You submit to a publisher and, beyond all hope, hear the sweetest words you could ever imagine: We’re interested. Or you notice that a publisher offers a service, a manuscript assessment, and see it as a way of getting a foot in the door, as well as constructive feedback from industry professionals. When they respond, you’re overjoyed to find their assessment is glowing. They think you have something worthwhile to say, and now they’re interested.
They talk to you and tell you that their publishing slate is currently full, but they have an alternate route, or they tell you that they have an innovative publishing model: you split the costs of publication on your book.
This gives you greater ownership of your book’s production, and you will also reap greater royalties – 50%, instead of the traditional 10%. But they love your book. They want your book. And that’s why they’re offering this proposal – because they believe in you and believe your book could do great things.
Sound too good to be true?
Let’s step back a moment and briefly explore the three arms of publishing.
This is when you submit to a commercial publisher, such as Penguin, Allen & Unwin, PanMacmillan, Hachette, etc.
They’ll have submission guidelines on their website about what you should provide. Usually, it’s as little as one chapter, as many as three, as well as a synopsis, and a cover letter. In the case of nonfiction, they might ask for a market breakdown, to see what comparable titles are on the market.
On average you’ll wait about three months, although the smaller publishers might take longer as they have less staff. When you do hear back, your response will usually fall into one of three categories:
- a form rejection. A form rejection is just the standardised rejection which they send out en masse. The only personalised things about it are they stick your name and title of the book in it.
- a personalised rejection. They might take the time to offer you feedback because they’ve seen some potential in your work. Still, it is a rejection.
- ask to see the rest of your book.
If it’s the third case, then repeat the above steps – you might wait up to six months before you hear back. Again, smaller publishers take longer. Then it comes down to whether they reject or accept your book.
If you’re accepted, the publisher takes on all the risk – they pay for every facet of book production: editing, layout, design, marketing, etc. The bigger publishers might assign you a publicist. The author makes no financial investment in the production of their book.
In return, you might get an advance (or an advance against royalties, in which case the royalties have to pay back the advance before you start seeing the royalties), and royalties anywhere from 7–12%.
Usually, book production will take anywhere between 18 – 24 months.
Just be warned, though, that the amount of unsolicited material that traditional publishers accept is tiny.
You do it all yourself – retain the subcontractors you require (e.g. editor, designer), find yourself a printer, and print your own book. You can then talk to a distributor about getting your book in bookstores, or approach bookstores yourself.
You can also hire a publicist to help with marketing (although they are expensive). The financial outlay is entirely your own, but so are the profits (after bookstores, etc., take their cut).
There’s always been a stigma about self-publishing for two reasons:
1. Self-published books look self-published
Well, they used to. Definitely. The paper stock was this thick white stuff. The printing wasn’t the best. Often, the quality of the material was questionable. Everything about them screamed, Amateur!
2. Self-published means you weren’t good enough to secure a traditional publisher
Hypothetically, yes. But you have to be aware that traditional publishers are risk averse, and their rejections can be based on whether they believe there’s a market for a book, rather than whether it’s a good story and/or well-written.
Publishing (like reading) is subjective. Lots of great books aren’t getting published. Lots of self-published authors – once they’ve experienced success – are getting picked up by traditional authors.
So sometimes it does just come down to luck, and some authors who haven’t had it – e.g. Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian – have decided to try make their own luck.
Self-publishing is becoming more and more accessible and cost affective, thanks to advancements in computer software and the introduction of digital printing. Now, you can produce a book that’s physically indistinguishable from books coming out of the big multinational publishers.
Print on Demand
Print on Demand (PoD) also makes it an attractive proposition. Print on Demand is where you set up your book with a Print on Demand company – such as Ingram Spark, or Amazon’s CreateSpace – and when somebody orders a copy, the PoD’s nearest printer will print and deliver just that one copy.
Obviously, your profit margins are less, but so is your outlay, since setting up a PoD is minimal.
The cheapest alternative now is publishing as an ebook. Amazon dominates the market, and allows automatic conversion of your Word document into an ebook (although this method mightn’t be the most attractive and doesn’t allow images).
A number of authors (e.g. Amanda Hocking) have developed lucrative careers simply through e-publishing on Amazon.
