Definitions – I know you believe what you think I said, but I’m not sure that what you heard is what I really meant

Whenever I go to conferences or writer’s boards, there are usually many terms being tossed about that are confusing because I’m not sure they’re using the correct terms. For instance, when I listen to an author talk about self publishing, I think I know what they mean until they start talking about how their publisher charged them for extra edits. Then I realize it isn’t self publishing they’re talking about, but vanity, or subsidy publishing. And don’t even get me started on Print on Demand – is it a business plan or printing technology?

The same can be said for those who use the term Traditional Publishing. Ach! Read my lips: There is no such term. A Print on Demand company made it up in order to insinuate that mainstream publishing is broken, and their way of doing things is the bestest thing since the invention of the Twinkie. Beagle, bring me my vapors.

Clarity is paramount in this business. It’s what allows authors to make educated career decisions for their books. So for the sake of clarity, I thought I’d put up the most commonly confused terms so you have a complete understanding of their meaning. It could save you from making unwise decisions or confusing those you’re talking to.

Digital printing: Also mistakenly called Print on Demand, creating confusion between the technology and the publishing business model. Digital printing is cost effective at low print runs of one to nine hundred units. All publishers use this process. Trade publishers use digital printing for their ARCs [Advanced Reader Copies] and backlist titles. THIS IS NOT A PUBLISHING BUSINESS MODEL.

Print on Demand/POD: THIS IS THE PUBLISHING MODEL. Publisher pays for all up front production fees. They utilize the digital printing technology because it’s cost effective at lower runs. Nearly all of them rely on authors to do the lion’s share of promotion and marketing because they don’t have any. They have no distribution. Their books are not commonly on store shelves. They probably have a return policy for cases of author events and such, but selling to stores on too grand a scale is risky because they can’t afford returns. This business model is meant to only print what is physically ordered [and paid for]. They make most of their money by authors buying their own books. This definition refers to PODs who take any and all genres.

Now, there is another side to POD, and that has to do with the niche genres. These folks are normally in the same boat in terms of lack of distribution and lower print runs. However, they may very well be so focused on one particular niche that they have established contacts with the niche bookstores and can sell directly to them. In these cases, their money doesn’t come from their authors buying their own books, but from actual sales. There is a huge difference with these types of PODs, so make sure you understand what your book [and the POD] is – niche or mainstream.

Distribution: This does not mean Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Those folks are warehouse distributors – meaning that when a bookstore needs books for their shelves or an author event, they call Ingram or B&T to fulfill that order rather than calling the publisher.

Distribution in publishing terms means that the publisher either has their own sales teams to pitch their catalog to the genre buyers and libraries [like the big conglomerates], or they get with an independent distributor who employs their own sales teams to perform those same services. These are companies like IPG, Ingram Publishing Services, Consortium, Perseus, Midpoint, etc. They also fulfill orders when they come in, so the publisher can concentrate on what they do best.

The reason I make this important distinction is because PODs are very adept at insisting they have “distribution,” when what they really mean is that their titles are listed with Ingram and B&T’s database. They have no one out there pitching their titles. This causes MUCH confusion [and abject sadness] for new authors who don’t understand the terms and think they’re getting something they aren’t.

Vanity/Subsidy: Pay to play publishing. Depending on the type of publisher, the author may incur all the fees or be “subsidized;” the publisher assumes some financial risk as well (but not much). Many call this “self publishing,” but that is wrong because the author doesn’t control any aspect of production. Nor do they have much say in how things will be done – including their retail price, which can be slightly higher.

They also use the digital printing process for their short runs. Publishers like AuthorHouse, iUniverse charge a package fee (very large) for their “basic” publishing option. They also have all kinds of a la carte charges that are geared to separate authors from their money even faster. Extra goodies like extra editing, book return policy [which is a complete waste since bookstores still won’t order these books], extra special hoo ha cover design [which is also a crock because they use the same graphics over and over again].

