What is the Definition of Publisher? Knowing this answer will protect you!

There has been a redefining of the word "Publisher" in recent years. So what does the word publisher mean to you?

In the last thirty days I've had the word used in conversations with completely varying definitions. Here's a sample and why the words stirs so much confusion.

Conversation & Definition #1

Author: "I just 'published' my book and now I want to see if you can find me a publisher." 
Me: "I'm sorry, I'm confused. If you just published your book, why do you need a publisher?

(Translation: she had printed it and now wanted someone to help her distribute it. Unfortunately it didn't have an ISBN, a barcode or any of the necessary components to allow her to even get it up on Amazon.)

Conversation & Definition #2

Author: My "publisher" got my book done in four weeks and it is now available "everywhere."

(Translation: The term "publisher" here would be better termed Vanity Press" as a true publisher doesn't turn out a book in four - eight weeks (UNLESS it was due to a national breaking news event which necessitates a breaking of all the rules.) Most publishers work 12-24 months ahead. And the term "everywhere" more often than not means it is available online via Ingram's computer system, but not on the shelves of most bookstores.

Conversation & Definition #3

"I'm looking for a 'publisher' can anyone help me?"

This is a complicated question since the previous two questions above reveal that the definition for "publisher" is not always equal. This was evident in a brief communication exchange I observed on a social media site for authors recently. The initial post was by a newbie author who had just finished writing her first children's book. She requested assistance with how to find a publisher. The conversation that ensued was Typical. Sad. Revealing.

Within minutes she had several "publishers" who had entered the conversation offering their services. They would be more than happy to publish her book. And there was the first red flag. Sight unseen these "publishers" wanted to publish for her. That immediately defines their motives. These type publishers are offering a package in which they have no risk and no financial commitment. Otherwise they would not accept your manuscript sight unseen. It is an acceptance obviously not based on writing skill or content. This is a vanity press and they make money when they send your book to press. They don't have to sell a single book to make a profit and don't really care if you do. They just want your business and your book.

Unfortunately although there were around forty posts of well-meaning writers who entered the conversation, none who had engaged a vanity press publisher was open to dialogue from other writers to define the word publisher.

It was clear that the prestige they felt from the ability to say they had a "publisher" overrode the obvious truth that they really didn't.

I sat back and watched as the posts accumulated and completely understood the dilemma, especially for a new author. When the same word is defined several different ways, confusion is unavoidable.

So what is the true definition of the word publisher and why does it matter that you understand the definition? Because it will protect you.

The traditional definition of the word is as follows:

Publisher - A person or business that produces and distributes something, such as a book or magazine, in printed or electronic form.

A "true" publisher, at least in the traditional sense of the word, has typically paid an advance for the contracting of a manuscript. And while that isn't 100% true in today's marketplace, they do pay for the cover, ISBN, copyright, and a final edit on the manuscript prior to publication. With their financial commitment, they also have final say on the title, cover and content. Most still give insight and advice into the manuscript to some extent, although this is becoming less common unfortunately. Some require a minimum author purchase to help offset their risk. This is not necessarily the same as a vanity press, but it's getting close. It's all a matter of if they have any skin in the game.

The newer definition for the word publisher, which is tossed around with abandon on social media sites and writer's groups, refers to a company or individual offering to publish based on the package you purchase.

Note in this scenario you only get what you pay for. You pay for the cover, ISBN, copyright, marketing and any edit. You also get to decide your title. A privilege many new authors relish, but with little knowledge of the industry, this more than likely will come back to haunt you in the end.

You expect your "publisher" will give insight and overview of the manuscript, but I have rarely seen that happen with these type commitments. They call themselves publishers, but I call them printers or vanity presses with the ability to throw your book into the "system" so that it can be found if someone wants to order it from a bookstore.

Beware of the slight twist on this scenario from the "publisher" who says they have reviewed your book and have decided to accept it. It will cost you nothing, except you do have to purchase a $3000-$4000 publicity package.  I've yet to see anything substantial come from those "publicity" packages, but you have just paid them for the work they will do for your cover and ISBN. You may or may not get a final edit. Again, you will get what you pay for. 

I want to be cautious and share that there is a place for this type publisher that can produce a quality book. Not all do. But as long as you understand clearly what you will and won't receive with no false pretense, then it can be a good relationship.

