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Subsidy Publishing: Sacrificing the Dream
by Tina Morgan

Return to DIY Publishing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Over the past few years Fiction Factor has published many articles over alternative publishing methods in an attempt to help our readers decide how to pursue their own dreams of becoming a published author. We've talked about everything from small press, traditional publishing, agents and self-publishing but we haven't covered the number one killer of dreams: impatience.

The desire to hold a copy of our own book in our hands is a huge driving force for many writers seeking publication. There's nothing quite like it because it validates the writer's time, effort and belief in his/her ability to write. Many writers feel that they're not truly writers until they've seen their work in print.

When I opened the box of The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy and held the book in my hands for the first time, it was a very gratifying experience. It's a feeling I wish I could give everyone with the dream to write. However, the desire to hold your own work should be tempered with an understanding of how the publishing industry works and what it means to "hone your craft". Too many writers either don't take the time to learn about the publishing industry and fall prey to dishonest agents or publishers, or they allow what they've learned to frighten them into making hasty decisions. Often this fear leads them to seek publication with companies that are little more than printers. They assume that getting their name into print is the best way to build a reputation for their work and they set out to do that without regard to the market or the end results.

Not every publisher is created equally.

Over my last four years on the Internet in a variety of online writing groups, I've heard a wide variety of reasons for seeking publication with many of the self-publishing companies available today. I've been to many of their websites and I can see why a new or inexperienced writer might be drawn into their sales hype. They make it sound so incredibly easy and practical. After all, they're right about one thing: seeking publication with a traditional press means you're going to receive rejection letters. And if you submit more than one story, you'll probably receive a lot of rejection letters.

Rejection hurts.

Nobody likes rejection. Even when you know the reason might not have had anything to do with the quality of your writing but with the publisher's budget or space constraints. Being rejected is never a pleasant experience and it's one that most people would prefer to avoid, but you can't. Not if you want to be published by a traditional publisher. The sheer volume of submissions received by most traditional publishers is huge. Your lonely manuscript is but one received by that office, so acceptance becomes more of a numbers game. The more you submit, naturally the more rejections you will receive -- but you also increase your chances of receiving an acceptance, too.

Buyer's Market

Sadly for the writer, there are so many talented writers out there that editors have the ability to pick and chose only the very best for their magazines or novels. It also means that well-written stories can be rejected because they didn't suit the editor's personal tastes.

Passing Seasons

Not only do you have to face the risk of rejection but you also have to deal with the waiting. I've had short stories andnovels out under consideration for more than a year and the waiting can be agonizing.

Stories of long waits and years of rejection can lead many new or even experienced writers to seek alternative forms of publication. Some of these paths can lead to traditional publishing contracts, but others are dead ends.

Unwilling to wait and build their careers through the traditional method, thousands of writers will self-publish their novels this year. A tiny percentage will be successful and might even find a home for their work with a traditional publisher but the odds against them are astronomical. Most will pay exoribtant sums of money to have their books printed, but will then be unable to get their novels into brick and mortar stores because the company they've chosen doesn't have a return policy for unsold books, nor do they have a distribution agreement with the major book distributors in the country.

A recent mailing I received from Xlibris stated in bold letters that they'd paid thousands of dollars in royalties to their authors this past year. When I did the math, it averaged out to $26 per author. That means the average writer didn't earn back the money they invested in printing their work. It also means that some of the authors earned less than $26 in royalties. As Xlibris does not pay an advance, that pitiful amount is all the authors earned.

Every month I receive requests to review books by new authors. Many are published through vanity presses or by self-publishers. If the author has a website with an excerpt, I visit the site and read what's there. What I often find are snippets that have potential but lack the polish necessary to make the book truly marketable.

What the writer considering self-publishing needs to understand is that this comment isn't based on my personal preference in writing styles, but a statement of the grammatical, spelling, typing and story construction errors I've found in the majority of self-published books I've been sent. Some of the stories have had horrid mistakes within the first few pages, others have come close to being professional quality. I have yet to review a self-published book. This is not because I want to discourage new writers from seeking what I feel is a seriously flawed shortcut but more because I haven't been able to give a positive review from the work I've seen so far.

End of a Dream

What distresses me most about self-publishing, is that after finding it almost impossible to sell their books to anyone other than friends and family, many self-published authors surrender their dreams and stop writing. Dreams are too few and too precious to surrender because impatience led a writer to take a path that is even harder to succeed at than the traditional route of submissions and rejections to established agents and publishers.

