In 2020, I had cause to explore a debate that frequently appears in my social media feed, particularly within writing and publishing groups on Facebook: Should I pay someone to publish my book, or should they be paying me?
As a bestselling independent author with 10+ years of experience, a copy-editor and now a publisher in the UK, I wanted to offer arguments for and against whether writers should be paying to publish their manuscript, and whether small presses differ from vanity presses.
Ultimately, the decision will be yours and as the creator of your work, it's your responsibility to choose what's best—which path will lead to success for you and your book?
Think: what do I want to achieve by publishing my book—why am I publishing my book?
Before I get into this argument too deeply, I should make it clear that as authors we will face plenty of tasks requiring financial investment (not to mention the investment of time and energy!); publishing a book is never going to be 100% free, no matter the route you take. However, self-published authors do tend to carry this burden upfront most of the time—the purchase of ISBNs, copy-editing, formatting, cover design, web design and more will see expenses mount quickly. And, whilst these are things a traditional publishing house will likely offer you for free, authors may still be required to set up and maintain websites, social media platforms, plus attend and potentially organise events. In the end, spending some money (even if it's only £20!) means the process is still not completely free, and is to be expected.
It's widely known that traditional publishers pay authors, sometimes upfront—down this path, a contribution from the author is not required. A deal is put in place and an advance is agreed, potentially thousands of pounds, which the author sees straight away. Only when the publisher has recovered that value through sales of the book will the author then earn additional royalties. Of course, alternatively, authors can opt to self-publish their books and be expected to outsource and hire the relevant professionals to perfect their manuscript and have copies designed, printed, distributed, etc. Fewer gatekeepers and certainly a more time-efficient option. But, does it offer the same monetary reward?
The big question, and one I see often dividing social media communities, is this: should you pay to publish your book, or should publishing houses be paying you? What is the difference between a traditional publishing house, a small independent publishing house or press, a self-publishing platform or the dreaded vanity press?
The V-word strikes fear into the hearts of most authors because, whilst it's always nice to receive positive feedback and an offer of publication, affording £2,000 for what may be minimal work at the publisher's end is a huge risk for any debut author. In my opinion, this has lead to authors being weary of genuine companies offering legitimate services, which I'd like to explore below.
But first, let's take a look at some definitions.
Learn more in my video - Traditional vs Indie Publishing on YouTube.
Traditional publishing usually requires an author to secure an agent first, who will then pitch and sell the book to a publishing house, taking a percentage only when a deal is in place. Whilst some houses accept unsolicited manuscripts (direct from authors), most have strict submission guidelines and require you find an agent first.
The process can often feel like interviewing for a lot of jobs, only to be told you're not qualified or good enough at your role for a position in that company, especially when there are thousands of others applying at the same time. But, it does allow for an easier transition into bookstores and libraries; some argue it feels more legitimate and validates a writer's worth and talent to be accepted by one of the big five.
Lots of traditionally published authors also self-publish, becoming a 'hybrid'.
Print on demand (aka self-publishing or independent publishing) allows authors to complete the same process on their own, outsourcing and hiring professionals to help create the manuscript.
Whilst this again is 'free' to do online, where most self-publishing platforms like Amazon KDP will pay the author royalties on a monthly basis, some do still require you pay a set-up fee or sometimes an advertising or distribution fee to get the ball rolling.
Ingramspark, for example, charge $49 to publish your paperback and e-book, then an additional $25 for each revised file you upload. I use Ingramspark and prefer their system and services, but the 'pay to publish' argument is relevant here. Ingramspark charge the author to publish, yet they are not a vanity press. Authors with strict 'do not pay for publishing services' opinions may not want to use companies like this to create and sell their books, even though what the Ingram company can offer for that $49 is well worth the investment in my opinion.
You can read more about Ingramspark here.
You can learn more about KDP here.
A vanity press will prey on an author's ego, often responding to unsolicited submissions with glowing feedback, a letter filled with praise and an offer to publish. It hooks the author's interest and appeals to their dreams of seeing their books in print—and, this company's board of directors has reviewed the story and is super impressed, so you must be a great writer after all, right?
At the end of the letter, they will explain because you're new and the company are unsure how well this book will do at such an early stage (meaning you're not risk-free), they're asking for a contribution. This contribution might be high!
