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Publishing Companies vs. Publishers

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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Every once in a while, I get messages from new or frustrated authors who are considering hiring a "publishing company" to help them with their self-published books. The fact that they're even contacting me is very telling. There's an element of doubt about going forward with these companies. Some are concerned about the cost. Others ask if I've ever heard of the company and do I have an opinion.

Because I'm so curious about what authors do when they feel they need help, I often ask them if they'd be willing to share what companies they're considering. I'll share what I've observed about these groups and what to watch for. But first, we must make the distinctions among publishing companies, publishers, and self-publishing platforms.

What Are Publishing Companies?

A publishing company assists self-published (sometimes referred to as “indie”) authors in producing and promoting their books. These services are offered for a fee, sometimes a very high fee.

In the past, these might have been classified as vanity presses. However, that term has pretty much fallen out of favor since, in my way, all self-publishing is vanity publishing. Okay, fight me on that.

While there’s less of a stigma about publishing your own books these days, these companies usually emphasize how they’re concerned about authors “getting their books in print.” They know the emotional high that authors get from holding a printed copy of the book they wrote in their hands.

Many are printing companies that sell printing. There are some that are print on demand, which would be preferred over those that just sell quantities of printed books that will quickly become a pile of boxes in your garage or basement.

Some of these companies do offer manuscript editing, page formatting, and book cover design. But that really is offered just to provide what’s necessary to get a printed product into the hands of the buyer who, in this case, is the author.

Others tout the “promotion” services they offer. I’ve ranted on this before. Please, please, understand what they are offering. Most will merely create a boilerplate news release that the author, not the company, is responsible for sending to the media . . . as if the author would know how to go about that.

They may also offer a few social media posts just to fulfill their minimal obligations to authors. Authors being writers should be able to do this for themselves. But newbie authors who are not from the publishing or business world don’t know that.

Some companies I’ve seen also offer “advertising” for a fee. One I ran across offered authors the opportunity to run an ad in the venerable Publishers Weekly for nearly $8,000. That’s on top of the fees for the production and printing services. Since I was in the newspaper print advertising business for 15 years, I know that running one ad does absolutely nothing.

Plus, you have to realize that the readers of Publishers Weekly, who are bookstore owners, publishers, agents, and other elite publishing pros, could usually not care less about representing or selling any self-published book.

There are those companies who also say they can help with Amazon ads. Again, self-published authors can do this for themselves and probably should.

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It’s just that authors don’t understand what they’re buying. Authors want to buy results. But it would be very difficult to deliver self-published authors’ unrealistic results.

Are Publishing Companies Scams?

Are publishing companies that help self-published authors scams? Not technically. They may do exactly what they say they’ll do. It's just that authors don't really understand what's really being offered.

One of these companies summed it up perfectly on their website FAQ. While they said you would receive a percentage of the retail price of each book sold, they cautioned that you should work with them because you want to see your book in print, not because you expect sales.

They also noted that self-published books typically do not earn enough from sales to recoup the costs of publishing. While some of their authors had received national attention, most self-published authors do not sell as many books as they would like.

At least they’re honest about that.

What Is a Publisher?

A publisher is a company that contracts with authors to publish, print, and promote authors’ books. They do not charge a fee of any sort to the author. They are making an investment in the author and the author’s book. This is often referred to as traditional publishing.

The competition is fierce for getting a traditional book deal with a publisher or getting an agent to represent your work to a publisher. Most authors do not get deals, then resort to self-publishing as their Plan B. After a frustrating stab at getting a traditional publishing deal, authors can turn to the publishing companies, sometimes not realizing that they are not the same as publishers.

What About Hybrid Publishers?

Some legitimate publishers are now offering hybrid publishing deals. This is not the same as the publishing company model. It’s more of a joint venture where both the hybrid group and the author put up money to get a book published.

In my opinion, it’s not much of an improvement over the publishing companies since, again, no results are guaranteed. As well, the hybrid group will usually do the production and printing, maybe some “promotion.” But it is unlikely to be a full-on advertising and PR blitz.

I feel that authors can get sucked into an expensive hybrid deal because they think they’ll be associated with the bigger legit publisher. I had one author contact me about some hybrid arm of a major trade publisher. She said that the hybrid division told her they would forward her book to the main publisher for consideration for a traditional book deal. Again, no guarantee of results. I told her to ask what assurances she would have about the submission’s success.

What Are Self-Publishing Platforms?

Lastly, we have the barebones DIY (do it yourself) publishing option, which is self-publishing platforms. These are companies such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), IngramSpark, Lulu, and BookBaby. These offer distribution and production channels for authors’ books but no other assistance.

These companies may offer some services on a contract basis, or referrals to professionals who can assist with production or marketing. Amazon and KDP offer promotional opportunities through their exclusive KDP Select program, and there are Amazon Marketing Services ads for books. However, all of these services are self-directed and contracted by the author. Other than support documentation, no help, encouragement, or assurances are provided.

Even though these platforms are pretty easy to use to produce a print book or eBook, self-publishing is the most challenging of the publishing options because you are an entrepreneur. That is unsettling for many authors since they have little or no business experience or expertise, find selling icky or undoable, and just want to write. So you can see why many newbie or frustrated authors are attracted to a publishing company that may sell them the dream of having a print book in their hands . . . as if that means the book will be successful.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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