There are times when self-publishing can and does work but before jumping into that venture do your research!

Researching and Learning

Yes, they are two different things. You can research subsidy publishers until you turn blue in the face --but if you don't learn the difference between a subsidy publisher, a traditional publisher and a self-publisher, then you've technically learned nothing from your hours of research. Knowing how businesses make their money can seriously help to determine which route you wish your writing career to take.

Following is a very abbreviated description of the three types of publishers:

Traditional Publishing

An editor accepts your manuscript submission and signs you up on a contract, offering an advance against royalties of books sold. You have the benefit of having your work associated with a large publishing house that has a recognizable name (and reputation). The publisher arranges for an ISBN for your book, creates your book cover, typesets your manuscript, writes the back-cover blurb and makes sure your book is listed as available with their distribution agency for that country.

Traditional publishers make their money by selling more books to more people and getting stock into more bookstores. They pay their stable of authors a percentage of each sale. (Note: not all traditional publishers will allocate a promotional budget to new authors. That can still be left in your own hands!) A traditional publisher's customers are your readers -- the buyers of your books.

Subsidy Press (or Vanity Press)

Your work is always accepted for publication here -- regardless of quality. The Subsidy Publisher will charge you -- the author -- a fee to set up printing, another fee to print each book, and separate fees if you want them to register ISBN, create covers, register copyrights, insert images - the list goes on. You are then paid a percentage of sales (i.e. the subsidy publisher still keeps a portion of the profits for a product that you paid to create and set up)

Subsidy publishers make their money from new or unsuspecting authors. They simply do not care how many books you sell - they made their money through the set-up fees and charges associated with your book. A Subsidy Publisher's customer is you - the author. Not the readers of your books.


A true self-publisher is an author who has enough knowledge of business workings and interactions to confidently go out and arrange for the creation and printing of his or her own products. The true self-publishing author is responsible for every single step involved with the process of getting that book from manuscript to finished, saleable product, as well as getting that product to the customers for sale.

A true self-publisher does not receive royalty payments from sales of books - a self-publisher is the owner of a publishing business and will receive the gross income from all sales of all books, and will also be billed for the gross cost of the creation of the books. The amount of money left from sales after all expenses has been paid is call gross business profit. Not royalties. As a business owner, the author is also responsible for marketing, distribution, sales, accepting payments, associated business taxes and much more besides.

A self-publisher's customers are his or her readers -- not other authors.

So... researching does not mean visiting the different subsidy publishing sites and reading the hype they have there. Remember, they want your money. What you will find on their website is a sales pitch aimed at your dreams. Protect those dreams. Ask yourself the following questions:

Why am I willing to pay a subsidy publisher money as opposed to submitting to traditional publishers?
Fear of rejection, impatience to see your work in print are not good reasons. It is important to hone your craft to the highest possible standard before choosing any route.

Am I prepared to market my book every opportunity I get? Even if that means cutting into family and work time?
No? Then you're not going to sell many books. This goes for every type of publishing!

Does my book fill a certain niche in the market?
Yes? Then self-publishing might be a viable option. Traditional publishers may also see a benefit in purchasing this type of manuscript. A subsidy publisher will still take your money regardless of the niche - or the quality!

Do I have a degree or life experience that will help me sell my book?
Yes? Wonderful! Especially if you can sell those books at seminars and guest appearances.

Do I want to earn a living off my writing?
Yes? Then your odds are better with a traditional publisher. In fact, if you have a lot of knowledge about business workings, then perhaps even becoming a true self-publisher could even create an income from your own profits. A subsidy publisher will still take your money. Again.

Consider your options with care. Do your research, learn about the types of publishers, and most of all, protect your dreams. They're too precious to waste simply because you didn't want to wait.

Find Out More...

To POD or Not to POD: Some Pros and Cons, by Moira Allen

The Price of Vanity, by Moira Allen

Should You Pay for Publication?, by Moira Allen

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

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Sign that Print-on-Demand Contract, by Sue Fagalde Lick

Copyright © 2004 Tina Morgan
This article originally appeared on Fiction Factor.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

The managing editor for Fiction Factor, Tina Morgan enjoys researching and learning more about the art and business of writing. She's a contributing author to The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, The Fantasy Writer's Companion, as well as to The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction. Her short story, "No Time for Dragons" appears in Firestorm of Dragons.


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