Now, if you're not up for the hard work and time self-publishing a book requires (and money isn't an issue) then a vanity press might be right up your alley. Some offer both traditional and vanity contracts, too. I've seen it—a so-called vanity press offered me a deal several years ago now, so I visited their website to see if I recognised any of the authors or books, and I did! There were genuine celebrities using the company. However, it's safe to assume they were offered a different contract based on their existing success.
Small independent houses or presses are also not vanity companies, but are often tarred with the same brush because they require an upfront investment from authors, too.
As the word 'vanity' describes, the fees with indie houses aren't purposely raised to appeal to the author's ego. Often, these fees are for different reasons. They will be more reasonable and it will be a lot clearer regarding how this cost is calculated. A detailed contract should explain exactly what the author is getting for their money and why they are not offering an advance. They should also be easier to get in touch with than a vanity press, who may completely ignore queries or be vague when they do respond.
Smaller houses (like Curious Cat Books) help the authors who sometimes need a happy medium between the stress of applying to large houses and facing constant rejection, and having to learn the ins and outs of the industry themselves, which can often lead to mistakes and wasted funds. It can be handy for authors to have experienced professionals backing them, whilst still retaining control over the way the book reads and looks. Mostly, the author should ensure with a company like this that they are in profit per book, meaning they can make back any initially invested funds.
For a large novel of around 50,000 words, authors can expect to pay these fees for editing alone, so if an indie house offers a similar deal (or can beat this price, covering copy-editing, too), would it make sense to hire that company to prep the manuscript whilst still including the author in the decision-making process? This isn't for everyone. Some writers like to get stuck in themselves. Learning the ropes is a positive thing because it helps to protect authors from those looking to take advantage.
Some indie houses will open submissions like a traditional publishing house so they can field queries and work with clients they know they can help; others have a large enough staff and budget to accept the majority of submissions they receive.
Yet, the question I'm still asking is whether it's wrong to pay for publishing services. Those of you who answer 'yes' to this, I ask you to temporarily hang up your gloves for a moment.
In my opinion, it is not wrong to pay somebody to publish your book under the right circumstances. Of course, I would say this because I run an independent publishing house!
I would definitely advise the following before you pay anyone anything...
Ask yourself: is the fee reasonable? Have you compared it to other, similar company fees?
Are you paying an extortionate amount of money for not much work?
What exactly do you get for your money?
How is this fee calculated? Can you ask to see a breakdown of the costs?
Are there any hidden extras? This is where you should be thoroughly examining your contract, several times. Question anything that is unclear and judge how reliable the company is by their response quality, times and how personal it is.
Did they send you a standard template e-mail or letter? Did they skip over most of what you asked, or ignore you completely?
Have you decided you do not want to submit to a publishing house (perhaps due to how long this takes, the process of getting an agent, fear of rejection etc.)? Equally, have you decided you don't feel comfortable figuring self-publishing out on your own? Do you ideally need somebody to guide you, work with you and do the hard work for you, whilst still maintaining a say over how your manuscript looks and reads?
Do the company get good reviews or testimonials?
What are the books they have already published like?
Are you overwhelmed with the publishing industry overall?
Can you afford to pay someone? Will you be able to earn that back in royalties?
I cringe when I see authors responding to questions on Facebook about this argument; sometimes it's clear they have not considered any of the above and are attacking authors and companies based on an initial 'paying for publishing is wrong' opinion. Others see this subjectively. I also cringe (and admittedly scowl a little) when I read the responses I personally receive when I offer advice, help and services through my company. People do sometimes assume I'm a vanity press.
Here are my top ten examples of Facebook responses (plus my responses and advice), seen in 2020:
'Never pay to have your work published because that is obviously a scam.'
It's only a scam if they plan to take your money and run (and if the fee is unreasonable). Have you researched other companies, looked at reviews, spoken with authors currently with that company, spoken to a representative over the phone and thoroughly read your contract? If not, do the above first (even if you do not plan to sign with that company) because it benefits you to know so you can avoid similar situations in future.
'DO NOT send money to a publisher, EVER! They should be paying you, not the other way around!'
A publishing company will pay you royalties (and you should know how and when they're going to pay you, too!). Even if you choose to self-publish your book, there will still be some upfront fees involved. Consider if this is this equal to or greater than what the independent house is charging (or the vanity press, but they will likely charge much more).
