HomePublishing NewsCo-Publishing – Alternative Path or Another Trap for Writers?


Co-Publishing – Alternative Path or Another Trap for Writers? — 38 Comments

  1. Finding this article was very timely for me (well, I looked for it, so of course it was) as I’ve been dealing with a publisher for a couple of months. I’m Australian and the book I’m talking about is written for kids (8-13 or thereabouts) and it’s Australian historical fiction. I thought about some e-publishing, but then saw a story in my local writers’ centre newsletter about a particular publishing house – a small one, with a restricted catalogue, but some expertise in the market I was interested in, particularly for schools (libraries), which is a largish market when you include both primary and secondary schools and which would be hard for me to reach as there are companies which deal with the schools, so I sent off my MS. They’ve been good to deal with, quick to respond, and they got an outsider to assess the chances of sale. (I paid a smallish fee for this but the result was positive – I like having my work called interesting and well written.) Now I’m waiting for them to send me a contract which will involve me in some “shared risk” – at this stage totally unknown. I’m planning to have a lawyer and the writers centre advise when I get the proposal, but I really wanted to know what “shared risk” might entail. I don’t really know if what it would involve could be called “co-publishing” but I guess I’ll find out when I read the small print. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it with great enthusiasm, and my spouse snorted loudly at the idea.

    So the article and all the comments added a great deal to my non-existent level of knowledge, which means thanks to all of you. And any further advice you’ve got would be most welcome.

      • Not sure exactly what that means – is it that their shared profit always outweighs my risk? (i.e. I’d lose but they’d gain?) Anyway it’s a reputable publishing house, with an eclectic but good list, so I’ll wait and see what they send. But if it entails money up front, I haven’t got it. Nevertheless I’ve got a solicitor lined up to read the small print, so I’ll try to be more than cautious! Thabks.

        • Generally, if someone is willing to invest in your book, it’s because they see that as potentially profitable. In cases where the publisher has special access to markets and distribution that you don’t, it may be worth it to accept an advance and let the publisher use their editors and designers to massage your book into a salable product. Most of the time, the “contribution” you get toward book production is merely a pass-down of low-cost, outsourced services that cost 20% of what they cost domestically. The “publisher” hasn’t shared any risk but has positioned itself to appear as if it deserves a cut of the profits for covering 50% of the up-front costs. The author thinks she’s gotten “a deal.” The “publisher” made more than 100% markup on editing and book design. And who knows? Maybe the book will sell some copies…the profits to which the “publisher” is now “entitled” to a share.

          Listen to Joel Canfield. “Self-publish!”

          • Thanks – I’ll see. For me, it’s mainly about the target audience distribution – see my comment to Joel. I’ll update when I find out.

    • I’ll be interested to hear whether they make an attractive offer. My knee-jerk reaction is to shout “Self-publish!” all the time, so I’m constantly looking for counterarguments to sanity check my hollering.

      • Thanks – I’ll provide an update when I get the proposal (and have it vetted). For me, I think distribution and sales would be too difficult, particularly considering I want to reach the schools market, and I already know how they work, which is hard for me to access (while not actually ‘self-publishing’ before I was responsible for placing a book about how to become a policewoman in Australia into educational outlets at secondary and tertiary levels and it was not only hard work but incredibly time and money consuming too, so if someone can do that side for me at a reasonable cost, I’d always prefer it.)

  2. There is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind this post, and that’s in the idea that in a traditional publishing relationship, the publisher takes all the risk. This simply isn’t so.

    If I spend 200 hours working on a book, I have invested those 200 hours – risked them – which is roughly the equivalent of my having invested $10,000 into the work. The traditional publisher then invests in editing, which costs a couple thousand dollars, an advance, cover art, printing, and occasionally some marketing. Both writer AND publisher are invested in the work, and it is from that investment that any moral right to a percentage of profits springs.

    The main trouble with the concept of “co-publishing” is that you can quite easily find editors, cover artists, and book formatters to do the work you don’t know how to do. One bestselling novelist I correspond with went and hired strong pros for a new book – to the tune of $1600.