Now, there is another side to vanity, and those are the folks who are strictly printers. Lulu is a good example of this. Their fees are up front, they don’t do bait and switch. They are there to simply print your book. You can also have them purchase an ISBN if you intend on trying to get your book into the stores. I’ve had a couple friends use them and were very pleased with the results. I’ll just add that if you have a coffee table type book, they are lacking on the quality. But they do get the job done.

Trade publishing: also called independent trade/commercial publishing. They are like the conglomerates only they have fewer decimal points. They perform exactly as the large conglomerates do. They have distribution, experienced editing teams and cover designers, print ARCs to send to reviewers, print up cataloges, get their books on store shelves, have standard return policies. They make their money from selling to the stores and libraries.

Self publishing: The author is the publisher. He assumes every aspect of book production; he buys the ISBN, is responsible for all marketing and distribution, editing, cover design, interior design, and layout. It is his name [or his company’s name] that goes on the copyright page. The sky is the limit for these folks provided they have the time and capital to pour into their book.

They can get independent distributor’s sales teams pitching their books to the genre buyers [provided they meet their requirements and have a solid promotion plan], can get trade magazine reviews, and shelf space provided their promo plan is very good. There have been a number of extremely successful books that were done by those who self pubbed.

On a personal note, I respect the heck out of these folks. Drawbacks to this venture is the lack of publishing knowledge. This route is not for the weak of heart or thin intestinal wall lining. This is a full time job.

So there it is, folks. So now when you’re talking to fellow authors, you’ll be able to make sure that what they hear is what you really meant. And YOU will be able to know exactly what you’re getting into when seeking a publisher.

14 Responses to Definitions – I know you believe what you think I said, but I’m not sure that what you heard is what I really meant

  1. You said that ARC stands for _Advanced_ Reader Copy. I’ve read that it can stand for Advance Reader Copy, Advance Reading Copy, and even Advanced Review Copy — but not Advanced anything.

    Any comments?

    Michael N. Marcus
    author of “Become a Real Self-Publisher” due next month

  2. Yes, yes, you got me, Michael. Advance – not Advanced. Sorry. I’m running on fumes. Got a kid off to college up in San Francisco, then jammed back to get to the Alaska Writer’s Conference. It may take me a few days to get all the cylinders working. Apologies.

  3. tbrosz says:

    This is very useful information. I wish I had a nickel for everyone who confused these terms, and I wasn’t that clear on a couple myself. I recommend a link to this post as a permanent feature on your page somewhere.

  4. If we did have a nickle for everyone who confuses these terms, we’d own Hawaii. I’d meant to make this a sticky, but forgot. Thanks for the prod!

  5. While I’ve read your lips, I still think there is such a thing as “traditional publishing.” It means pretty much the same thing as “trade publishing,” but the term can be understood by people outside the publishing business.

    I don’t think anyone would say that Simon & Schuster is NOT a traditional publisher, if compared with self- publishers and vanity publishers.

    I don’t like equating “subsidy” and “vanity” publishing. That perverts the meaning of “subsidy.”

    In subsidized housing, subsidized transportation, subsidized education, subsidized day care, etc. a government or business (or parent) pays PART of the cost of service, but not 100%.

    In vanity publishing, the author/customer pays 100% of the cost of publication. That’s not a subsidy. The author is not subsidizing the publisher if she pays the entire cost of publishing.

    Michael N. Marcus
    author of “Become a Real Self-Publisher,” coming this month.

  6. Nicola Morgan says:

    Marcus – unless the definition is different in the UK [where I am], trade publishing is not the same as traditional publishing. Trade publishing refers to the “traditional” publishing of books that are aimed at the general market, as opposed to books aimed at the academic or educational market which have a different route to the customer. And then there are trade paperbacks, which are slightly different again, referring to eg editions for airports or book clubs.

  7. Nicola Morgan says:

    Lynn – sorry, was reading too fast and didn’t read your post properly – was trying to answer questions from family at the same time! Ignore me as I’ve probably muddied the water with my UK-based definition. Also, Michael – sorry i called you Marcus! As you can see, i’m having difficulty reading today.

