Writers in the Storm

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April 25, 2012

Traditional…POD…Indie – OH MY! Publishing Choices, Part 2 by Susan Spann

Last month’s The Lady or the Tiger kicked off my guest-series on Publishing Choices by talking about authors’ need to take responsibility for their choices and careers. Today we’ll take a closer look at some of those options.

Twenty years ago, being an author (or novelist) always meant your work was produced in printed form by a traditional publishing house. Today, that’s no longer true. Authors’ careers take many forms and venues.

This doesn’t mean that every path is right for every author and every work. On the contrary, more options means both more ways to succeed and also more opportunities for the incautious to crash and burn.

As options multiply, smart authors take the time to learn about the available paths before choosing which one to take.

1. Traditional Publishing.

Traditional publishing houses (sometimes called “royalty-paying publishers”) are what most people think of when they hear the phrase “published book.” A traditional publisher can be large, like Penguin or Macmillan, or a smaller royalty-paying press like Midnight Ink.

Under a traditional publishing contract the publisher produces the author’s work in print, e-book and/or other formats and pays the author royalties on sales of the work. It’s the payment structure – not the format the finished work will take - that distinguishes a traditional publishing deal.

Traditional contracts sometimes offer the author an “advance” – technically an advance payment against future royalties – which the author receives before the work is published. The amount of the advance is then deducted from royalties due until the author’s share of sales equals the advanced amount. (In traditional publishing, this is called “earning out” the advance, and it’s a large part of what makes a publisher consider your work a success.)

Whether or not the author receives an advance, a traditional publishing contract has three basic hallmarks:

- The publisher is responsible for final editing, cover art, and the costs of producing the finished work for sale.

- The publisher pays the author royalties, meaning a stated percentage of each sale of the author’s work.

- The author does not pay money to the publisher to cover the costs of producing the work.

2. Self-Publishing and Author-Owned (“Indie”) Publishing Houses.

The self-published author is writer and publisher rolled into one. An author who chooses self-publishing assumes full responsibility for everything from writing the story to editing and cover art. Because there is no “publisher” involved, the self-published author must edit, typeset, format, print, market and distribute the work.

For a great description of the self-publishing process, check out Author Tammy Salyer’s blog. In Publishing Pains, Part Two Tammy chronicles the production of her short story collection, On Hearts On Scorpions, with an in-depth look at the self-publishing process.

Successful self-published authors don’t walk this road alone. Most hire cover artists and other professionals to help with specified tasks. Almost all arrange for a third-party service to publish and distribute the finished work. Some authors hire publicity managers to help with marketing and sales.

Clearly, the self-published author wears more hats than traditionally-published writers, who can rely on their publishing houses to handle the nuts and bolts of producing a finished work. That said, self-published authors have more control over appearance, format, and scheduling releases. Traditional authors work on the publisher’s schedule and surrender control of the titles, art, and certain kinds of editing.

The terms “self-published” and “independent” (or “indie”) author are often used interchangeably in the publishing world.  To most people, and for any purpose that matters, their meanings are the same.

That said, I make a personal distinction between the terms in my legal practice.

  • When I refer to a self-published author, I mean a writer who publishes works himself (or herself), either using a service like Amazon or via a POD publisher like Lulu or Xulon Press.
  • I use the term self-represented author for writers who pursue traditional publication without the services of a literary agent.
  • Finally, I use the words Independent (and “Indie”) for authors who self-publish but create their own imprint or entity to do so – an option we will discuss in more detail in a future post.

3. Print-On-Demand (“POD”) and Hybrid Presses.

“POD” or “print on demand” refers to a publishing house which produces an author’s work on a print-to-order basis. Sometimes these publishers require the author to pay fees up front, but the fees are generally limited and very clearly defined. Some POD presses offer editing services, some do not. Where such services are available, they come with an extra fee.

Hybrid presses are an emerging form that will probably increase in popularity as more authors learn of their existence. Like POD and subsidy houses, the hybrid press charges fees for publishing services,  but unlike subsidy houses legitimate hybrid presses do not require exclusive publishing rights and make no claim to copyright on the author’s work. The author controls the size of the print run, whether or not to pay for services like editing and cover art, and manages the process in much the same way an e-book author controls the way Amazon and Smashwords handle digital works.

Some hybrid presses also review authors’ works and refuse to offer services to those which aren’t actually ready for publication – something subsidy presses do not do. However, hybrid presses are not generally sales outlets – like other forms of self-publishing, the hybrid author usually has to arrange for distribution and marketing of the finished work.

Reputable POD and hybrid publishers represent legitimate options for authors whose goals focus less on mass-market sales numbers and more on targeted distribution. We’ll talk more about those goals in next month’s installment.

4. Subsidy Publishers. Subsidy (sometimes called “vanity”) publishers require the author to bear the costs of production and distribution, and seldom turn down any author’s request for publication. The author pays the publisher up-front fees to cover publishing costs and receives a percentage or share of sales.