    So assuming those are pro rates for getting your book edited, covered, formatted, and distributed as ebook and print on demand, the questions you should ask yourself is IF a publisher is asking for $800 up front from you are:
    – is the percentage they take of your work going to equal more than that other $800?
    – is the work they are doing good enough to actually be worth $1600?
    – could you hire newer, less well known folks, pay only $800 for *slightly* less than best quality work, and still reach roughly the same audience without paying the “co-publisher” an up front fee and a percentage of income?

    In general, the answer to the first question is going to be yes, to the second will be no, and to the third will be yes. Some exceptions exist, but in general ANY company which both charges the writer up front and takes any percentage of profits is one the writer should RUN, not walk, away from.

    • Kevin, I’m glad to see you comment here. Your contributions onLinkedIn are always appreciated and well thought out.

      Of course, the “fundamental flaw” that you point out is all too common: the author’s writing and research time is usually disregarded at deal-making time by author and publisher alike. Your 200-hour time investment may easily be off by a factor of ten but let’s go with your $10,000 estimate. You and I both know that only a very tiny percentage of publishing ventures recover anywhere near that amount of money. To (correctly) factor in the writer’s time pretty much obliterates the idea of publishing as a viable business. All this to say that yes, I agree with you; the writer assumes enormous risk.

      There are cases where the publisher issues an advance that exceeds the value of the writing time. Six-figure advances are rare and are only given to writers who have proven track records, but this is supposedly how traditional publishing operates. Smaller publishers may issue smaller advances (or none at all) but if they have some marketing pull, audience access, or distribution clout, they may sell more books that the author would on his own. Certainly, this leaves the author holding more risk. This is where the publisher’s proven track record must provide added value for the author. Does it ever? I don’t know. Could it? It seems entirely possible.

      And yes, you’re also correct that a writer can (and in my opinion should) hire editors and designers directly. I provide those services myself and though I’ve worked with some extraordinary books and writers, I have yet to encounter a project that made me want to trade or discount my services in exchange for a piece of the future pie. If I feel a book has great market potential (and I am no great market predictor), I advise the author to hang onto their rights; I feel better about working with a client who stands a chance of recouping the costs for my services.

      So, I am in complete agreement with your “In general” conclusion; hence the skeptical overtone of the post. And yet, in researching the article, I found a small number of co-publishing services who (at least appeared to be) exclusive when selecting books. They offered (what appeared to be) quality in-house editing and design services at prices well below what I consider to be professional rates, and distribution channels that included sales teams and physical bookstores.

      I fear that too many people have a prejudiced “all self-published books are crap” perspective—a stigma that we who practice self-publishing as a craft and profession must battle constantly. In the same spirit, anyone who isn’t a purely traditional publisher must battle the “vanity press” stigma. We indie writers combat prejudice by producing excellent books. Indie publishers must do so by conducting excellent business. Though my skepticism about (pretty much everyone in) the publishing business is as great as yours, smart writers learn the business, understand the terms, and evaluate each operator on a case-by-case basis. In general, it isn’t that hard; scammers prey on the innocent and the ignorant: the red flags pop up pretty quickly for those in the know. Though I broadly agree with your “run” advice, even you preface that with “exceptions exist.” I feel some moral obligation not to paint those exceptions with the “scammer” brush.

      If you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t like to think (and I speak generally here—not to you, Kevin), the “run” advice is by far the safest choice but sooner or later, you’ll step in one of the many other traps laid for the uninformed. For some people in some circumstances with certain service providers, co-publishing could theoretically work out for all concerned. Therefore my advice remains the same: think and do your homework. That’s how good books and good deals are found.

      Thanks again Kevin. Your comments are always welcome here.

      • Dave, I think you pointed out the problem with Kevin’s (and others who feel this way) thinking that the self or co publishing company is doing nothing but formatting the writers work, whipping up some quick piece of cover art, and maybe putting it up on a site for you — all the while taking your hard earned money. Just like Kevin invested a lot of time (equals money) in writing, the co-publisher invested an equal or even greater amount in building relationships that the writer will be benefited from. I’m not here to say go spend money for things you can do yourself or subcontract out. I’m only saying the formula works both ways… A co-publisher who provides services that you don’t readily have is saving you money (time again — but in learning and maybe educating yourself in some software, plus investing in it) and also in providing some expertise (again saving you time which is worth money) in developing some artwork which may make your book stand out.

