A commercial publisher (such as HarperCollins and Penguin Books) distributes books under its own imprint. It purchases manuscripts from authors and handles the cost of producing those manuscripts such as cover and interior design, typesetting, printing, marketing, distribution, etc. The author is not expected to pay any of these costs. The books are owned by the publisher and remain in the publisher's possession until sold; the author receives a portion of sales in the form of royalties.
A subsidy publisher also distributes books under its own imprint. However, it does not purchase manuscripts; instead, it asks authors to pay for the cost of publication. Any publisher that requests a fee from the author is a subsidy publisher. As with commercial publishers, the books are owned by the publisher and remain in the publisher's possession; authors receive royalties.
A self-publisher, on the other hand, is an author who pays for the cost of designing, printing, and distributing his or her book. Frequently, the author invents and registers a publishing "imprint." Self-published books are the property of the author and usually remain in the author's possession; all sales proceeds belong to the author.
Regardless of whether you choose subsidy or self-publishing, the author is largely responsible for promotion of her book. In fact, even if one is published by a reputable commercial publisher, the author is expected to be proactive with publicity.
More recently, in a worrying trend, some Australian commercial publishers have turned into subsidy publishers. In the past 12 months I have submitted manuscripts in good faith to such publishers, and had them ‘accepted’ but only on the condition that I pre-purchase (or pre-sell to organisations) copies of my titles for amounts from $2,000 to $5,000.
In both cases I have withdrawn my manuscript, but I know of well-known authors who have published their books under these co-payment agreements. One of them told me they agreed to the pre-purchase condition the first time, but when they wanted to purchase fewer copies for subsequent books, the (same) publisher said the same large amount would need to be purchased, as a requirement for publishing the book. ‘I felt pressured and disappointed,’ they said.
Another author was told by an editor that she would recommend her manuscript for publication. However, when the publisher contacted the author, he wanted her to pay half the publishing cost, which came in at $10,000. She told him no thanks; partnership publishing isn't for her, to which he replied that his company was NOT a partnership publisher. Really?
Wanting to further explore this publishing trend, I placed ads in several magazines asking writers to contact me with their experiences. I also approached several authors on the ASA board. The ASA representatives referred to subsidy publishing as ‘collaborative publishing’, though I prefer the term ‘co-publishing.’ Another author called it ‘partnership publishing.’
When I sent the publishing proposal for my manuscript to the ASA, I was offered the following information: ‘Basically, this publisher is asking $5000 and you get 500 copies to sell yourself, with a much reduced return on the others based on net receipts which could be very high discounts, so likely to be a small return, but you get the editorial/cover and publisher listings etc. For some authors who do lots of regional speaking and sell books there, the volume may be viable. For others it's a form of self publishing for which they are paying a minimum of $10 per copy. For a one-off specialist book it may be viable for some, but not as a general practice for professional authors with many titles.’
A third author wrote to me saying, ‘My (former) publisher is asking for more manuscripts but I'm not going down that (subsidy publishing) path again. He is good in many respects but alas, if you don't look after the creators financially, they don't come back. It worries me for newer and desperate-to-be-published authors who have no representation.’
She went on to say that in future she would be staying with the bigger publishers under the watchful eye of her agent.
Finally, I heard from a writer who, if she published collaboratively, the total costs including an initial 3,000 book print run, would be approximately $18,000 for a chapter book and $24,000 for a picture storybook.
Every author who wrote to me asked me not to name them or the publishers who had offered them subsidy publishing deals. A writer, of course, is placed in a very difficult position when they are wronged by a publisher: they don’t want to be seen to be rocking the industry boat as they are fearful of being ‘black-listed.’
It seems to me that the ASA ought to be going public on who the publishers are and warning its members not to proceed with publication unless they are 100% convinced they cannot get published elsewhere by a commercial publisher who does not resort to subsidy publishing.