Publishing Options

by Jan King

Established Commercial (Traditional) Publishers
Let’s clear up a source of a lot of confusion for authors new to the publishing industry: What is a true established commercial (sometimes referred to as traditional) publisher?

In a deal with a legitimate established commercial publisher, the author is the one who comes up with the intellectual property in manuscript form. The publisher is the one who adds the money and expertise to leverage the intellectual property into a successful book by providing a great title, cover, interior, setting the price and then cost-effectively printing the book and getting distribution for it into the bookstore market.

Self (or Independent) Publishing

When you self publish your book you do it all – you come up with the intellectual property in manuscript form, you make all the publishing decisions (size of book, cover design, title, price and more), you finance everything but you keep all your profits. Which leads to the question, how is a person who has never written a book before supposed to do all of that? Unfortunately, fear makes many people take a third option – signing a contract with a POD (vanity) “publisher” – not really a publisher at all.

Established Commercial Publishers
Recognized brand name, marketing track record, adds credibility
Experts to work with who have helped many authors to create and promote great books
Relationship with distributors for retail sales
Sales reps to sell your book into bookstores
Limited money required by the author up front

Long time frame to market (12-18 months)
Loss of the rights to some of your intellectual property
Loss of a significant % of sales for the life of the book
Locked into a long term contract (author’s life + 70 years) although the publishing situation may change (ex: electronic rights)
Loss of control over title, cover, pricing

Self Publishing
Short time to market (3-4 months)
Retain ownership of all intellectual property so you can move between publishers and media
Own the working files of cover and interior so you can change publishers at any time
You keep all the profits (not just a royalty percentage)

Significant up front money required ($10K +) to create and market a professional-quality book
Steep learning curve to really understand how to leverage your intellectual property in a book
Easy to make costly mistakes on book marketability, cover designs, interior layout, printing costs and quantities, who to trust for advice, unless you find the right professionals
The printer will print whatever you send, even if it isn’t yet positioned, proofread and more – no guarantee of quality to the outside world
Takes a lot of time away from your core business (unless you get assistance)
Limited/no access to distribution to retail stores
Requires up front money, but as a reasonable trade for keeping your own IP, owning your own files and keeping the profits

POD Publishers/Vanity Presses
So many of the entities calling themselves “publishers” are instead, POD (print on demand) companies. There are significant disadvantages to going this route.


The POD Publisher has the disadvantages of both established commercial publishers: loss of control of your own intellectual property, getting royalties (usually only 20% of net sales), contract duration is the life of the author plus 70 years
And the disadvantages of self publishing: paying up front and not have large publisher connections and distribution.

Important to note: There is a difference between a print-on-demand PRINTER and a POD Publisher. POD Printers like are perfectly fine to work with and provide just the service to print small runs of your book. Amazon’s is also just fine to work with but only for their printing services, not to use their other services like cover design, editing and expanded distribution services.

Publishers make investments. If the author is both making the financial investment and bringing in the intellectual property, then that is not a publishing deal. What you are doing when you work with a POD “publisher” is buying publishing services and usually at a premium to pay for their overhead and profits.

I hear so many people tell me what their “publisher” said, only to find out they aren’t working with a publisher at all, but a POD publisher (vanity press) dressed up and marketed as if they were a legitimate publisher.

If you are thinking of doing business with a company that calls itself a publisher but charges you a fee up front then they are NOT a legitimate publisher, they are a POD publisher.

You have a right to know what to expect, so you need to see their author contract to know for sure what you are dealing with. The publisher should provide you with the contract and you would expect to see provisions regarding who does what, what the flow of money is, in and out, termination provisions, and what liability each party is assuming.

But beyond the standard, there are some provisions that are especially important in POD contracts. We’ve developed a eight-point checklist of these essential terms. If you can say “yes” to each of these reading the contract, then you’ve found a great company to work with. If there are any “no” answers, please think twice!

1. Author retains all intellectual property rights – if you have to pay up front, there is absolutely no reason you should be selling your rights to your intellectual property in the bargain. You are licensing your rights to print, perhaps exclusively, for only a designated period of time.

2. Author benefits 100% from net book profits (isn’t just paid royalties or a commission) – again, if you have to pay the full cost of producing the book up front, the publishing services firm might get a percentage of what you sell, but you should retain the lion’s share. If they only want a percentage from the books they are able to sell through their own efforts, that would be a reasonable exchange. If they are able to generate bookstore orders (unlikely, but not impossible), then they should take a percentage from those sales. Otherwise, the profits from the book sales, minus the costs to print, should be yours.

3. Author has the right to terminate the publishing services contract, preferably with only 30 days notice, but no more than 60 days – if you get a great offer from an established commercial publisher, you will be kicking yourself if you can’t take it because you are stuck with a bad contract you can’t get out of.

4. Timeline the author can live with – many publishing services companies do not specify how quickly they will publish your book. There is no reason they cannot create the cover and interior and have the book printed within 90 days of when they receive the manuscript. Anything much outside of that time frame is unacceptable and you should only sign a contract that gives you a full refund if they do not have books in your hands within 90 days, unless you specifically agree otherwise for some reason.

5. Professional quality cover, interior and printing – I have seen way too many books with completely unprofessional covers and a book binding that is falling apart. A professionally-designed cover is easy to spot a mile away and if you aren’t sure of what you are getting, call in a professional to take a look for you. Many of the publishing services firms outsource their printing to (just another reason for you to go direct), but if they do, at least you can be sure that the quality of the printing and binding will be good.

6. Author is given working cover and interior design files if contract is terminated - if you have had to pay to have your book cover designed and the interior typeset, then you want the right to get the design files back (not just a PDF) if you terminate the contract. Most POD publishers do not allow this as a way to keep you tied to them. If you don’t have this contract term, a new publisher would have to re-key the entire manuscript.

7. Reasonable prices for books – if part of your contract is for the publishing services firm to print your books on-demand, then you want no more than a 25% mark-up to cover their administrative costs than if you took your book to your own printer. The on-demand printer you would be smart to use is (for more reasons than I can detail here). The formula Lightning Source uses to determine the price of printing a book is $.90 x .015 x the number of pages in the book. So for instance, if your book were 183 pages, the price per book would be 183 x $.015 = $2.75 + $.90, which equals $3.65 per book. Again, using this example, if the price quoted to you by the POD publisher is more than $4.56 per book in our example, you are paying for an unnecessary mark up.

Too many publishing services companies charge a percentage of retail for you to buy your own book; for instance, 50% of a $20 book, or $10 a book. This is how established commercial publishers work, but they do it because you haven’t paid for publishing up front – that is a whole different story.

Don’t ever sign a contract that requires you buy a minimum number of books. Regardless of what the POD publisher tells you, they are printing on demand, which means they don’t have to buy a certain quantity from their printer, so you should not have to either.

8. Reasonable prices for other services – many of the publishing services companies want you to buy marketing or other services and they will offer you a menu that you feel like you need to be successful. Much better to interview qualified professionals and choose your own after talking to other authors and others in the industry. Don’t sign a contract that requires you to buy any additional services beyond printing.

The bottom line is this: You can easily self publish without a POD publisher, but if you decide you want someone to handle all the details, be sure you get what you are paying for. There are hundreds, if not thousands of POD publishers so you have plenty to choose from. As in all other things, make sure and read the contract and get the terms that work for you and your book.It is important for the author to choose the publishing method that will optimize his or her chances for book publishing success.