        I think we’d all love to get a Simon and Schuster or Harper Collins on board to advance us a ton of cash and take over all the hard work that comes after the book is written, but for so many reasons it’s probably not going to happen. So investigating in alternatives to reach the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow doesn’t mean you might not have to take a toll road to your final destination. There are alternative routes and some of us have to take them — and yet still end up at the same place.

        So, though Kevin makes a good argument, he must also consider we don’t all get our first choice, but rejection doesn’t mean the road stops here. DG

        • The middle ground of “shared risk” depends on way too many hidden variables for me to be comfortable with personally, but I have no solid argument that says it couldn’t work. The publishers skills and relationships are, as you say, potentially valuable to the writer and therefore worth a partnership.

          But I don’t think ‘alternate” routes are about “rejection.” Self-publishing IS my first choice. I have never sent a query letter to an agent or publisher. I want creative control over my work. Harper et al would practically have to allow me to self-publish through them unless the advance was several “tons of cash;” I have standards for design and typesetting that I would not trust a traditional publisher to meet. I am neither for nor against any type of publishing arrangement that’s honest and transparent but non-traditional routes are hardly last resort choices.

          • Read you loud and clear, Dave. Key word: Honesty. I have been writing and producing TV sitcoms and dramas for years — and very successfully. So I’ve learned to allow those with better skill sets (a sharper joke or a more intricate plot twist) to make my work better. I don’t let them just make it different. But I am calloused with collaboration and don’t have any problems at all with being rewritten. Just make it better. It may sting for a bit and I might not agree to everything that’s been done to my work, but I have learned to live with it — and the financial success (and awards) I’ve been fortunate enough to garner.

          • Nothing but good sense in your comment. All the same, smart self-publishers hire editors to do the same thing. It definitely stings when the editor suggests that an entire chapter should be cut but the same callouses must be developed if the artist’s ego is to survive the publishing process. I’m actually not disagreeing with you but as this is a public discussion, my purpose has more to do with dispelling the notion that self-published work is necessarily self-edited work. Whether you write for a publisher or for yourself, the best results come from collaboration with sharp, critical professionals. I don’t think that’s the point you were making but some might make the inference. Therefore my added $.02

          • And in today’s market, your two cents is worth four. I live with collaboration on a daily basis — both professionally and personally — being married — though sometimes I think my wife wins most of those arguments. I take getting notes and addressing them as a routine way of life at the studio, I have learned to listen to all input, and take the best of what comes in and improve my own work. Another voice isn’t always a bad thing… unless it’s screaming at you that you forgot the trash was supposed to be taken out last night. DG

      • There’s another perspective possible.

        If I’m planning a pleasure trip through Europe, and I videotape it all, when someone says “Let me edit that into a documentary for you” etc., how much risk am I really accepting?

        I’m going to write, no matter what. It isn’t as if I can say “Writing is too hard, and it’s a big financial risk” and NOT do it. I can’t NOT write.

        For those like me who are going to write regardless of the circumstances and outcome, “risk” is the wrong word; “investment” is even the wrong word. I’d never consider the emotional labor and financial cost of raising my children “risk” or “investment” and I can’t see the emotional labor of my writing as either of those.

        Those who are writing for primarily financial reasons will differ with that perspective, but I suspect they’re seeing a fundamentally different world than I so I can’t address their perspective.

        That said, I publish all my own work, wouldn’t accept a traditional deal unless it was carte blanche, and can’t imagine a place for co-publishing in my art.

        (Much fun eavesdropping on the two of you.)

        • Ah but Joel, you are playing semantics here. There is the art of writing and the business of publishing. Making art is inherently risk free. But when we decide to sell it, we must valuate it—at which point the costs of time and materials, supply and demand, and the cost/value of framing it and showing it in a gallery must all be considered. To your point, if you were raising somebody else’s children or writing somebody else’s book, the questions of risk and investment and value would be major considerations.

          The only valid reason I can think of why someone would want to co-publish (as a writer or as a publisher) is because they want to sell books. Therefore…

          I’m on the same page as you with regard to publishing choices but in the spirit of friendly discussion, I’m going to kick this one back to you.

