I recently published a post about the difference between vanity publishing and true self-publishing. Fundamentally, the article defines a publisher as “someone who takes the risk on a book.” Vanity Presses represent themselves as publishers and accept royalties while the author assumes all the risk. True self-publishers pay the up-front costs for design, printing, distribution, etc. but after the sales commissions are paid, they don’t have to share their profits. But several readers wrote in to suggest I’d omitted a third approach—co-publishing. This article explains what co-publishing is and what it isn’t.
Co-Publishing – What it Is NOT
At first, I mistakenly assumed that co-publishing was an arrangement where the author published under the “self-publishing” wing of a major publisher. For example Penguin Books started a Book Country imprint which has been criticized as a vanity press that preys on authors who want to be “affiliated” with the publishing leviathan. But writers don’t have to work very hard to earn pseudo “Published by Penguin” status. Penguin’s parent company, Pearson, purchased Author Solutions which is the umbrella entity under which most of the major vanity presses operate. Penguin risks the dilution of their brand—their respected role as gatekeeper—by admitting anyone who wants to publish through the side door, and authors are unlikely to sell many books by playing the phony “published by Penguin” card, anyway. If Penguin thought your book was a potential blockbuster, they’d sign you directly and send you an advance. But though Penguin’s business tactics are newsworthy, pretending to ride the coattails of a major publisher by vanity publishing through one of their holdings is NOT co-publishing.
Co-Publishing – What it IS
Publishing on any level has risk associated with it; money is spent to bring a manuscript to market with the understanding that profits may not exceed expenditures. Traditional publishers assume all the risk; they pay the writer an advance against royalties and cover all the costs of marketing. Self-publishers cover their own costs. They assume all the risks and take home a much larger share of the profit (if there is any).
But what about a third arrangement where the author and publisher share the risks? For example, a small publisher may not be in a financial position to pay advances against royalties but it may be able to provide editing, design services, and publishing expertise—valuable contributions that writers often lack the skills and experience to handle on their own. Potentially, a co-publishing arrangement is worth a piece of the prospective future pie.
Co-Publishing – What to Look For and What to Run From
Co-publishers of all stripes are popping up everywhere as an alternative to self-publishing or traditional publishing; some are black and stinky with a white stripe down their backs and others are honest and potentially valuable publishing allies. Writers must learn to distinguish vanity presses in disguise from reputable operators. Here are a few things to look for:
Co-Publishing: How Open is the Door?
Traditional publishers use editors and agents as gatekeepers. Small publishers should be more accessible but they should not be ready to pounce on your manuscript without reading a synopsis and sample chapters. A legitimate co-publisher is an investor. Any investor who doesn’t take time to “squeeze the fruit” is either an amateur or a con. If the door is open to anyone who wants to publish, run. Real publishers will not commit to you the same day you contact them.
Co-publishing is a new business model with many variables. Legitimate co-publishers are forthcoming about where they operate on the spectrum between self-publishing, vanity publishing, and traditional publishing. Because co-publishing is an arrangement of shared risk, the publishing partner should be able to clearly explain the balance between the author’s contribution and their own—and how this affects the royalty split.
Co-Publishing: the Publisher’s Offerings
Bringing a quality self-published book to market is not cheap but neither is it a huge investment. Writers hire designers, editors, and typesetters all the time. A publisher should offer more than a promise to turn your manuscript into a book. Traditional publishers offer brick-and-mortar bookstore distribution; beyond production services, what kind of enhanced marketing and distribution services will your co-publisher provide that you might not be able to access on your own?
If you lack knowledge and experience with publishing, the promise to edit, design, produce, and distribute is a legitimate and valuable offering, but it begs a question: if some expert is willing to invest in your book in exchange for a share of the profits, wouldn’t you you be smarter to invest in it yourself? The answer depends on how much farther the publishing partner can push your book than you can on your own. If the end of the line is online bookstore distribution, you might be better served to self-publish.
Co-Publishing: The Backlist
Traditional publishers rotate books into bookstores for ninety days and then, unless a book is a hit, they rotate in new offerings and drop the old ones into their backlist catalogs. Some authors complain that the marketing chores then fall on their shoulders while the publisher makes the larger share of royalties. Other writers share the publisher’s view that the book is a product that has run its course. Emboldened by whatever prestige their affiliation with a major publishing house my bring, they move on to writing the next book.
But what happens when your co-publisher—likely a smaller and lesser-known firm—decides to focus on newer books and writers? Your book may reach a point where it sells copies here and there on its own but is no longer worth the publisher’s efforts. Consider adding a time limit to your contract or a buy-out option that allows you to recover your rights after the publisher has abdicated active partnership. Obviously, if the publisher has made a substantive investment in your book, they’ll quite reasonably want to be guaranteed some minimum return, but if you want to start a speaking career or find a new market for the work, an escape clause might be what makes your new venture feasible.
Co-Publishing: Investing in Books?
As much as we love them, books are a tough retail product. A $15 POD-published book usually costs around $5 to print and ship. Bookstores usually take 50% of the cover price. That leaves about $2.50 per book to cover editing and design costs—and forget about being paid for all those hours you spent writing and researching. There are ways to reduce seller discounts and offset printing will reduce production costs; some designers and editors charge less than others; but each shortcut comes with a price. Even if you can push the profit to $5 per book, a royalty split will put you back where you started. Given the high costs, thin margins, and low sales expectations for book products, be skeptical of anyone who wants to “invest” in your book unless they have a proven track record. A shrewd publisher—even a small or independent one—may be able to help you tap markets that would otherwise be inaccessible, but reference checks and research are essential. Partners like that are hard to find.
Co-Publishing: What’s The Catch?
A co-publisher will ask you to pay something up-front. This is expected but the fees should not exceed the price of marked-up offshore production services. Also, be wary of co-publishers who ask you to commit to printing a “short run” of several thousand books unless you’re being guaranteed physical bookstore distribution. Knowing what it costs to edit and design a book and get it to market is the only accurate measuring stick against which you can evaluate a co-publisher’s contribution. Ideally, you’ll pay a discounted rate for quality production and benefit from the publisher’s knowledge of the publishing process.
Co-Publishing: Know What You Don’t Know
Self-publishing is not as easy as it’s often made out to be; editing, design, production, distribution, and marketing all require skills that diverge from most writers’ core competencies. Services that offer to “make all those problems go away” offer enticing bait for new writers, but new writers are targeted by charlatans precisely because their lack of experience makes them vulnerable. Before you sign a “publishing” contract with anyone, read up on how publishing works, ask questions in discussion forums, and check out what Predators and Editors has to say. Writing is an art but publishing is a business; learn the ropes or you’ll hang from them. Paying someone to manage the publishing pipeline for you may be a wise investment but only if you know what you’re getting, who you’re getting it from and what it’s worth. Learn the business or you’ll wind up investing in your own ignorance—a classic formula for failure.
Co-publishing—the notion that an author and a publisher can share both risk and return—is an intriguing concept and a potential blessing for writers who want to hand off marketing and distribution challenges to professionals who are better qualified than themselves. It takes years of insight to write a great book and only a moment of oversight to fumble one. The ideal path lies somewhere between “hire a professional if you want professional results” and “if you want a job done right, do it yourself.” Sound advice to writers remains the same: do your homework.