Thursday, March 24, 2011

Guest Post from Lillie Ammann: Subsidy Publishing? Self-Publishing? It’s All Beginning to Blur

Part IV: Subsidy Publishing? Self-Publishing? It's All Beginning to Blur

I'm thankful that my friend and fellow blogger, Lillie Ammann, was able to take time out of her busy schedule to contribute the following article - and the last part of my series on publishing.  Her first-hand experience and perspective as a professional editor as well as writer and publisher of her own books, truly shows in the following article.  I hope you enjoy it and find it as useful as I found it to be:

Not long ago, authors had three distinct choices in publishing: traditional publishing (either a NY House or a small press as described in Lisa’s earlier post), subsidy publishing (often called vanity publishing), or self-publishing. Today, lines between subsidy (other than vanity) publishing and self-publishing are beginning to blur. In fact, authors who self-publish and authors who publish with a subsidy publisher now call themselves “indie authors.”

In subsidy publishing, authors pay a company to publish their work. Many people call subsidy publishing “vanity publishing” because it appeals to authors’ vanity—to their desire to see their name on the cover of a book. Some say that authors who pay to have their books published “have more money than talent or sense.”

Vanity publishing is always subsidy publishing—because authors pay a company to publish their work. However, not all subsidy publishing is vanity publishing. If the subsidy publisher provides the services authors need with good quality at reasonable prices, subsidy publishing can be a legitimate choice.

Vanity publishing can be very expensive with little return for authors. Everything costs money—editing, cover design, interior layout, printing—either as part of a package price or as individual charges. If authors are able to choose the services provided, many skip editing to save money because they don’t realize that without editing, the quality of the book will end up somewhere between awful and mediocre.

In the days when all printing had to be done on offset presses, authors often paid exorbitant prices to have 1,000 or even 5,000 copies of their books printed by a vanity publisher and shipped to the authors’ homes, only to sit unsold, gathering dust.

Self-publishing used to mean that authors did all the work and paid all the costs to publish their own books rather than paying one company to do it all. The authors still ended up with thousands of copies of books with no way to get them into bookstores—distributors and booksellers wouldn’t even consider self-published books. In addition to being great writers, self-publishers had to be exceptional marketers and find innovative distribution methods if they hoped to become successful.

In the last few years, the advent of print on demand (POD) has changed the publishing landscape. POD publishers can print one copy of a book from a digital file for the same unit cost as they can print 1,000 copies. That cost is generally higher than the unit cost for 1,000 copies of an offset press run, but the advantages of POD can compensate for the slightly higher cost. 

Authors can pay a POD company for the services they want or need, such as editing, custom cover design, and interior layout. They can use cover and interior templates provided by the POD company to design their own cover and interior. Or they can do what self-publishers have always done and contract with different providers for the services they need, using the POD company simply as a printer.

Now the lines between subsidy publishing and self-publishing begin to blur. Authors who hire their own editors and contract with their own interior and cover designers certainly qualify to be called self-published, even if they use a POD company as their printer. On the other hand, authors who simply pay a POD company for a package of services and have no further input into the production of their books might be considered subsidy published.  But what about indie authors who hire freelance editors but create their own covers and interior layout using templates provided by the POD company? Or authors who pay the POD company for editing and interior layout but provide their own book covers? The distinctions are no longer quite so clear. Indie publishing better describes the spectrum of subsidy publishing, self-publishing, and the blurry space in between.

The two most popular POD publishers are CreateSpace (a subsidiary of and Lightning Source (a subsidiary of the book distributor Ingram). These companies and others like them enable writers to publish their own work much easier than old-fashioned self-publishing using an offset printer.

Lightning Source Inc. (LSI) is used by small, medium, and large publishing companies to print and distribute books. The company charges a setup fee for each title published. Publishers (including self-publishers) can order books in any quantity to sell themselves as well as opt-in to distribution through the Ingram catalog to booksellers (for a fee).

CreateSpace offers a range of services from printing only to full service, including editing, cover design, and interior layout. Printing only is completely free—authors pay only for the books they buy, and they receive royalties for the books CreateSpace sells through its site,, and other retailers. Authors can provide their own ISBNs, making the authors the publishers of record—true self-publishers, or CreateSpace will provide ISBNs, making CreateSpace the publisher of record. Many indie authors find CreateSpace easy to use and cost-effective.

Just a few years ago, all my self-publishing clients did a print run of 1,000 or 2,000 copies with an offset printer. Today, I recommend to most of my clients that they use a POD printer. Typically, I edit and layout the books, and the authors contract with a cover designer. However, for memoirs and family histories that are written primarily for family and friends, my clients may generate covers from the POD company’s templates. Everyone has been pleased with the results.

Subsidy publishing with a POD publisher may be most appropriate when some or all of the following conditions apply:
  • The author has no desire to get involved in any aspect of publishing
  • The target audience is a small group, such as family and friends of a memoir write
  • The author doesn’t expect to write additional books

Self-publishing with a POD publisher may be most appropriate when some or all of the following conditions apply:

  • The author wants control of all aspects of publishing, including the cover and interior design 
  • The target audience is the general public
  • The author plans to write additional books and wants to build readership for future titles
And then there’s the vast blurry middle—in which authors pick and choose what they do and what the subsidy publisher does, making indie authors truly independent.

There is no one best way to publish. As Lisa has pointed out in earlier posts in this series, each type of publishing has advantages and disadvantages. Authors must weigh the pros and cons, evaluate their goals, and determine which publishing method is best for them and their work.
Lillie Ammann is a writer, editor, and book midwife. She is the author of three romance novels, including the romantic mystery Dream or Destiny, and several how-to e-books. She edits manuscripts and works with self-publishing authors to deliver their bouncing baby books. Lillie blogs about writing, publishing, books, and more at A Writer’s Words, An Editor’s Eye.


Lillie Ammann said...


Thank you for inviting me to guest post on your blog. I hope your readers find the information helpful.

dominique said...

Wow Lillie! I always learn so much from you! I had no idea. Kinda overwhelming isn't it - for the newbie anway!

Lisa Vella said...


Thank YOU for posting! I'm sure anyone who reads this article will find it very useful! You are a gem!

Lisa Vella said...


It is overwhelming because there is so much information out there, but Lillie has such a knack for sharing her info in simple and understandable terms!

Thank you for stopping by my blog to read her post! Hope you have a great day!

Lillie Ammann said...


Yes, it can be overwhelming, especially when you're a newbie. Unfortunately, many authors have been taken advantage of through the years because they didn't understand how publishing works. I want to help writers understand the options so they can make the right choices for them.