Although the options available to you as an author with a completed book are just this side of boundless, most ways to publish fall into three broad buckets:
- You can go the traditional route by getting picked up and published by a traditional press.
- You can self-publish via a platform like KDP, Lulu, or Kobo.
- You can hire a publishing services company.
Of those, you’ve probably heard and read the most about options 1 and 2. However, option 3 is a middle ground fewer writers have heard about, despite being a viable choice…if you avoid the most common mistakes, pitfalls, and scams.
Since this is the lesser-known option among most writers, let’s take this from the beginning, starting with the first question most people ask:
What Is a Publishing Services Company?
Looking at what a publishing services company does day-to-day in their facilities, it would be hard to tell the difference between one of these and a traditional publisher. Publishing services companies:
- Review submitted manuscripts
- Edit those manuscripts for story
- Work with authors to revise the manuscripts
- Copy edit the final draft
- Repeat the previous three steps until the book is as close to perfect as possible
- Lay out and design the interior of the book
- Provide cover art and jacket copy
- Print the physical book
- Create and distribute e-versions of the book
- Promote the book
- Coach the author on publicity
- Distribute the book to bookstores and online
- Use professional contacts to create promotional opportunities
- Manage the royalties and income from the book
- Pay the author periodically
The biggest difference is in how the company gets paid.
A traditional publisher gets paid solely from the sales of the books they publish. All the costs associated with those steps up above get covered by the company. In exchange, they take the lion’s share of the income from the book—usually 90% or more (although some companies, like TCK Publishing, split profits 50-50 with the author).
A publishing services company gets some of their income from book sales. The rest comes from the author, who pays for the review, edit, revision, proofreading, layout, cover, promotion, distribution, and management. In almost every case, the author pays for this in advance. Because the author assumes this cost and risk, the publishing services company takes a smaller share of the book’s income once it’s published.
Self-publishing is a bit like using publishing services in that the costs of producing the book all fall on the author…but the author also keeps all of the income from selling the book. Last century, this method of getting published was roundly looked down upon by most people in and out of the industry, but 21st-century technology has made this a more viable and respected option.
If you’re wondering how to tell the difference between options, it comes down to this: are you asked to pay anything up front? If so, you’re dealing with a publishing services company.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Like I suggested earlier, publishing services represent a middle ground between the extremes of self and traditional publishing. It offers some of the protections and professional assistance of traditional publishing while giving the author more freedom and input.
What Publishing Services Aren’t
A few models for getting your book into the world look a lot like publishing services, but are actually something quite different. These include:
Also called “co-publishing,” these houses provide editing and production services to authors, but fall down when it comes to promotion and distribution. They make their money by charging you for printing your book and have no incentive to make your book do well afterward.
It can be hard to tell the difference between one of these and a legitimate publishing services company, but look at their reviews and the royalties percentage. Bad reviews are an important warning sign, as is giving you more than 50% of sales income. Higher than that, and you’re looking at a company that gets its money on the front end…in other words, out of your pocket.
Print-on-Demand (POD) Services
These companies are really related to the self-publishing industry—they facilitate your efforts in publishing your own book.
The term describes how the books are published. Regular printing runs books in batches of hundreds to thousands at once. Print on demand (POD) uses newer printing technologies that let them print off your books one at a time in response to orders coming in.
Some publishing services offer POD printing options, or work with a POD company to print what they produce, but a POD service doesn’t offer any of the other things a publishing service will. All they do is print the book. Period.
This term can actually mean one of two things, depending on who’s saying it. Within the self-publishing industry, it refers to a subsidy press: a “publisher” that cares about the money paid for preparation, printing, and distribution but not about quality or sales of the book itself.
Outside the industry, it’s a derogatory term people sometimes use to refer to any kind of self-publishing or assisted publishing venture. They use it to draw a line between traditional publishing and any other way to get your book into the world.
As you make your decision about which publishing model to use, your job is to avoid vanity presses by the first definition, and to avoid people who use the term “vanity press” by the second definition. Neither will help your career.
A variety of scammers play on your hopes as an author to bilk you out of your money with promises of publication. Many of those scams look just like a publishing services company or a subsidy press. They’re willing to print what you wrote—but only after you’ve shelled out money to get the manuscript ready.
It can be very hard to tell the difference between scams and legitimate publishing services companies. So difficult that we’ll deal with how in a later section. For now, just remember that these scams exist and to watch out for them. First we’ll talk about the advantages and disadvantages of a publishing services company as compared to the other two models of legitimate publishing.
I’m not saying any of these models (except scams) are automatically not a viable option for you as an author. But they’re not publishing services in the sense we’re discussing here. Knowing exactly what kind of publishing you’re getting into is a key part of having a positive publishing experience, and of building your career as a writer.
Why Use a Publishing Service?
When looking at any middle-ground option, it can be tempting to dismiss it as being “the worst of both worlds,” but that would be inaccurate for many aspects of the publishing services option.
