Three Different Types of Publishing Compared: Traditional, Vanity, and Self-Publishing

Publishing has never been easier, but with so many options – traditional publishing houses, vanity publishing, and self-publishing companies – making an informed decision is nothing close to simple. For a long while, authors have done nothing but what they do best – write – and the publishing house handled the whole process. 

This article will review the working models of all these options to explore similarities and differences to help authors understand them better. 

Vanity book printing has been the silent companion of traditional publishers. Self-publishing a book has changed the game for authors who now handle publishing and retain most royalties. Book aggregators such as PublishDrive offer a streamlined process that gets a book from manuscript to published book in just a few clicks.

But let's explore them in detail: 

What Is a Publishing House?

A publishing house facilitates the process of making written material available to the public. This includes books, magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and other types of written content. 

Publishers act as an intermediary between authors and readers, ensuring the work reaches its intended audience in the best possible format.

What does a publishing company do?

Publishers act as the bridge between authors and readers. They use their expertise to transform a raw manuscript into a polished book and ensure it reaches its intended audience most effectively.

Some publishing houses specialize in certain genres or types of content, such as academic books, children's literature, or science fiction. These publishers have a deep understanding of their market and tailor their processes to meet the specific needs of their audience.

Essentially, this is how the process of publishing unfolds in a traditional publishing house:

  • Selection of manuscripts: Publishers often have a team of acquisition editors who review submitted manuscripts to identify potentially profitable ones that fit within the company's focus. They might also scout for promising authors or work on commissioning specific works.
  • Editing: Once a manuscript is selected, it undergoes several rounds of editing. This may include plot development editing to improve the story structure, copyediting to correct grammar and style, and proofreading to catch any final errors.
  • Design: The publishing house is responsible for the book's overall aesthetic appeal. This includes arranging the interior layout and typography, as well as creating an engaging cover design. They often have in-house designers or hire freelancers for this purpose.
  • Printing: Depending on the scale and resources of the publishing house, they either have their own printing facilities or outsource this task to a printing company. They ensure the physical book is of high quality and reflects the publisher's brand.
  • Marketing: The marketing department in a publishing house works to promote the book, aiming to generate buzz before and after its release. This can involve organizing book tours, sending copies to reviewers, posting on social media, and coordinating with the author for promotional activities.
  • Distribution: Once the book is printed and ready, it needs to reach readers. Publishers often have relationships with booksellers and distributors to ensure the book is available in physical and online stores. They may also handle direct sales through their own website.
  • Legal affairs: Publishers handle the registration of copyrights to protect the author's work. They may also negotiate contracts for translations, adaptations, or other derivative works.

Publishing houses acquire the rights to your book, concepts, and other elements as stipulated in your contract. In return, you receive a percentage of the earnings.

How to work with a publishing house?

Begin by crafting your manuscript.  If you're a newcomer or an unrecognized writer, it's usually necessary to have a completed manuscript before initiating the querying process. 

Once you've established a successful track record and created a readership around your work, you'll likely be able to sell books based simply on a pitch and an initial chapter.

1. Identify your genre and category

The publishing industry experiences regular cycles, with certain genres, themes, and topics growing in popularity. Publishers aim to release books that align with current trends and have high sales potential. Some genres, such as lengthy books, memoirs, and collections of short stories, can be more challenging to pitch to publishers. However, if you're patient with the market dynamics, almost every genre will have its moment.

Be mindful that different genres also come with suggested word counts – romance novels generally range from 70,000 to 100,000 words, while fantasy novels are longer. Books targeting younger readers are usually shorter. Word count is just one of the industry standards to consider when aiming for traditional publishing.

2. Get your submission materials ready:

  • Cover letter: A formal introduction to the publisher, highlighting the author's intentions and the book's unique selling points.
  • Author information: A brief bio of the author showcasing their expertise, qualifications, and any previous publishing experience.
  • One-page overview: A concise summary of the book's main ideas and themes, allowing the publisher to grasp its essence quickly.
  • Chapter-by-chapter outline: A comprehensive breakdown of the book's structure, providing an overview of each chapter's content and objectives.
  • Marketing information: A detailed analysis of the target audience, potential sales channels, and promotional strategies, demonstrating the book's marketability.
  • Competitive books: A detailed analysis (you can use tools like IndexBox Market Intelligence Platform) of the target audience, potential sales channels, and promotional strategies is essential for demonstrating the book's marketability.
  • Sample chapters: A selection of completed chapters that exemplify the author's writing style, the book's tone, and overall quality.

3. Find an agent to represent you

The process generally starts with you, as the author, securing a literary agent who then presents your manuscript to various publishing houses. 

