by Susan C. Daffron

Editor’s note:  This is the second part in a series of articles that Susan Daffron has graciously offered to NAMW.  These articles will help our members better understand our new NAMW membership publishing benefit.

It’s human nature that if something is confusing or complex, you look for some way to simplify it.

Most people who research self-publishing end up confused, at least at the start. Do a search on “self publishing” or “self publish” in Google. You’ll see that all of the (pay-per-click) ads along the side are for companies such as BookSurge, iUniverse, and Publish America, which offer “turnkey self-publishing” packages. The term “self-publishing” has been co-opted by these companies to lure and confuse aspiring authors.

Misleading Terms: Good for Them; Bad for You

Although these companies use the term “self-publishing,” it’s misleading. If you sign up with iUniverse or Authorhouse, you are NOT self-publishing. They are what’s called subsidy or vanity presses in the industry. Subsidy presses have been spending (and continue to spend) a lot of money to transform the term self-publishing into something it is not. The following terms:

  • Publish On-Demand
  • Print On Demand Publisher
  • Author Services Company
  • Self Publishing Company

are all now associated with subsidy presses. With a subsidy press, with few exceptions, you don’t own your own ISBN. Sometimes you don’t even own the design work for your book. You are not the publisher of record, and that is why you aren’t truly self-publishing.

The term print on demand (POD) is irrelevant and also often used incorrectly by subsidies. It’s a method of printing. A book is printed only when it is ordered. Even gigantic traditional publishers like Simon and Schuster use print on demand technology for older titles that only sell a few copies. Print on demand has nothing to do with subsidy presses or self-publishing, except that “behind the scenes” many of them use a printer called Lightning Source for their printing and distribution. And Lightning Source prints books when they are ordered (on demand).

The reality is that most people who use a subsidy press don’t make money from their books. It’s not always true, but it is often true. Do a search on the Better Business Bureau Web site for some of the big subsidy presses, and you will see that quite a few of them have an “F” rating. A lot of people end up extremely unhappy (and significantly poorer) after using a subsidy press.

The Worst of Two Worlds

A subsidy press offers the worst of two worlds. Instead of making all the profits from your book, you receive only a percentage or “royalty,” as you would with a traditional publisher. However, you don’t get the same level of distribution in return. Additionally, you also don’t get an advance as you would with a traditional publisher. Instead, you pay the company.

After I wrote a book for a big (traditional) computer book publishing company, I saw it everywhere. I saw it in Barnes & Noble and office supply stores, even out here in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, it was also on Amazon and other online bookstores. I also got an advance. Even with all that distribution, the book never earned me royalties beyond that advance. (Hint: if you go with a traditional publisher, get as big of an advance as possible.)

These days, I self-publish. My goals with my books are to help my readers with things they want to do, whether it’s figure out what’s for dinner, raise more money for their pet rescue organization, or write and publish a book.

But I also want to make money. My books don’t have the distribution that I got with a traditional publisher. They aren’t in bookstores, but they are available online and printed only when they are ordered (via my printer, Lightning Source). But there’s no “middleman” taking a cut of the profits like there is with a subsidy press. I get all of the profits from my books. I’m also making a lot more money than I got from any advance.

Know the Difference

I view the difference between true self-publishing and publishing through a subsidy press as the difference between setting up your own entrepreneurial business versus buying into a franchise.

When a business owner starts a business, she is going to pay for services, since no one can do everything. You might hire a designer to create your business cards and brochures, for example. In much the same way a true self-publisher may hire a designer (like me!) to lay out her book.

When you buy into a franchise you are buying into a particular (often expensive) methodology that may or may not provide some of those business services. They have layouts already set up, so your business cards look a certain way. In much the same way, subsidy presses often offer canned book templates, so your book looks like many others.

Where the comparison falls apart though is that with a franchise, you are capitalizing (you hope) on a recognizable name that will help your marketing. With a subsidy press, the opposite is true. Being associated with a vanity press can actually hurt your marketing. Too many subsidy presses have produced too many truly awful books. So fairly or unfairly, many people assume your book will be just as bad.

People who truly self-publish deal with a similar stigma. Self-publishers have produced a lot of drek, after all. But when someone sees “Logical Expressions, Inc.” as the publisher of my books, they don’t know if the book is published by a small independent press, self-published, or what because they don’t recognize the name. Recognizing the name of the publisher (e.g. AuthorHouse) in a negative way is worse than not recognizing it at all, if you ask me.

Make an Informed Decision

Signing up to be a franchisee isn’t always a mistake. In fact, depending on the type of franchise and a lot of other factors, it can be a good idea. Because becoming a franchisee costs a lot of money, wise people do a lot of research first. You can’t start a franchise “on a shoestring.” The person who signs up to be a Merry Maids franchisee has to start making profits quickly, versus the person who starts her own cleaning business.

In much the same way, signing up with a vanity press isn’t always a mistake. If you only want a few copies of your genealogy book for your family and don’t care about profits, it’s a good option. The key is to read the Web sites and contracts closely.

You may wonder why I care about all this stuff. Realistically, all this confusion affects me personally because I own a publishing business. I am a (true) self-publisher because we own our ISBNs. We also do book layout for clients as a service. But Logical Expressions, Inc. is not and never will be a subsidy press.