On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy publishing is different from self publishing.

In self publishing you take care of the details yourself. If you have trouble making good covers, or editing, or typesetting, then you hire people to do this work for you. You give them the money, they give you the files, and you're both square. You take the files to the printer, list your book on amazon, and if you're smart you also produce an ebook version and load that up onto amazon and B&N as well.

Subsidy publishing is when you take your manuscript to a company that publishes it for you. There are countless subsidy publishing companies: these are the ones that put the ads in Writer's Digest and alumni magazines and anywhere else that the readers are likely to have written a book, but don't have the knowledge or inclination to pursue traditional publishing (or hone their craft until they are competitive for traditional publishing). These subsidy companies look really good to people like this. The company promises a gorgeous book, and usually offers several package levels that entice with their mouthwatering features. Some companies play on the rags-to-riches myth: Bolles' What Color is Your Parachute, Canfield's Chicken Soup for the Soul, Evans' The Christmas Box, and Paolini's Eragon are all bestsellers that were first self-published.

I have a real problem with subsidy publishing. The only company I know that will not rip you off belongs to my friend Chris at http://authors.interestingwriting.com/. He takes great pride in giving an honest deal to authors because he himself has had many problems over the years with predatory business arrangements and doesn't wish to return the favor. There may be other subsidy companies that are reasonable, but I don't know of them.

Subsidy companies in general do several things that I find objectionable:

1. They make it sound like producing the book is the final stage of publishing. Believe me, producing the book is only the start. Doing a good-looking book is not difficult, and there are MANY ways to reach this point. The hard part is marketing -- getting the word out, and then selling it. Sure, the company makes a big deal of all the places they're going to list your book -- amazon and their special little sites -- but this is no big deal to do. Just because the book is available doesn't mean that it'll sell.

2. The companies overcharge for what they do, sometimes disgracefully asking for twice or five times what these services are worth. Often the quality is not as good as it could or should be. The companies continue overcharging for any changes or special things that the author wishes to do. For example, when a woman in my writing group wanted to add a subtitle a week after she'd submitted her title, before the cover had been started, the company (a well known and reputable one) charged her $150. Come on, guys.

3. The companies generally also overcharge for printing. For comparison, to print one of my books (6x9 paperback) I am charged 1.5 cents per page plus 90 cents for the cover. For a 250 page book I would be charged $4.65. Compare that cost to $8 or $10 printing costs per book that a subsidy company might charge.

4. The companies often insist on setting the book price, and these prices are usually over the moon. Would anyone besides your mother really pay $22.95 for a 150 page paperback? Doubtful.

5. Not only do the companies take a lot of money to produce your book, but they also often take rights to the book that belong to you. For example, you may not be able to put out your own ebook version, but have to go through them and pay lots more money for the privilege. You may not be able to sever your contract with them to get your book back, or you may have to pay hundreds of dollars for this honor. Even if you do get the rights back, you're probably not going to get the cover and interior files that you paid a lot of money to have done, and will have to get them redone.

6. Many companies take even more money: for every book sale they take an inflated cut, and pay you a minuscule proportion of what you would get if you self-published.

7. Once the work is done, the company keeps charging you: a "listing fee" every year that might run about $20 or $30 per book What is this "listing fee" for? The company will say it's for keeping the book in print. Give me a break. The files are already done and fed into the computer; there's nothing that needs to be done here. It's like hiring a carpenter to build a deck: he finishes it, but then every year he sends you a bill for a "deck use fee."

8. And the saddest part: once your book is published by a subsidy company, it almost certainly represents the death of a dream. No traditional press will ever touch this book. You will never be able to generate decent returns on the book. The self-published books that break out are rare, and when they do break out it's because the author was able to amazingly market the book. These books are SELF PUBLISHED. They are not subsidy published.

I'm sure I'm forgetting some reasons why I discourage subsidy publishing, but hopefully I've given you enough. Here is my advice if you're considering a subsidy publisher:

1. NO MONEY. Do not pay money until you know exactly what you're getting.
2. Read Mark Levine's book The Fine Print of Self Publishing. As an attorney he goes over many typical subsidy publisher contracts.
3. If you want to self publish because you're getting too many rejections from agents, take the hint. Work on your craft.
4. If you are determined to put your book out there yourself, then self publish it instead of using a subsidy publisher. Read the books and websites, and LEARN THE BIZ. Buy your own ISBN numbers, hire the editor, and get the typesetting program. Don't do anything cheap for your cover -- believe me, it's critical to get this right. If you don't want to do the files yourself, then find work-for-hire contractors. The company I've used with great success for getting my books ready is Archer Ellison. They are not cheap, but they are meticulous and produce beautiful, perfect work. There are other companies also.

Before you start, though, this is critical: YOU MUST MAKE SURE YOUR BOOK IS AS GOOD AS ANYTHING TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED. My experience is that 100% of writers think they're ready to go before they are. Get feedback, hire an editor, and polish for months or years. If your product isn't good, nothing else you do for it will matter.

Almost always I recommend that you try for traditional publishing before you go the independent route. Literary agent Noah Lukeman has written good books, some free, that map out a game plan to do this. Check him out.

If you have questions, please feel free to write to me for a nickel's worth of free advice.


  1. Good advice, Amy.
    Anyone considering publishing her book other than through traditional publishing should read your post here and think carefully about all your points.
    It's a shame that so many businesses major in ripping off their customers, all the way from cheap goods made in China and usually sold for far more than they are worth and other countries with cheap labor to hustling struggling entrepreneurs.

  2. Bill, it breaks my heart because many subsidy publishers ultimately rob the writer's dreams. Even if the final manuscript is terrible, the effort it takes to actually finish something is impressive. How sad if that effort is then thrown away.