Subsidy Publishing vs Self Publishing

I've been speaking loud and long on this topic over on LinkedIn lately. It's a growing issue, a problem I am seeing inexperienced writers facing every day. A week does not go by without me hearing from or reading some writer talking about how they "self published" their book through some subsidy press or another. So I thought it's time to have another talk about this.

First, some definitions:

Subsidy Press: A publisher who requires an author to subsidize the cost of producing a book. Generally speaking, these publishers charge up front for to format the book's interior, make a cover for the book, and increasingly these days, to convert to ebook formats as well. Again, with a subsidy press, the writer pays for the work. Then the subsidy press uploads the print book to Lightning Source, and the ebook files to the various ebook retailers, in theory handling this "for" the writer, taking in return a share (generally 50-90%) of profits from sales.

Self Publishing: A writer is also the publisher of the book. This means that the writer is uploading the book to the writer's accounts at ebook retailers, and that the writer is uploading the print book interior and cover PDFs to the printer. The writer's publishing business name is the one which will appear on the spine of the book, if any does.

The two are not the same thing. It's pretty obvious even at first glance that the latter method gets you twice to ten times as much income per sale - so the subsidy press must produce twice to ten times the sales, or twice to ten times the value, for it to be a worthwhile investment. Generally speaking, however, these presses do nothing to market a book after it is produced; they simply upload it to the various sites and let it sit. If the author markets the book, the publisher profits. If the author fails to market the book, the publisher still made their money being paid to produce the book in the first place.

But insidiously, these companies are increasingly calling themselves "self publishing companies" to hop on the bandwagon of writers trying to self publish. With self pub successes like John Locke, Amanda Hocking, and Joe Konrath - and bestselling writers like Barry Eisler and now J.K. Rowlings self publishing - self pub has become the "in" thing to do in many circles. So these companies attempt to take advantage of that and use "self publishing" as their theme.

They're not self publishing. This is fraudulent advertising designed to take advantage of uninformed writers. No book produced and published by a subsidy press is self published. Subsidy presses are just another traditional publisher with very low standards of acceptance and very bad contracts for writers.

That's not to say you can't get help to self publish, though. There are numerous companies out there who will do the same work, for about the same up front fee, but then hand the files over to the writer. There are a goodly and growing number of individuals who offer these services as well. You pay the fee, they do the work, they hand you the files, and you upload the files to your account. You've self published. You keep all the post-retailer profits. You've simply outsourced some of the work involved in book production - and many publishers do that, from the smallest small presses like yours, to the largest NYC publishing houses.

Here's my rules for avoiding problem-companies:

- IF a company is asking for you for money up front for your book, THEN that company should be giving you the completed files for formatted interior and cover, and YOU should be uploading those files to YOUR account on Createspace or Lightning Source, and YOU should be uploading the ebook files to Amazon, Smashwords, and Pubit/B&N.

- IF a company is asking for money to produce your book, AND that company is not providing you the files but is instead uploading those files to THEIR accounts, then that company is inevitably, in my experience, a bad partner. If that company is saying that they are helping you self publish, then they are a scam.

Scam is such a harsh word; but when a company is clearly using fraudulent marketing in their attempts to win customers, then I find it appropriate. Websters defines scam as "a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation". And that certainly fits the bill for many of the companies involved in these deceptive practices. Avoid them at all costs.