Traditional Publishing Self-publishing and Subsidy Publishing Whats the Difference

If you're a new and yet-to-be-published writers, chances are you've been tempted by magazine ads promising "Get Published Now!" or "We'll help you self-publish!" Maybe you've submitted material to traditional publishers and received rejection letters, and in frustration you've thought, "Maybe I should just self-publish."

But where do you begin? A quick search on the web reveals a bewildering array of self-publishing options. How many are legitimate? How many are rip-offs? And how can you tell?

Let's look at what publishing, self-publishing, and subsidy publishing actually mean.

Traditional Publishing

It its broadest sense, the verb "to publish" means "to make public." By this definition, "publishing" can be anything from a printed book between two covers to a notice pinned up on a supermarket bulletin board. Blogs, web pages, newsletters, and self-printed pamphlets are all forms of publishing.

When we speak of "traditional" publishing, we refer to companies that buy the rights to make selected works public. A traditional publisher, whether small or large, will select the best work out of many submissions, draw up a contract with the author, take out a copyright in the author's name, and pay the author for various rights, including first publication rights. The publisher makes the entire monetary investment, as well as taking all the monetary risk, and recoups that investment from book sales. The author may be paid an "advance," which is an "advance against royalties." Once the advance is earned back, the author receives any additional royalties from further book sales.

In order to succeed in the competitive world of book sales, the publisher must be highly selective about the books it choses to publish. No one can predict actual book sales, and the industry is sometimes taken by surprise by a book that suddenly soars to the top of the best-seller list (or that plunges far below expectations). Nevertheless, a publishing company cannot afford to take risks on books that it believes are unlikely to sell.

This is why so few of the manuscripts that are submitted to a traditional publisher are accepted. Each publisher receives thousands of manuscripts per year. A large number of these are unpublishable in some way: poorly written, inappropriate for that publisher, even illegible. A small number are publishable, and only some of these can be accepted, since the publisher has only so many slots in the year's publishing schedule. In order to be accepted, the manuscript must have good sales appeal, must fill a need for the publisher, must be well-written, and should be presented professionally.


Authors who self-publish bypass traditional publishers by creating their own small publishing company. The author makes all the monetary investments and takes all the monetary risks, but keeps all the profits.

In order to self-publish a book, an author must find a good printing service that produces high-quality books. In these days of Publish On Demand (POD), finding a good, affordable service that produces a quality product is becoming increasingly difficult, as more service use POD equipment that may or may not produce quality books. Before investing in a POD service, it's always wise to obtain a sample copy.

The self-published author files for copyright, obtains a Library of Congress number, and pays for an ISBN number and bar code. While the latter is not absolutely necessary if one plans to sell locally, it is necessary if the author wishes to sell books through online bookstores and through book distributors.

Copyright is obtained through the U.S. Copyright Office. You do not need to obtain a copyright if submitting to traditional publishers.

ISBN numbers are purchased through the U.S. ISBN office, and bar codes are obtained through Bowker's. ISBN numbers are purchased in multiples, under the expectation that a publisher, large or small, will be publishing more than one book. They are not cheap; however, owning your own ISBN number rather than letting a subsidy publisher supply one for you is advantageous when trying to sell books through distributors. Distributors and bookstores are often leery of buying books from subsidy publishers, especially the notorious "vanity" publishers, and these publishers are easily identified in a database by their ISBN numbers.

The self-published author must be willing to do all the marketing. Getting the book listed on or Barnes & Noble Online is rarely enough. Only a small percentage of books sold in the U.S. are sold through online bookstores, and only a tiny fraction of these are self-published books. Most books are sold through bricks-and-mortar bookstores, which buy their books through distributors. Getting one's books listed with a distributor can be expensive; however, some book printing services can help with this. Authors can also increase their sales by hand-selling their books through book signings, author tables at local fairs and events, their own website, and by word of mouth through their network of friends and acquaintances. Self-publishers must understand the market, do their marketing research, and know something about advertising and salesmanship.

Subsidy Publishing

Authors who balk at the high monetary investment involved in self-publishing may turn to subsidy publishing which is sometimes (but not always) less expensive. The author still makes a monetary investment and bears all the risks, but instead of keeping the profits, the author receives royalties from the company. The company prints the book, often on a POD basis, may file for copyright in the author's name (sometimes for a fee), and may supply the ISBN number (also for a fee). The ISBN number belongs to the subsidy publisher, not to the author. The book also bears the imprint of the subsidy publisher, not the author's own publishing company. This is the distinction between self-publishing and subsidy publishing: a self-published book is published by the author's own publishing company and bears an ISBN number belonging to the author, while a book published by a subsidy press bears the name of the subsidy press, and the ISBN number belongs to that company.

Subsidy publishers often advertise in the backs of writers' magazines, often with glowing terms of what they will do for the author. The services they offer vary from company to company. Some will provide editing and layout services. Some are selective about the books they accept. Most, however, accept any and all manuscripts that come their way. Some do so with the belief that they are helping the author. But are they really?

Some books are simply unsellable. They may be poorly written. They may have spelling and grammatical errors. In the case of fiction, perhaps the plot is weak, or the characters wooden. In the case of nonfiction, perhaps there are inaccuracies, or the topic is of little interest to the general public. In both types of books, it may be that the writing is simply too dull to hold a reader's interest.

"But," some will ask, "isn't all that up to the author to decide?"