Working with a publishing services company has a lot of advantages over traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Publishing services provide expert support.
One of the biggest problems with self-publishing is that you do it all yourself.
That can be a problem in a few ways. First, it takes time away from what you really need to be doing: writing.
Second, it requires you to learn or use skills that you may not have. For instance, most authors not only don’t know how to do the art for a cover, they don’t know enough about covers to tell a good one from a bad one.
Publishing services maintain staff and freelancers who are experts in each stage of the publishing process. This is true of traditional publishers as well, but it’s a clear advantage of publishing services over the self-publishing route.
Publishing services provide expert advice.
Like the support activities, publishing services also offer you expert coaching on the things you’ll need to do as an author to make the project succeed.
You will receive instructions on proven methods for building your author platform, starting readings and signings, improving your work, and similar aspects of your writing career.
Traditional publishers offer some of this, but in truth, at most publishers, debut and midlist authors don’t get the kind of advice and support you’ll see from a publishing service.
Publishing services take a smaller bite.
Well, a smaller bite than a traditional publisher. You can expect your royalties to be two to three times the royalty payments you would see from a traditional publisher. Of course, it’s still lower than what you would get with most self-publishing endeavors.
Publishing services do not control copyright.
This is one of the big pluses for many authors. If you go with a traditional publisher, they will license your copyright or buy it outright. Some even want to own the decisions about what you’ll write next or otherwise take control of the future of your career.
A publishing service does not touch your ownership of your work, instead doing what they do as a vendor relationship. Self-publishing carries the same advantage, naturally.
Publishing services are highly responsive.
In a traditional publishing arrangement, debut authors might wait days for a response to a question. They are also often ignored in the decision processes about their books. In self-publishing, there’s nobody to call for most things—you have to figure it out on your own.
Publishing services companies know who their true customer is, and usually respond to calls or emails within a business day…and they always take suggestions and requests from their customers seriously.
Publishing services balance gatekeeping.
In this case, “gatekeeping” refers to how strictly a publishing model limits who gets to participate. In traditional publishing, the gatekeeping is so strong there’s a whole sub-industry (literary agenting) that exists solely to help them do it. Self-publishing has no gatekeeping at all, meaning it’s hard for potential readers to tell which books are worth reading.
Publishing services strike a balance between the two: they won’t print crap, but they’re much easier to get into than a traditional or independent press.
Downsides of Publishing Services
A discussion of the advantages of publishing services would be incomplete without also talking about how they’re worse propositions than the competing models. By some metrics, publishing services are the “worst of both worlds.” For example…
Publishing services cost the most up front.
You will shell out several thousand dollars to see your book in print, and you will pay that out of pocket before you see a proof copy. This is usually more than you would pay to produce a top-quality ebook through self-publishing. Compared to traditional publishing, where you pay nothing up front and then start getting royalties not long after your book starts selling, it feels like a very raw deal.
Publishing services can cost the most overall.
Although publishing services offer better royalties than traditional publishers, that higher percentage of the sales won’t always make up for the amount you invested at the beginning. Once you figure in the royalty bonuses and escalators many traditional contracts include, your cost per book can be higher than both traditional and self-publishing options.
Publishing services have a longer timeline.
Expect a year or more to pass between signing papers with a publishing services company and holding your book in your hands. This timeline is comparable to that of traditional publishing, but many months longer than the potential timeline for self-publishing your work.
Publishing services has a high scam-to-legitimate ratio.
The difference between many of the most common publishing scams and legitimate publishing services can be very hard to spot. In most cases, it boils down to the quality of the work and the intent of the people involved. This can be very hard to spot from the outside, making publishing services riskier than traditional and self-publishing.
Publishing services have limited clout.
Compared to the Big Five publishers and even some smaller presses, publishing services don’t have a lot of influence over the market or retailers. Most have more than small presses, and a lot more than self-published authors, however. This means more of the responsibility for selling books falls on you as the author.
A final disadvantage of publishing services is the “junior varsity syndrome.” For a long time, the people running and working in publishing services companies were the people who couldn’t quite make it in publishing. Similarly, the people who hired a publishing services company couldn’t quite get published via the traditional route.
Both of these things have changed. For a variety of reasons, some of the best and brightest in publishing have left traditional houses and started working in publishing services—and higher-quality authors are coming to see this as a viable option.
But change is slow. Vet the owners and staff of a potential service company carefully to make sure you’re not stepping backward into the twentieth century with some also-ran dinosaurs.
Things To Look Out For When Using Publishing Services
I’ve touched on this twice already, because it’s that important. Here is the single most important disadvantage and warning about the publishing services option:
A legitimate publishing service charges an author up front for editing, layout, design, and similar services prior to publishing the book. Once it’s published, they take a majority of the sales revenue and pay the author royalties.
