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Between Publishers and Vanity Presses:
Opportunities and Dangers in the Twilight Zone

by Harold Underdown

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In your journey toward publication, have you entered the Twilight Zone? When searching for the best route, the paths used to be fairly simple to follow. . . .

On the one hand, there were traditional publishers, who pay writers royalties in exchange for the right to publish their books, assume all the financial risk (which is considerable--thousands of dollars must be invested in a book before publication), and provide all the expertise and people needed to publish successfully (as explained in What a Publisher Does).

On the other hand, there were vanity presses, who expect the author to pay them for the production of a book, and in return deliver the entire print run to them, for them to handle the marketing, sales, and distribution. Vanity presses quite simply invert the usual relationship between author and publisher. They assume no financial risk. The author does. The author pays them, rather than the other way around. Vanity presses are also called "subsidy publishers," which may also mean a slightly different business approach, if the company asks for their costs to be subsidized but then does market the resulting book and pay royalties. In practice the two terms are used interchangeably.

Back then, and this is as recently as the mid-90's, the only other option was working with a printer, which was quite difficult to do. Since then, computer programs that enable publishers to prepare books for printing entirely on computers, coupled with the rise of print-on-demand (POD) technology, mean that the publishing process can be much less costly than it used to be.

Lower costs mean more people can self-publish, and companies have hurried towards this opportunity. Now, when looking for a publisher, you may enter a strange Twilight Zone of companies, not true royalty-paying publisher but not vanity presses either. These companies thrive by working with authors not willing to wait for traditional publication, or wanting more control over their book, or just wanting to get a family story in print. If you are considering entering The Twilight Zone, tread warily. Though a company operating in the Zone may portray itself as a traditional publisher, or as a simple service provider, the underlying reality of how they work may be quite different.

The Denizens of The Twilight Zone

The companies in The Twilight Zone use different financial and technological approaches to both reduce financial risk overall and transfer some or all of the risk that is left to the author. That may not be a bad thing. Taking on some of the risk yourself may be the only way to get a book published. It also may be a way for you to increase your profits. However, you have to keep your eyes open, and choose carefully.

If you investigate a lot of companies, you will find that they all follow one of a small number of approaches. Here's a short taxonomy of the ones I've observed. Figuring out how a company makes its money will help you choose the right kind for you, so as you research the possibilities, keep asking:

Who pays whom, and how much? Who takes the financial risk?

The options:

Note that many of the companies I've looked at offer both POD and ebook options. The difference between them isn't as great as you might think. In POD, a complete print-ready file is prepared, which can then be used to print one, a dozen, or hundreds of copies of a book. No inventory, no large print runs, but high costs per book. That same file can be used to make an ebook. Some authors have gone the ebook route, publishing on Amazon only, or at selected ebook outlets, and circumventing the publishers discussed here completely. Before working with one of the Twilight Zone publishers and service providers, consider that option too, which is quite attractive and may threaten their business model, as discussed in Jane Friedman's The Future of Self-Publishing Services.

Which of these types and subtypes will be right for you will depend on what you want to do. I'm not going to endorse or condemn any one type categorically, with the possible exception of vanity presses. You can always work directly with a printer for less. You must do your research, however, and ask questions. The integrity and ability of companies in any one of these areas varies greatly.

What matters:

It's not easy to find your way in The Twilight Zone. Take your time. Don't jump at the first opportunity. Be wary of companies that advertise heavily. Ask other writers on writer's discussion boards. Check companies out on sites like Preditors and Editors.

Keep asking those key questions—who pays whom, and how much? Who is taking the risk?

Comments? Questions that weren't answered? Contact me.

This article is copyright Harold Underdown, 2017 and may not be reproduced without permission. Single copies may be printed out for personal, non-commercial use.

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