Updated: Mar 12, 2020
The distinguishing difference between traditional publishing and independent (or indie) publishing is who holds the purse strings. In traditional publishing, the publishing house pays for the production and distribution of the book in exchange for power over creative elements such as cover design and contents of the book itself--as well as the lion’s share of the profit. Indie publishing means that the author publishes the book themselves. The author keeps the power and profits, but they also have to pay to produce, design, and print the book.
Both strategies have their pros and cons, but there is a dangerous beast lurking in the shadows of the industry that embodies the worst of both worlds.
Beware the Vanity Publisher.
The benefit of traditional publishing is that your story is in the hands of an expert. The editors and cover designers use their industry knowledge to produce a quality book from your manuscript. When you sign the contract you’re agreeing to give the publishing house the rights to the story and the responsibility of making your manuscript into a book. In exchange, you get a monetary advance, additional advances upon completing their requested edits, and then a percentage of sales.
If you receive an offer from a Vanity Publisher, you’ll see similar terms in their contract as you would a traditional publisher. They agree to produce the book and give you a percentage of the profits. The red flag is this: in the contract, they’ll request that you pay a sum to contribute to the production of the book. In an offer I received two years ago, the contract required me to pay the company £2500 ($3000+ USD) for them to publish my book while also granting the company all creative design power and allowing me only a portion of the sales.
If you see this in a contract, RUN. In the traditional publishing agreement, the publisher is paying you for your intellectual property so they can turn it into a product for sale. You get a percentage of the profits because you created the idea that led to this book. A fair publisher should never ask you to pay in order to build the product they’re going to sell for themselves.
Vanity publishing within indie publishing, which I describe as full-service indie publishing, is not as dangerous as vanity publishing. Full-service indie publishers are companies that you can hire for the services needed to produce your book, including cover design, interior layout, editing, and distribution management. They produce your book for you, rather than doing it yourself.
This offer can be appealing for a brand new author. Teaching yourself how to publish a book is incredibly daunting. Having someone do it for you can reduce stress throughout the process. Depending on your circumstances, this could be a good option for you. But don’t add these services to your shopping cart too quickly. Some of the services these companies provide, such as managing distribution or buying your ISBN, are ones you can do yourself for a lower cost. There are other benefits to keeping control of the indie publishing process as well. When these companies produce the book on your behalf, they own the files. If you ever want to make a change, you have to go through them. This creates a lot of hoops to jump through in order to get anything done, and the company has no investment in supporting you once the book is created. Yes, you get a book, but you have limited power over your content.
When you produce the book yourself, you communicate directly with your service providers rather than through a third party company. This cuts out the middle-man and makes communication much easier. It also means you get to work with someone that you have (hopefully) researched and chosen rather than being restricted to working with someone in the company’s network. Not to say that their service providers are poor quality, but it’s nice to have the agency in your hands.
Keeping control also gives you the flexibility to allocate funds to how you want to. Aspects like cover design and editing are worth investing in. Spending a couple hundred dollars on a virtual assistant to do project management tasks, on the other hand, might be better saved if you feel you can do those things yourself.
Doing it yourself also makes it easier to rectify mistakes. If you want to update the manuscript, change the price, or remove the book entirely, you can do that. Companies have to pay their employees, so every change can come at a cost when your book is in their hands, or there may be hidden clauses or catches you couldn't have prepared for.
Full-service indie publishing is not quite the same trap that vanity publishing is, but that doesn’t mean you should jump in headfirst. Don’t let fear or insecurity push you down one path. Prepare yourself by doing thorough research. Seek out reviews of the company’s services. Decide what you want your final product to look like and set your goals before starting the self-publishing process. Your book deserves to be treated with dedicated care and attention. Whether it is traditional publishing, full-service indie publishing, or self-managed indie publishing, be sure it’s the right path for you.