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Should You Pay for Publication?
by Moira Allen

Return to DIY Publishing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Writers want to be published. Granted, there are those who are happy with the act of self-expression for its own sake, and aren't the least bothered if the results of that expression remain in a box in the back of the closet. Most of us, however, write because we want to be read, to be "heard."

Getting published, however, is surely the most frustrating task writers face. Even when we follow every piece of good advice, studying the markets, sending professional query letters, formatting our manuscripts to precise specifications, and spellchecking until our eyes cross, publication often eludes us. Often, we never even know why.

When the yearning for publication meets the frustration of rejection, writers become vulnerable to temptation. This is the point where many of us succumb to the notion that if publishers won't pay us, perhaps we can achieve our goals and dreams by paying them.

There's a word for it...

Subsidy or "vanity" publishing is nothing new. Indeed, many subsidy publishers boast of the fact that they've been in the business for decades. In the past, however, this option has been prohibitively expensive for most authors. Having a book published in this fashion could cost between $10,000 and $20,000 (or more) -- a high price just to see one's name in print.

The Internet, however, has changed all that. Now, the siren song of subsidy publishing comes with a much lower pricetag. Now, it costs less than $500 to have your own electronic or "print on demand" book published, and often as little as $100. Which means that now, even the most impoverished author can afford to "buy" publication. [Editor's Note: This information is a wee bit outdated - now you can publish for nothing on sites like Lulu.com or CreateSpace - or pay over $1000 and often several thousand dollars for a POD "package" from one of several commercial print-on-demand publishers. But it's actually quite difficult to find a service that charges only a few hundred dollars!]

But should you?

Many writers answer this question with an emphatic "no" -- no, no way, never, nyet, not under any circumstances. My own response is not quite so emphatic; I believe that there are, in fact, viable reasons for using an electronic subsidy publisher (price being one of them). If you are an experienced writer, and you have already proven your ability to produce high-quality work, and you are capable of ruthless self-editing, and you know your target market and will be able to effectively market your own books, subsidy e-publishing may be a good alternative to print self-publishing. It is far less expensive, you don't have to stock 3000 books in your garage, and you can collect royalties rather than having to declare yourself a retail business (with all the fun of keeping track of inventory, etc.) just to sell your books.

If, however, you simply want to see your name in print, or you've been unable to achieve publication through any other venue, or you've become discouraged by gloomy articles that describe how hard it is to get published in the first place (and so you haven't tried), the answer is "only if you have $100 to $500 to spend and nothing better to spend it on."

Notice that I still didn't say "no." For some, the satisfaction of being "published," even by a subsidy publisher, may be worth every dollar -- and let's be honest, $100 or even $500 isn't that much to pay for satisfaction. (You could pay that much just making copies of your book for family and friends at the local print shop.) Electronic subsidy publishing does open a door for the unpublished (or unpublishable) writer, a door hitherto closed by the high costs of paper and printing.

Before you step through that door, however, be sure you have a firm grasp of what awaits on the other side. Know the odds. Know the risks. And most important, know how to read a contract to determine whether it will make your dreams come true -- or land you in a nightmare that could take you years to escape.

A Subsidy Publishing Primer

"For every book that is published [by commercial publishers], thousands of manuscripts go unpublished," many subsidy advertisements proclaim. This is true. It does not mean, however, that those thousands of books should have been published -- that they merited publication due to quality of content or writing, and were callously rejected by coldhearted editors.

Subsidy publishers win the hearts of inexperienced writers by claiming that commercial publishers reject books on the basis of "economic" factors. This is also true. Commercial publishers base their decisions on whether they believe a book will sell to readers. Subsidy publishers use a completely different economic criteria: They make their money directly from the writer, and only secondarily from the reader.

The first thing that authors need to understand, therefore, is that no matter how sweetly worded a subsidy publisher's advertisement may be, or how encouraging its correspondence, acceptance is not based on merit. This does not mean that your manuscript has no merit. It simply means that merit is not part of the acceptance criteria. And therein lies the primary hazard of subsidy publishing. Since your potential customers (readers, reviewers, booksellers, libraries, publishers, editors, book clubs, etc.) know that merit is not a factor in acceptance, those potential customers have no way to determine which of a publisher's offerings have merit, and which do not.

Again, that doesn't mean that you can't sell a book effectively through a subsidy e-publisher. It does mean, however, that you will need to find ways to effectively demonstrate the merit of your material to the potential reader through your own marketing efforts. Subsidy publishers don't have to worry about whether you become successful; they already have your money. Success in the subsidy business depends on you.

Read the Contract

If you're considering entering into a subsidy agreement, skip the home-page hype and go straight to the contracts. This is where you'll find the information you need to determine whether to sign up or move on. As you review the publisher's contract, keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Is the contract publicly available (i.e., posted online), or do you have to request it? If you have to request it, this means the company is already "harvesting" your address and adding you to their mailing list.

  2. Is the contract complete? Be wary of publishers who leave clauses "to be negotiated," especially if those clauses relate to rights or royalties.

  3. Can you terminate the contract? Most e-publishers offer one-year renewable contracts. Many also offer termination clauses that allow an author to terminate the contract with 90-day notice -- for example, if you get an offer from another publisher. But what happens after you give notice? Be sure you know exactly how long the subsidy publisher will be authorized to offer your book for sale after you've terminated the contract -- and whether the publisher expects a "percentage" of your future sales after you've terminated the contract.

  4. What rights does the publisher claim? A publisher should have the "license" to publish and distribute your book within specified media. All copyright to your material, however, should remain with you. While most publishers claim the right to use portions of your book, biographical information, your photo, etc., for marketing purposes, your book should belong to you. A publisher should not claim the right to use portions of your material for any purpose that does not relate directly to the promotion and marketing of your book (e.g., to include in an unrelated collection or anthology). Similarly, be sure to retain those rights that the publisher is not likely to use or sell, such as print rights (which you'd want to retain if your book is being published by an electronic-only publisher), translation rights, movie rights, etc.

  5. What royalties will you receive, and how are they calculated? A royalty share of 50% (or even 20%) sounds generous, until you learn that it isn't based on the retail price of your book. Many subsidy e-publishers offer royalties on "net" revenues -- after deducting bookstore or distributor discounts and other costs, such as shipping. If you receive 50% royalties, this means that if your book retails for $16.95 and is discounted 60% when sold through an online bookstore, you'll receive only $2.39 in royalties (less if other costs are also deducted). If you're receiving 20%, your share drops to only $1.36 per book (or less) on discounted sales. That's not much more than you'd receive from a print publisher.

  6. What are your total costs? Does the publisher charge a flat fee, or are fees based on the length of your book? Will you be charged extra for illustrations or special formatting? Will you be charged a "format" fee if you don't provide the manuscript in the required electronic format? Will you be charged extra for editing, proofreading, or promotional services? Will you be charged extra for the right to review your own galleys? Do you have to pay for your cover? Will the publisher arrange for an ISBN, bar coding, and copyright registration -- or will you have to either pay extra for those services or provide them yourself? What is the annual renewal fee, if any? Divide your total cost by your royalty rate to determine how many books you have to sell to break even.

  7. Where and how will your book be promoted? Will it appear only on the publisher's website? Will it appear in online bookstores? Will it be physically displayed in real-world bookstores? If the publisher promises to "prominently display" your title, what does that mean? If the publisher offers 600 titles, how will it give prominence to yours -- and for how long?

  8. How many copies of your book will you receive? While most commercial publishers offer at least 10 free copies (and can often be talked into handing over a few more), many subsidy e-publishers (including print-on-demand publishers) offer only two.

One final warning: Never make a decision based on emotion. No matter how frustrated you may be with the difficulty of finding a commercial publisher, never base your decision on that frustration. Don't choose a publisher based on the appeal of its advertising, the lure of seeing your name in print, the promise of fame and fortune. For all their claims, subsidy publishers are not in the business of seeking out misunderstood, unrecognized authors -- or promoting great literature that would otherwise be overlooked. They are in the business of doing business.

And that's fine. Because so are you, if you consider yourself a professional writer. Your goal is to succeed in the business of writing, and you may find that a subsidy electronic publisher is the best way to achieve that goal. Now that subsidy e-publishing has become an inexpensive and hassle-free alternative to self-publishing, it can indeed be a sound business decision. But only if you do business wisely!

Find Out More...

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

The Price of Vanity, by Moira Allen

Subsidy Publishing: Sacrificing the Dream, by Tina Morgan

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 © 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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