Not Self-Publishing, but Not Traditional Publishing: What Is the Third Way?



A couple of weeks ago I got into a heated discussion with a reporter who, even after I explained the She Writes Press model, insisted that we would be included in her round-up of “vanity publishers.”


The October/November issue of Poets & Writers has an article called “The Power of Self-Publishing,” in which they highlighted three Author Solutions companies, CreateSpace, and Lulu, failing to add into the mix a single hybrid company.  


Wikipedia defines self-publishing as “the publication of any book or other media by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher.” It defines vanity publishing as “a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published.”


With all the terms—author-subsidized, vanity, DIY, subsidy, hybrid, partnership, etc.—how do authors make sense of what’s what, and why are we at She Writes Press calling ourselves a third way?


Let’s start with an overview of TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING. Most people get how traditional publishing works, but only from their limited perspective as an author or aspiring author, or perhaps as a friend of someone who’s been published by a traditional press. A traditional publishing deal happens when an author (or their agent) negotiates with a publisher (for an advance or for no advance) to have their work published under the imprint of that publisher. In return the publisher puts up the production and marketing costs for that book. The publisher is taking a risk on that author, because they are paying for the cost of publishing. In return, they take the vast majority of the author’s profits—85% of net sales. If an advance has been paid up front, it must be recouped by the publisher before that author starts to see any royalties. In this sense, traditional publishing is partnership publishing. A publisher partners with an author to publish the author’s work, gambling that a particular book or author will be successful and make the publishing company some money. Most of these gambles fail, though, and therefore traditional publishers rely on their few breakout books to carry the rest of the list.


But what happens behind the scenes has become a subject of much more interest to me in my quest to figure out and explain what She Writes Press really is. Behind the scenes, publishers have a distributor. Sometimes this is handled in house, which is usually the case with the big houses, like Random House. And other times it’s handled by a distribution company that has many mid- to small-sized publishers. These are companies like Perseus, PGW, Ingram—and there are a whole host of even smaller distribution companies too.


Back when I was the Executive Editor at Seal Press, I didn’t pay much attention to what our distributor did. I just knew that I got the opportunity to pitch our books several times a year to a sales force and that the sales force would then project quantities that would give us a baseline for the expectation for that book. Later, once all the projections were in, those numbers would help the publisher determine the print run for the book. (Please note that these are not hard orders. Bookstores return a lot of books.)


So a publishing house’s additional responsibility to its authors is to pony up for marketing and publicity to make sure that books land well in the marketplace. When a book is “working,” that means it’s selling, and that a publishing house won’t anticipate a ton of returns. This whole machine that’s pushing books out behind the scenes is a massive invisible conveyer belt—with reps selling to buyers and buyers placing orders (that they know they can return) and publishing companies covering those orders and doing everything they can to try to get a ton of publicity in that first three-month window (including the race for traditional reviews), when a book can be made or broken. In short, traditional publishing is a gamble, and it doesn’t function without traditional distribution. And it’s also an insider’s game more than I even knew, despite my 14 years in the industry.


Now I want to segue into SELF-PUBLISHING, to explore what self-publishing really is. Self-publishing, to a certain obvious extent, simply means that the author puts up the money to cover the cost of publishing his or her own book. But it’s not nearly that simple. The Wikipedia definition is more accurate. To revisit, self-publishing is “the publication of any book or other media by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher.”


Therefore, self-publishing is simply publishing without a publisher. However, in order to self-publish well, an author must become their own publisher. Guy Kawasaki writes about this in his book, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. Once you decide to self-publish, you are not just the author of your book; you are the publisher. So most self-published authors, if they’re doing it right, will create an imprint and hire top-notch editors, designers, and marketing people to help ensure that their book actually has a shot at being successful.


Self-published authors who are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing truly are entrepreneurs. They have to be. This is tough work, and because there’s no established publishing company behind them, they must double down on their efforts to market and publicize their work.


Self-published authors are limited by their lack of distribution. Although CreateSpace and other companies are starting to roll out what they call “extended distribution,” this only means that your book has the possibility of getting into bookstores. It does not mean that there’s anyone working on your behalf, getting your book in front of buyers or selling your book to major accounts.

Self-published authors will also suffer where metadata is concerned because there is no cohesion within publishing if you don’t have a distributor. (Read more about metadata here.) You cannot get your book sold into special accounts unless you have a distributor. A self-published author cannot go to an airport bookstore or to Costco and try to sell their book. These major companies simply will not deal with self-published authors. Also, you will see if you’re self-published that Amazon has a sticky little habit of saying that there’s almost no stock of your book, even if you’ve set your book to be published as print on demand, which is supposed to mean that your books will be fulfilled as the orders come in.  Amazon will not hold inventory on most self-published books, so they do you this annoying disservice of showcasing how long it will take your customer to get their books. Not fun.

