Contribution Based Publishers

Contribution-Based Publishers: What You Need To Know

After months of querying your manuscript to literary agents and publishers, you finally get what looks like an acceptance letter. Excited, you read it. They say lots of nice things about how much they enjoyed your book, and then they offer you a “Contribution-based” publishing contract. You’re overwhelmed by the prospect. “At last!” You think to yourself. “A publishing contract…wait…what does contribution-based mean?” 
Self-publishing is generally the route that all indie-authors will generally take, and there are a lot more options available now than there used to be. Publishing straight to eBook format is a great no-fuss, no-muss way to put out a novel. If you’re good with computers, and you don’t have to pay for an illustrator, you can practically do everything on your own with very little start-up cost. Of course, the digital age still can’t compete with the feeling of holding a physical printed copy of your book in your own hands. There’s a certain prestige in that. No one is going to ask you to autograph their Kindle, or iPad, right? 
Creating a printed book through self-publishing is not overly difficult, but what do you do once you’ve got the finished product in your hands? If you’re a first-time author, nobody knows who you are as a writer. Who is going to buy a copy of your book unless they’re a friend or relative? It would take a lot of time, and a lot of legwork to get those copies sold. After all, unless you’re willing to travel great distances, there are only so many bookstores in the area you live. Even fewer that would be willing to have you in for a book-signing. 
If an author wants to get their novel distributed as easily as an eBook, while still getting to have the joy of having a physical book, then “mainstream publishing” is the goal. This is what every author hopes for in the beginning. When I first wrote my picture book, it’s what I hoped for. It didn’t take long for the reality to sink in. The odds of a first-time writer landing a publishing contract are akin to the odds of winning the lottery. 
When I began querying, I got lots of rejections…and by rejections, I mean no responses at all. I was starting to believe that I would never see my work in print when I got a glimmer of hope from a publisher named “Mascot Books”. They said they liked what I had written and wanted to have a discussion over the phone about going through the process of getting it published. 
I was excited, of course, but I’m also very cynical at heart. I learned long ago that if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. My hunch was right when I spoke with them, and they offered me a “contribution-based publishing contract”. This process is also known as “vanity publishing”. Essentially, they provide all the services that a traditional publisher would do, but I would be required to cover all the costs. 
I was a little disheartened that the only way I could get my book out into the world would be for me to pay for it. However, after looking at my options, it seemed like the most appealing one. For the self-publishing route, I knew that I would have to make some sort of financial investment to get my picture book made. The most obvious cost was going to be the printing costs. Also, since I was not an illustrator, I knew it was going to cost me money to hire an artist to do the pictures. Not to mention marketing, distribution, and other little things like that. Taking everything into consideration, the roughly $5000 fee spread out over 4 even payments seemed quite reasonable at the time. In the end, I got what I wanted. A lovely picture book with my name on the cover, and my foot in the door of my writing career. 
Cut to a couple of years later, and I’ve sold maybe a hundred copies. I still continue to write on my own, essays and movie reviews mostly, that I post on my own website. Recently, I decided to switch gears and try my hand at a Middle-Grade novel. As publishers are more inclined to be interested in novels, and the fact that I did have more examples of my writing available, I had a little more confidence with sending queries this time. I had more realistic hopes of getting responses this time around. 
As it turned out, my confidence was a little bit premature. Again, I didn’t receive any responses for a while, until I actually received two back-to-back. One from a publisher named “Olympia Publishers”, and another from “Austin MacCauley”. My excitement soon turned to disappointment after doing a little research and discovering that they are also contribution-based publishers. 
I had no interest in pursuing that method of publication a second time around. Mainly because I was still paying off the debt from the first time. Nonetheless, the discovery of two more publishers offering this method got me thinking about whether one would consider their way of doing business to be a little bit underhanded, or an outright scam. 
While reviewing discussions on internet chat-boards, it seems for a lot of people, that the term “scam” is deemed highly appropriate. As someone who has gone through the process, I’d say that it’s not any more of a scam than going through the traditional route of self-publishing. Both methods require you to completely fund the creation of your book, and there are some advantages of using a contribution-based publisher. 
