial and subsidy publishers, the author's input usually ends with the
delivery of the manuscript. In self-publishing, you have complete creative
control over the development of your product. A book producer will offer
you a menu of services; you pay only for those you need. If, for example,
you're experienced in desktop publishing, you might choose to design your
own interior layout, but contract for an artist to handle the cover. You
should be able to review and approve any suggested designs, layouts, fonts,
- Who sends books to reviewers, and who pays for it? Some subsidy
publishers may ask you for a list of potential reviewers; others have their
own lists. If you want additional books sent out, however, you will
usually have to pay for them -- at 40% or more of the cover price of your
book. If you self-publish, sending out review copies is entirely your
responsibility, but since the books already belong to you, you won't pay
anything "extra" for those copies.
- Who handles marketing and advertising? In this case, regardless
of whether you choose subsidy or self-publishing, the answer is "you."
Subsidy publishers include "marketing" as one of the services you're paying
for, but generally do little beyond placing a small "tombstone" ad in a
major newspaper. It is up to you to determine what your target market is
and how to reach it, and up to you to pay the costs of reaching that
market. A key question to ask yourself, therefore, is whether the benefits
of a marketing campaign outweigh the costs, based on whether you receive
all sales proceeds or only a percentage in royalties.
- What is the cost? Neither subsidy publishing nor
self-publishing is cheap; both will cost you thousands of dollars. Subsidy
publishing requires a large investment up front; self-publishing may
involve a smaller initial payment (the cost of producing and printing your
book), but also involves the ongoing costs of marketing, publicity,
warehousing, book packaging and shipping, and so forth. Your first
question, therefore, should be whether you can afford to finance your book
at all; your second should be "what do I want to get for my money?"
Financing your book is never a decision to be made lightly. Unless you
have money to burn, it should never be made on the basis of ego: The
desire to see your name in print no matter what the cost. For those who
have studied the market and developed a professional product, however,
"doing it yourself" has often proven an effective (and even profitable) way
to bring a good book to life.
Find Out More...
- To POD or Not to POD: Some Pros and Cons, by Moira Allen
- The POD Quandary: How to Decide if Print-on-Demand Publishing is Right for You, by Brenda Rollins
- The Price of Vanity, by Moira Allen
- Should You Pay for Publication?, by Moira Allen
- Ten Questions to Ask Before You Sign that Print-on-Demand Contract, by Sue Fagalde Lick
- Morris Publishing
- Offers an extensive, free information package on self-publishing
- Independent Book Publisher's Association
- An organization for small publishers; their newsletter lists many book
printers and producers (formerly the Publisher's Marketing Association)
- Association of Publishers for Special Sales (formerly SPAN)
- Information, books and a free newsletter on self-publishing
1001 Ways to Market Your Books
The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing
How to Publish and Promote Online
The Self-Publishing Manual
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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