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Before there was such a thing as digital printing or online sales, there were only two options open to authors who wanted to see their work in print:
• Acceptance by a commercial publisher who paid for the editing, design, printing, marketing and distribution of books in return for a share of the proceeds of their sale.
• Paying a “vanity press” to oversee the printing of her or his book. In return for their money, vanity press authors got hundreds of copies of their book, most of which sat in a garage or attic getting dusty because there was no way to distribute or sell them.
Nowadays, the publishing jungle positively teems with options for the ambitious author as well as scams designed to capture the uninformed. The following is a description of the most important options.
While there’s no hard-and-fast definition of private publishing, there is one distinguishing characteristic of this option: The number of copies printed is small and most if not all are used as gifts.
There are ways to make privately published works available for sale online (where they may be referred to as “zines”) but the bulk of this type of publishing is targeted at an audience personally known to the author. There are a number of ways to privately publish a book on your own but these are the main categories.
• Handmade Books
The least expensive and least technical way to publish your own book is to write it by hand on sheets of plain white paper that are then copied, collated, and personally distributed.
This type of private publishing is often used for a poet’s first chapbook or for short books meant as gifts for family members.
• Word Processing
If you’re minimally savvy on the technology front, you can create digital files in word processing programs that can be copied and bound in book form by your local copy shop.
Though books printed this way can be sold through online booksellers, this method works best for limited print runs with personal distribution.
• Letterpress Printing
From the time of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (1450) until offset printing became the norm in the early 1900s, the mass printing of all works on paper was done by letterpress.
While not as important as it once was, letterpress printing is thriving as a artisanal craft. This type of printing works best for short books with limited print runs.
• Publishing Limited-edition Books Online
There are several online companies that make it easy for folks to put together full-color, limited edition books with their own photographs and text.
Because the printing costs for this type of publishing are high, it is recommended for special occasion publishing such as preserving family or personal history, to accompany an art exhibit or to commemorate a special event.
Works that are openly published are meant to be available for sale to the public. This type of publishing includes electronic books as well as books on paper.
While investigating these publishing options, it is wise to pay attention to the way in which your work makes its way from you to your potential readers. This part of the process is called distribution, and how it’s handled makes a great deal of difference when it comes to sales.
As you might guess, most books are openly published because most authors want to share their work—and get paid for it. There are three categories of open publishing—independent publishing, self-publishing (aka vanity publishing or print on demand*), and traditional publishing. All three of these options are used to produce books on paper or electronically.
• Independent Publishing
Independent publishers create their own companies for the purpose of publishing books on paper, electronic books or audio editions of their work. Independent publishers retain all of the rights to their works, and do not share the proceeds of sales (royalties) with anyone.
The hallmark of independent publishers is their attention to quality. A professionally produced book that is published independently is indistinguishable from anything from a traditional publisher when it sits on a bookstore’s shelves no matter whether that shelf is online or in a physical store.
Please notice the inclusion of the phrase “professionally produced” in the above description. Not too many years ago, there was a dividing line between authors who were traditionally published and those who were not, and the traditionally published looked down on those who were not.
That has changed. Nowadays, the bright, white line of difference lies between authors who publish professionally (independently or traditionally) and the amateurs who do not.
• Self-publishing (also called vanity publishing or print on demand*)
The most important difference between a traditional publishing company and a self-publishing company is this—who pays the production costs of a book.
In traditional publishing, the company pays. In self-publishing, the author pays.
In both cases, authors lose creative control of their work. In some cases, author lose the copyright to their books forever—which is a very long time. (And this happens more often than you might suspect.)
If you hire a company to edit, design, and print your book, the quality of the book is dependent on the quality of the company you hire. And those standards are usually unclear until it’s too late.
This is an area where you need to proceed with lots of caution and lots of information.
*What does print-on-demand really mean?
Many folks think the term print-on-demand refers to a type of publishing. Not so.
Print-on-demand is another name for digital print technology, and it’s used by everyone in the publishing business. In fact, if you own a printer and a computer, you own a form of print-on-demand technology.
Print-on-demand technology is all about printing and should never be equated with any particular form of book publishing.
• Traditional Publishing
With all the new avenues open to authors who wish to publish their work, the industry once known simply as “book publishing” has evolved into what we now call “traditional book publishing.”
In traditional publishing, a company contracts with an author for certain rights to an author’s work then pays to have that work edited, designed, printed, and made available for sale. In return for this, the publisher keeps a portion of the book’s sales revenue.
• Electronic Publishing
The world of digital books is changing while you read this sentence. While some of the dust has settled in terms of what companies use which technology to produce ebooks, it’s still the wild, wild west when it comes to sales, distribution, royalties, exclusivity, author rights and pricing.
If your budget for publishing is zero or close to zero, ebooks are really your only alternative—but only if you are willing to invest your own time in this venture.
Now that we’ve identified the main paths to publishing, we’ll take a closer look at each one starting next week with traditional publishing.