The Publishing Dilemma
by Barbara Florio Graham

It used to be that when you wrote a book you looked for a publisher, or if you felt you had a potential best-seller, you tried to find an agent. Savvy authors would craft a solid book proposal before the book was even finished, speak to other authors to obtain referrals to agents, and scout book stores to discover which publishers specialize in books similar to yours.

How the landscape has changed in just a few years. Traditional publishers began to consolidate, sell less-profitable divisions, reduce royalty rates, and develop operations where they “worked with” authors to help them co-publish or self-publish.

Increasingly, authors were urged to pay for some of the costs, or guarantee most of the first printing (often up to 1000 copies), with only minimal support from the publishing house's promotion and distribution services.

Even in the best situation, where a major publisher offered a standard contract, the fine print contained wording which obligated the author to assume all liability in case of any lawsuit, give up some moral rights (allowing excerpts to be resold to third parties without compensation), and share only minimally in profits from book club or other bulk sales and foreign rights.

As a result, more authors turned to self-publishing. But that, too, has become a minefield.

This website contains a wide variety of free information about how to compare publishers, what to look for in a publishing contract, and how to find specialty publishers, agents, and publishing advice.  (See link below)

As a Book Shepherd for Dan Poynter, the world-wide expert in the field (author of the best-selling  The Self-Publishing Manual),  I receive requests from authors who have no idea what self-publishing involves. They think that POD (Print-on-Demand) publishers will help them realize a profit, especially since many of these are connected to legitimate corporations whose names they recognize. X-libris, for example, began as an arm of Random House, and Book Surge is affiliated with Amazon.

POD is supposed to be simple. You submit your book in an electronic format, pay a fee (typically $400-1000 depending on the company and the marketing options selected), they produce your book and load it onto their system. But what happens then? Unless someone markets the book aggressively, there is no distribution except the tiny trickle of single copies sold through the company's website or your own. And some of these companies charge you to buy copies of your own book, either to give away or to sell at workshops, book signings, or other events.

As a result, you may end up paying a whack of money to say you've published a book, but realize no profits, not even a return on your initial investment.

One of the few ways of comparing POD publishers is with Mark Levine's excellent book, The Fine Print of Self-Publishing.  The third edition (published in 2008) doesn't take into consideration that several of these companies have now been absorbed under the umbrella of  Author Solutions, which is now the parent company of AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris, and WordClay, all listed under Publishers to Avoid in Mark Levine's book.

Mark reveals the details (including costs and potential profits) for 45 different self-publishing companies. Even if the one you're considering isn't listed here, you can use these charts to determine what's fair and what will just waste your money.

I really like how Levine has organized this book. He has grouped publishers by Outstanding, Pretty Good, Okay, and Publishers to Avoid. Since the companies are listed alphabetically in the Table of Contents under each of these chapters, it's really easy to check on any you're considering.

Before the listings, Mark offers some solid advice. In Chapter 3, he describes nine qualities of a good self-publishing company, including their reputation with other authors. Before you sign with any publisher, you'd be smart to Google them, read comments authors have posted, and also go to free writers' sites (such as which have many pages devoted to this subject, with comments from authors' actual experiences. 

Ninety authors have joined forces in a lawsuit against one POD publisher, Airleaf Publishing (formerly Bookman Publishing) owned by Carl Lau. This company was not included in Levine's book, so you need to check out any company you plan to deal with.It's also wise to join organizations like SPAWN (the Small Publishers and Writers Network) which has a monthly newsletter (with members' only pages that are very helpful) and an active listserv where you can post questions.

Even an older edition of Levine's book can be useful, as it will give you the price breakdowns for typical books, showing you how many of these companies end up making far more profit from your original creative work than you do.

Elsewhere on this website, I use the following example:

Do the math before you sign with any publisher. And never sign a contract without having it reviewed. A lawyer can alert you to potentially hazardous clauses, and a non-legal opinion (from someone like me) will cost even less and point out problem areas to be negotiated.

Yes, it's great to be able to call yourself “author of,” but not if you end up with en empty bank account or cartons of unsold books sitting in your basement.


The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, Fourth Edition, 2011, Bascom Hill Publishing Group, or from Mark Levine's website: