Monday 7 October 2013

Publishing Models Part 1

by Narelle Atkins

The current publishing environment provides many opportunities and different avenues for writers to pursue publication of their books. The digital revolution has changed the way publishers conduct their business. Authors can now publish independently (indie) and sell books directly to readers. 

How can writers negotiate the myriad of options in the changing world of publishing? Which publishing option is best for their career? 

The answer is it depends. The first step is to understand the definitions of the different publishing models. 

Traditional Publishing

An author is paid royalties by a publisher who contracts their book. The author may be paid an advance against future royalties. The author does not pay any money to the publisher for book production, distribution or any other expenses incurred by the publisher. 

Traditional publishers are selective regarding the books they contract because they are bearing all the financial risk. They need to ensure the books they contract are marketable and have a readership otherwise they’ll go out of business. The bestselling authors make the majority of the profit for traditional publishers. 

Subsidy and Vanity Publishing

An author pays money to a publisher who contracts their book. The book contract may require an author to make upfront payments or pay for a specific aspect of the book production process. Authors may be required to purchase a minimum number of copies. 

I’m going to talk more about subsidy publishing later in this post.

Vanity Publishing

No matter how fancy the website or how alluring the promises, the bottom line is vanity publishers make their money from authors rather than by selling books. 

Vanity publishers are not usually selective regarding the books they contract. Their upfront author fees mean they don’t take on the financial risk because the author fees will often cover the book production costs and provide a profit margin.

Vanity publishers have no incentive to produce high quality books. Their books often have little or no editorial input from the publisher and limited, if any, effective distribution in the marketplace. Authors usually carry all the financial risk under a vanity publishing arrangement. 

Self-Publishing and Independent (Indie) Publishing

An author publishes their own book and is in control of all aspects of the book production process. The author assumes the financial burden and risk of publishing their own book. The author is responsible for editing, cover art, marketing and distribution.

There is a difference between buying a ‘self-publishing package’ from a publisher and independently (indie) publishing a book. Next Monday I’ll talk more about the evolving world of indie publishing and the opportunities for writers who choose to self-publish their books.

Subsidy Publishing 

Under a subsidy publishing arrangement, an author chooses to share the financial risk of producing their book with the subsidy publisher. The level of risk and financial burden borne by the author can vary widely. In a subsidy arrangement the author financially starts from behind. They need to sell a certain number of books to recoup their initial investment before they actually start turning a profit.

In a pure subsidy arrangement, the publisher operates as a non-profit organisation and provides low cost publishing services to authors. In this instance, it’s possible that a subsidy publisher could produce a print book at a lower per unit cost than an indie author would pay by contracting identical services. 

How can writers make an educated decision on whether or not they want to pursue traditional publishing or subsidy publishing or self-publishing (indie)? 

If profit is an important objective, writers need to ensure they can produce a quality book and recoup their investment if they pursue an indie or subsidy arrangement by having the ability to hand sell books. For example, have a speaking platform or a pre-existing niche market with guaranteed book sales.

NARELLE ATKINS writes contemporary inspirational romance and lives in Canberra, Australia. She sold her debut novel, set in Australia, to Harlequin's Love Inspired Heartsong Presents line in a 6-book contract. Her first book, Falling for the Farmer, will be a February 2014 release.

Narelle is a co-founder with Jenny Blake of the Australian Christian Readers Blog Alliance (ACRBA).

Twitter: @NarelleAtkins


  1. Narelle, good synopsis. Before receiving a traditional publishing offer for Angelguard, I received a co-publishing offer which probably fits under your "subsidy"option. I was prepared to make the investment, however, was disappointed that the publisher wasn't willing to increase the upside in royalty rate when I was taking significant financial risk.

    I sought counsel from a variety of people in the industry and my lawyer who all encouraged me to look elsewhere. Fortunately, another door opened for me.

    It's an interesting test of our motives when we receive an offer. Sometimes we're not necessarily supposed to go through every door that opens.

    1. Ian, thanks for sharing your experiences. You bring up two very important points regarding our motives for publishing and seeking advice. All writers should seek advice and do their research before signing a publishing contract or embarking on the indie publishing route. Publishing contracts are legal documents and we need to know and understand the rights and obligations listed in the contract for both the publisher and author. Literary agents can provide valuable advice and help their author clients negotiate contracts that provide a better deal for their authors.

    2. I agree, Ian. The wise counsel of others in the writing game is vital, especially for debut authors. Legal advice is also paramount, no matter how costly...and will easily spotlight deficient or illformed contracts. I'm so glad you had people to direct you to the best outcome.

      And thanks Narelle, for your informative post. Looking forward to more. :)

    3. Thanks, Dotti. Contracts are complex, and just because a publisher meets the 'traditional publisher' criteria or is on an 'approved publisher' list doesn't mean they'll offer the best publishing deal for you. We've all heard the horror stories of authors signing contracts that are ridiculously biased in favour of the publisher. Reversion of rights clauses, non-competing clauses, the calculation method of royalties etc. are only a few of the potential problem areas. The financial solvency of the publisher needs to be considered, as well as their ability to market and distribute books to their target audience. All these factors highlight the value in hiring a savvy literary agent and seeking legal advice from contract specialists.

  2. Thanks for your informative post Narelle. We're all faced with these choices and need to know every little detail before making our decisions on which way to go.

    1. Thanks, Rita. Information is power, and we can't underestimate the importance of research and exercising due dilligence before signing contracts and making publishing-related decisions.

  3. I just read Margaret's post on Christian Writers Down Under. She put all the steps to publishing on Kindle if anyone is thinking of going in that direction

  4. Rita, thanks for the tip. IMHO, uploading a book on Kindle or Smashwords is one of the easier aspects of indie publishing. I'm talking more about the opportunities and challenges of indie publishing in my post next Monday.

  5. Thanks Narelle. Information is power and this community we are building is so essential to finding information. I look forward to the rest of your posts

    1. Thanks, Cat. I've learned a lot over the years from professional writing organisations.They provide an invaluable source of current information on all aspects of writing and publishing.

  6. Information is key. I think the size of the traditional publishing house also makes for further discussions too. I have found successful indie authors, successful traditionally published authors and successful hybrid (both traditional & indie) authors all have significantly different outlooks. Looking forward to your perspective on Indie publishing.

    1. Michelle, I agree. The larger publishers often have better print distribution and do more marketing for their authors eg. Love Inspired sells books through their Reader Service. There are wide ranging opinions regarding indie publishing, but I think we all agree that indie publishing is here to stay and hybrid authors will be more common in the future.

  7. Thanks Narelle for a good summary of publishing models. I found Ian's comment interesting as I've often wondered whether the author more royalties with a subsidy publisher as they are taking a larger part of the risk. These things are often hard to determine from publisher websites. It seems to me that the line between subsidy publisher and vanity publisher - while there - is at times very blurred.

  8. Jenny, I have wondered the same thing. Many authors will choose the indie publishing road because their return on investment is better than either subsidy or traditional publishing options. The question authors need to ask when considering a subsidy option is can I recoup my investment? Do I have an established readership who will buy my book? Or, do I care about making a little bit or a lot of money? Those with ministry goals may be happy to spend the money and not recoup their investment.

  9. Yes, thanks for this, Narelle. Informative posts like this are the type I like to bookmark to refer to many times.


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