What’s the difference between trad publishing, self-publishing and POD?

I’m frequently asked to help people make sense of the various publishing options currently available. So I’ve put together this guide to help you distinguish between the different forms of publishing and help you make an informed choice as to which route to pursue.

What are the defining differences between traditional publishing, self-publishing, print-on-demand services, and co-publishing?

  1. A traditional publisher will foot the whole bill and take full responsibility for the editing and production of your book. The publisher will also market and distribute your book, although you will still be expected to participate in promoting it. You will be paid royalties on the sale of a book and in most cases will receive a monetary advance on your royalty once a contract has been signed. In other words, in the first instance, they pay you.
  2. If you are a self-publisher you do everything yourself. You pay for and arrange the production of the book and are fully responsible for editing the text. You also take it upon yourself to market and distribute your book to bookshops or direct to the public. Distributing the book to bookshops is the most difficult aspect of self-publishing and what makes traditional publishing, along with its quality-control, the first-choice option.
  3. A POD company is essentially a printer who has an online presence. The only difference is that most POD companies give you an option to link up with a distribution wholesaler such as Bertrams or Gardners to make it easier for you to get your books into shops. However, the onus is still on you to contact the shop and ask them to stock it. A POD company will also virtually warehouse your stock so you don’t have boxes shoved under the bed and will post out copies to customers ‘on demand’. They do not do any marketing for you beyond perhaps featuring you on their website. You foot the whole bill and are responsible for editorial quality control.
  4. Co-publishing is when you and the publisher split the costs but all of the ‘traditional’ functions of a publisher are provided. Splitting the costs usually takes the form of an advance stock purchase which you can then re-sell to recoup your costs. In other words, you commit to buy x-amount of copies of the book. This will guarantee that the publisher can cover the basic costs. Increasingly, formerly traditional publishers are offering co-publishing deals to new authors whom otherwise they feel are too big a financial risk. For the pros and cons of these please see my previous post on co-publishing.

How do writers distinguish between quality POD companies and vanity publishers masquerading as traditional publishers?

  1. A POD company should be up front in what it is offering. ‘Big name’ companies such as Lulu, Lightning Source and Smashwords do not claim to be publishers. If you put any of these company names into a search engine, the company blurb will feature key words such as ‘self-publishing’, ‘printing’ and ‘distribution’.
  2. If you are unsure about a company, try this simple test: if you cannot tell in under 10 seconds whether or not it’s a POD company or a publisher (whether reputable or not) then there’s a problem; they should be that up front about it.
  3. There are a host of online writing communities where fellow writers share their horror stories about vanity publishers. Again, do a search with the key words: ‘Company Name’ and ‘vanity publishers’.
  4. If you are looking for a traditional publisher rather than a POD company or co-publisher, beware of anyone who advertises that they are looking for new writers. A traditional publisher does not have to do this.
  5. You should also look at the royalty percentages on offer: a traditional publisher will not offer anything beyond 15% (more likely 7 – 10%).

How do writers find a good co-publisher? What should they watch out for?

  1. See if the publisher also offers traditional publishing contracts. If not, this limits your career progression from co-publishing into mainstream publishing. If the publisher’s traditional wing is listed in one of the reputable market yearbooks (such as The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, The Writer’s Handbook or Writer’s Market) you have a better chance of getting good service as they will have a reputation to protect.
  2. Look for evidence that they can and will actively distribute your book into bookshops, not just ‘make it available’ to bookshops on request. Any fool can do that if they have a registered ISBN and it is no more than you would do yourself as a self-publisher.
  3. Check out the publicity surrounding previous titles (again, ask your favourite search engine). If there is nothing beyond the company and author’s own websites, I would question their marketing effectiveness.
  4. Consider the bottom line. How many books do they expect you to purchase? Can you honestly sell that many through your own contacts? I would think twice about anything over 700. In addition, make sure you are being offered a minimum of 35% in royalties to compensate for your financial risk.

Related posts:

  1. Co-publishing – pros and cons
  2. How to start a publishing co-operative
  3. Going Indie – starting an e-publishing company
  4. Crafty Publishing
  5. Self-publishing: the good, the bad and the ugly

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2 comments on “What’s the difference between trad publishing, self-publishing and POD?

  1. Pingback: What a publisher does – part 1: editing at The Crafty Writer

  2. Pingback: What a publisher does – part 2: design at The Crafty Writer

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