Publishing Definitions

There has been a lot discussion during the last week about the new Harlequin Horizons venture. For more on this venture and the response to it, you can click below on these links for comments:

In many of the above discussions, there has oftentimes been a use of the terms e-publishing, self-publishing and vanity/subsidy publishing interchangeably, but there are vast differences between those three types of publishing. In light of this, it seems as good a time as any on this Tuesday Tip blog to distinguish between e-publishing, self-publishing and vanity/subsidy publishing.


    With e-publishing there is no monetary outlay of funds by the author. The e-publisher will do editing, create the cover and arrange for distribution of the book through their various channels. The author does not typically get an advance as is done with traditional print publishing, but will receive a royalty based on sales, usually in the neighborhood 25%-35% of either the cover or net price. The e-publishing model shares the reward between the author and the publisher, but the risk is borne by the publisher.

    Oftentimes e-publishing will allow for books that don’t fit a niche to find a home and it has proved financially sound and rewarding for some publishers and houses.


    With self-publishing, the author will pay for the printing of the book and any related design services (such as the artwork on the cover). The author will own the ISBN, copyright and be responsible for marketing, distribution and sales. The author usually keeps 100% of the sales made, so all risk and reward is with the author. Self-publishing is a riskier move. Many bookstores will not stock self-published books. While there have been some success stories (such as The Shack and The Celestine Prophecy), for every one of those success stories, I suspect there are thousands of tales about books sitting in garages or the trunks of cars. According Bowker, although more ISBNS were handed out for self-published books than for traditionally published books in 2008, the average self-published book sells less than 100 copies.

Vanity/Subsidy Publishing

    With vanity/subsidy, the author pays for “publication” of the book as contrasted to the printing and design of the book. For the fee, the vanity/subsidy publisher will provide X number of copies of the book as well as suggest marketing, editing and other services in order to achieve “publication” and make sales. In addition, the publisher may also retain a portion of the sales for offering the book through their distribution channels. For example, you may pay $600 for the basic vanity publishing package, but you may also need to pony up 50% of the either the cover or net price of each sale to the publisher. Therefore, you will only receive 50% of the cover/net price as a royalty. Please remember that the net price could be substantially less than the cover price, drastically reducing your “royalty.” For example, Amazon takes approximately 35% of the cover price as its share for listing the book, so as an author, you would only receive 50% of the 65% left from the cover price. In the vanity/subsidy publishing model, 100% of the risk is borne by the author but not 100% of the reward.

So what is an aspiring author to do? There is a difference between being published and being in print that is being blurred by today’s print on demand technology and the advent of the Internet. For starters, remember the first rule: Money should flow from the publisher to the author. Then, remember the second rule: If anyone asks you to outlay money to publish your book, seriously reconsider that “publication.” There is a reason why AAR and other organizations have a code of ethics that prohibits literary agencies from charging fees to aspiring writers. As a writer, you should consider applying that rule to any publishers that you are about to consider.

5 thoughts on “Publishing Definitions”

  1. Very useful info, Caridad. I heard about the news, too (would be hard not to by now), but haven’t read much about it yet. Now I’m heading to check out the links…

  2. Great post, Caridad.

    I don’t understand why any author would in this day an age pay a ‘vanity’ press to publish a book. The world of Lulu to print out your masterpiece and PDF files easily made and a paypal system on your website would make quick work to someone who wanted to ‘self publish’ their work without much overhead.

    I guess it’s a sit back and see how it all plays out thing… Everything in this industry is changing! Rapidly.

  3. Very sound advice Caridad!

    I took a look at Harlequin Horizons and it’s just too expensive for me. Also, they publish in standard trade paperback format. Which is all well and good, but I’d love to have my books published in the mass market format of most Harlequin books. Not being able to do so is a downside.

    On top of that, there are free ways to self publish. You can create your own ebooks and even publish paperback books for free (or rather no set up fees) with Create Space or Lulu. You have to pay for your copies, but it doesn’t cost you a single dime out of your pocket to get all the work done.

    I was excited to hear about Harlequin Horizions, but have to say, after looking through the information, it reminded me very much of all the other vanity presses out there (Author House, Trafford, I Universe etc). You’d think if Harlequin was going to go into that line of business that they would do something to set themselves above the rest. It doesn’t seem like they’ve done that.

    Either way, I’ll think long and hard before I shell out hundreds of $$$ to get one of my books published!

    1. Vanity presses are often very expensive propositions, basically because vanity presses do not make their money off the books published. They generally make their money off the services rendered to authors. As for self-publishing, I believe Lightening Source is a true self-publisher and is used by a number of e-publishers as their POD provider.

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