SO … finally, we move to EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN. Many authors do not want to be entrepreneurs. And for good reason. If you’re not a good business person, or if you already have a thriving business and the last thing you want to do is start your own publishing company, why should you? Many smart people have seized the opportunity to cater to these authors who want a solution to their need by creating one-stop shops. Us included. But there are many kinds of shops, and not all are created equal. Here’s a quick rundown of some of these companies, and then finally a wrap-up with a little rundown on what makes She Writes Press unique.


Author Solutions. This company, whose imprints include iUniverse, Xlibris, Author House, but also Balboa Press (Hay House’s self-publishing division); Westbow Press (Thomas Nelson’s self-publishing division); Archway (Hay House’s self-publishing division); and Abbot Press (Writer’s Digest’s self-publishing division) probably has the worst reputation of all of the alternative publishing models. The reason for this is pretty simple. They have a very aggressive outreach strategy and bring a lot of authors in the door. They spend a lot of advertising dollars and are partnered with some pretty heavy hitters (as you can see from the list above). But they are not interested in your book as your baby, as a work of art that deserves special and individual care. They are a mill, and they are huge. If you understand what you are doing and can advocate for yourself, then you might have a decent experience with them, but for those authors who don’t know what they’re doing (and most don’t), their model seems to focus on taking advantage of authors by offering them services they don’t really need.


CreateSpace. I wrote an entire post about CreateSpace a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into depth here. But suffice it to say that CreateSpace is a printer! They have a la carte editorial and production services, but they are not a publisher. If you are self-publishing, per the definition above, CreateSpace is one option—alongside Lulu and Lightning Source.


Lucky Bat Books. This company has been praised by a lot of authors for their model. They basically charge everything out a la carte, and at competitive rates. You keep 100% of your proceeds on the tail end if you publish on their imprint. You can also use their sister company to publish on your own imprint.


Turning Stone Press. Owned and operated by Red Wheel Weiser, this company calls itself a “publishing collaboration between Conari Press (a division of Red Wheel/Weiser, llc) and Hampton Roads.” I admire the fact that Conari and Hampton Roads decided to create a self-publishing arm and did not outsource it to Author Solutions. They also feel more like a real press because they have a mission and a vision and they specify the kinds of books they publish (spiritual memoir or autobiography, spiritual or metaphysical novels, and spiritual self-help books). They’re a boutique publishing option, and their prices reflect that.


Booklocker. Another popular company among people who follow these alternative models, Booklocker has reasonable prices and they offer a whole range of solutions for authors—from what they call an “at-your-service program” and a DIY program. I admire their transparency and the fact that their team has deep roots in publishing. The author's royalty is 35% of cover price when books are sold through their own site, and 15% when books are sold through other online retailers. My only objection to these numbers is that they’re not much better than traditional publishing. So their upfront costs are low, but what they keep on the back end is pretty high.


She Writes Press. We’re calling ourselves A THIRD WAY for a reason. All of these alternative options I’ve listed have different and creative models to be sure—some of which I admire and others I don’t. But here’s the combination that makes She Writes Press totally different.


•  Vetting

• Traditional Distribution

• Community


Some of the above-listed companies do vet their books, but at She Writes Press the vetting process is rigorous. I apply the same standard of vetting our books as I held at Seal Press. Very few submissions have qualified for Track 1 right off the bat. And if and when an author is assigned a Track 2 or Track 3, we have editors who are working with those authors to make sure their work is publishable. Vetting is a critical aspect of what we do, and I believe that any work that’s vetted cannot be called vanity publishing. Someone on some online site said that She Writes Press will not be able to afford to adhere to such a strict vetting process, but that person is wrong. We do not care whether we publish five books a year or fifty, the vetting is a cornerstone of what makes our model so viable.


Traditional Distribution
This one is big, and I’m only beginning to realize just how big. A lot of companies’ sites talk about using Ingram as their distributors, but it’s important to understand the distinction between Ingram the wholesaler, and IPS, Ingram Publisher Services. Any self-publishing company that has ten titles or more in print can set up an account with Ingram the wholesaler. Ingram wholesale offers a lot of good services and help push the books out into the marketplace. But this does not give you access to a sales force, or the machine of traditional distribution that I talked about above. Ingram wholesale does not have reps working on behalf of your books or managing your metadata. She Writes Press is an IPS client, and the fee we take—the 30% of print and 20% of ebooks, leaving the author royalty at 70%/80%—is primarily us passing the distribution fee from IPS onto our authors. We have traditional distribution because we have proven that the quality of our books is on par with traditional publishing houses. We are not publishing anything that’s not ready to be published. Our covers are strong. We have good marketing campaigns. We have a proven sales track. For all these reasons, we got traditional distribution. Finally, through Ingram our books will get into libraries, we have library lending, and our books will not show up on Amazon with a notice that there are only one or two copies in available, or that the title will take 2-3 weeks to print. We have relationships with the major accounts and a team in our corner to troubleshoot all of the many many many data issues that need to get resolved over the lifespan of a book. Yay!