Be careful – even though the author receives a percentage of profits, a subsidy contract is not a traditional publishing deal. Unscrupulous subsidy publishers often pretend to be offering “royalty contracts” – but a traditional contract never requires the author to pay the publisher a fee.

Subsidy publishers’ contracts often include an exclusivity and/or copyright clause – meaning the author grants the publisher the exclusive right to produce the work for the term of copyright (or, sometimes, the term of the contract) and sometimes an interest in the copyright as well.

In many respects, subsidy contracts mimic traditional contracts – except for the fact that the author bears the publishing cost and the subsidy publisher doesn’t provide any editing or marketing assistance (or if such assistance is available, it comes at an extra fee).

Before the rise of reputable POD and self-publishing services, authors who didn’t want to pursue traditional publishing (or were unable to land a deal with a royalty-paying traditional house) often opted for subsidy contracts in order to see their books in print. Today, legitimate POD and self-publishing houses often offer the same result at lower cost and without the author having to agree to exclusivity or other dangerous losses of rights.

Not all subsidy publishing is a scam, just as not all POD and traditional publishers offer an honest deal. Authors must be extremely careful about signing contracts with any publishing house or service.

Never sign a contract or agree to a publishing deal without having the terms reviewed by an experienced attorney (or agent).

Lots to think about, indeed.

Some of you are doubtless asking “BUT HOW DO I CHOOSE??”

Don’t worry, help is on the way. Tune in May 30, when we’ll start clearing the minefield and getting down to the nuts and bolts of how to decide which option – or options – will work for you.

Disclaimer: Mention of a specific publisher, press, publishing company or other business in this post does not constitute a referral or recommendation, and is not intended to express an opinion – positive or negative – about the company’s reliability. Authors should investigate publishing options thoroughly and carefully and should make decisions based upon a thorough personal and professional evaluation of available options.

 Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author who practices in Sacramento, California. The debut novel in her SHINOBI mystery series, in which a Japanese ninja and a Portuguese priest must save a teahouse entertainer accused of murder, will be published by Thomas Dunne in Spring 2013. Susan blogs about writing and publishing law at http://www.susanspann.com and tweets @SusanSpann.

0 comments on “Traditional…POD…Indie – OH MY! Publishing Choices, Part 2 by Susan Spann”

  1. Susan, that was a very thorough presentation of each option. I look foward to how you further define each path one might take in this market. For instance, I was not aware that self-publish, self-represented and "indie" are different. I clump all methods of self-publishing as "indie."

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      Most people do consider the three self-publishing options as "indie" without distinction, and there's really no harm in doing so. I've made the distinction in part to help myself keep the various options straight. A lot of independent and self-represented authors feel that traditionally-published authors discount their skills and professionalism. One reason I'm careful about the labels is that I want people on the self-publishing side of the fence to realize that I do recognize their professional status and the fact that they don't all pursue the same path to publication - within the "indie" label, there are distinctions that are often overlooked (and minimized).

  2. While I don't necessarily agree with the Self-Publish and Indie labels I do want to say thank you for a great article that is helping to break down some of the mystic with regards to the current publishing arena. I look forward to the next installment.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I mainly use the different labeling to keep my own clients straight - several of them loathe the word "indie" and prefer "self-represented" - and I personally think that when a person chooses a publishing road, they also have the right to select the title that reasonably works to describe the choice. Many, if not most, independent authors seem to like "indie" as a descriptor and I'm certainly willing to defer to the author's own preference.

    1. Thanks, Sharon, I'm glad it was helpful. One of the big things I hope to accomplish with this series is to make the decisions a little less overwhelming and the options a little more clear. Another major goal is showing people on all sides of the publishing fences that we don't have to point fingers and disagree. Regardless of the label, the choice and the path, authors and publishers of all stripes have too much to gain from cooperation and too much to lose from animosity.

  3. Thanks for straightforward coverage of this topic. I'm one of those writers looking at all my options right now. I look forward to future posts in this series as well.

    1. Glad to be of help Julie. Whichever direction you choose, I hope you have great success and meet all your goals. Making the right decisions for the right reasons will go a long way toward getting you there - and hanging in there and learning is definitely the first step in the right direction.

  4. I love this clear summary and the fact you didn't lump small press pubs in with self-publishing. They're entirely different and at their heart, traditional. You just get the benefit of free editing (GOOD free editing) and in my case, great cover art and support from publishers and other writers.

    I think it's great authors have so many options right now, and the coolest part is that we don't have to do just one. We can go with a small press while working on something for the indie market on the side. Despite the constant flux, I still think it's a great time for writers.

    1. Thanks Stacy. You're so right about small presses. Authors' options go far beyond what they were a few years ago, and it's really important to recognize all the possibilities when evaluating options.

