What The Author Pays For–And What (S)he Doesn’t

New authors–and sometimes experienced ones–may be uncertain about which parts of the publishing process the author “normally” pays for. What the author pays for differs, depending on the publishing path. Smart authors should know the standards for the choice they make, and be aware of how the other options function also.

Now that the publishing industry offers multiple paths to publication, savvy authors should learn about all of the available options–regardless of the path they plan to take. Understanding all of the publishing options makes authors better able to choose among them, and less likely to misunderstand the offers they receive.

Let’s review the various industry options with regard to author payments:

Traditional Publishing: the Author pays the Publisher…nothing.

Under the traditional publishing model, the publisher pays all costs of publication, and the author pays nothing out-of-pocket. The royalty provisions should provide for payment of a percentage of sales receipts to the author, without offsets for anything but returns. Traditional publishing contracts should not allow the publisher to deduct publishing costs or expenses before calculating royalties. 

Beware: Royalty language can lurk in multiple paragraphs of a contract. Read the entire document carefully to ensure you understand the terms as a whole.

Regardless of the method of royalty calculation, a traditional publishing contract never, ever requires the author to pay the publisher for anything–including marketing. Traditional publishing contracts also do not obligate the author to purchase copies of the finished book (but may permit voluntary purchases, often at a discount).

Hybrid Publishing: Authors Share Expenses–and Maintain More Control.

“Hybrid” contracts may require the author to share expenses–but also give the author specific powers or control, and a larger share of sales proceeds, in return.

Under the “hybrid” publishing model, the author may share printing and other costs with the publisher, but the author normally gets higher royalty shares & more control. Where royalties under traditional contracts average 7-12%, hybrid royalties can be five times that amount.

By sharing the financial risks with a hybrid publisher, the author reaps a higher reward and retains more control over the process.

Some hybrid publishers deduct the author’s share of costs from sales before calculating royalties (similar to a traditional net situation). Other times, authors pay a portion of publishing costs to the hybrid publisher in advance. The parties can agree to whichever situation suits their needs–but review hybrid contracts carefully.

Beware: Some scams and vanity presses try to pass themselves off as hybrid. Never sign a hybrid publishing contract without professional review, to ensure the offer is legitimate.

It can be difficult for people without experience reading publishing contracts to tell the difference between a legitimate hybrid offer and a scam. Never sign a hybrid contract without obtaining professional review.

Vanity Presses/Scams: The Author Pays–in Inappropriate Ways

Contracts which require the author to pay large sums of money up front are almost always a bad idea. These terms denote a vanity press–or a scam. Similarly, contracts which require the author to sign marketing contracts with the publisher’s marketing arm are usually indicators of vanity presses.

Never, ever sign a contract which requires you to pay money up front without obtaining review by an agent or attorney you trust. The long-term cost of ending up with a bad publisher far outweighs the cost of professional review before you sign the deal. 

Beware: Having no contract at all is better than finding yourself tied to a bad contract with a bad publisher.

Self-Publishing: The Author IS the Publisher.

Under the self-publishing model, the author acts as the publisher for the work and bears all costs of the publishing process. Smart self-published authors hire professionals to help with various aspects of the process (e.g., editing and cover design). Self-published authors should act like publishers, hiring specialists to fill the gaps in their personal skill sets. Hiring out parts of the process costs money, but smart self-published authors know that running a professional business does cost money.

Have experience with publishing contracts, or questions about publishing? Feel free to ask in the comments or contact me on Twitter (@SusanSpann). I’d love to hear from you!