Co-publishing – pros and cons

It used to be vanity publishing, then along came self-publishing, now the buzz word is ‘co-publishing’. What is it, and is it worth it from a writer’s perspective? The Crafty Writer investigates.

It’s not vanity publishing

Well firstly, let me say that it is not vanity publishing. In fact, since the self-publishing revolution, brought on by Print on Demand (POD) technology, the charlatans who preyed on desperate writers seem to have scurried back into their holes (although I fear, some of them may have re-emerged as ‘co-publishers’). Vanity publishers will print anything.  They claim to be ‘real’ publishers but there’s no editorial input and, apart from a post on their website, no marketing or distribution either – and you of course foot the whole bill. In addition, you have to buy your own books from them, albeit at wholesale discount or ‘cost’. For more information see this article by the Society of Authors.

Disadvantages: no bookshop will touch a vanity published book with a bargepole, you will never recoup your money, you will be bitterly disappointed and possibly be turned off publishing for life.

Advantages: errrrr none.

It’s not self-publishing

Self-publishing is what it says on the can. You become the publisher. You arrange the editing, design, printing, distribution and marketing. You may use a publishing service to assist you in this, but they should not ‘pretend’ to be a publisher. See my article on authors Sue Brownless and Eleanor Patrick who used a publishing service to help them self-publish. Sue and Eleanor still had to edit the book themselves, but the publishing service arranged for the printing and warehousing of the stock, plus handled orders and payments. Sue and Eleanor still have to market the book but they’re doing an excellent job. 

Other publishing services include the online giants Lulu and Lightning Source who use POD technology, which means you don’t have to warehouse stock, This, on the surface, appears to bring down the costs; beware though that postage cost per unit is very high and this will need to be added onto your cover price, which may turn off potential buyers.  It is still cheaper, per unit, to go through a conventional printer. The problem is though that you may be stuck with 1000 unsaleable copies.

Advantages: you can potentially make more money than with a mainstream publisher, as you get all the profits. If you thrive on the business side of writing, you will find self-publishing deeply satisfying.

Disadvantages:  You need to do everything yourself. If you don’t have the requisite skill set, you could be biting off more than you can chew and losing a lot of money in the process. It’s hard to get self-published books into mainstream bookshops as there are legitimate concerns about  ‘quality control’. The feeling is that if the book was not ‘good enough’ for a mainstream publisher, it’s not good enough full stop. This however is not always the case, but it’s a preconception you will have to deal with.

So what is co-publishing?

Co-publishing is when the writer and the publisher ‘share’ the costs. This is usually done by a compulsory purchase order ie the writer has to agree to buy a certain number of units before the deal can go ahead. They do not (or should not) ask for payment for their editorial services up front, as this would taint them with a vanity publishing label at worst, or a publishing service tag at best.

However, this isn’t always the case. I entered a co-publishing partnership with Vineyard Publishing for my book Donovon’s Rainbow.  Vineyard offer both conventional publishing contracts and co-publishing deals. They usually offer the co-publishing option to new authors.  They edited, designed and marketed the book like any publisher should. We split costs 50/50 – a contract that I negotiated as I wasn’t happy with the initial compulsory purchase model. To me, that suggested that I, the author, took all the financial risk. We printed 2000 copies and I took 50% of the stock to market and distribute myself; they took the other 1000 to distribute through their chain of world-wide bookshops. I was free to distribute anywhere apart from Vineyard bookshops. I have made back my money and am now in profit – as are Vineyard.

But most co-publishing deals these days are financed by compulsory purchase orders alone. The problem is, I fear the writer is footing the whole bill.  I am also concerned that some co-publishers are either pretending to be ‘proper’ publishers or are in fact ‘proper’ publishers, using co-publishing models, but hiding the fact (unlike Vineyard who were very up-front about it). Three case studies that have recently come to my attention will illustrate this:

Case study 1: An established non-fiction author, to whose e-newsletter I subscribe, sent out a request for people to pre-purchase his next book. When I asked for more details (ie what it was going to be about) I was told that this couldn’t be disclosed as a contract had not yet been entered into. The author’s publisher was not prepared to go ahead with the book until the author could provide x-amount of sales up front. They blamed the ‘current economic climate’ for their new methodology. I recently got another email from him thanking everyone who had pre-ordered because now they could ‘cover costs.’  It’s very troubling when an author now has to guarantee sales before he or she can get a publishing deal.  I also sincerely doubt that this publisher will admit that this is in effect a co-published book as the definition of a conventional publisher, according to the Society of Authors, is that they take all the financial risk.

Case study 2: A non-fiction author whose work I critiqued some years ago through The Crafty Writer Critiquing Service emailed me to say that her book had now been published and was about to be launched. Would I be prepared to interview her and feature the book on the site. I had a look at the publisher’s website and saw that it was a co-publisher – although it didn’t say so overtly. As I’d had a positive experience of co-publishing myself, I wanted to promote it and suggested the interview deal with that subject. The author said it wasn’t a co-publishing deal, but a ‘proper’ one. I asked her for the terms of her contract and she told me she ‘only’ had to buy 800 copies of the book at 60% discount. I then pointed out to her that effectively she was financing the whole print run and then some. She didn’t disagree with me, but said the publisher would not like to be involved in an interview that dealt with co-publishing as they were not co-publishers. Really?