  5. Thanks for the well structured and informative post, Susan. I know a lot of this was Greek to me when I was first starting to think seriously about publishing, and it would have been so helpful to have read this! Lots folks are going to really appreciate having it all laid out like you have.

    1. Thanks Tammy! I'm hoping it does prove helpful - I know a lot of the authors I talk with are overwhelmed by the number and complexity of options, and also by all the different advice. My goal is to give advice that leans heavily on facts and less heavily on emotion, so people can look at the objective choices and make the ones that are right for their individual careers.

  6. Susan, you are such a relief to me (and I'm sure to many other pre-published authors). The choices are vast, and the clear definitions few. Seeing a post like this helps me feel that I'm making informed decisions.

    Thank you!

    1. Thanks Jenny! Next month we'll really jump off the deep end and get into the nuts and bolts of "how to choose" - hopefully the series stays equally clear and helpful as we go along!

  7. Thanks so much for this, Susan, I'm saving it. Even though I made a Traditional choice this time, by the time I'm out of contract, I'm keeping all options open!

    1. I went traditional too, Laura, in part because my work as a publishing attorney makes traditional a much better fit with my work (and eliminates conflict of interest issues). One great thing about discussing the options without emotion, though, is that it lets us all come together - traditional and self-published/indie authors - and support one another regardless of the choices individuals may make.

  8. There are some new options here that I hadn't heard of, Susan. Thanks for letting us know about them. I'm looking forward to finding more out about the legal thriller known as The Publishing World next month.
    Fae Rowen

    1. Thanks Fae,

      As the publishing landscape changes, I'm seeing an increasing number of new and potentially viable options. One of the best parts of the change, from my perspective, is that the new options let thoughtful authors consider which best meets their individual goals rather than shoehorning all projects into a model that only fits some.

    1. Thanks Robin! I love sharing this with as many people as I can - I think those of us who are authors and also have access to helpful industry information have a duty to "pay it forward" whenever we can.

  9. Yeah I am with everyone else who replied, in that I have to thank Susan for a thorough explanation of the options. It definitely is confusing at times trying to keep up with the constantly shifting ground. I too shall copy and keep this in a file for further reference.
    Yvette Carol

    1. Thanks Yvette. If you have questions as the series continues, please don't hesitate to ask - even if they're individual in nature. I'm glad to answer as much as I can.

  10. I love these defintions, Susan. I've wondered about the hybrid presses as the learing curve for posting my book all by myself is a long one and cuts into writing time. I like the idea that they don't insist on having the copyright. Thanks for the clarification.

    1. Sharla - make sure you read the contract terms carefully with a hybrid press. Many of them (the good ones) don't require copyright, but there are still some that lean toward the old subsidy model. As long as you read the contract carefully, and get legal advice if you have questions, you should be fine.

  11. This post is the best (and clearest) explanation I've yet read regarding publishing options.
    One option not discussed: Some literary agencies are now representing self-published authors. The agency takes on the publicity management role and may also connect the authors with editors, cover artists, etc..

    Pre-published authors seem to "forget" that traditional publishing houses have control over the front cover design. God only knows what the "Big Six" would come up with for the front of my novel... 😈 Smaller outfits may be more receptive to authors' cover suggestions.

    Authors in the Denver metro area take note: The Tattered Cover Book Store now has a Print-On-Demand service, the "Tattered Cover Press."

    1. Thank you for adding this Vampire. The changes to the literary agent model are an important point. While not all agents will represent self-published authors, that is increasingly becoming a viable option, especially for authors who have a desire for a hybridized career (part self-published, part traditional) or those who have previously published works. Many agents are still hesitant to work with authors who want only to self-publish, in part because the agent makes a living from commissions on sales to publishers, and a new model needs to be created for the relationship between the agent and the self-published author. That said, there are agents on the front lines helping to create that model (at least in some circumstances) so we need to keep our eyes on that as it develops.

      The cover art issue is an important one. Receptivity to author input varies from publisher to publisher (and changes with an author's status too), but on the whole authors who go traditional should be ready to surrender all control over titling and cover art. They won't necessarily have to give up or accept something they don't like (I know this from personal experience) but they should be prepared to do so - that is one significant cost of traditional publication. For some authors, that's not a big deal. For others, it's a deal-breaker. It's definitely one of the decision factors we'll be examining in more detail in the months to come.

  12. Thanks for sharing your thoughts - and I agree. We're in a new world. I've made a career in trad publishing, mostly with Penguin and Random House. But I think it's important for authors to adapt to new environments - to try and anticipate, see what is coming, and roll with the punches. I still think trad publishing has a very significant part to play. But the picture is far more complex than it used to be, and authors need to understand what all the options are - and how to make them work for us.

  13. I really enjoyed your blog and have decided to follow you. I too am a self-publishing author who wants to know all the tricks and secrets of the business. Your information was thought provoking and insightful. Thanks! Oh, and please take a look at my blog too!

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