As you enter the relationship with this type definition for the work publisher note:

  1. You will only get the input you pay for and nothing else.
  2. Your book won't end up on a single bookstore shelf.
  3. They will not spend a single marketing dollar on your book.

If your goal is to have a finished book in hand for your own use and you have no false expectation of publisher performance, then it in no way diminishes your achievement to finish your book.

 So how can you navigate these waters successfully in the world of publishing? Here are 3 important tips:

1. Learn to ask the right questions.

Questions such as:

  • Have you read my manuscript?
  • Will you be performing a final edit on the manuscript?
  • What if my book needs more than a copy edit? (They should tell you because they read it and recommend that the book receive the higher level of edit...and then get some quotes.)
  • Has the title been well-received by industry buyers? 
  • How many versions of the cover will be created for review?
  • What royalties do they offer and how often do they provide reports?
  • Who has final say in the title and cover? 
  • What is the average monthly sales for an average book. (This is a rather loaded question, but it can be answered. The thing is you don't want them to just share with you the numbers for their very best book. You need a realistic expectation of how most of their books perform.
  • What is their marketing investment and plan for the book?

2. Read the contract carefully.

There are certain things you don't want to give away.

  • The copyright should always be in your name. 
  • If the publisher no longer promotes, markets or makes your book available to the general public, the book should be returned to your ownership. 
  • Royalty reports should be issued quarterly. 
  • If they do not produce the book within twelve months or less, the book returns to you...along with any monies you have paid the company.

3. Be the squeaky wheel.

In the case of a vanity press "publisher" once the contract is signed and they have your money, be sure that you don't lose their attention. The fast moving, attentive editor that seemed to be your best friend may not call you as often or respond as quickly to your emails now that you have been hooked.

Whether you have a traditional publisher or vanity press publisher, don't be afraid to ask questions about deadlines, the process and the status of your manuscript as often as you need for clarity. If you have been promised the book to meet a deadline with a speaking engagement or conference, then be sure to stay involved in this process AND to get the manuscript back to the publisher quickly when it has been returned to you to proof or give input.

Because it is a money-maker, most publishers provide a self-publishing arm for their houses. 
Crossbooks, the self-publishing arm for B & H Publishers is closing the door to this branch. Westbow is the self-publishing imprint for Thomas Nelson, Creation House for Charisma and the list goes on. Spend some time getting an education in the industry before you sign and pay exorbitant prices beyond industry standards. Please don't assume that because you self-publish with a traditional publisher that you will be treated like a traditional author. You won't. You are setting yourself up for pain.

An author approached me recently with her manuscript which was already under contract with the self-publishing arm of a well-known traditional publisher. Because of their recognized and trusted name in the industry, the author assumed that her manuscript would receive the same quality and attention when on their self-publishing imprint. She also assumed she would benefit from the expertise of the editors and designers assigned to her book and that they would readily provide advice and insight to make her book the best it could be. Unfortunately, this not necessarily so. It's all about the contract.

Remember in these scenarios, as opposed to the traditional publisher, the contract says you are a self-published author. Their willingness to assist you is only based on the size of the package you purchase. They are in it to make a profit. So if your package was minimal. That is what you will receive, minimal help. That means you very well could be publishing a book full of grammatical errors, a poor title and horrible cover under their imprint and they will not step in with the helpful recommendation to make any changes. Why?  Because you didn't sign up for that package to receive that knowledge. Sad but true.

The author who approached me recently had already contracted her book with a self-publisher and so there wasn't much I could do to assist her. She asked for the recommendation for an editor and what it would cost to have her book edited. I learned later the quote she received from her "publisher" was three to four times higher than industry standards for the most basic of edits.

The moral to the story? She didn't know what industry standards were and so "trusted" that her publisher had her back. They didn't. It was a self-published book. The publisher had no skin in the game and her contract would only afford her the knowledge she paid for.

So know the definition of publisher and find out which type you have engaged to avoid heartache and headache.

And finally, what are the words you should never hear from your publisher? "We don't work with literary agents." This is self-explanatory. That really says it all. 

Karen Hardin - Literary Agent and Marketing Guru
PriorityPR Group & Literary Agency