Case study 3: I recently had a manuscript for a non-fiction book rejected by a conventional publisher. In fact, it is one of the leading Christian publishers in the United States. So I was surprised when I received an email from them a month later asking if I would like to re-submit my book to their new co-publishing wing. They, like Vineyard, were now going down the two-pronged route. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they are up front about it. And it seems that they are.  They will edit, design and market your book just like their ‘conventional’ books and you have the advantage of having a ‘big name’ behind you. There’s also a conventional royalty agreement that comes into operation after your advance copies have been sold. So what’s the catch? Well, again, the author has to finance the lion’s share of the deal. I would be asked to buy 1000 – 2000 units. I asked the publisher how many they would buy and she said 500. Could I sell 2000 copies of the book using my own resources? Probably not, particularly because the publisher’s own marketing will be selling their ‘own’ copies. However,  if you were going to be self-publishing anyway, maybe it’s worth it to get the extra benefits.  But that’s for you to decide.

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21 comments on “Co-publishing – pros and cons

  1. Alison on said:

    Very interesting article! I enjoyed reading your take on the variety of options available for aspiring authors. Interested to hear what route you decide to take with your book.

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Thanks Alison. With that particular book, I think it needs a ‘big’ publisher behind it, so I won’t self-publish. But at the moment I can’t afford the financial outlay of the co-publishing deal I’m being offered (self-publishing with POD would be cheaper for me).

  3. Terry Heath on said:

    It’s difficult to get over the idea self publishing is for those who aren’t talented enough to be “legitimately published” even though I realize publishers have to minimize risk and tend to go with established authors. I also know Mark Twain was “self published” and few would deny his writing talent.

    I hadn’t heard of co-publishing, but it could be a good option if an author has an established database of potential buyers.

  4. Fiona on said:

    I think that’s the key, Terry. A writer should only consider self-publishing or co-publishing if they have customers lined up. And that’s a business decision, not a case of wishful artistic thinking. I’ve recently been involved in a self-publishing venture to raise money for charity. I didn’t even consider trying to get a ‘proper’ publisher for it (it was an anthology of poetry and prose that I edited) because I already knew I could sell x-amount of copies to the other people raising money for the same charity.

  5. Jude Simpson on said:

    Hi Fiona,

    i saw your link to this on Subway, and have found it really useful having a read. I’m currently considering a new commission for a book from a charity, and we are considering some kind of co-publishing route as their main aim is to have a book they can distribute to supporters, rather than to make heaps of money from it!

    Thanks!

    jude

  6. Fiona on said:

    Hi Jude,

    I think that Monarch have done some co-publishing with YFC (or some other youth charity). What’s in it for the publisher is a guaranteed distribution network through the charity’s mailing list and events.

    Let me know how it goes,

    Fiona

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  8. Gary Kline on said:

    Interesting piece, thanks! I first heard of co-publishing several years ago when I began looking for a way of getting my “Jottings” stuff out there in ink+paper form; it is and will be available free on my virtual website, http://jottings.thought.org …

    I’m looking for a “legit” publisher to get my Adult love and adventure story published, eBook and in paper. What may be turning publishers off is that my story deals with the disabled. A friend at the Library of Congress tells me that the book will not be tape recorded for the blind or disabled unless it is a real publisher, not self-published.

    My marketing plan is underway. Michael Hart [founder of Project Gutenburg] is one who enjoyed my novel… So I’m wondering which direction to take and am open to suggestions… I think it will go-viral.

    gary kline

  9. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Gary,

    Why don’t you get some written support from some charities for the disabled – particularly the blind – to send along to publishers? That will show them there’s a good market for your book. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

    Fiona

  10. Gary Kline on said:

    Thanks, Fiona. I did check out the NFB but had no clue whom to ask. Maybe my blind friends would know. What I *did* do was offer about a tenth of my novel to my fellow computer types; more than 300 of the list gave the story thumbs up. (One of my heroes is a compter nerd; his girlfriend is blind.)

    Hearing about our wounder warriors launched me last year; both those with invisible injuries as well as guys missing arms and legs. Barely a generation or two ago people with severe injuries were kept out-of-sight. If my book ever sees daylight–if it is read or available via audio to enough people, my hunch is that it will make a big difference. –I’ll keep you posted!

    gary

  11. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Gary,
    They should have a marketing / PR / fundraising department. Maybe just give them a ring and ask who to speak to. If you suggest a percentage of profits will go to them, I’m sure that will get their attention.

    Good luck,

    Fiona

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  13. Thanks Fiona for such an enlightening piece! I am in the process of trying to get my children’s book published and am considering the co-publishing route. This really answered a lot of my questions. However, I live in the U.S., so the companies you mentioned are not as helpful for me as I would like to see my book sold in the States. Do you know of any reputable co-publishing companies in the US?

    Thanks!

    Heidi

  14. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You’re welcome Heidi and good luck with your book. I’m afraid my knowledge of the US is limited. Why don’t you contact the Writers’ Guild of America and see if they can endorse anyone?

    Good luck with the book,

    Fiona

  15. Don Odom on said:

    A very interesting article in which you deftly distill many of the key criteria to be applied when discerning “pay-to-publish” vanity press from new so-called “co-publication” models. This article should be recommended reading for anyone contemplating publishing a book.

  16. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Thank you Don. I’m glad you found it useful.

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