Traditional Vs. Alternative Publishing

So, you ask, what’s the difference between Traditional Publishing and Self-publishing? Large and Small Presses? What’s a Micro-press?

Publishing in General

In Publishing, a Publisher buys the Rights to a Work which has been created by an Author, and then publishes copies of the books, which are then sold to customers. The customers may be Distributors, Bookstores, or Individuals. Distributors buy large volumes of the Work and sell it to Bookstores. Bookstores sell the Work to Individuals. Individuals read the Work. (Or listen to it, watch it, or play it.) Rights are what allow the Publisher to publish and sell the work to others. Generally, the Publisher buys only specific rights, but in some cases the Publisher buys the work outright, paying the Author a specific sum. In that case, the Author can never sell the Work to anyone else, and can never get any royalties from the Work.

What are Rights? The most common Rights are First North American Rights, First International Rights, Electronic Rights, and Reprint Rights. The Author could conceivably sell these Rights to different Publishers. A proper Contract between an Author and a Publisher specifies what Rights the Publisher is buying, and how long they may hold these Rights. First Rights are a one-shot deal, but Reprint Rights can be sold again and again.

Traditional Publishing

In Traditional Publishing, the Author and the Publisher are different. The Author creates the work, investing blood, sweat, and time, and the Publisher makes the work sellable, investing money. The Author is responsible for submitting the Work, revising it as indicated, and proofing the final copy. The Publisher sees that the Work is edited, Copy-edited, and formatted, and creates a cover for it. The Publisher hires a printer to make copies that will be sold, and the Publisher then sells the book. The Publisher also arranges for Publicity: ads, advance copies sent to reviewers, and various freebies to be given away, among other things. All these things cost money and are considered the expenses of the Work. The Author will receive a royalty for each book sold. The exact amount varies, as per contract negotiations, but in fiction it can be assumed to be around 10% of the retail price. If the Author receives an Advance, it is prepayment of the royalties for the books that the publisher expects to sell. After the publisher has sold that number of books, the author will receive an additional royalty for each book sold.

The profit of the book is the difference between the expenses and the gross receipts. The expenses include the costs of the cover production and copy editors as well as the price of printing each copy. The author’s advance also is considered an expense against the book. To be a success, a Work much bring in enough money to cover all the expenses.

This model gives the Publisher great incentive to sell the book in volume, but it also gives the Publisher the incentive to choose only those Works that will sell well, not only covering their expenses, but also bringing in a large profit beyond the expenses. Publishers thus play it safe by sticking with established Authors and Works which are known to be selling well. This also leads to a very restricted market for the Buyer, who finds themselves faced with nothing more than variations on a theme.

Shared Royalties Model

This ought to be called the shared profit model. In this model, the Author again provides the Work, but the Author also provides some of the other elements, such as professional editing of the Work, their own cover, and their own publicity materials. There is usually no Advance. In return, the author receives a much larger share of the profits, up to 50%, with the Publisher receiving the other 50%. Under this model, the contract must clearly specify who does what, how the profits will be calculated, and what the eventual split will be. Authors have a greater responsibility for publicizing their Works.

Under this model, the Publisher risks less money and has less of an incentive to sell the books. The greater burden of selling the books fall on the Author. However, as the Publisher is risking less to publish these books, they are more able to accept Works by unknown Authors and of less fashionable topics. There is far more variety – in both topic and quality – among the non-traditional books, and much more innovation.


In this model, the Author and the Publisher are one and the same, and the Author/Publisher keeps all of the profits. There is _no_ incentive to be choosy about the works, and as a result, there is an extremely wide variety of quality out there. But while much is bad, some is surprisingly good.

Self-publishing is also a way that established Authors make previously Traditionally Published Works available. Traditional Publishers take Works out of publication if they no longer are selling well and making money. Sometimes they intend to keep Works in publication for only a specified amount of time. The Rights then revert to the Author, who can then sell the books elsewhere, or self-publish them.

Vanity Publishing

Many Established Authors consider all non-traditional publishing to be Vanity Publishing, but it isn’t. In all of the previous forms, the Author will be paid for every Work sold. If they invest more in the development, they should receive a greater share of the profit. In Vanity Publishing, the Author pays to have their work published, as well as paying for all the effort to prepare the Work, plus all the printing costs. A Vanity Press has no incentive to sell the books they print up, as they have gotten all their money from the Author. One common ploy is to tell the Author how wonderful their work is, then say that because the Author is an unknown, they need to subsidize the publication, just a few thousand dollars. They will then print only a small number of books, which they then make no effort to sell. If the Author had taken his Work to a printer, he could have got the same number of books printed for a few hundred dollars.

Large Press vs Small Press

The size of the press is determined by the number of titles it carries in print at any one time. The larger the press, the more likely it is to use Traditional Publishing methods, though more and more, even the largest presses are asking Authors to pay for more of the editing and publicity costs themselves. The smaller the press, the fewer titles they carry, and the fewer copies of each book they can store. Printing gets less efficient as the print runs get smaller, so that if the Publisher prints up only fifty copies of a book, each one will cost several times more to make than if the Publisher had printed 10,000. Thus, the profit margins are far smaller and the books are more expensive. E-books, however, cost far less – the main costs are in the preparation of the book, not the actual production. The rise of E-books has led to a flourishing of small presses, and with them, the innovation and variety that readers look for.


A Micro-press is a very small press.

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