How publishing works

I once sat across a coffee shop table with a client and outlined the publishing process for him. He was astounded. It never occurred to him that someone else would bear the cost of producing his book. He was more familiar with the manufacturing business model, where if you want a product made, you design it and then purchase the raw materials and hire the people to construct it.

Publishing is different, and in a lot of ways, it’s a little crazy.

We’ll go into detail at another time about all of the functions required to make a book. Today, I’m just going to talk about the money side. It’s actually really simple: The publisher assumes the financial risk for the production of the book. That is to say, the publisher pays the bill.

Now, whether the author is self-publishing or not, she still bears the moral and emotional risk of publishing the book. If people call your book racist and ban it, or if they call it mediocre and pan it, the weight of those losses falls on the author. But if the book wins critical acclaim but fails to sell enough copies to turn a profit, the weight of that loss falls on the publisher.

In the publishing business today, there are three primary models:

  • Traditional publishing
  • Subsidy publishing
  • Self publishing

In the traditional model, the author writes the book, then spends possibly years shopping it around to agents and editors until she finds a publisher willing to take on the costs of publication. The publisher pays the author for the rights to print the book, then produces, prints, and sells the book. For purposes of this discussion, “print” encompasses the making of both a paper edition and an e-book.

Traditional publishing: Publisher pays author

Traditional publishing: Publisher pays author

Subsidy publishing has a similar workflow, but the money moves differently. In the subsidy model, the author writes the book and pays a printing company to print the book. The hired company then prints the book, and the author sells it.

Subsidy publishing: Author pays printing company

Subsidy publishing: Author pays printing company

This gets confusing, because a lot of subsidy companies include “press” or “publishing” in their names. While it’s true that they are more than printers, they are not really publishers, because they are not taking on the financial risk. The author is.

In self-publishing, the author either does the production work herself or hires freelancers to do it.

Self-publishing: Author pays freelancers

Self-publishing: Author pays freelancers

The difference between subsidy publishing and self-publishing is that in the subsidy model, the author is hiring a company to do all the production work, whereas in the self-publishing model, she’s doing it herself or lining up her own freelance team.

What’s important is which direction the money goes. If a company is paying you for the rights to produce your book, then that company is the publisher. If you are paying a company to produce your book, you are the publisher, even if that company calls itself a press or a publishing house.

The publisher is the one paying the bill.

Illustrations by me, using characters designed by Fredy Sujono and icons by Aha-soft and Sibcode.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

3 thoughts on “How publishing works

  1. […] Earlier you talked about the difference between royalty publishing and a subsidy press. I’ve heard other writers complain about “vanity presses.” Is there a difference between a […]

  2. […] It troubles me for two reasons. My first concern is that the author is deceived, and doesn’t understand how publishing works. […]

  3. […] describes the writer’s need for profit, and goes a long way toward helping writers understand how publishing works, it does not examine the publisher’s side of the equation. The publisher, as we have seen, […]

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