Technically, you could write your book in Word, whip up a cover in Photoshop (or using Amazon’s cover generator), publish on Amazon as an ebook, and it’ll cost you nothing.
However, whatever route you take self-publishing, I’d encourage you to retain an editor to make your book the best it can possibly be.
Don’t think your content is so amazing that readers will overlook poor grammar or horrible punctuation. These are the best way to lose a reader, and are obstacles even the greatest story in the world won’t overcome.
This is where you submit to a publisher, or retain them to perform a manuscript assessment of your book. They love it, invite you to publish under their innovative publishing scheme.
You and the partnership publisher split the costs and royalties down the middle. The publisher will retain an editor, designer, and printer, to make your book a reality, then get it into bookstores via a distributor
This is the model described in the opening paragraphs.
Here be dragons.
Problems with Partnership Publishing
The issue with a number of partnership publishers is they’re not transparent with their authors, instead misleading them into thinking that partnership publishing is the traditional route of publishing.
It’s not – nowhere near it.
Financially, the author would outlay exorbitant amounts (more than five thousand dollars), while the partnership publisher retained subcontractors to oversee the book’s production. The subcontractors would be paid flat rates and would do their best – after all, this was their livelihood.
As far as editing goes, the editor has only so much time they can spend on a project. It also has to be viable for them. Look at it as a mathematical formula:
flat rate/hours spent on the job = wage per hour
We all have to make a living, we all have bills to pay. Although I was paid for two rounds of editing, I spent so much time on some jobs, the equation would’ve been maybe ten to fifteen dollars an hour.
Other jobs might’ve got me as much as twenty-five dollars per hour. In the private sector, I charged $35.00 per hour for a copyedit, and $45.00 per hour for a structural edit – and these rates are low.
Ultimately, it falls back on the author to incorporate the editing and have the capacity to improve their work.
Often, the authors are inexperienced and naïve and don’t have the tools to take their book to another level. Whilst that sounds harsh, it’s also a reflection of my commitment to the job – I can see the potential in a book, but that potential often isn’t realised.
Regardless, the publisher then will encourage an extravagant print run (perhaps three thousand books) – this is an additional financial outlay.
The author would believe the publisher was paying half the costs, but it’s likely they didn’t contribute a cent. Inevitably, the author would end up with boxes and boxes of books, be unable to move them; be thousands and thousands of dollars out of pocket; and be embittered by the whole experience.
Think of this business model: the partnership publisher acts effectively as a middleman.
Hypothetically, they need virtually no equipment other than a phone, an email address, and, possibly, an office. That’s it.
You pay them five thousand dollars. They retain an editor and who might get $800 for an 80,000-word book.
The designer might get about the same.
So they’re not even outlaying half of what they were paid to produce this book. They take your money, and move on to the next unsuspecting author, while the months tick away and the author realises that they don’t have a bestseller on their hands, and now have a deep hole in their savings.
Behind the Curtain of Partnership Publishing
As a former subcontractor for a well-known partnership publisher, I often assessed books that were poorly written for any of a number of reasons – poor writing, poor stories, poorly executed, and sometimes all three – and yet which, inevitably, would be published.
Somewhere between my assessment (which always attempted to be honest yet constructive) and the publisher talking to the author, the message changed, and the author was flattered into believing they should publish their book because it was good and could do equally good things in the market.
Once an author decided to go ahead but before they committed to a print run, a draft of their book would be sent to a reviewer. The reviewer would unfailingly return a glowing review. Encouraged, authors would commit to these insane print runs.
Another (very well known and reputable international) partnership publisher delivers glowing manuscript assessments (regardless of how bad the book might be) from a fraction of the book’s content (less than 2,000 words), and they don’t even offer complete editing. Instead, they offer a ‘sample’ edit (about the same size as the assessment) to demonstrate what the author needs to do in revision.
Authors have then retained me to perform the edit. In one book, the fluctuating voice from chapter to chapter immediately raised alarm bells, and I found the author had plagiarised much of the material from the net, just juggling a few words around like she was writing a Year 8 English report.
I cautioned her, but the partnership publisher told her they marvelled at how fresh, original and important her book was and encouraged her to publish (which she did).
The same partnership publisher endeavours to upsell more and more services (usually centred around marketing, and opportunities to get their book exposure), convincing them it’s for their own good.