          Thanks all the same. I enjoy all your contributions here.

          • I think I’m gonna plead the fifth. As soon as I can find one in the cupboard.

            I suspect my prejudices against traditional publishing make it difficult for me to envision that or even co-publishing as viable, artistically or financially, so I’ll bow to your (and Kevin’s) broader perspectives on this one.

          • As a writer who publishes mostly for artistic reasons, I initially felt a certain disdain for “profit-oriented” traditional publishers. For the same reasons, I don’t listen to Top 40 radio stations; they’re largely in cahoots with major record labels who sign acts because they’ll sell—and this likely has more to do with the amount of cleavage displayed than it does with musical talent.

            Nevertheless, I’ve read plenty of fantastic trade-published books. As a typography snob, I get snarky about their production values sometimes, but all-in-all, big publishers have done a remarkable job procuring real talent and accomplishing the impossible—selling millions of books. Though I tend to be a do-it-yourselfer and a cultural outlier who eschews most anything big, corporate, and mainstream, I’ve come to respect big publishers. I hear no personal calling to play their game, and I see their flaws, but they’ve never tried to stop me from publishing my way. The “establishment” theoretically denies my work bookstore access but put yourself in their shoes: would you order from the millions of 50% discounted books in the Ingram catalog or would you search through the huge pile of mediocre self-published books to find the gems? From a business perspective, there’s simply no time to waste on self-publishers when the Big 6 have good, well-promoted products to wholesale. At the end of the day, I can’t find much evidence of a “them vs. us” and therefore, I’ve dropped my “us vs. them” perspectives. As long as they do their thing and I can still do mine, any prejudices I may have against publishing won’t serve any constructive purpose.

            I don’t think trade publishing or co-publishing will work for me, but if it can work for somebody, I don’t think I’d be a responsible blogger (oxymoron?) if I simply warned everyone to run away. I have you and Kevin for that—and I thank you both for allowing me to maintain my aspirations to being objective.

          • No bowing necessary. This started with your wonderful article — and I’m thrilled to see that it’s developed into such a wide perspective and conversation. Thanks for that. I’ll give you my tip of the hat. My back it too worn out from bowing over the years… I’ve learned now to just smile and mutter under my breath… and if you do find that fifth in the cupboard, take a swig for me. DG

          • (Moving back out to the left margin)

            Re: “us vs. them” — whether or not there even IS an “us” and a “them” you make good sense about not belaboring the point.

            My challenge is that in order to shun the non-believers (which is my goal) I have to first recognize their right NOT to believe. (I still occasionally try to convert them at bayonet point, which has never worked before, but it doesn’t stop me trying.)

            Friday might be a good day for a chat, by the way, Dave.

    • Kevin, I wonder if those (in general) writers included in your last paragraph are going to be the ones spending their time and money, assuming they have the knowledge, time and inclination, of acquiring book reviews, advertising, arranging book-signings, etc. to expose their work long after the book has hit the retailers. Too many people assume a co-publisher is finished once the book is released. That’s only the first step. And in a world of capitalism, please explain to me the incentive for ANYONE to continue marketing, completing endless metatags, creating blogs, etc., etc., etc., without having a vested interest?

      I can’t speak for others, but because I am able to spend several months of my time working for far less than minimum wage, considering I usually work 10-12 hours, six days/week, to edit and publish a book, my clients (writers) prefer to enter into a business arrangement with me rather than become a contractor for the production of their work and deal with the “very real” business of distributing and marketing their title afterwards. From the threads I see, I suspect many self-published writers could benefit from a similar service provider.

      Basically, I just want to say that the manner in which I run my business is legal, moral and in the spirit of collaboration. It is not for everyone. But it is a legitimate alternative. Thanks for your posts; I always enjoy them. I must return to my work.

      • I’ve been thinking about this a bit over the course of the day, and was delighted to pop back in here and read some of the insightful comments. I do have one bit to add:

        I can think of one specific case where I, as a writer, would be happy to work with a co-publisher. It’s the case where I set into the deal, having done research on the company, with a very strong feeling that my income potential from the book will be higher with the publisher than without it.

