Indie Presses Have to Partner Up

From Publishers Weekly:

Whether or not we want to face it, there is a startling new reality about small press publishing: we need help. The landscape is shifting and independent publishers are realizing that we need to find new ways to stay competitive. The Big Five publishers continue to buy independent presses, repackaging their lists to give an illusion of diversity when they are, in fact, conglomerates. It is time to rethink old business models, and parternship publishing is one way for new independent presses to emerge and be successful in this competitive climate.

So where does this leave authors? Traditional publishers have long tested hybrid contracts, from custom packaging projects to requiring restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, or museums to buy back a certain amount of books as part of publishing deals. Before signing contracts, authors should weigh their priorities. Some authors may need comprehensive direction from their publisher, while others may want to break out of a traditional mold and stay true to their own visions.

Independent presses offer authors an array of options to choose from, though some models are misunderstood. There’s an assumption, for instance, that a blended model throws away any quality control, but that just isn’t the case—particularly when it comes to partnership publishing.

I founded the Collective Book Studio with a distinct model in mind: authors choose us, but we must also choose them. We accept unagented and agented submissions, with each subjected to meticulous screening, but ultimately offer a wide pool of authors access to publishing expertise. By investing in their own products, clients maintain their agency while also acquiring the services that will make their book successful; thus, we establish a partnership. Authors hold on to their IP, they receive higher royalty rates, and they’re involved in many steps of the development, production, and marketing processes.

Like other partnership publishers, the Collective Book Studio handles editorial development, proofreading, layout, design, production, marketing, and publicity. We are backed by a team of experts. Many of us have worn different hats over the years. We form teams comprising booksellers, editors, illustrators, and designers because it gives us a wide perspective.

Why would an author choose partnership publishing over self-publishing? Self-publishing has an undeniable allure that stems from one major premise: jurisdiction. It seems to many that self-publishing grants the author the largest amount of control over important editorial, design, and marketing decisions. The self-publishing model is one that recognizes the author’s autonomy above all, but often that comes at the expense of quality control. Even if an author has a self-published book with compelling content, they likely won’t have competitive distribution.

At the Collective Book Studio we often hear from self-published authors who love their books but struggle with being shut out of most sales channels. Partnership publishing means spot gloss, foil, and embossing. It means an editor to ensure the highest-quality writing. It also creates a real path into the indie bookselling market, where handselling can make all the difference to a book’s success.

While the traditional vs. self vs. hybrid publishing debate rages on, independent booksellers are also working under enormous challenges. They’re up against Amazon, the dominant retailer that undermines pricing and shipping standards for everyone. The thing is, independent publishers are being swamped by monopolists, too. The best way for both indie publishers and indie bookstores to grow is by collaborating even more than we do now.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG is inclined to break down the OP as follows:

  1. Let’s pretend Amazon doesn’t exist. Ditto for Kindle Direct Publishing.
  2. Let’s pretend that when an author is asked to put up money by a traditional publisher, what’s going on is something more than a gussied-up vanity press operation.
  3. “We are backed by a team of experts.” Times are tough in the book business and a lot of people are willing to do whatever sort of gig work they can find.
  4. Let’s pretend that indie bookstores represent a significant part of the book-selling business.
  5. Let’s pretend that getting a book into a lot of indie bookstores will generate a lot of royalties for an author.
  6. Let’s pretend that authors who use vanity presses – plain vanilla or gussied-up – are really going to be taken seriously by anyone but their mother, father and retired third-grade teacher.
  7. “Partnership publishing means spot gloss, foil, and embossing.” PG couldn’t have worded the publisher’s contribution to the final product any better than that.

Finally, a quote attributed to a variety of different people, “Money flows to the author.” This does not mean that money flows from the author to the publisher.

33 thoughts on “Indie Presses Have to Partner Up”

  1. Why would you want to give up control unless they brought a lot to the table, in days when even traditional publishers are not doing much marketing except for their stars?

    The OP is one untrue statement followed by another. As a distracting technique, we have seen it in politics more than enough.

    The self-publishing model is one that recognizes the author’s autonomy above all, but often that comes at the expense of quality control. is followed by something different It also creates a real path into the indie bookselling market, where hand-selling can make all the difference to a book’s success. (btw, who is doing the hand-selling?)

