True Self-Publishing vs. Subsidy Publishing
I posted this to a LinkedIn discussion group yesterday, and publishing consultant Carol White told me I should make it a blog, as a public service. So here we go:
It doesn’t sound like it would be a big deal, but the organization that assigns the ISBN to the book is the publisher. When your publisher is a subsidy house (such as Trafford, AuthorHouse, XLibris, iUniverse—all owned by the same company, incidentally—or Outskirts, Infinity and their hundreds of competitors), anyone in the industry can tell by the ISBN that you went with a publisher that does no vetting, that will take anyone who can pay the fee (other than hate speech or smut), that doesn’t give a flying f about whether the book has been proofread, let alone edited—and that in most cases will have a very generic cover and interior design. The industry, having seen vast quantities of junk coming out of these presses, assumes that anything with one of those labels is junk.
And the unfortunate reality is that 90 percent of the books coming out of these presses should never have been published. There’s certainly a lot of junk coming out of true self-publishing, too—but the percentage of good stuff is much, much higher.
Now there are a few reasons why in some cases it makes sense to go this route, as long as you know what you’re getting into and have good reasons. For example:
- A client of mine whose book was good enough to publish traditionally told me he was in his late 80s and didn’t want to wait two years to find a publisher and have the book come out, and likewise he didn’t want the hassle of being his own publisher. He went with iUniverse, and probably sold a lot fewer books, but got it done very quickly at relatively low expense.
- Infinity (my favorite of this ilk) got wind of my Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and begged me to let them publish it. I let them do their own edition for the book trade. If a bookstore wants to order, I let them order Infinity’s edition. If an individual orders, I fill the order from the books I printed under my own ISBN (which cost me half as much per copy as Infinity’s). What I got out of it was outsourcing all the hassles of dealing with bookstores, as well as “street cred” with subsidy-published authors who might hire me for book consulting or marketing consulting/copywriting.
- Professional speakers often use these companies because they don’t want the hassles, and because they have a built-in market that doesn’t care that their books are ugly and overpriced. In that market, they can pay the $9 per book to get them printed, because they sell them direct for maybe $25. In a bookstore, where comparable books might be $18 and the bookstore takes 40 percent, the numbers don’t work.
- Finally, when I get a client with a crappy book that has a sharply limited life expectancy, I recommend these companies. If you’re going to sell 100 or fewer books during the life of a title, there’s no point setting up a publishing company, choosing printing and design vendors, etc., or paying someone like me or Carol or Judy to do it for you.
In true self-publishing, you buy your ISBN block and you choose your vendors for all the services you need (such as editing, design, indexing). And you set the price of the book. Some subsidy houses will allow you to supply your own cover and interior. Some will even let you set your own price. And some subsidy houses also offer on-demand printing services where they don’t assign an ISBN; in this case, you are buying short-run printing from a company that happens to also offer subsidy publishing services, but you are not subsidy publishing. Many people use companies like Lulu and the printing arm associated with Infinity to do Advance Reader Copies (ARCs). I used Lulu to do a relative’s vanity project in run of 6 copies. I didn’t ask for ISBN and I didn’t use one of mine. I was simply using them as a printer.
But ultimately, there’s only one test that makes the determination whether a book is self- or subsidy published: who obtained the ISBN from the official ISBN agency (Bowker, in the US).