Pros and Cons of Independent Book Publishing

The previous article in this series talked in greater detail about traditional book publishing---what it is as well as the pros and cons of the approach.

In this article, we'll dive into the second of three main forms of book publishing: independent publishing. 

Independent publishers consist of both hybrid and vanity publishers (sometimes also referred to as indie publishers, small press publishers, or professional publishers). They make up the many publishing houses that are not part of a larger conglomerate and do not operate under a traditional model.

There are a lot of them---so many, in fact, that they make up nearly half the market share of the industry. Many of them operate wonderful businesses with integrity, yet far more do not. It’s therefore important to know what questions to ask and what red flags to be on the lookout for.

Hybrid Publishing

Hybrid publishing is a model whereby an author pays a publishing house to do the publishing legwork---including editing, cover design, interior formatting, and distribution channel setup---while retaining final say over the edits, title, cover design, interior layout, and retail price.

The cost to work with a hybrid publishing house is likely to fall somewhere between $1,500 and $50,000. I consider my publishing house, Finn-Phyllis Press, to be a hybrid publisher. Several of the bigger, more well-known traditional publishing houses offer a hybrid model: Hay House has Balboa Press, and Simon & Schuster has Archway Publishing.

Some publishing houses take no profit off sales, while others take 15% (or more). Some houses pay author royalties every month; others pay them every quarter. Some make it easier than others for authors to order author copies for events or promotion, but almost all of them upcharge when an author does so.

One of the reasons people work with a hybrid publishing house (beyond their experience and know-how when it comes to taking a book through the paces to publication) is to have that house’s imprint on the back cover (the imprint is the name of the publishing house, such as Simon & Schuster).

However, it’s important to note that very few readers pay attention to who published the book, and even the Big Five houses have so many divisions these days that few people recognize any of those divisions as part of a “big house.”

When I began publishing other authors’ books through Finn-Phyllis Press, I put in place the business model that I would’ve loved to have available to me when I started publishing.

We are all about authors being empowered to usher their books into the world as they see fit, not as we see fit. We therefore don’t handcuff our authors to us for the long-term. We upload an author’s book to his or her own KDP (Amazon) account, so when they want to order author copies at their author pricing, change the sales price of the book, or alter their book description, they can do so without having to contact us (and there is no upcharge when they order author copies for events, promotion, or to be stocked by indie bookstores).

We take no percent off the backend of sales, and because the books are loaded into the authors’ KDP account, their royalties are deposited directly into their bank account each month, not ours. Finally, we retain zero rights to our authors’ books. Should our authors ever want to sell the translation rights, audiobook rights, or film/TV rights, they can do so without us having to be in the middle (but we’re of course happy to help with the process if asked!).



Vanity Publishing

Many authors are initially excited to receive an email from a “publishing house” expressing interest in the book they either just published or are about to publish. I’ve had clients say, “I just heard from so-and-so at a publishing house. They saw my social media post about writing a book, and they’re interested!”

Not wanting to completely rain on their parade, I enthusiastically respond, “That’s great! Who is the publisher?” Most often, the author responds with the name of a publishing house I’ve never heard of (which, in and of itself, isn’t at all a red flag). What is a red flag is the fact that they solicited you to hire them to publish your book (and, more than likely, tried to win you over with all kinds of bells and whistles such as marketing assistance and website creation).

This model is referred to as vanity publishing, and it’s my least favorite approach ever, because it’s typically a money grab for the publishing company and an extremely disappointing experience for the author. If a publishing company solicits you to sign an author-financed publishing contract, it is safe to assume that it’s a vanity publishing house.

Vanity publishers function similarly to hybrid publishers in many respects, but more often than not, authors end up extremely disappointed with their services. For one thing, vanity publishers are usually willing to publish absolutely anything by anyone willing to pay them. As a result, they have gobs of clients, sub-par service, and a catalog many authors aren’t proud to be included in. Once your book is published (and they’re finished collecting money from you), they tend to check out.

These publishing houses tend to troll Facebook groups to find new prospects, and then send an email that says, “We’ve seen your book and it’s incredible. We’d love to publish it for you.” In truth, there is little they want to do besides take many thousands of your dollars in exchange for promises they have no intention of making good on. They also typically retain some rights, take a portion of earnings off the backend, and occasionally disappear altogether, making it incredibly difficult to get your IP back from them.

While I’m aware of a number of solid, reputable hybrid/professional publishers, I’m hard-pressed to identify a vanity publisher I’d recommend. They tend to be business focused, not book or author focused, and more often than not, the authors who work with them end up quite disappointed. 


Key Question to Ask If You Are Considering a Hybrid/Vanity/Professional publisher 

  • What is the process for ordering author copies, and is there an upcharge from the wholesale price when I do?
  • If the publisher offers website creation, is that a private website or simply a page on the publisher’s site?
  • Do I have to use an editor from the publishing house? If so, what is the process of editor selection/assignment?
  • What is the expected timeline from finished edits to published book available for purchase?
  • Where is the book uploaded for distribution?
  • Is the book loaded to the publishing house’s account on KDP (or other distribution channels) or the author’s?
  • If the book is listed under the publishing house’s distribution account, what is the process for changing the price of the book post-publication if desired for sales or promotions? Also, what is the process for changing the book description, categories it’s listed under, or keywords?


As with all three publishing approaches discussed throughout this series, there are pros and cons to independent publishing.


Pros of Hybrid Book Publishing

A strong pro of the ethically operating hybrid publishers (when compared to most vanity publishers, which I’ll discuss next) is the fact that they’re typically more selective about what they publish. They don’t accept any and every manuscript that comes across their desk. They are clear about the services they provide to authors while believing in the books they bring to market, and they value partnership with their authors. They do the heavy lifting to ensure that a book is produced professionally while allowing authors more control over time to market and creative assets (cover design, title and subtitle selection, and final edits). They also typically do not proactively solicit authors, claiming to have discovered their book (or the book they are about to publish) and offering to publish it (for a fee). If you receive an email or other correspondence from a publishing house soliciting your business, it’s a huge red flag, in my opinion.


Cons of Hybrid Book Publishing

The cons to hybrid publishing tend to show up only when an author doesn’t know what questions to ask and, therefore, makes incorrect assumptions about how the process with a particular hybrid publisher works when it comes to who controls the KDP account the book is loaded under, whether a percentage of sales is retained by the publisher, how often royalty payouts are made, and what kind of marketing support the author will receive.


Up next: the 9 pros and cons of self-publishing!