    All those teams of people do is gang up on the author, overwhelming with ‘expertise.’ Too many cooks spoil the broth is more like it. What traditionally-published authors hate is losing control. With ‘indie’ publishers, they lose it for an even smaller share of the royalties – because the pie is smaller.

    Not persuaded, though I’d dearly love to give up some of the less-interesting parts of marketing, I don’t think they’re going to do it better or more inexpensively with smaller print runs.

  2. Vanity presses are a modern instance of a very old tradition:

    “They say “There is a sucker born every minute, and New York is the best place in the world to catch them.” In 1885 a 41 page biographical sketch titled “The Life of Hungry Joe: King of the Bunco Men” was published, and the saying was ascribed to the notorious confidence man Joseph Lewis, aka Hungry Joe. ”

    Even then it was an very old saying. The mindset probably goes back to the african savanna.

    • The entire point of the Statute of Anne (1709 or 10, depending on your views of Washington’s Birthday…) was to wrest authors’ rights back from…

      wait for it…

      vanity publishers, the default publishing model of the day. And, in substance (if not always in name), the default publishing model in the English-speaking world until Sargent’s revisions of copyright law in the 1830s and 1840s, and on the continent until the 1860s.

      So that’s what “traditional publisher” means to me, and why I prefer the term “commercial publisher” for the ones we’ve got now that are not explicitly pay-to-play.

  3. As is usual in these discussions, there is much talking past each other by people talking about different sorts of books. When the self-publishing crowd talks about books, they nearly entirely mean commercial genre fiction. Within that context, their arguments are sound. But commercial genre fiction is just one slice of the book world.

    I took a look at this outfit’s product line. They aren’t the sort of book that tempt me, but they are the sort of book where physical production quality matters, and where impulse purchases upon seeing the physical book are plausible. This is not pretending that Amazon doesn’t exist. It is recognizing that Amazon is not, even today, the totality of book retailing. Amazon is, or nearly is, the totality for self-published commercial genre fiction, but again, this is just one slice of the book world.

    Is “partnership publishing” (I am guessing that “hybrid publishing” is going out of fashion) a good deal for the author? It can be in principle. This is simply packaging a bundle of services that authors could wrangle themselves, but many don’t want to. The question is whether this bundle actually does the job, and at a reasonable price. I can imagine using such a service, but it would depend a lot on their reputation.

    It probably doesn’t make sense for commercial genre fiction, where physical production is irrelevant, and where authors discuss with a straight face whether a second draft is necessary, or mere self-indulgence when they should be writing their next book, to be released in a month. The only such service that seems to be consistently taken seriously is the cover, which of course is marketing.

    Y’all want a good laugh? I just signed a contract with a university press. The process will be slower even than traditional trade publishing, with a likely release in the spring of 2024. I expect to earn beer money. The university press route is absolutely right for the book I am writing.

    • Sure.
      Agreed to all that.
      But, is that how the OP presents the matter?

      Or are they, too, assuming their niche is all of publishing?
      Actions breed reactions and how a venture is received will depend on how it presents itself.

      (In this case, are these folks going to tell unwary genre writers their services won’t have a positive ROI or simply laugh all the way to the bank?)

      The onus is on them.

      • Everyone tends to talk about their own area of interest. It would be perfectly sensible to respond to the linked post by discussing it doesn’t apply to commercial genre fiction. Responding with its being wrongety wrong wrong is rather less sensible.

    • When authors wrangle a package of services for themselves, they pay for them once.
      Alternatively, they can both pay up front, and also pay with a cut of royalties.

      The services in the package may be the same, but the cost is very different.

    • Does your contract specify that you pay money to them for them to publish your book?

      If not (and I don’t believe this is the way a university press works), it is not the same model as discussed by the post, and is not relevant.

  4. As to PG’s point 7:

    I was helping authors manage that, in self-publishing efforts after the Massacre of 1996, a quarter of a century ago. You just had to know which printers could and would do it, reliably, and cost-effectively (once print runs get over 2500-3000 or so, up to 15,000 or so when the machinery has to change over, embossing and foils are quite inexpensive and add two to four days to the production cycle just due to scheduling issues). Although I think the OP meant spot color not spot gloss.

