Publishing is simpler than it seems

The publishing business seems really complicated, and I’ve been trying to sort it out to make it simpler for those new to the business to understand. I’ll be teaching a class called “Publishing 101” at the Florida Youth Writers Conference this fall, so I really needed to figure this thing out. But what with The Big Six Five and Create Space and Lighting Source and new subsidy models cropping up all the time, it seemed like the water kept getting muddier.

But it’s actually very simple.

Yog’s Law says money flows toward the writer. And Kristen’s Corollary says the publisher pays the bill.

As we discussed earlier, this forms a seeming paradox if the writer and the publisher are the same person. But it’s not actually a paradox, because when the book sells, money flows toward the writer and the publisher. Therefore if the writer is the publisher, he makes more money than if he were not.

So there are actually only two kinds of publishing: Author pays or Someone Else pays. All those crazy new business models fit into one of these categories or the other. Author Pays publishing is rightly called “self-publishing,” for obvious reasons, regardless of whether the author is paying a company to produce the book or doing it himself. People have lots of different names for Someone Else pays publishing. Some call it “traditional,” despite the fact that traditionally, lots of authors self-published. I’ve been calling it “royalty,” despite the fact that retail outlets like Amazon also use the term “royalty” for the money they forward to self-publishing writers.

Book in America
The old book in question. Photo by me.

The term “traditional publishing” rubbed me the wrong way for a long time because of all those self-publishing writers of old. But then I came across this brilliant paragraph in an old book.

A distinction between the functions of printer and publisher has been recognized everywhere from the early days of the trade in printed books. We conceive of one as the technical producer, the manufacturer of the book; of the other, as the promoter who finds the money for its printing, and directly, or through agencies of various kinds, distributes the book to the public. This broad division of function still underlies normal book trade organization in most countries…[1]

The author goes on to describe what he calls “an organization of a more primitive sort in which the functions of printer, binder, and publisher were united in the single person of the printer.” I find it funny that he, writing in the 1930s, found this “primitive,” when it describes what most of us in the business now think of as a traditional publishing company.

So as tempted as I am to slap the label “primitive” on what most people call “traditional publishing,” I guess I’m going to stick with the latter. Any label that “has been recognized everywhere from the early days of the trade” is probably worth keeping.

It should be noted, furthermore, that what the author calls a “printer,” “the technical producer, the manufacturer of the book,” is still that, even if there’s no ink on paper involved. So I’m inclined to use the term “producer” for all those companies that provide various services to authors but are not in fact actually publishers.


[1] Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, The Book in America: A History in the Making, the Selling, and the Collecting of Books in the United States (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1951), 46

The link to Lehmann-Haupt’s book is an affiliate link, so if you click through and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission. Per Federal Trade Commission, 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. […] Herr Gutenberg was putting ink to paper in what for the time was a staggering pace, there have been printers and publishers and, as noted earlier, these were usually two different people. The publisher paid the printer to produce the book, and the publisher made his money on sales of […]

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