Since there is so much confusion around publishing these days, I wanted to spell some things out for authors.
Beyond anything else, authors need to keep forefront in their minds that writing and publishing is a business. It is not some noble intellectual exercise, it is business. Now it might be a personal passion, noble intellectual exercise or just mental masturbation to you, but to the others you deal with it is a business. Understand this and so many things make sense.
In the light of writing and publishing as a business, all sorts of things make perfect sense. The reason mainstream publishers pay such poor royalties on eBooks is that it helps them make money and writers let them get away with it. The reason vanity presses rip off writers is to make money, using an ultimately self-destructive business strategy, but one that works in the short term, again because writers let them get away with it. And so it goes. To borrow from ‘The Godfather’, it’s not personal, it’s business.
So let’s define some terms.
A large, mainstream publisher is a company that takes on publishing your book, pays you for it and does not require that the author pay anything up front for the privilege. It is almost always part of a large, multi-national corporation and its motivation is to make money for its owners and shareholders.
An indie publisher may be a single author publishing his or her own titles or a small, independent (i.e.not part of some much larger conglomerate) publisher who, again, does not require payments from the author to publish a book. Indie publishers are out to make money too, but you are usually dealing directly with the owner(s) and many of these have a real passion for books and writing, rather than just being business people.
A service provider publisher, a ripoff artist or a vanity publisher, depending on your attitude, is a company that publishes your book under their name but who requires that the author carry the costs of producing the book. Because they give the illusion of being a real publisher people confuse these with such. These are really just playing on the needs of many authors for some sort of validation and the illusion that they have been published by a ‘real’ publisher. One needs to be very careful with such companies and especially careful over any rights that want control over. The reality is that you are paying for it, so all rights should remain with you.
An outsource provider offers a selection of the services needed to publish a book, from cover design and editing to marketing. They do not publish the book, but simply provide some of the services you may need.
A self-publisher is an AUTHOR who publishes his or her own books. They may or may not outsource much of the work to others, but they are the ‘publisher of record’ and control all rights to the title.
A printer prints and binds your books. They are an outsource provider, as is an editor, cover designer, marketer, etc.
A distributor distributes your book to other distributors, library sellers and retailers. In the ebook realm, Smashwords is both a distributor and a retailer. Lightning Source is a printer and distributor.
A retailer sells your book. Examples are Amazon, B&N and Smashwords, or your own website.
Now in the present circumstances there is, IMHO, little reason for an author to use a vanity press as I have defined it above. You are much better off to publish yourself, and thus be the publisher of record and know that you have FULL control over your own titles at all times. It allows you to build a brand over time. Most importantly it ensures that you have full control over your intellectual property. This is critical as the technology of book publishing and reading is changing rapidly and so you cannot predict just what rights you will need in future. Remember, the Kindle was only announced late 2007 and look at how it has changed the world of books.
Outsource as much of the publishing process as you need to. Remember that, as a business, you need to control costs to start making a profit on your books as quickly as possible (if at all).
I publish my own books as books, ebooks and apps. I also help other writers do the same, but I make sure that they are the publisher of record and I just provide the advice and services that they don’t want to do themselves. In the case of my titles I am the publisher. In the case of the other writers I help I am a service provider. I think this is very important and I could not morally do otherwise.
In the old days there were many benefits that an author got from their publisher in exchange for surrendering all the rights to their books. In some cases there still are today. But the equation has changed. Distribution is now not quite as locked up by the big publishers as it was, and certainly not in the ebook area. They provide less marketing support etc than they used to. In these times of rapid development in publishing it is, I think, critical for authors to recognise that everyone, from publishers to agents to editors are service providers to YOU. It is up to YOU to examine the proposition they offer and see if it is value for money.
The reality is that ebooks will become the main form of publishing for mass-market material in a very short time; it has already come on much faster than anyone expected it to. Print books will survive of course, but over time everyone will get used to buying at least some of their books online. The online world breaks down the old barriers to entry for self-publishers and, to a large extent, levels the playing field.
For authors whose titles are more likely to be read in print, the mainstream publishers still have a lot to offer in terms of distribution to bookstores. But remember that people are moving to ereaders far more rapidly than anyone thought possible several years ago.
Succeeding in writing, whatever that means to you personally, requires that you remove the starry eyed glasses and view the world as it really is.