If a publishing house finds your manuscript or its concept appealing, they may decide to buy the rights to your book. This agreement usually includes an advance payment and an agreed-upon royalty rate. The deal could extend to multiple books if they foresee significant potential in your work.

Choosing to work without an agent is certainly an option, but bear in mind that many publishers prioritize submissions received through literary agents. While you can directly approach publishing houses, the probability of your manuscript ending up in the slush pile is quite high. This is because publishing houses often receive an overwhelming number of submissions and prioritize those coming from known and trusted sources, such as established literary agents. 

In addition to individually reaching out to agents, consider using these platforms such as:

Prepare yourself for a potentially long wait for responses. Should you receive any offers, ensure to evaluate them thoroughly. If an agent expresses interest in your work, it's equally important that you feel confident in their abilities. While it's true that you may not have the luxury of being overly selective, it's advisable to have vetted the suitability of the agent before submission. However, you should still conduct additional research before committing to a contractual agreement.

Whom to target? The Big Five vs. niche publishing

While the allure of the "Big Five" of the publishing world – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster – is undeniable, authors might find more success in seeking out niche publishers. These powerhouses of publishing dominate the market with vast resources, but they may not necessarily be the best fit for every author. 

Niche publishers often focus on specific genres or topics, offering specialized knowledge, tailored marketing strategies, and closer author-publisher relationships. They can provide more personalized attention, helping authors to connect more effectively with their target audience. They may be more willing to take risks on unique or unconventional work that may not fit the mainstream topics preferred by the Big Five. 

Additionally, looking for publishing houses that accept submissions from authors (agented or not) is a better way to get your manuscript read.

Here are some lists that we have compiled for authors:

If this process seems too long and with too many variables out of your control, here are two other publishing options: vanity press and self-publish a book.

What Is Vanity Publishing?

Vanity publishing, also known as pay-to-publish, is a publishing model where authors pay to have their work published. Unlike traditional publishing, where the publisher bears the cost and risk of publication in return for a share of profits, in vanity publishing, the author takes on the financial risk. 

How does it work? Vanity Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

In traditional publishing, authors are not required to pay the publisher at any stage. This is because traditional publishers function as book manufacturers rather than service providers. They purchase the rights to produce and sell an author's work, assuming the financial risks associated with publishing.

Vanity presses operate differently. Their selectivity towards books to publish is typically low, as their primary concern isn't the book's quality or its potential appeal to readers. Instead, their revenue is generated from authors who desire to see their work in print.

Vanity publishers often charge authors for production expenses, such as editing and design costs. These fees are often shrouded in mystery, making it unclear whether they are consistent with industry norms. A vanity press might claim the author is only covering a small portion of the total costs, but in reality, the author may be paying significantly more. Moreover, even after these payments, a vanity publisher tends to retain a large portion of any sales made, similar to traditional publishers.

In a nutshell:

What’s in it for authors? 

Authors have little gain when it comes to vanity publishers. It’s vital to understand what a vanity publishing company is for authors to make informed decisions about their work's publication. Here are some things you should look out for:

  1. Upfront costs: In a vanity publishing model, the author bears the cost of publishing. This is a clear departure from traditional publishing, where the publishing house invests in the book.
  2. Subpar services: Despite charging authors for services such as editing and design, vanity publishers often provide substandard services. They may resort to using inexperienced workers and premade templates, compromising the quality of the final product.
  3. Profit regardless of sales: Vanity publishers profit from the services they sell to authors, not the books themselves. Therefore, even if a book does not sell well, the vanity publisher still profits. This can lead to a lack of interest in current market trends and editorial quality.
  4. Lack of success: Books published by vanity publishers often do not make it onto bestseller lists, and many lack significant customer reviews. Most often, they do not reach a wide readership.
  5. Misleading distribution claims: Although vanity publishers often promise distribution to major bookstores, they typically lack the connections and reputation to fulfill this promise. Instead, they may list books on distribution services, which does not guarantee actual orders.
  6. Potential legal issues: Vanity publishers may take advantage of authors who lack literary agents or are unaware of legal complexities. They might include terms in the contract that grant them exclusive rights to publish, reprint, and even sell future edition rights, effectively locking authors out of their own creation's future profits.

While vanity presses often have a negative reputation due to their business model, authors sometimes see advantages in publishing with them. Some of these advantages typically include the following:

  1. Quick & guaranteed publication: Traditional publishing houses can take a long time to get a book to market due to their rigorous selection, editing, and marketing process. A vanity press will ensure the work gets printed and bound into a book quickly
  2. Control over the process: Vanity presses often allow the author to maintain a high degree of control over the book's content, design, and overall presentation. As opposed to traditional publishing, where many of these decisions are made by the publisher.
  3. Printing options: Vanity presses may offer a variety of print options, including hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. Some even offer print-on-demand services, which can reduce upfront costs and prevent the problem of unsold stock.