Do some calculations—work it out. Will it be cheaper for you to pay someone or do this yourself? Only you know your skill level, strengths and weaknesses.
Check my blog post on how to calculate your royalties if you need some extra help.
'You created this story so only you should benefit!'
An author absolutely should benefit from the creation of their work. However, other professionals in the industry should benefit too if they're investing time and effort (not to mention your readers should benefit)—freelancers have to make a living. You should never expect editors and cover designers etc. to work for free, just as you would be offended if someone asked this of you. But, it would not make sense to publish your book whilst knowingly making a loss per copy sold, so it's important to calculate if you will be, giving you a chance to make any upfront investments back.
'If you pay for publishing services, they will take all your rights and you'll never get them back.'
This is not necessarily the case. It depends on the contract. Again, make sure you read it in full and several times. Ask a professional to check it for you, and if you are still not happy about what they are offering (and any rights they take) then query it, or don't sign at all.
I'm not a lawyer, so seek legal advice for help with your paperwork.
'You will never be able to get out of that contract.'
Contracts should state how long they are valid for and how you can cancel the contract, should you need to. They should explain what happens to the rights and permissions if that company goes under, too. If this is not stated in the paperwork, you should be questioning it. Never sign anything if you are not given suitable guidance about what happens when it comes to terminating your working relationship.
If you don't like the deal, don't sign.
'NO! DO NOT give a penny to those people!'
I take issue more with the phrase 'those people' here, because this implies companies charging a fee are criminals. They may just be professionals offering a specific type of service for a specific type of client. And it's not for everyone, of course. Publishing can be very black and white—I have to question if it's wrong for independent houses to offer a wider spectrum of services, if those services are in high demand and fees are fair.
'How can you live with yourself charging authors for services?'
It's a job, and like most jobs, they are worked to pay the freelancer's bills.
It's fair to assume if somebody is charging thousands of pounds for not much work they are taking advantage, but please give companies the chance to justify their fees and explain themselves first.
'If anything is mentioned about television or movie rights, it is always in THEIR favour and NOT yours.'
I hate to sound like a broken record, but please read your contracts before you sign anything. Deals will always have to benefit a publisher because otherwise, why would they offer to sign you? It's a business! Surely, you know they are in this to make money?
Deals should be beneficial to both sides; it's important you come to a mutual agreement—can they meet your needs, and can you meet theirs?
'Don't do it, there are lots of publishing sharks out there.'
There are indeed. Doing your research will help you to avoid them.
'No legitimate publishing company charges you.'
It's important that you search for and submit only to companies who offer the types of deals you want. If you send unsolicited manuscripts to companies that openly advise they expect a contribution, receiving a quote should not then be a surprise.
The funny thing here is sometimes it's how companies word their advertising. In a recent conversation, I offered my services to an author in need and was instantly attacked by others, shaming me for charging. Interestingly, another author came to my aid and asked me to clarify for the benefit of those displeased with me. Was I in fact a 'publishing house', or was I an 'editor offering publishing services', as if to satisfy the query by twisting the terminology.
So, I remind you again... do your research and ask questions. Legitimate companies will be happy to speak to you and sometimes when people offer to help you on social media, they mean help and not charge - be sure to clarify!
This will by no means resolve the argument, and I'm sure most freelancers have now developed a tough skin against the verbal abuse they sometimes receive when offering help on social media platforms and at events.
I've almost fallen victim to 'publishing sharks' several times in my 10+ years too as an author, so I know how frustrating and frightening the industry can be when faced with companies who are looking to make fast cash and rip you off.
Do plenty of research and speak to these companies as often as you need to. Pick up the phone and call, query the fees and if you're not happy, don't sign anything until you are. When you're offering help and reassurance to fellow authors publicly, please try to be reasonable and polite—avoid offending any legitimate professionals and help writers to understand how to identify a vanity press and how these differ from smaller independent companies. Each has intent and purpose, and it's about finding the platform best suited to you and your book.
To the professionals, try not to take offence to such negativity and trust in your business. You developed that model for a reason—like me, you found a need and decided to fill that need with your services. The right clients will find you and when they do, you can solve their problems for a fair fee.
Please check the website policy regarding links and recommendations. I am not a lawyer and do not claim to have legal knowledge. This post has been re-submitted to erachaelhardcastle.com from curiouscatbooks.co.uk for your convenience.