        And that means marketing – substantial, significant marketing that is consistent across that publisher’s line. If I am paying, for example, $500 – that’s a small fee. If I am also paying 50% of royalties, that’s probably quite a LOT more. So if my expected income should I self publish the book is X, I’m looking for at least 2X expected income from a publisher.

        A co-publisher cannot get their book into any venue I can’t. Their editing is VERY unlikely to be superior to my current methods. Their covers are unlikely to be significantly better than the quality we’re already producing in-house. So the final product they produce will be just about the same quality, and available in all the same venues as one I was producing through my company.

        Which leaves marketing and promotion.

        And at that point, it’s basically the same equation I would use for any other small press. Is the amount of marketing effort the company puts into each book likely to generate enough sales above what I’d sell solo to make up for the profit percentage I’m handing off? Some small presses consistently place every single release into the Kindle top 20k ranks, and most of their releases hit the top 5k – these numbers mean solid sales, generally speaking. Other small presses are scattershot, with some books breaking the top 20k and others never selling more than a few copies. What I’d be looking for is a publisher with a very good record of excellent sales on their books. And now, in the ebook world, we can actually SEE in real time how a publisher is doing.

        And yes, I vet small presses by checking the Amazon ranks of their last 6-12 months of releases every time one asks me to submit something. 😉

        • I’d say that’s the ticket, Kevin. Though I’ve made my living in marketing in the past and written books about it, it’s slipped way down on my priorities and likeability scale.

          If someone could show me that more people would read my book because I worked with them (for me it’s about spreading my message, not how many dollars, but in this version of the story they’d equate somewhat) then I’d be on board.

          • And this where the problem lies. Let’s say the publisher claims to get you in thousands of online retail outlets. You get a “free” ISBN, an editor, typesetting, a book cover, a marketing package, a blog, and a lollipop (for the symbolism). All you have to do is pay up-front for the services and agree to share royalties.

            Scenario 1: You’re dealing with a vanity press; this is their silver package (or lead or tin or whatever)

            Scenario 2: You’re dealing with a reputable publisher who has some marketing clout and experience. The “marketing package” buried in the list of services is actually of some value. Maybe there’s some pull with physical retailers that you wouldn’t have on your own.

            Unfortunately, Scenario # 1 is far more common. Folks like Kevin and Joel are experienced self-publishers who know what questions to ask. They know what they can accomplish on their own and they know what professional services cost. They know how to pressure-test the publisher’s offerings. If the publisher can convince them that they’re likely to get more readers or sell more books (and the publisher will, by nature, be more interested in the latter proposition), they might jump on it, knowing that they’re dealing with Scenario #2.

            But when Nancy Newbie finishes her manuscript, she’s going to be completely unable to distinguish one publisher from another; the list of deliverables is the same even if the quality and scope is not. Co-publishing is not a bad concept as far as I can tell. Share the risk: Share the reward. Who can argue with that? But to negotiate a deal around that concept, the author must understand the risks and the rewards and the mechanisms that drive them. Given the dangers, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to consider a co-publishing deal until they’ve gotten some experience with self-publishing and/or traditional publishing. And I would expect that serious, honest co-publishers are discriminating folks who would prefer to deal with experienced writers anyway.

        • Every publish has to begin somewhere. I’m admittedly, new in this business and don’t have much of a track record yet, but my past business experiences guide me and I am hopeful. Another issue, should some of my releases even be on Amazon, etc.? Local history, for example. Probably never going to burst onto the bestseller list. But I’m beginning to get some fictional titles that are fun and possess potential for broad appeal. My first one was just released and advertising begins next month. Just now have the EPUB ready for distribution. Of course, I was able to go ahead and upload an HTML version with Amazon. I’m excited about this opportunity. Have a paranormal romantic suspense thriller coming up next. (:

          Of course, you know you are not the typical self-publisher. If everyone was as skilled as you, I would not have the opportunities I now enjoy. In complete frankness, I hope to build a business and plug my own works into the production and marketing pipeline I’m creating for others.

          Thanks for the thoughts.

          • Amazon is the #1 outlet for indie books. Whether your book becomes a bestseller or not, why not make it available through every channel you can? It really doesn’t take much more effort to put your book into the distribution pipeline. Even if your book has a local focus, Amazon makes order fulfillment easy.

