Updated: Aug 8
Social media is full of posts like this:
As an author coach, every time I see someone looking for a “publishing company” I cringe.
Not that I blame the person posting for being uninformed - everyone has to start somewhere!
But because being uninformed in the early stages of the publishing process can so often cause new authors to fall for scams or waste lots of time and money.
So what’s wrong with the term “publishing company?”
In short, the term "publishing company" is so vague that typing it into a search engine opens the door for the algorithm to lead you down too many paths. (And many of them can be scammy!) There are literally thousands of companies out there involved in the business of publishing, and they provide vastly different services for authors with very different goals. And not knowing which one is right for you can have unintended consequences.
So, what SHOULD you be searching for?
The 4 Different Types of Publishing Companies:
#1 - Traditional Publishing Houses
Sometimes called: Publishers, Presses, Imprints, The Big 5, etc.
Examples: Scholastic, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and here's a list of more!
A traditional publishing house is what most people think of when they think about being a “published author.” They produce most of the books that line the shelves of your local bookstore.
How do they work?
You submit your story (either directly or through an agent), and you wait months to hear back. They are highly selective.
(A statistic thrown around often in the publishing industry is that less than 1% of books submitted to traditional publishers actually get published.)
If your story does get accepted, you’ll sign a contract and the publisher will take over the book production process.
They will pay for EVERYTHING, and they will ultimately be in control of everything.
You will be paid a small percentage of the total sales of the finished book - called royalties. (You might get a lump sum upfront, called an “advance” on those royalties.)
Remember those Facebook posts above that wanted to know which publisher to “use?” Well, it’s sort of the other way around. You aren’t using them…they are using your story - and paying you to do so. They aren’t providing you with a service. You are providing them with content. Traditional publishers use that content to produce books and sell them for a profit. They make their money from the readers - not the authors.
#2 - Vanity Presses
Sometimes called: Hybrid Publishers (Which they aren’t…see below for what a real hybrid publisher is.) or they may just call themselves a “publisher” or “press.”
How do they work?
Vanity presses are “publishing companies” that charge authors large fees to produce their book. They manage armies of often subpar editors, illustrators, designers, etc, and churn out as many books as they can each year. They aren’t concerned with the quality of the product they produce because they don’t make their money from the sales of the book. They make their money from the hopeful author.
But it’s not just the low quality that’s the problem. Vanity presses are predatory and often flat out dishonest in how they present themselves to potential authors. For example, their websites say things like, “We are now open to submissions!” (They are ALWAYS open to submissions.) They email EVERY author with something like, “Congratulations! Our team has reviewed your manuscript and we think it has great potential. We’d like to move forward and discuss a publishing contract.” (No one looked at your submission. They would publish gibberish if you sent it to them.)
They are hoping that if you are desperate enough to be published, and if they stroke your ego enough, you’ll pay them several thousand dollars for the experience of seeing your book in print. Oh, and believe it or not, some of them even keep the rights to your book and collect a large percentage of any future sales.
Disclaimer: Now, before you all fill the comments with examples of someone you know who had a great experience with a vanity press or hybrid publisher, just wait. The publishing landscape is constantly changing. There are MANY new companies popping up every day. Are there honest companies out there that allow authors to pay for services to help them legitimately publish their book? Yes! (And we’re going to talk about them below.) But, those legitimate companies are upfront about the fact that they are helping you SELF-publish. They don’t string you along with promises of a “publishing deal” or flatter you with compliments to get a check. If they employ any of the predatory tactics I mentioned above, run.
#3 - Hybrid Publishers
Sometimes called: Most are upfront about being hybrid. They may just call themselves a “publisher” or “press.” And they are!
Examples*: Greenleaf Book Group, Amplify Publishing, The Collective Book Studio
*Note: These are not endorsements. They are just examples.
How do they work?
The first thing to beware of, as I noted above, is that many vanity presses have started calling themselves hybrid to trick authors. But that doesn’t mean all hybrid publishers are bad!
Hybrid publishers combine the selectiveness and high quality of traditional publishers with unique financial cooperation between themselves and the authors.
For example, a hybrid publisher might pay for all the editing, illustration, and production costs, but ask the author to commit to purchasing a certain number of copies upfront as a way to cover those production costs.
Oftentimes the authors are more involved in the design process as well. But the key is that hybrid publishers still have highly selective and talented editorial and design teams and only publish a limited number of books each year.
They are NOT offering to publish just any manuscript that comes their way.
In hybrid publishing, the idea is to give the author more “skin in the game” and make them closer to equal partners with the publishing house.
All hybrids are slightly different in how they operate, so it’s extra important to do your research thoroughly. Here’s a great article with a checklist from the IBPA that will help!
"Hybrid" used to mean something else
One thing to note: The term "hybrid" has actually changed a bit over the past few years. It used to refer to authors, not publishers. For example, if an author had some books that were traditionally published and some books they had self-published, they would say they were doing "hybrid publishing." So keep in mind that this term may be used in different - and sometimes confusing - contexts.
#4 - Self-Publishing Service Providers
Self-publishing service providers help people self-publish their books by doing the things authors may not know how to do on their own. But notice I said self-publish. These companies are up-front about the fact that they are providing a service to you and that you are the publisher. They aren't publishers themselves. This is the biggest and fastest growing category of “publishing companies” and can really be broken down into additional categories.
Freelancers: These are individual people who specialize in a specific skill or service and provide it on an individual basis - like illustrators, formatters, editors, and cover designers.
Printers and Distributors: Printing thousands of copies of books or distributing them to bookstores across the country isn’t something that can be done by a freelancer. But there are plenty of printers and distributors who provide these services for self-publishing authors.
Self-Publishing Education Companies: These companies provide courses and coaching to people who want to learn how to self-publish on their own but don’t want to waste time, money, and energy making mistakes along the way.
Examples: At Home Author, of course! (But we teach traditional publishing too!)
Full Service Self-Publishing Service Providers: These are companies who will do all the work of “self-publishing” your book for you, in exchange for a large fee. They often employ the freelancers mentioned above, and sometimes have relationships with printers and distributors.
Now, you might be wondering, if I’m paying them to publish my book, and they aren’t selective….isn’t that a vanity press? No! The difference is that these companies don't pretend to have “accepted” your book for publication, they state clearly that you are paying for their services, and you always maintain ownership of your book.
The Bottom Line
When you’re just starting out with a rough draft and a dream, it’s hard to slow down and take the time to research. But not all “publishing companies” are created equal. Make sure you are looking for the type of company that fits your needs and matches your goals.
And the next time you see someone on social media asking which “publishing company” they should “use”...please send them this article!