    • “…means spot gloss, foil, and embossing.”

      In this context, I’m guessing the OP is referring to “spot varnish,” which can be gloss, dull, or somewhere in between. This is a “finishing” thing, not a “printing” thing. At least it was for me in my former careers as a print designer and art director.

      I used to nit-pick over all this kind of stuff in the good old days. Now, it never crosses my mind (except in posts such as this).

      • When I was on the Dark Side of the Editorial Desk, the arguments were always over spot color and never over spot varnish; my understanding is that — pardon the pun or not, it’s entirely up to you — the luster had gone off “spot varnish” as an effective marketing device by the early 1990s, and at least in certain areas was no longer used at all.

        Spot color, however, was becoming an issue, particularly with sponsored books and the need to accurately reproduce sponsor logos (with Pantone shades consistent with trademark registrations) and ensure that the rest of a cover — whether Pantone-processed or four-color — didn’t clash or wash out the logo. Fortunately, I left that particular publisher about a year before it got BehemothSponsor onboard, so I bet I missed the very, very best meetings.

        Given that, maybe the OP really does mean spot varnish. But since binderies moved into printing plants in the early 1990s, instead of being in separate locations, “finishing the cover” has been pretty thoroughly integrated from the publisher’s perspective.

  5. And our direct connections with indie booksellers allow authors an inside route to stores that they would have trouble accessing as self-published authors. Further, authors who contribute to the partnership budget allow us as a small press to afford these marketing spends with bookstores that rely on the funding.

    As I understand it, no bookstore is going to purchase your book for sale without an unlimited right of return with unsold items. How on earth can this company possibly afford to do that when they can’t afford to publish the book in the first place? The other option would be the bookstore can special order the book from a warehouse, but doesn’t that defeat this whole model?

    Having said all of that, I did track down one title they published, and it is available for borrowing at a library network I have a card in, but in ebook form via Overdrive. Plus Hoopla, also obviously in ebook format. With a paper copy on order in one library. This is not a market many self-published authors crack, or so it seems to me, so perhaps there is something here.

    • They can’t crack it if they’re Amazon exclusive.
      But if they care about that market, they can go wide with Kobo or Smaswords, which offer their ebooks to Overdrive. No guarantee they’ll ever show up in any library because library shoppers insisted indie books be kept in a separate section from “real books”. How those Indie books get published makes no difference to them.
      Pay to play is no help there.

  6. At the Collective Book Studio we often hear from self-published authors who love their books but struggle with being shut out of most sales channels.

    Suppose that could mean there are 100 sales channels. One channel controls 90% of the market. The other 99 channels share the remaining 10%. If an author is in only the 90% channel, then he is being shut out of most of the channels.

  7. The problem is all channels aren’t created equal. Leaving aside university bookstores, art supply stores, and museum gift shops, the combined sales of non-chain B&M stores add up to less tban 5% of the trade book market.

    Beyond that, B&M stores, chain or not, have finite shelf space for books, half of which is typically allocated to perennial back list titles (HARRY POTTER and the like) and the lion’s share of the rest goes to new releases from the BPHs who combined put out over 30,000 titles a year (randy Penguin alone should be putting out some 20,000 after they finish gobbling up S&S–they were doing 17,000 just a few years back). Of those new releases featured for a couple of months, the highest visibility goes to books with titles with paid front table and endcap support, with the rest relegated to one or two copies shelved spine out for a while before being cycled out to make room for new releases.

    Other channels like Costco or Sams limit themselves to high visibility, deep discount titles from already successful big name authors or celebrities… er influencers?

    That leaves the online stores which have near-infinite shelf space and feature over 5 million titles; perennials, midlist, recent backlist still in stock, and new releases both tradpub and Indie, plus (in Amazon’s case) used books galore, priced lower than new copies, which pits new releases against decades of known good books.

    The trendy term is dillution.
    Where once upon a time consumers only had a choice of a few hundred new releases at a time in their area of interest (and in some genres like SF one could reasonably aspire to read all the new releases in a given year) these days online offers a cornucopia of content and the challenge isn’t finding a way to pay for all the worthies available, new and old, but to find time to read them.