            I actually don’t see myself as an atypical self-publisher with the exception that I have training as a graphic designer. Through that, I had the good fortune to work on other writer’s books before I began writing my own. Perhaps I have more experience than some but my path has been pretty much the same: write a book and then figure out what to do with it. The old adage about “if you want to learn something well, teach it” definitely applies.

  3. In regard to the accounting issue, in my contracts, I allow the author to demand an independent audit. If my books are found in error greater than 5% in my favor, I pay the costs of the audit and of course, the additional royalties. If my books are straight, the client pays. If I’ve erred more than 5% in the author’s favor, I withhold it in future disbursements and I’ll pick up the audit tab. Is that fair?

    Btw, great article. Legitimate co-publishers enjoy working with informed clients. Thanks.

    • Sounds fair to me. It’s a better deal than anyone gets with any large publisher or POD printer. I particularly appreciate your last comment about how “legitimate co-publishers enjoy working with informed clients.” That speaks to the spirit of partnership that seems prerequisite to an ideal publishing relationship.

  4. Thanks for doing the research, Dave. It seemed like a dumb idea, to be rejected out of hand, but there’s an opportunity here.

    Publishing is becoming a continuum, or perhaps two continua, based on effort, risk, reward, knowledge.

    Perhaps it’s a grid, with some “find yourself on the X and Y coords to find your publishing method.”

    (The image for this post is amusing.)

    • I’ll call a scam a scam when I see one—and I found plenty—but I ran into a few operators who seemed reputable enough. I think co-publishers face a branding problem at the starting line but then again, self-publishers do too. Rather than dismiss a particular publishing category out-of-hand, it seems a better approach to evaluate each publisher on its own merits. Granted, that’s a lot more work but it’s the same for books.

  5. Dave, thanks for the very informative article. For me, it’s quite timely. I have recently finished a non fiction book and sent it out to a few agencies… The first to respond actually presented me with a multi-faceted scenario of choices and courses of action. As the agency liked the book, but claimed there’s only a handful of ‘notable’ publishers who handle the topic and genre I chose (but one I’m an expert in), he talked about the possibility of seeking out a co-publishing situation. I had just begun reading about what they are and the services they provide and was struggling to really find the line that separates these services from self-publishing/vanity press types of situations. Basically it’s distribution connections. Either my full time efforts or their reputation with brick and mortar and other avenues of delivery. You really helped delineate what I might find useful in my meetings with some of these concerns and companies… As a television writer/producer with shitloads of produced credits, I always found checking a company’s past successes and failures as important as their checking mine. I think that’s the same thing here. Again, I appreciate your article very much. DG

  6. Very well written Dave. I wish that had been a bit on transparent accounting or how to handle verification of what the publisher presents for sales information. Does a writer have to know the Gross profit or how much the publisher has made on the work?

    • Interesting question. Theoretically, the publisher’s margins are their own business but the writer should at least be able to guess at them based on a knowledge of what services and commissions cost. This matter of accounting is an altogether different concern. NO matter who you use, you’re stuck trusting the accounting. If a publisher wants to under-report sales by 5%, it’s probably impossible for the writer to know. If you think of a solution to that one, let me know. It certainly suggests that fewer partners means less opportunities for books to get cooked. At the same time, if you don’t know what you’re doing, an honest partner can be a huge help. It’s easy for an experienced self-publisher to dismiss the idea of co-publishing as a risky profit-suck, but for authors—some elderly ones for example—who are never going to engage with social media or effectively promote or even produce) their work in these digital times, a co-publisher might not be a bad option, especially if their book has some market potential.

      As a quasi-journalist, I try to be even-handed about my treatment of various publishing options. Co-publishing has its risks and Catch-22s like other publishing paths. Vanity Presses are mostly scams but they might be perfect one-stop shopping for Grandma’s memoir that will only be printed 15 times anyway; the added royalty won’t make a difference. Traditional publishing also has its faults. Self-publishing is no ride in the park. I could push the solution I practice but it won’t fit everyone. I’d rather each reader think about his personal circumstances and make an informed choice.