    And Lynn, I agree, the word “traditional” is in some ways not helpful. But I keep using it, traditionalist that i am! I suppose though that at the moment we still know what we mean by it. It’s more helpful to define the newer models, as you’ve done. Helpful post, thank you!

  8. robbie says:

    What counts is whether they’re crooked/shady or not, not whether you pay them or not. Whether you do is none of the business of a propagandist for capitalist publishers.

  9. A “propagandist for capitalist publishers”? Are you joking? You sound bitter, so I won’t bother addressing the silliness of that comment. No, Robbie, what counts is that authors understand these differences so they can make intelligent, educated choices.

    My experience has shown me that many authors who go the vanity route have unreasonable expectations, and they come away from the experience broke and brokenhearted. This post speaks to preventing that possibility.

    If an author understands all the options and chooses the vanity route, then – propagandist capitalist pig that I am – I have no problem with that at all.

  10. dougk says:

    I felt this was an excellent article, though I must admit I am an IT who stumbled across it by accident. Still, it is nice to see someone define their terms.

    I don’t supposed you would care to write one for information technology? Make sure you publish it with a very hard cover. That way I can have something to bash over the head of the next consultant who claims to have “a new methodology to leverage your existing architecture into the new paradigm!”


  11. P.N. Elrod says:

    Excellent work! I’ll be adding a link to this on my website’s writing page.

    Concerning the term “traditional publishing” — I’ve been calling it “commercial publishing” instead. It really does have meaning.

    “Traditional publishing” was coined by a notorious reverse-vanity printing operation as a way to reassure writers looking them over. It sounds cozy and safe, but is meaningless. (“Reverse-vanity” — a book is accepted, then marketed only to the writer, not the general public. Production costs are acquired from the writer at the back, not up front, thus “reverse”.)

    My idea of traditional publishing concerns the bad old days when writers had to look for a rich patron to get their work into print or publish themselves. Vanity sites are fond of pointing out the great writers of the past who “self” published, but that was then, this was now, and writers need not do that. Certainly the writers back then would have been delighted with what we have today. (Writer writes book, gets advance to live on, writer writes more books.)

    So let’s toss “traditional” and start calling it “commercial publishing.” Far more accurate!

    That’s when the writer is paid an advance (it will be more than one dollar), the publisher assumes all costs of book production, and then gets the books shelved in stores.

    Let me add that vanity and reverse-vanity houses fail the last task on that list. Without distribution, there are no sales. The writer loses.

    I would dearly love for all those hunting publishers on the ‘Net to get their guard up on any site that describes itself as “traditional.”

    A legitimate, advance-paying publisher won’t bother with that term. They take it for granted that you know they commercially publish books because you’ve seen their products in the bookstores.

    Well done!

  12. I would dearly love for all those hunting publishers on the ‘Net to get their guard up on any site that describes itself as “traditional.”

    A legitimate, advance-paying publisher won’t bother with that term. They take it for granted that you know they commercially publish books because you’ve seen their products in the bookstores.

    Well said, Pat. And thanks so much for gracing our blog. The vanity verbiage is pervasive that I have people ask me if I’m a “traditional” publisher. I always blink a few times and say, “You mean am I a commercial trade press? Yes.” Geez.

  13. Kelly Olsen says:

    After reading a number of your posts this morning, I found myself reading this post in slow, loud, deliberate, words in my head accompanied by visions of you “signing” the words as well, to stress the sarcastic and somewhat bitter tone, then realized a paragraph or two into it that it wasn’t fitting with what I was reading. I willed myself to shake those brain worms from my mind and continue reading this post in a more relaxed voice and tone…Then, BAM! I had to shift gears very quickly and smiled as as I read your responses to the comments…Ahh, there she is! Love your posts, and your intelligent wit. I’m a fan for life…Kelly

  14. Sorry, Kelly, I’m afraid I can be a bit of an acquired taste. Welcome to the madness!

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