    It is literally impossible to get any book before every single potential buyer. That dream ended decades ago. Even before online or indies the publishers were rolling out more content than shoppers could consume, with most avid readers ending up with enormous hoards of interesting “ToBeRead” books, purchased under the treat of “buy before it goes out of print”. Today that is mostly replaced by just-in-time purchases. B&M Shelving by itself achieves little unless you are a “name”. And even those folks are seeing dimished launch window sales from dilution. They still make “quota” but it takes longer and online’s long tail.

    And, of course, there is the elephant in the room: Amazon moves over half of all books, regardless of format, and B&N and the regional chains another 20%, add in drugstores and dept stores selling the same “everwhere” books (all sourcing from Ingram) and the number of channels that are of any significance to “indie presses” reduces to Amazon and Ingram.

    Chasing channels it outright stupid. All that is needed is the two distributors that feed the market. And both are more than happy to deal with self-publishers.

    There *are* reasons for trade book authors to go with tradpub and *honest* publishing service providers (yes, some do exist) but “channel access” isn’t among them. That’s just dated received knowledge or worse.

    • <entitledmultigenerationalwhine> But Feeeeeeelix, what about all of the received wisdom taught in MBA programs to the non-nerds who can’t handle enough math to get onto the mergers-and-acquisitions track? Don’t they deserve some respect for accurately parroting the half-a-century-out-of-date, untested-in-contemporary-markets wisdom of their upper-middle-class white male marketing professors in completely different contexts and markets? I’m entitled to further extend the Gilded Age, and Muffy’s tuition payment for an exclusive school on the Upper West Side is due next week (you should be very impressed that I had good enough connections to get Muffy accepted there)… </entitledmultigenerationalwhine>

      • Channel conflict angst is sooo dated.
        You’d think the fate of the encyclopedia publishers in the 90’s would be a standard object lesson for all aspiring MBAs. Along with the Red Queen mantra: “If you don’t obsolete your product in a timely manner, others will obsolete it for you.” You need to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are.

        • Your unsupportable assumption here is that b-school professors (let alone aspiring MBAs) learn lessons from anything that isn’t either the subject of a feature in WSJ or Barron’s (note: same publisher and above-immediate-editorial chain of backslappery/golf-course-chummery) or juicy inside information from a friend or former student.

          I don’t have contempt for business schools. My attitude toward them — having suffered through the attempted b-schoolification in the officer corps under Emperor FreeEnterpriseForMeButNotForThee — would have to improve a lot to be merely “contempt.” Especially since I’m no longer subject to Article 88.

          • I stand corrected.

            So there is no chance of a Harvard Business School study on the dozen ways Sony gave away the ebook reader hardware market or the many disasters of the PS3 era? Shucks!

  8. Personally, I still think that those “publishers” like the one OP had created/talks about are still vanities, no matter what name they give them. I would see them wax and wan in my FB feed and I would usually go into attack dog mode on them, asking them the usual questions about their business model, offering cheaper alternatives in the comments to others who might be thinking about publishing with them.

    More often than not, they would change their FB ad to exclude commenting. Some of the more memorable discussions that I’ve had this year was pounding a “publisher” like the OP’s who required you to spend a minimum $3k on “consulting packages in order to get a sniff from them; one vanity arguing with me and friend in another vanities’s FB ad; and one following me to my personal page to continue the argument of whether or not she’s a vanity (or boutique, which is a new one being bandied about) publisher.

    Fun times.

  9. A good point is made that a “hybrid publisher”–whatever the trending name may be–is essentially a vanity press. I believe Mr. PG is saying that having to pay upfront to get your book out (including added payments for services; such as design, layout and editing) defines the payee as a vanity press.
    An alternative is Amazon KDP, which can get your book into print and on a selling platform almost for free and, by taking a very reasonable share of the royalties, has a stake in the success of the work. Ironically, this model comes closer to resembling that of “traditional publishing.” That may be why it’s a preferred model for those choosing to “self-publish.”
    But then, if one self-publishes, but hires out service providers for cover design, interior layout, editing, proofreading, etc., expenses can total into the thousands. Add to that, fees to enter contests, for paid reviews, for attending conferences, and assistance in marketing, then the cost to get your book in print and visible can easily top $5,000.
    To my knowledge, few if any such providers offer their services for zero or reduced upfront fees, in return for a portion of the royalties. Thus, as in the vanity press model, the service providers have no real stake in the success of the book.
    Not being armed with the statistics, I’d make an educated guess that the vast majority of “indie” books languish on the market. Of course, there are enough success stories to keep hopes buoyed. But the reality is, money is flowing not to the writers (I repeat, there are exceptions), but to the free-lance editors, designers and graphic artists; and to purveyors of reviews, conferences and prizes.
    This isn’t to imply that such service providers prey on the desperate hopes of indie authors. Independent professionals who provide quality services deserve to be financially rewarded. Business is business! But if the odds were really good that a self-published book would see success, then it seems to me that more service providers would be willing to financially share in the success of their clients. Isn’t this the model that “traditional” publishers once followed?

