book with ribbon

Getting Published in the 21st Century

Has the time come to redefine the book publishing industry?

The digital revolution brought with it a massive overhaul to all aspects of the book business. That includes forcing into exile the long-familiar Great Divide: traditional vs. self-publishing.

The change has been systemic, top-to-bottom. Surprisingly, the most dramatic change is not the high-profile prevalence of e-books but rather the meteoric rise of Independent book publishers, both in numbers and in influence. Independent publishing is now a major force challenging the centuries-old industry dominance of Classic Traditional book publishers.

Today the book industry has four quite discreet components:

  1. Classic (formerly traditional)
  2. Independent
  3. Specialty
  4. Vanity

The first two have much in common and can be grouped under one heading:


Let’s call those first two Classic Traditional and Independent Traditional. The second grouping is commonly referred to as Self-Publishing. It consists of Specialty Publishers and Vanity Presses.

The primary distinctions between Traditional and Self-Publishing are two-fold: access and production.

Access means that both classic and independent publishers screen books based upon the merits of the manuscripts they receive. Self-Publishers do not.

Classic publishers require authors be represented by agents. They depend on agents to screen wannabe authors who in turn, sadly, depend too often upon inexperienced interns to sift through their slush piles for “sure things”.

Independent Publishers, on the other hand, invite authors to submit manuscripts directly to them for evaluation, done almost always by people who are closer to readers, and to trends in genre reading habits. This dramatic shift has opened the way for thousands of authors previously shunned by the agent-publisher establishment to see their books make it to the New York Times and other bestseller lists. In fact, a growing number of authors are leaving the agent-classic club and moving to Independent Publishers.

Despite these differences, Independent and Classic publishers also have in common the fact they both absorb the costs of producing the books. These represent major investments and include editing, cover design, formatting, set-up, printing, distribution, and some basic marketing.

Self-Publishers do not accept these financial risks and differ from the Traditionals in other significant ways as well. These are summarized well by Chuck Sambuchino, host of the blog Guide to Literary Agents:

A self-published book is one where the decision to publish the book was the author’s alone and the transaction involved the author paying any upfront costs for services, and the book is currently available for viewing and/or purchase. 

Here’s a closer look at two key elements of his summary:

  1. The decision to publish was the author’s alone.

This means manuscripts are not subjected to the gauntlet of scrutiny by agents and publishers that is standard in Traditional publishing, i.e., evaluations for quality and for market potential.

Within the Self-Publishing group are Specialty Publishers.

While they meet Chuck Sambuchino’s definition they do have, like Traditional Publishers, a quality control element. For example, technical manuals and textbooks intended for specific audiences are almost always curated and edited prior to being printed by responsible professionals. This is not the case with Vanity Printers.

To be fair, Vanity Printers do have a legitimate role. This includes the printing of family memoirs, company or group (e.g., service club) histories and other limited-run publications. They also cater to writers unable to interest a traditional publisher in their manuscripts.

  1. The second key part of Sambuchino’s summary: The transaction involved the author paying any upfront costs for services.

Unlike Traditional Publishers, Specialty Publishers charge customers for editing, cover design, formatting, set up, and printing costs, as well as any distribution and marketing expenses. The same applies to Vanity Printers; some even insist that customers pay healthy portions of the production costs in advance. To be blunt, Vanity Printers will publish almost anything a customer is willing to finance.

It would have been tempting to add a fifth category to the outcome of the digital revolution – e-books – except it’s not as definable as the other four. Here’s why: first, some Independent Publishers produce only e-books, and, second, all four types of publishers have branched into e-publishing.

So what’s at the heart of all of this? In two words: lower costs.

Digital production (Print-On-Demand) cut print production costs dramatically and the Internet made e-book distribution global.

POD slashed costs to the point that even small start-up Independents could enter the market. Hundreds have, although dozens have failed.

Specialty Publishers have also benefited from digital production, especially from POD. The efficiencies have reduced the costs for authors and made it possible to extend availability to wider audiences with limited means. POD has also reduced production costs for those wishing to publish family histories, corporate memoirs, or similar short-run print books through Vanity Presses.

Classic Traditional publishers came late to the e-book party. Their entry has blurred industry boundaries. That is, some now have imprints (i.e., subsidiaries) that accept unagented manuscripts. Some imprints produce e-books only, some only POD formats, and others both.

If anything confuses the boundaries between types of publishers, these do: terms of the contracts and royalties offered.

The regimen regarding contracts and royalties varies widely among Classic, Independent, Specialty and Vanity publishers, as well as (not surprisingly) within each. Authors are well advised to seek qualified legal advice before signing a contract. Some writer associations offer these services.

Distribution marks another significant difference between classic publishers and the three others. Classic publishers provide physical distribution. The others do not.

Classic publishers on occasion also offer financial advances prior to new releases, although usually for books by bestselling authors. And unlike the others, Classic publishers have agreements with distributors and bookstores to place print copies on shelves in return for agreeing to accept returns of unsold books. The other three mostly use print-on-demand services and do not guarantee returns.

Finally, you can bet that most agents and publishers will offer tantalizing contracts should you happen to be an established bestselling author, a high profile politician, some form of celebrity, or a notorious criminal. If not, well, happy hunting with the rest of us.

“Getting Published in the 21st Century” is an updated version of an article published in the September 2017 edition of Opal Magazine.

Comments are closed.