A publishing service scam, by contrast, charges an author up front for editing, layout, design, and similar services prior to publishing the book. Once it’s published, they take a majority of the sales revenue and pay the author royalties.
Did you spot the difference?
Yeah. That’s the ugly about publishing services. The difference between the two isn’t about what they do or how the money works. It comes from their intent and your chances of success as a writer if you work with them.
You can’t tell the company’s intent from the outside, and you can’t gauge your chances of success before you’ve had the chance to succeed. So how do you make certain you’re working with a legitimate, reliable, and trustworthy publishing service?
How to Tell a Legit Service Provider from a Scam
None of what I’m about to suggest is a 100% accurate scam detector, nor is it a 100% accurate way to confirm somebody is legitimate. But if you run all of these checks, you’ll be as close to certain as it possible in this particular corner of our industry. Follow this 8-step process one by one until you’ve checked everything off.
1. Find out if the place is run by AuthorHouse or Author Solutions.
Both of those services are well-known predators in the industry and to be avoided at all costs. The trouble is, they know it, so they spin out dozens of “small publishers” with different branding—but which are run by the same people with the same predatory model. Google the new presses, run a “whois” search, and ask around on author forums and social media groups see if there’s a connection. If there is, run away. Nothing good will come of doing business with those guys.
2. Read the bios of the principals.
Who will you be working with if you sign on? Have the editors spent time editing for the big houses? Have the design people had any education in design? Are the cover artists well-established? A publishing services company with “junior varsity” credentials might be a scam, and a company that doesn’t proudly announce their team and qualifications is definitely one.
3. Browse their catalog.
This should be available online in its entirety. If not, that’s a warning off the bat. Look at the covers, and at inside previews if possible. Ask for samples. Get a sense of the overall quality of the work. Legitimate companies will have a long list of high-quality, well-edited books created by writers with talent. Scams either have very little catalog, or a list of lower-quality work with templated covers and slapdash design.
4. Check Barnes & Noble for their titles.
Not every publishing service company will have all of their titles on the shelves at your local B&N. But they should have some. If they don’t, the best case is the company lacks the clout to get on their order list, or they can’t promote their titles well enough to do so. The worst case is they don’t even try to do so because they’re a scam. Either way, you should do business with somebody else.
5. Ask about copyright.
Your retention of copyright is one of the biggest advantages of hiring a publishing service over going with a traditional publishing deal. A legitimate and professional publishing service will never attempt to take copyright in exchange for publishing and promoting your work. Traditional publishers will do this, but they mitigate that by taking on all the risks and costs associated with publishing and promoting your work. Any company that both asks for copyright and for money to cover the costs of publication is likely to be a scam. And even those that aren’t are usually run by people with less industry knowledge than you need.
6. Look at websites run by their authors.
These days, one of the ways a good publishing services company stands out from the bad and the scams is the quality of the coaching they offer their clients. If their clients have solid websites and a smart social media presence, it’s safe to assume much of this is because they’ve received excellent training. If most have templated websites and poor social media, then you’re dealing with a company that offers little to no training. Look at the overall picture of their authors here. Every good company has authors who simply won’t follow good advice, and even the worst scammer has one client who did web promotions professionally before writing a book.
7. Read the contract.
Better yet, hire an agent or copyright lawyer to read it for you. Watch for anything that binds you into a long-term relationship, or that tries to control what you do with the next thing you write. A good publishing services company relies on their authors’ success to keep them in the fold. If a company wants to use a contract to make you stick around, you can safely assume that’s because what they deliver isn’t in line with what they promise.
8. Speak to three to five of their authors.
As with any business, the best way to get a good sense of what’s really going on is to talk with people who have already been clients. Ask the company for two or three references, and talk with each in depth. For the others, pick authors from their catalog who they didn’t name as references. Make sure at least one has only one book published by the company. These people will give you insights into the relationship that the hand-curated testimonials won’t. Listen carefully.
Finally, listen to your gut and engage the “Grandma Test” with this and any other publishing deal that comes across your desk. If your intuition tells you to run away…run away. Take the next opportunity, or the one after that. And of course, like Grandma always said, if something seems too good to be true…it probably is.
Publishing services are the riskiest of publishing options, because they cost the most up front to publish and have the highest number of unscrupulous types working within their sphere. That said, if you’re canny and can absorb some risk, they can also provide the highest degree of success.
It’s up to you to decide if the potential reward is worth the risk, and how you will navigate the dangers to make sure that reward is likely.
Want to learn more about publishing options? Read on!
- Complete Guide to Small Press Publishing
- Is Self Publishing or Traditional Publishing Better Financially?
- Traditional Publishing vs. Self Publishing – Pros, Cons and Tips for Success
Kate Sullivan is an editor with experience in every aspect of the publishing industry, from editorial to marketing to cover and interior design.
In her career, Kate has edited millions of words and helped dozens of bestselling, award-winning authors grow their careers and do what they love!