Contrary to what they tell you when you take “Author 101” in college, writing a book isn’t necessarily the most difficult part of producing a book. Publishing is a creative industry. What does that mean? Well, “creative” is intuitive. We all know what we mean when we say we are undertaking a creative pursuit. It’s the ‘industry’ part that hangs us up. There are many different business models in this creative industry, and here are a few to be aware of. These business models exist in every genre of publishing, although some are more prevalent in some genres than in others.
Writers have been publishing their own works since they started putting stick to mud. Since they started putting pigment to rock, in fact. What is cave art but self-publishing? It’s a permanent story form, an early expression of narrative preserved for future generations. From clay tablets to papyrus and paper, writers have been telling their stories – and, more to the point – publishing them. Publishing is the act of preparing, producing, marketing, promoting, distributing, and selling written works. Most often, we undertake to publish a work because we have an expectation of export and sale.
One of the best-known self-publishers prior to the 1900s was William Blake. The man was a machine. He wrote poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and he supplied his own illustrations for the prints he had made. Blake was a self-publisher in a time when publishing was something that only the moneyed classes could afford, even as writers.
It wasn’t uncommon in the 1900s for writers to have to pay publishing houses for the privilege of having their books on shelves, and so certainly, if you came from a place of privilege, there was a greater chance that you could afford to publish your works. And there was a certain panache that came with that.
Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, though, “self-publishing” became a loathsome phrase. It’s not entirely clear why. There was a distinction made between “bona fide” publishers and what were called “vanity presses”, and self-publishing tended to be included in the latter (usually derogatory) terminology. But it’s important to be clear here: there is an important distinction between a vanity press and a self-publisher.
So let’s get some terminology out of the way when it comes to book publishing:
A vanity press is an operation that plays on a writer’s vanity. They will offer to publish your book for you, and they may promise you sales and awards and maybe even movie deals! Of course, the sales and promotion only happen if you’re willing to pay for them. Some vanity presses offer editorial and design services, again, at an added cost to you. Some vanity presses will submit your books to regional awards, again, at an added cost. Be wary of vanity presses. There is often more disappointment there than you may imagine. Vanity Presses do not exercise editorial discretion; rather, they will accept every manuscript that comes with a cheque across their desks.
Pay-to-Print are organisations and businesses that essentially take a writer’s manuscript, slap a cover on it, affix an ISBN, and send it back to the writer in expensive palletloads. These pallets fill up your garage and you’re stuck wondering how the hell you’re going to sell all of those books. Pay-to-print businesses are usually not involved in the editorial or design process, and they rarely offer very robust marketing or distribution services. Pay-to-print operations do not exercise editorial discretion, and they do not accept any financial risk; theirs is a cash-in, product-out business model.
Micropresses are small publishing houses. Very small. Possibly with one or two people at the helm. They often begin as self-publishers, but then branch out into publishing the works of others. It’s difficult for a writer to access micropresses, because there just isn’t the cash flow to open up the acquisition process to folks the publishers don’t already know. Like self-publishers, micropresses often face enormous hurdles and challenges when it comes to the marketplace. Most micropresses take on some financial risk, but many operate in partnership with other writers, artists, or collective to help offset those costs.
Publishing Consultants are a business model on the rise. They may have begun operation as self-publishers or micropresses, but their business has grown to a point where they accept unsolicited manuscripts and they begin to function more like a “traditional” publishing house. They offer editorial services, design services, marketing and distribution, and even sales data. They will often work closely with the writer (and/or illustrator(s)) to produce quality books that compete well in the marketplace. The major difference between this business model and what has, over the last century or so become the “traditional” publishing house is that publishing consultants charge fees for their services. They are different from vanity presses and pay-to-print operations in that they exercise editorial discretion when it comes to manuscript acquisition and evaluation. They do NOT produce everything that comes across their desks. Publishing consultants take a moderate degree of financial risk.
Self-publishers are writers who choose to publish their own works. Some self-published authors hire editors and designers and marketing teams and promotional firms and distributors, but most do it all themselves, and it’s usually a labour of love. You certainly don’t make a lot of money in publishing. For years, we’ve been hearing about how, with the advent of digital technology and desktop publishing, self-publishing is on the rise. In the publishing industry, we’ve been warned for twenty years that self-publishing will push traditional publishers out of the market. But we haven’t seen that happen. Most self published authors produce two or three books, maybe half a dozen, but they have an incredibly difficult time in the marketplace. Many retail outlets only want to work with distributors (not with individual producers, and certainly not with the writers themselves). Even Amazon can be nitpicky when it comes to self-publishers. Self-publishers may exercise editorial discretion, as the projects they choose to produce are their own work, and they take on 100% of the financial risk for publishing their own works.
Traditional Publishers exercise a high level of editorial discretion. Many do not accept unsolicited manuscripts (basically, that means that they will ask the writer to submit a manuscript rather than a writer approaching them), but small and regional publishers often do still have an ‘open door’ policy wherein they will consider much of what comes through the door. Small, independent, and regional publishers often have mandates to produce the work of local writers and illustrators. Depending on the region, they may qualify for corporate or governmental financial support. Traditional publishers do not charge writers for any of their services. And here is the tradeoff: because in this business model, the publisher takes the greatest degree of financial risk, they demand the most veto over the design, layout, production, and marketing strategies for the titles they produce. They do work with the writer. They have to; it’s a partnership, not a dictatorship. But if you approach a traditional publisher with the best children’s book ever written and you want to use your sister’s excellent watercolour paintings for illustrations, you may be disappointed.
There are many other publishing models out there, such as crowd-sourced support, scholarly and academic publishing, religious publishing, and other methods of producing the written word where the milieu of financial risk/editorial discretion/production values is mutable. These are some of the more prevalent publishing models you’ll run across as a writer.