If you, too, are an author who traditional publishing houses have rejected, if your genre does not coincide with the marketing hype, if you too have found yourself scrolling the vanity publishers list, but have found them unreliable, perhaps you should look into how to become a self-published author.

What Is Self-Publishing?

Self-publishing your book is a method of publishing where authors independently manage and finance the entire publishing process, from writing and editing to designing, formatting, marketing, and distributing their work. They may opt to do things independently and at their own pace or work with a book aggregator for streamlined processes and a perfect network of partners to ensure discoverability, increase readership and reach the expected royalties.

Which is better for authors? Self-publish vs. Vanity Press

It's worth noting that while both self-publishing and vanity publishing bypass traditional publishing houses, they offer very different experiences and potential outcomes for authors.

What are the main self-publishing platforms?

A self-publishing platform is a digital service or tool that allows authors and publishers to create, format, and distribute ebooks and audiobooks to various online retailers and ebook stores. These platforms enable writers to reach their target audience without relying on traditional publishing houses.

  • Amazon KDP: is probably the best-known self-publishing platform in the world. It is user-friendly and perfectly suited to work for new, unpublished authors who need to be guided step-by-step.
  • Apple Books: a direct competition to Barnes and Noble, which is anticipated to overtake over the next few years, Apple Books is also a very user-friendly self-publishing ebook market for Apple device users.
  • Kobo: is an ebook distribution platform catering to readers in Canada and outside the US. With Kobo Plus, it has recently entered the US and UK markets.
  • Google Play: is an ebook distributor that will take advantage of the huge number of Android and Google tablet users in the future, despite the relatively small share of the market it currently holds. 

Self-publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing and self-publishing represent two very different approaches to bringing a book to market. 

With traditional publishing, authors partner with publishing houses that handle all aspects of the book's production and distribution, from editing and design to marketing and sales. The publisher assumes the financial risk and pays the author royalties from the book‘s sales, but the market can be highly competitive, forcing authors to go through all the gatekeepers of the industry and wait for months on end for a response – all these on top of their lack of control over the final product.

Self-publishing grants the author complete control over every step of the process, from writing to marketing. Authors must manage or outsource editing, cover design, formatting, and distribution, which requires a broad skill set and may entail additional costs to ensure a professional result. While this means the potential for higher profit margins, it also places the burden of production costs, time, and marketing efforts on the author's shoulders.

We have discussed in a different article the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, outlining how these two models may be suitable for authors at various stages in their careers. 

What are the steps to self-publishing a book?

If you have wondered how to self-publish, here is how you can publish a book yourself with PublishDrive.

  1. Create a PublishDrive account.
  2. Go to My Books in the Dashboard, and choose to upload a new title – ebook, audiobook, or print.
  3. Fill out the creators' names.
  4. Fill out the book’s metadata and add a relevant description. 
  5. Set the book’s price.
  6. Define your rights and set a publication date. In this step, you can also set pre-orders.
  7. Select the stores. Click Enable on each store you want to distribute your book to.
  8. Click on the Publish button. 
  9. Start collecting revenue. 

Note: After publishing, once authors earn royalties, they will start seeing those payouts after two months (although it could be longer, depending on the reporting and payment cycles of the different stores.) 

There is an array of special services to be discovered and used in the PublishDrive platform, such as print-on-demand, royalty splitting, and the POD cover template generator.

Once you have decided self-publishing is the path forward for you, there is an array of self-publishing guides that help grow your book from idea to marketing success:

PublishDrive offers several partnerships with many book promotion services and several clever tips and tricks to get your book on bestseller lists and help your book shine. 

Here are some you should consider from the start:

If you have ever found yourself Googling "how to self-publish a book," you can now see self-publishing has never been easier with new features and upgrades to better manage your author business.

What next? 

Navigating the publishing world can be a complex task, with each type of publishing – traditional, vanity, and self-publishing – offering unique advantages and challenges.

Traditional publishing provides comprehensive services, but it's highly competitive and grants less control to authors. Vanity publishing may seem an easier path, providing the allure of seeing your work in print, but it often comes with high costs and questionable quality of services.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, offers complete control and higher profit margins. Still, it requires significant effort and know-how from the author, including tasks related to book design, editing, marketing, and distribution.

And if self-publishing suits you best, we would be happy to walk with you.