Using a subsidy publisher

There are many cautions about using a subsidy publisher, but if carefully managed, they can be useful under some circumstances.

Subsidy publishers, who prefer the more positive alias "POD publishers," require an up-front fee to publish and market books. They make their money by charging fees to authors and selling them books, not from selling books in the marketplace. The most well known are Author Solutions (which includes its subsidiaries AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, and Xlibris), Booklocker, Infinity Publishing, and Lulu. As an example of the dubious practices of subsidy publishers, see this article on Author Solutions by author David Gaughran. A disturbing new development is that commercial publishers are beginning to cash in on self-publishing by providing such services, as discussed in this article this article, "The Author Exploitation Business" and this cautionary article on the Writer Beware blog.

Books produced by subsidy publishers are not considered legitimate commercial books by the book trade. They are not reviewed by major reviewers and may not be distributed by mainstream distributors such as Baker & Taylor, although they are available through Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and other online retailers. Also, the subsidy publisher likely owns your book's identifying ISBN, making it the publisher of record. In some cases of less-than-scrupulous subsidy publishers, this may mean that you don't even have clear title to the rights to your book, should you wish to go elsewhere. The ISBN, or "International Standard Book Number" is an essential identifying number used in publishing for ordering and cataloging purposes.

Titles produced by subsidy publishers typically sell only in the dozens of copies. For example, a March 1, 2004, New York Times article quoted the president of iUniverse as saying only 84 titles out of 17,000 published by iUniverse have sold more than 500 copies.

Also, the quality of subsidy-published books may be poor, the design a standardized cookie-cutter that screams subsidy published and the marketing minimal or absent. Usually, you should consider subsidy publishing only if your book is a labor of love for you and your family and friends and/or you do not intend to sell a great number of copies.

However, if you mean your book to be a serious business, go with a traditional publisher or truly self-publish, as described in the article Deciding to become a self-publisher. And if you do not wish to manage publication of your book, or do not feel competent, consider hiring a book packager or consultant. See the article Working with book packagers and consultants for further information.

For a good explanation of the types of publishers, see What is a Vanity Press or a Subsidy Press? by Pete Masterson, author of Book Design and Production: A Guide for Authors and Publishers.

Masterson cogently summarized the value (or rather lack of value) of subsidy publishing when he wrote on Yahoo's self-publishing discussion group "True self publishing is hard work and difficult. It's like starting out with 2 strikes against you. However, if you choose to use a subsidy publisher, that's like starting out with 3 strikes against you. Your odds of success, low to begin with, drops to 'nearly impossible' when you use a so-called 'self-publishing company.'"

See also the articles Vanity and Subsidy Publishers on the Web site of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and When Should I use a POD? on consultant Marion Gropen's blog The Profitable Publisher.

Use a subsidy publisher if you really do not want to make the time and effort to oversee self-publishing of your book. Or, you might want to use a subsidy publisher to gain a commercial publisher's attention for your book, as did author Elle Newmark, as described in this Forbes article. It should be pointed out that Newmark could likely have achieved the same thing at lower cost by managing the editorial process herself and using a POD printer, as discussed in How to print on demand and make money. Or, you might use a subsidy publisher to get your book into print initially, after which you may feel confident enough to pull it from the subsidy publisher and publish it yourself.

If you decide to explore subsidy publishing, by all means read Mark Levine's thorough critical overview of subsidy publishers, The Fine Print of Self-Publishing. The book compares the contracts and services of subsidy publishing companies, for example listing as excellent Aventine Press, Booklocker, Bookpros, Dog Ear Publishing, Infinity Publishing and RJ Communications. It also lists those to avoid, including AuthorHouse, iUniverse and Xlibris.

Levine makes the legitimate point that there do exist ethical, competent subsidy publishing companies that charge reasonable fees and produce quality books. However, some companies may practice "bait-and-switch" on you — offering a no-frills package for a few hundred dollars, but trying to charge for additional fees that will bring the publishing cost into the thousands of dollars.

He also cautions authors to be very realistic about the sales potential of their books and not to spend more than they can afford to publish. You can assess this sales potential using the guidelines for market analysis in Marketing your book.

In particular, Levine discusses in useful detail what he considers the nine qualities of an excellent self-publishing company and how to recognize them:

  • A good reputation among writers
  • Fair publishing fees
  • Generous royalties without any fuzzy math
  • Low printing costs and high production value
  • Favorable contract terms
  • Fair policy regarding the return of your book's original production files
  • Fairly priced add-on services, such as marketing and copyright registration
  • A standard offering of an ISBN, UPC bar code, and LCCN (Library of Congress Control Number) as part of any basic publishing package
  • Registration of an author's book with R.R. Bowker's Books In Print; availability through a distributor (e.g., Baker & Taylor or Ingram); and a listing of it on Amazon.com and other online retailers