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A No-BS Tour of Modern Publishing - Part II: Making sense of the lingo

Bennett R. Coles | August 10, 2016

One of the biggest challenges an author faces in today’s publishing landscape is just trying to understand what’s what. Taking money from authors has become a billion-dollar business in the past ten years, and there are all kinds of terms floating around out there. As authors unravel one scam after another, the charlatans and pirates are forced to repackage their scams with fancy new terms.

But to make matters much more complicated, not everyone out there charging money is a scammer. Many of them offer legitimate, valuable services which authors are well-advised to consider. Even those authors dead-set on traditional publishing.

So which is which? And what’s what? This article is going to attempt to offer some clarity.

Traditional publishing:

Also known as “trade” publishing, this is the old school method of getting books to market – it hasn’t changed much since it was established in Edwardian times. The publisher pays for all the production and distribution costs and in return owns the rights to the book and keeps 90% of the revenue. The author is usually paid an advance on royalties. The publisher will have a sales team who actively sell the book to bookstores and they will probably have a marketing team who will promote the book in the month leading up to launch.

The publisher carries all the financial risk and is motivated to sell as many books as possible in order to make money.

The strengths of this model are:

  1. Books are rigorously curated, usually ensuring that the quality of writing is very high;
  2. There is a team of professionals working hard to ensure that the book is excellent in all aspects;
  3. The publishers have the best access to brick and mortar bookstores and other major distribution channels;
  4. The author gets paid for their book and does not have to contribute financially to the project.

The weaknesses of this model are:

  1. It is very hard to get in – bordering on impossible for an unknown, first-time author;
  2. It is driven fundamentally by economics, not art, making it very difficult for unusual or ground-breaking books to get accepted;
  3. It is utterly dominated (in North America, at least) by the Big Five publishers in New York;
  4. Each book has only one shot at the market – if it fails, it is relegated to the backlist and forgotten.

Examples of traditional publishers are Harper Collins (one of the Big Five) or my own Promontory Press (a small press).


This is a relatively new way to publish books, brought about mainly through the development of three key technologies: print-on-demand (POD) printing; ebooks; internet selling. In this model the author retains all rights to the book and pays a self-publishing company to do many of the things a trade publisher would do. The self-publishing company will “publish” the book – although in reality, it will merely list the book on bookstore and distribution databases. It is important to note that a self-publishing company has no sales team or marketing team and they will make no effort to pitch or promote the book to bookstores.

The author carries all the financial risk. The self-publishing company makes all its revenue from the fees authors pay up front and has no stake in the ultimate success of the book. Because of this, there is no quality control by the self-publishing company – their business model is based entirely on quantity, not quality.

The strengths of this model are:

  1. The author retains full control over the final form of the book;
  2. The author retains all rights to the book;
  3. The author receives a high percentage of revenue from sales;
  4. There are no barriers to entry beyond cost.

The weaknesses of this model are:

  1. There is no quality control – this industry has justifiably earned a reputation for producing junk – and therefore it is harder for an author to be taken seriously in the market;
  2. There are a lot of false promises made to uninformed authors;
  3. There can be a great deal of “opaqueness” and the author can struggle to know what’s actually happening with the book;
  4. There is no access to brick and mortar bookstores.

Examples of self-publishing companies are AuthorHouse and Tellwell.

Hybrid publishing:

This is a middle-ground method of publishing, trying to take the best elements of trade and self-publishing and create a new way. There are very few true hybrid publishers, and it can be difficult to distinguish them from self-publishers who cloak themselves in names like “partner publishing” or “assisted publishing”.

The author and publisher both make a financial contribution to a hybrid project and share the revenues more equally than in trade publishing. The publisher has the same sales and distribution access to bookstores as a trade publisher, and they will have a sales and marketing team dedicated to supporting each book.

The financial risk is shared between author and publisher. Both parties are dedicated to selling as many books as possible in order to make money. The publisher does not profit from author fees – rather, anything an author pays goes toward producing and distributing the book.

The strengths of this model are:

1)usually ensuring that the quality of writing is high;

  1. There is a team of professionals working hard to ensure that the book is excellent in all aspects;
  2. The publishers have access to brick and mortar bookstores and other major distribution channels (but often not as good as trade publishers);
  3. It is more accessible for new authors than trade publishing;
  4. The publisher will usually promote a book longer than a trade publisher will.

The weaknesses of this model are:

  1. The author usually makes a financial contribution to the production of the book;
  2. It can be very hard to determine from the outside whether a publisher is truly a hybrid or just a self-publisher in hybrid clothing;
  3. The author will have to do much of the marketing after launch;
  4. Some industry groups (such as major awards and grant-giving organizations) consider hybrid to be self-publishing and do not recognize it as legitimate.

Examples of hybrid publishers are She Writes Press and BQB Publishing.

(Full disclosure: Promontory Press has done some hybrid contracts in the past in addition to our traditional contracts.)

Author Services:

This is a recent industry trend which developed from the backlash against self-publishing companies. As authors become more informed and comfortable with the self-publishing landscape, there is less and less need for “hand-holding” by a self-publisher. Self-publishing is much easier for authors than it was even five years ago and there is a growing demand from authors for greater transparency and control over their books.

Author services are simply that: individual, tailored services offered for a price with no ongoing commitment to (or interference with) the project. There is no “publisher” besides the author. There are thousands of contractors who offer their paid services to authors (editors, cover designers and website designers are the most common) and in this landscape it is very much a “buyer beware” for the author. Most contractors are honest and talented, as ultimately it is their reputations which will sustain their businesses in the long term.

The advantages of this model are:

  1. The author has complete control over every aspect of the book;
  2. There is more transparency than with self-publishing;
  3. The author can pick and choose exactly what services he or she wants;
  4. There is no “hard-selling” from a self-publishing company to buy more services.

The disadvantages of this model are:

  1. The author has to act as project manager of the book;
  2. The author has to be very discerning about which contractor is signed;
  3. The author carries all the financial risk;
  4. There is no access to brick and mortar bookstores.

Examples of author service companies who provide a wide range of services are CreateSpace (owned by Amazon) and Cascadia Author Services.

Examples of distribution providers (for the author looking to publish without an intermediary) are Ingram Spark, Smashwords and Lulu.


Originally published at Life as a Human.

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