One former client was upsold thirty thousand dollars’ worth of marketing and yet wasn’t given a book. Another client was seduced with the possibility of his book becoming a television series in the US, as if that was just a matter of course.
It has become an unfortunate scam preying on the inexperienced and/or unknowledgeable – authors desperate to get their book out into the world are told what they want to hear, and are lied to about the publishing process (that this is the traditional route) and their potential return.
I don’t mean to tar every partnership publisher out there with the same red ink – I haven’t worked for every one, so perhaps some are trustworthy and reliable.
But the handful I’ve either worked for or had interaction with have been unscrupulous, interested only in securing an author’s money, and uninterested in the author’s welfare or the quality of their material.
Self-Publishing vs Partnership Publishing
We encourage authors to exhaust the traditional route before self-publishing, but if you’ve done that, or are content to go it on your own, you might wonder why you should self-publish instead of partnership-publish.
Partnership publishing offers you one thing that self-publishing doesn’t: a middleman. That middleman will:
- liaise with you and flatter you
- coordinate you with an editor
- coordinate you with a designer
- arrange your printer
- get your book in bookstores
- get your book converted into an ebook
- get your ebook on Amazon
- have your book printed under their moniker.
A lot of people want this. They want to be taken care of. And that’s understandable, because any new frontier is scary. You find somebody who knows what they’re talking about, and you want to be nurtured. It’s so much easier than stumbling about, making mistakes.
But let’s look at this list again:
- liaise with you and flatter you. You need to recognise this is a public relations exercise. You’re not being chosen here from thousands of authors clamouring for an opportunity, as a traditional publisher might do. The partnership publisher is trying to secure your business. Their only motivator here is your money, not their belief in you or your book.
- coordinate you with an editor. You can find your own editor. Better yet, you can sit down, have a coffee with them, and see if they’ll be right for your project. Just look in the Australian Writers’ Marketplace. Editors advertise. They’re everywhere.
- coordinate you with a designer. Similarly, you can find your own designer.
- arrange your printer. Partnership publishers often use cheap offshore printers who can print bulk for them. There’s plenty of great and competitively-priced printers in Australia. You could even retain McPherson’s, who do the printing for a lot of the big publishers (and are excellent in quality, customer service, and helping you out with any questions you might have – generally, printers are the friendliest and most informative bunch). The options are out there. You just need to find the right printer for your project.
- get your book in bookstores. They will actually get your book a distributor, and they’ll get your book in bookstores. However, you also independently have access to these same distributors.
- get your ebook converted. Like editors and designers, there’s plenty of people who offer this service. InDesign (the software used to layout books) and Scrivener allow you to save documents as ebooks (although it does take a bit of tinkering). Technology’s always moving forward, so it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a ‘Save as’ feature on your word processor.
- get your ebook on Amazon. This is little more than answering the assigned prompts.
- have your book printed under their moniker. Arguably, the biggest boon – that it seems you’ve been published by a ‘publisher’. But there are self-publishing companies who’ll also do this for you, without all the fine print.
The reality is you can do everything a partnership publisher would do for you, yet retain full ownership of your book, retain all the royalties, and save yourself the thousands and thousands of dollars you would’ve paid them.
Which would you choose?
If you’re desperate to be published and can’t break through with the traditional publishers, you can self-publish. If you’re still feeling intimidated, there are plenty of good people out there who offer editing and design services; or small publishers who have self-publishing arms, who will nurture you, and are interested in helping you produce the best book possible, and won’t make any claim on your royalties.
Checklist – What Authors Should Be Wary Of
- Many partnership publishers will claim they are traditional publishers. If they ask you to invest in the publication of your book, they are a partnership publisher. No
- It’s great to be told your book is brilliant, it’s fresh and original, etc., and it could be a bestseller. Who doesn’t want their ego stroked? But publishing is fucking difficult. Excuse the profanity, but it’s the only way to emphasise the difficulty involved. There’s always new books coming out daily. Yours might be brilliant, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be a bestseller. Nobody can predict that – even the big multinational publishers. If you’re being told this, somebody’s trying to sell you
- Any self-publisher or partnership publisher who makes a stake on your royalties.
Ultimately, whatever path you choose, make sure you do your homework.
The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous.