Self-Publishing Terms and What They Mean

The novice author looking to publish his or her book often finds that producing a book requires learning an entire new terminology, particularly in relation to what is or is not a self-publisher. Subsidy, vanity, self-publishing, and POD are terms often used interchangeably to mean the same or similar things, but these terms do have definitions that separate them.

Most authors dream of being published by a traditional publisher—one who pays to print the author’s book and then pays the author royalties. However, after months or years of mailing out manuscripts to publishers and literary agents, and piles of rejection letters later—if even lucky enough to get a response—many authors ultimately turn to self-publishing.

When self-publishing is first considered, the author finds that homework is required to understand the self-publishing industry. Various blogs and Internet forums about self-publishing will offer advice or commentary about staying away from POD publishers or subsidy publishers, or about the stigmas or pitfalls of self-publishing. These terms are used widely and interchangeably and can be confusing to new authors. Here are a few basic definitions to help authors understand just what these terms mean and a breakdown of what is really required to self-publish a book.

Traditional Publishing: As stated above, a traditional publisher will handle all the publishing and printing costs of the book. Authors will receive royalties for their book’s sales. Throughout the twentieth century, traditional publishing was viewed as the ideal situation for authors because traditional publishers have been viewed as the gatekeepers or judges of whether a book is worthy of publication. Also, traditional publishers would market the books and authors had no risk involved in the publishing costs.

Changes in the marketplace, however, have made it more difficult for traditional publishers to compete, and by extension, it is more difficult for authors to be selected for publication. While traditional publishing still provides a certain sense of legitimacy, self-publishing is a more viable option for most authors, and in many cases, it can also be more lucrative.

Self-Publishing: Self-publishing means, in a general way, that the author publishes the book himself, and he absorbs the cost of publishing the book. The advantage is that the author receives all the profit, but the disadvantage is that self-publishing has a stigma, largely because many authors have self-published poor quality books that could not compete with traditionally published books for a number of reasons from cheap paper and low quality printing to multiple typos.

Self-publishing itself has its degrees of what many consider legitimate self-publishing. A true self-published book, in many people’s opinions, is a book where the author oversaw the entire production from layout to printing and where the author owns the ISBN number, printing the book under his or his own publishing company’s name. While “vanity,” “subsidy,” and “POD” are terms often used in relation to self-publishing, they are more like half-sisters of self-publishing because another publisher besides the author is involved even though the author fronts the costs.

It should be noted, that traditional publishing has only been the dominant form of publishing in the twentieth century, and it is becoming increasingly less dominant in the twenty-first century. In the nineteenth century, most traditional publishers were smaller, some simply being linked to bookstores. Many authors, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson self-published their books.

Vanity Press: A vanity press is a publisher whom the author pays to publish his book. In the late twentieth century, horror stories were often told about authors who lost their life-savings by paying a vanity press $50,000 or some other outlandish amount to publish a book, only to have the book sell only a few copies. Deciding to self-publish by paying a vanity press was a serious risk because of the cost of publishing and a primary reason why most authors sought traditional publishers. Furthermore, the name suggests that the author was vain—believing his work was deserving of publication—even when the traditional publishers rejected his book. The term is rarely used any longer, largely because other terms have come into usage that better reflect the changes in publishing technology, which have resulted in self-publishing costs decreasing significantly.

Subsidy Press: A vanity press and subsidy press may be interchangeable terms. The difference is that the term subsidy is more commonly used now because it has less stigma. The author still pays the press to publish his book, but in the twenty-first century, the cost of publishing a book has dropped significantly due to digital or POD printing.

POD (Print-On-Demand): The self-publishing world frequently refers to POD publishers or companies, and it uses the term to mean “self-publishing companies” but POD actually means “print-on-demand.” Due to new printing technology—digital printing—it is faster and more cost-effective to print a book. Until recently, books were laid out with moveable type and the process was laborious, time-consuming, and expensive, and consequently, only large print runs were made because it would have been ridiculous to spend the hours or days required to prepare the moveable type to print only one book. Modern computers in the digital age, however, now allow for “print-on-demand” which basically means if someone wants one book, it can be printed almost instantaneously. The result is that printing is faster and cheaper. Many of the smaller traditional publishers use POD.

POD Publishers or Companies: Most references to POD Publishers, besides meaning that these companies use Print-On-Demand or digital printing technology, mean that these are larger self-publishing companies that an author can pay to handle all aspects of book production. These companies are relatively cost-effective. Packages to publish a book can run under $1,000, which includes all aspects of design and layout and usually a small number of printed copies such as 10-50. The author then purchases copies of his books from the POD company, and the more copies he orders, the less he pays. The difference is that these POD companies still mark up the cost of printing the books to make a profit. They make their money selling books to authors, not in selling the author’s books to the public. They still often function somewhat like traditional publishers, however, because they will sell copies directly to bookstores or book distributors, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or Ingram’s; these book sales result in royalty checks to the author. POD companies will also provide their own ISBN numbers and publish the book under their name rather than the author’s own publishing company’s name. Such companies, as stated above, are like half-sisters to both traditional publishing and self-publishing because they mix a little of both worlds.

Co-Publishing Companies: Because of the high costs of publishing, some smaller traditional publishers offer co-publishing.  As usual, the traditional publisher will handle all the publishing and printing costs of the book and authors will receive royalties for their book’s sales. However, the author is asked to purchase, for e.g., 500 copies of the book.

True Self-Publishing: Finally, for those splitting hairs about true self-publishing, the author who truly self-publishes will individually contract with (hopefully) an editor, someone to do layout, interior and cover design, and a separate printer. In this case, the author publishes the book with his own publishing company name he has created for himself, and he separately pays each individual entity—printer, cover design person, interior designer, editor. The author also purchases his own ISBN number and therefore has the book registered as being published by his own company. While this form of self-publishing is a bit more work, and it will probably cost an author more money upfront than using a POD company, the author will be able to print a larger number of books for less per unit (individual book), and the author will also be able to have more control over the ultimate look of the book rather than relying on a POD company, which may use more of a basic template approach to how the book looks.

Which to Choose?

Ultimately, each author must choose which type of self-publishing is best for him or her. To go the easy route, a POD Company might be good to get your feet wet, and then as you become more knowledgeable, you can experiment with true self-publishing by overseeing all aspects of the publication. A POD Company may be ideal for a small print run such as 100 copies for a book you don’t plan to sell or don’t think will sell well, such as publishing Grandpa’s memoirs or a family genealogy that only a small group of people will want, or a book for a specific company or organization. For a novel or non-fiction book with a wider audience, a true self-publishing process might be a better choice. Authors simply must weigh the advantages of both types of self-publishing to determine which is best for his or her special book.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

Comments

  1. says

    I just resorted to self-publishing after working for 1 year to find an agent and then working for another year, after signing with an agent, to find a publisher (via my agent). It got to the point where simply ensuring that my book would see the light of day was a higher priority to me than gaining the prestige of commercial publishing. I used CreateSpace because I like their Amazon affiliation, and I’m glad I did it. The book looks great and the process was simple. Now, instead of waiting and waiting for word from my agent, I’m checking my sales stats and receiving nice compliments from readers. Not thousands of readers, to be sure, but more than would have read it had it never been published at all.