    • “Add to that, fees to enter contests, for paid reviews, for attending conferences, and assistance in marketing, then the cost to get your book in print and visible can easily top $5,000.”

      Your numbers are off by an order of magnitude, mostly because they include costs tbat are known to result in zero ROI and aren’t incurred by the vast majority of Indies. Contests and paid reviews are generally understood to be scams for novices that don’t do tbeir homework. As a rule, knowledgeable indies no more pay anything to “purveyors of reviews, conferences and prizes” than to vanity presses.

      Most Indies spend closer to $500 per book and some gifted ones with basic artistic skills, under $300 by using Public Domain or Creative Commons images. Getting a book into print requires essentally zero upfront cost for POD and paying for visibility is more often tban not sending money down the toilet. The most effective visibility service for novices turns out to be Kindle Unlimited which *pays* authors at a $500M a year clip. This is on top of whatever sales revenue tbey acrue via KDP. (There’s a reason why Amazon commands such a massive Indie exclusivity catalog: KU works.)

      Anybody thinking those cited expenses are necessary is working outside the realm of Indie trapub or, more likely, a tradpub refugee or a novice tbat hasn’t bothered to research the business processes of Indie publishing. Even authors who find and use honest publishing services can stay well under that number, probably under $1000.

      As for the boundary between vanity presses and honest service providers there is one primary test: Does the outfit make their money from the author’s pocket or from reader purchases of the book?

      • I agree with many of your points. However, not everyone who goes the self-publishing route is all that astute when it comes to shaving expenses, and on being skeptical of “expert” advice on what is deemed necessary for success. It’s indeed possible to spend sums in multiples of 1,000, and I’m certain many do.
        Anyway, thanks for the comment.

        • Shaving expenses and taking control is two of the three keys to Indie success.
          Any newcomer who puts themselves in a $5K hole before selling a single copy is not going to climb out particularly fast, if ever.
          (The third key is patience: A solid ROI seems to require a 5 title catalog, minimum, with 10 preferred. And $25-50k is a tough hurdle if you’re just starting.)

          The $5-10K per book plaint is common among folks decrying that Indie pub is too hard and too expensive. IIRC, there was a piece covered year a year or two back by a lady who spent $30K to Indie publish and, well… It did not go well.

          Which it won’t if you blow your wad on non-productive things like fake reviews and “visibility”. The second best promotional tool is more books. The best is satisfied readers who want more.

          (You ever hear of the “Thousand True Fans” approach? It works and not just books.)

          Money isn’t the key to creative Indies’ success: true fans are.
          Getting them means you need to identify an audience and please them so they will reward you by promoting you.
          Word of mouth beats fake reviews every day of the week but those you need to earn, not buy.
          And throwing money around won’t change that need.
          No shortcuts. So patience is a must.

      • “Add to that, fees to enter contests, for paid reviews, for attending conferences, and assistance in marketing, then the cost to get your book in print and visible can easily top $5,000.”

        Sure. It can easily top $10K or $100K. Pick any number.

        Any idea what percentage of independent KDP books top $5000?

        • Never mind independents; how about tradpub books delivering that much to tbe author?

          There’s the Harlequin self-dealing scam where hundreds of authors routinely netted less than $500, typically netting twenty five cents per book. Often less.

          Even honest tradpub mass market paperbacks are reported to pay out royalties of 8% or less, which works out to 65 cents per $8 book. Takes a lot of sales to hit $5000 that way…

          It’s not just Indies that face a tough row to hoe; it is all writers, indie and tradpub.
          It’s not a kind business.

