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Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What's the Difference?

by Moira Allen

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 published.

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?

Some Definitions

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 of royalties.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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 services.)

  4. 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, etc.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

Related Articles:

To POD or Not to POD: Some Pros and Cons, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/PODstats.shtml

The POD Quandary: How to Decide if Print-on-Demand Publishing is Right for You, by Brenda Rollins
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/POD.shtml

The Price of Vanity, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/vanity.shtml

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Sign that Print-on-Demand Contract, by Sue Fagalde Lick
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/lick.shtml

For more information:

Morris Publishing
http://www.morrispublishing.com
Offers an extensive, free information package on self-publishing

Independent Book Publisher's Association
http://www.pma-online.org
An organization for small publishers; their newsletter lists many book printers and producers (formerly the Publisher's Marketing Association)

SPAN - Small Publishers of North America
http://www.SPANnet.org

ParaPublishing
http://www.parapublishing.com/
Information, books and a free newsletter on self-publishing

Recommended Reading:

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 Mostly-Victorian.com, 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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