A recent trend among some major publishers is creating special imprints where writers pay to get published or asking for a pre-purchase commitment of a minimum number of books. These offers are coming from established companies with a tradition of paying writers an advance as well a royalty, even if it’s a low advance, or in some cases a no-advance offer. But whatever the specifics of the deal, the writer has not had to pay anything or make a purchase commitment.
However, now this pay to play offer has come about because publishing has become much more difficult for what has been traditionally called the “mid-list” book by a relatively unknown author. As a result, so sales have gone down, as have advances. What publishers increasingly want and are willing to pay for with big advances are books by well-known and celebrity authors with a high-profile platform.For example, authors like Hillary Clinton may make millions in advances, plus millions more in sales, while advances for mid-list book authors have commonly shrunk to about a third to a half of what they were. So instead of getting $15,000 to $20,000 for an advance, you may get offered $5000 to $10,000, or even less.
Paying lower and no advances are a matter of market economics and reflect the growing inequality/rich and poor divide throughout society generally. In publishing, too, the very successful high profile authors are getting more – often much more — in today’s celebrity and media driven culture, while other authors are getting less.
At least in low or no-advance scenarios, the writer is simply getting less. But in many instances, publishers are asking writers to be like self-publishers who are paying for their publication by committing to buy a minimum number of books. However, when this publishing is by an imprint of a major house, the publisher still is in control, though the copyright as it has traditionally, remains with the author. The main advantage of this arrangement compared to self-publishing with a company which just prints your book and leaves the marketing up to you is that the imprint is affiliated with the major publisher. So the book is normally distributed through that publisher’s channels, rather than being a print-on-demand or e-book available on your imprint or the imprint of the self-publishing company. Thus, with a pay to play deal with a traditional publisher, you may be more likely to get reviewed and distributed, though you are still paying a hefty amount up front, rather than the publisher paying you – or at least not making you pay for publication.
Commonly, these payment commitments range from about $10,000-50,000, which is a substantial amount – and unless your book sells very well, you are unlikely to make all of that money back or turn a profit. For example, one author was offered a deal from Wiley requiring a commitment for 10,000 books, which would cost at least $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the wholesale purchase price to the author. Three co-authors were initially offered a deal based on buying 3000 books, later negotiated down to 2000 books, at $15 each – a total of $30,000, so even if thought Wiley offered an advance of possibly as much as $5000, the authors would still have to pay $25,000 up front for the books. No wonder they turned down the deal.
A publisher’s rationale for this requirement to pay up front for books is that the publisher expects the author to do programs where they can sell high numbers of books, which will be a win-win for the publisher and writer. But if the writer doesn’t have such a platform, the writer will end up with huge piles of unsold books to be stored away somewhere like a basement or garage. Or maybe the books might make a nice charitable give-away.
Perhaps the main advantage of a pay for books arrangement is getting the credentials and bragging rights of having a book with a major publisher, which might open other doors down the road. But if the book doesn’t sell very well because you aren’t able to do much to support these book sales, this credential might not matter very much in pitching future books to other publishers. In fact, the low sales of a previous book might be a disadvantage in pitching the next book, since major publishers usually do little to promote these mid-list books; they depend on the authors to do much or most of the publicity and promotion, so low sales in the past can be a problem.
At least the publishers with these pay to publish arrangements are commonly still somewhat selective in what they publish, since they want to maintain the quality of their reputation. So they don’t offer these deals to everyone, as do the self-publishing companies who are essentially printers. So there is some selectivity. But you still have to pay.
Thus, be cautious when you are offered such a deal. Ideally, it’s best to get a publisher who will pay you to publish your book or at least offers a no advance arrangement. But if you aren’t able to get such a deal, under some circumstances it might be an advantage to go with a pay to play publisher for the prestige of publishing with a traditional publisher, as long as you understand you may get little or none of your payment back, though there is always the chance of getting more.
On the other hand, if a pay to play deal from a traditional publisher is the only option available to you, it might be worth considering self-publishing under your own or a self-publishing company imprint. These prices can range from nothing if you do it yourself under CreateSpace or Kindle or similar platforms to a few hundred dollars for help using these platforms or to a few thousand dollars from many self-publishing companies who charge more. Just be aware that you will still commonly need to do your own promotion and publicity to call attention to your book if you set up distribution through a self-publishing platform or company. But now with most publishers today, even those who pay, you still need to cover most or all of the publicity and promotion. Unless you are already a very well-known personality or celebrity, that’s the way of the publishing world today.