I knew going into this partnership with Kamy Wicoff that She Writes was an amazing and supportive place for women writers, but now that we’ve published 23 books with another nearly 20 in the pipeline, I’ve witnessed for myself the power of women supporting women. She Writes itself is a community, one SWP can leverage and with whom we can engage. And the authors themselves are a community, helping one another to understand the ins and outs of the publishing process and to maximize their efforts and goals. Already we’ve had authors collaborating to create speaking and reading opportunities, and authors teaching one another effective marketing strategies. One of the things I’ve often heard from self-published authors is that it’s lonely. Well, at She Writes Press it is not. The authors know each other and we engage in forums and on webinars. Many of them have met in person, of their own accord. This is something that will only continue to grow as our list of published authors continues to expand.

Being a THIRD WAY to me means that we are settled between traditional and self-publishing. We don’t aspire to be either, and we want to set ourselves apart from both for important reasons. We strive to be like a traditional publisher in the sense that we insist on excellence and we want to compete with the best of them, but we are also transparent about our model. We are author-subsidized and we’re proud. We are eroding the stigma by changing the conversation and making authors aware of their options. Our authors aren’t only publishing with us because they couldn’t publish elsewhere. (See Kamy’s great post last week about why she turned down a traditi...) Our authors are publishing with us because they’re savvy. They understand the power of publishing with an established brand. They want to seize the opportunities inherent in our model. And they want support, hand-holding, and a team that believes in their project. And our author royalties are 70% on print and 80% on ebooks, so they also are investing in themselves and are keeping the majority stake in their projects. 


*Our awesome video was created for our sales conference (this week in Nashville!) by High Impact.


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Comment by Brooke Warner on March 24, 2014 at 3:47pm

I'm glad you found the post, Caitlin!

Comment by Caitlin Steeves on March 24, 2014 at 10:40am

I am completely new to ALL of this and appreciate being able to so easily browse this information for answers to daunting questions!  Starting out is SCARY - I'm so glad to have access to a wide network of passionate women writers.

Comment by S.C. Rhyne on November 23, 2013 at 3:03pm

Awesome to see SheWrite coming up in the publishing world!

Comment by Carol Hogan on November 22, 2013 at 1:45pm

Beyond all the obvious advantages of SWP publishing, it's made up of a real sisterhood of generous authors who encourage one another rather than discourage. That alone makes me want to use SWP. I can hardly wait until my turn comes up.

On question. It may be that I've missed this information in the past, but are there guidelines for how to submit to SWP? 

Comment by Brooke Warner on November 22, 2013 at 11:57am

@Kathleen. I couldn't agree more!!

Comment by Emma D Dryden on November 22, 2013 at 11:56am

There are a terrific number of publishing options for authors right now -- it's exciting to see so many!  And hybrid publishing is another way to go, if the right team can be put into place. Here's a recent post I did about a hybrid publishing project that's a great example of what authors and illustrators are trying:

Comment by Betsy Teutsch on November 21, 2013 at 1:55pm

As someone who has been a self-employed artist for most of my career, and am now  writing an exciting book ( - I really appreciate what it means to own my own material and partner with SWP.  I co-authored a book earlier in my career for a modest royalty, mostly a labor of love.  The press churned it out, and then it disappeared into the netherworld of backlist.  Every time they reissued it, it was more expensive.  I was proud of it, but not motivated to promote it, because my co-author and I split a grand total of $2.50, @ $1.25, when a book sold.  Then the press was sold, and while the new press kept it in print, it is so expensive it is embarrassing.  So hurrah for THE THIRD WAY!  Reward authors - who is more invested in the success of our babies than we are, after all?  Having control over your product - your book -  is a huge breakthrough, and a way of authors investing in themselves.

Comment by Kelley Clink on November 21, 2013 at 1:42pm

Great post Brooke! As traditional publishing has all but closed to new writers, it's so important to know our options. I am so grateful that you guys are pioneering this new model!

Comment by Risa Nye on November 21, 2013 at 12:36pm

Wonderful article, Brooke. Clearly spells out the options and a lot of insider's perspective. Hope things went well in Nashville.

Comment by Kathleen Dexter on November 21, 2013 at 12:07pm

"A couple of weeks ago I got into a heated discussion with a reporter who, even after I explained the She Writes Press model, insisted that we would be included in her round-up of “vanity publishers.” "

It just amazes me that the term "vanity" is still being applied to authors when similar efforts by artists, musicians and filmmakers don't get the same label.  I wrote about the Myth of the Vanity Press last summer and how this prejudice needs to die out, not just among publishers and reviewers but among indie authors as well.

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