To self-publish a book, an author can end up needing to pay for services from several different companies. The most obvious expense is a printer, whose services required can vary depending on how computer-savvy an author is, and what they can do themselves in terms of creating a template. Some authors may choose to employ the services of an editor to ensure their manuscript looks as professional as possible. They may, if like me, need to hire a freelance artist to create illustrations for their picture book. Then once they have their book, can they get stores to put it on their shelves? Can you only get independent stores to sell it, or can you get the big chains? 
Obviously, getting all this done yourself requires a lot of work, and requires coordinating with multiple businesses. It’s in this manner that Contribution Based Publishers can be beneficial. My experience with them is that they do everything that a mainstream publisher does, except cover the financial costs. They provided a full editing service, handled all the details with the book printers, created an eBook, worked out a deal with an illustrator of my choosing, and took care of a press release and provided some marketing services. I can honestly say that if I had tried to do everything independently, my book would not have turned out as good as it did. 
My book would also have not gotten out into the retail market as much as it has. Because the publisher I used manages my unsold books through a mainstream distributor, bookstore chains can order them just as they would with the rest of their inventory. My book is available on websites other than just Amazon, but Barnes & Noble, Indigo/Chapters (Canadian chain), and numerous others as well. When I do book signings at these chain stores, I do not have to sell on consignment. Then after the signing is over, the stores will keep some of the books on the shelves for a little while after. None of that happens when you publish fully independently. 
So if you ask me if I think contribution-based publishers are scammers, I will say “No”. I was not scammed out of anything, I got exactly what I paid for. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful. You should be fully aware that these publishers are also essentially salesmen, and what they are selling you is their publishing service. Some of these “Vanity Publishers” will make claims that they do sometimes offer traditional publishing contracts. Of course, I have no way of knowing if that is actually true, or if it is just something they say to appear more like a mainstream publisher. The reality of it is that you are paying them. YOU are really the ones doing THEM the favour. 
These publishers do have a formal submission process, and it’s possible that they really do take the time to read and evaluate every manuscript they receive, but I can’t imagine there has ever been a time when they actually turned somebody down. I mean really, why would they? Unless a book involved a subject so hideously offensive or controversial like something titled “How to Be a Perfect ISIS Bride”, what reason would they have to tell an author to not pay thousands of dollars to them? 
While authors are required to pay them a percentage of all mainstream book sales (about 15% - far less than traditional publishers take) the publication fees they charge upfront are going to be their main sources of profit. As such, be prepared for a lot of upselling from them. They offer lots of add-on services like creating posters, and other promotional materials. I didn’t go for that one because I knew enough about using design programs to create my own. They will give you the option of paying for an eBook. I did choose to do this, but in retrospect, I could have gotten that part done on my own as they did provide a digital template for me to approve before it was sent to the printer. 
They will also try to get you to order as many copies of your book from the printer. Be careful not to order more than you will need. The cost per book is drops as the number you order increases, but you are paying more overall for books you have no guarantee of selling. I chose to just go with the minimum permitted order of 500 copies. If you’re a first-time author, and you manage to sell 500 copies so quickly that you run out of inventory before you can order more, then you are probably the first author in history to accomplish that. 
Just as a little P.S. to this in regards to my experience. They did still try to get me to spend more money after my books were printed. I was told that the printing press takes a while to shut down. As such, there was an incidental printing of 80 additional copies of my book after the original order of 500 was completed. They said I could buy them at a reduced 40% off price if I wanted. If I chose not to, they told me the extra books would just be shredded and disposed of. 
I didn’t go for this sales pitch because I wasn’t going to pay extra for more books when I didn’t know if they would sell. Happily, I ended up turning the tables on them with this one. I told them I wasn’t going to buy them; but I suggested that instead of wasting them, they could donate them to libraries or some sort of book-related charity. They quickly emailed me back to say that I can keep the extra copies at no cost. 
In the end, I don’t regret my decision to publish the way I did. I ended up with a great-looking picture book out in the legitimate literary market, and gained a little bit of credibility in my writing career. My only reason for not continuing has been financial. I never thought that the expense was astronomical, but just out of reach for someone of my limited means. 
So in conclusion, contribution-based publishers are not scammers. They merely offer the service of simplifying the process of independent publishing. It’s clearly not the best route for everyone. Every author needs to evaluate what their individual needs are, and decide if the benefits are worth the costs.


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