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Book-Publishing Terms in Turmoil

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Book-Publishing Terms in Turmoil

by Dan Poynter

Writers are confused, and it’s not their fault. In searching for the best way to break into print, they come across self-described “self-publishing companies.” I get emails asking if I can self-publish for writers. That is impossible—by definition.

The problem is that many POD vanity publishers are calling themselves “self-publishing companies.” They are trading on self-publishing’s good name to make their companies appear familiar and legitimate.

To help you tell the difference, here are some definitions.

Publisher: The person or company that puts up the money and manages all the steps in the publishing process from the idea stage through the stage that reaches readers.

Vanity publisher (also known as subsidy publisher): A company organized to sell book production services (and other services) to authors.

Conventional publisher: A company that produces books sells them to the public, usually through wholesalers and bookstores, paying each author an advance and royalties for the right to produce and sell the book in specified formats and markets.

Self-publisher: Someone who writes, publishes, and promotes his or her own books.

Self-publishing has become so well recognized and legitimate that the stigma once attached to publishing your own work has nearly disappeared. Now that people know what self-publishing is, though, we find we have to reeducate the public, to make people understand that the dot-com POD digital publishers are really just vanity publishers masquerading as self-publishers. They are trading on the good reputation genuine self-publishers have built.

Many of the dot-com vanity publishers help people produce their books for a few hundred dollars. The low cost of entry attracts literary talent from the bottom of the barrel. With so little to invest, many POD authors don’t verify their research and don’t invest in editors, typesetters, book designers, or cover artists. Both authors and publishers of poor-quality vanity-published books give all book publishing a bad name.

Meanwhile, there are many digital printing companies that offer excellent prices, service, and quality. They should call themselves book printers.

Let’s respect historical and common definitions. We can protect the newcomers to book publishing by helping them understand the difference between conventional publishers, self-publishers, book printers, and the vanity/subsidy publishers—regardless of their self-descriptions.

Dan Poynter, author of The Self-Publishing Manual, has written more than 100 books since 1969. A past vice-president of PMA, he offers information on book publishing and promoting at ParaPub.com, including information on the choices for breaking into print (see the free Information Kit #2 on Publishing at






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