  10. “It’s not just Indies that face a tough row to hoe; it is all writers, indie and tradpub.”

    “As for the boundary between vanity presses and honest service providers there is one primary test: Does the outfit make their money from the author’s pocket or from reader purchases of the book?”

    Amen to both quotes!
    That said, I don’t feel that all review services, paid or free, result in “fake reviews.” Reviewers who praise too lavishly loose credibility. And those who are too harsh drive away clients. A proper balance is good business.
    Nor is entering book contests a total waste. An indie author who starts as a complete unknown has to begin building a reputation somewhere. And a printed medallion–or sticker or two–on the cover just might cause a browser to look closer, or thumb through a page or two.
    Authors’ conferences, at the very least, can be a medium for struggling writers to commiserate. But they tend to be pricey. And “book fairs” in which you mostly have writers trying to sell their works to one another can be an exercise in frustration. Writers by nature tend to be an egotistical lot, and are more interested in promoting their own wares than in pushing for others. And who can blame them?

    • My concern isn’t whether somebody somewhere might not see a return but whether the typical return is proportional to the investment. Rather like book tours taking up time tbat might be better spent writing a followup. Or on the day job.

      Those are at best speculative and optional. Hardly a mandatory expense for everybody, especially newcomers looking to ramp up a serious business.

    • For a moment, consider a “pulp speed” writer putting out 4 to 6 volumes a year, often in the same series. Do tbey really *need* to spend $20-30K on speculation instead of maintaining an up-to-date autbor’s page with an opt-in mailing list?

      Now, a mailing list would be a waste of time for a litfic author putting out a book a decade (like some of the authors chasing literary awards) but for a series genre author the ROI is going to be very high compared to the cost of setting up the author page. And their fans would find it useful in deciding if they want to pre-order on KDP.

      Others in between? Depends. And only tbe author themselves would know which way to go. That’s what doing the homework is all about. Besides avoiding scammers, of course.

      • Ever since the big independent push around 2010, we have had a continual drumbeat from folks who want independents to do what traditional publishers claimed they did for traditional authors. The recent piece by Nathan Bransford (?) outlined the Hallmark Channel road to publishing success.

        Editors told authors they needed editors. Artists told them they needed cover artists. Book doctors told them they needed treatment of the ailing story arc. Conference promoters told them they needed the networking. They had to have mailing lists, web pages, author pages, internet assistants, and book signings at local independent bookstores. For a few years they need branding, then they needed to pay 15% to some other author who decided she was now a publisher. They had to join special promotion alliances with other special authors.

        And it all cost money. And they were quoted figures like $5,000 and $10,000 for the serious author. Normal authors need not pay attention. This was for the serious authors and their fellow traveling real writers.

        Independents were supposed to be little big publishers. I always figured there was widespread terror of the independents failing to follow the established milestones, yet achieving success anyway. Perhaps the biggest fear was that Kindle Unlimited would succeed. That was something the traditionally published authors never did. If they didn’t do it, well, it just wasn’t done. It was new. Many independents recoiled in disgust at trading off widespread distribution for KU. KU would destroy the market in a race to the bottom. When Amazon failed, the author would be without a lifeline to Mark Coker or Kobo.

        But just as many embraced it and succeeded. They tried a different path. It worked. But the force is strong, and the myth won’t die. Not as long as there is a buck to be made off an author.

        • Nailed it.

          Indie publishing done right isn’t about copying the old school at a smaller scale. If anything it is almost certain going to fail because the”big boys” have economies of scale and shotgunning on their side. Copying their processes without having their scale is taking on all the disadvantages of their process without any of the advantages.

          Indie publishing done right uses different processes, each process attuned to the needs of the individual author and their chosen market and their target audiences. There is no one-size-fits-all magic solution because each author is a different entity. What works for one will thud for the next.

          Traditional publishers might work for some, agent-assisted publishing, or honest service providers will work for others. Doing it all themselves will suit otbers just fine. But nothing will work for everybody.

          The only likely prescription is to learn what others do, why they do it, and figure out what *might* work for you. Then you cross your fingers.

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