Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

CLICK HERE TO GET YOUR QUICK START GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING and to be notified when the 3rd Edition of the Indie Author Survival Guide releases!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Digital Only Imprints - Are They Good For Authors?

Just when you think the publishing industry can't get more complicated... it does.

The latest: Traditional publishers (Harper Collins, Simon&Schuster, and now Random House) are creating digital-only imprints to go after self-pub and unpublished authors without agents.

How is this different than the Vanity Publishing acquisitions made recently by S&S and Random Penguin (sorry, that's just what I call them now)? Are these better, worse, or just different than self-publishing?

How are authors supposed to navigate all this?

The devil is always in the details, my friends. My guiding principle is always "what is best for the author?"

Some Definitions
Vanity Press - publishers whose business model is predicated on making money off authors by getting money directly from them, rather than through royalties off the books the author is selling (see the SFWA extensive page on Vanity).

  • Abbott Press (owned by Writer's Digest)
  • West Bow Press (owned by Thomas Nelson)
  • DellArte Press (owned by Harlequin)
  • Author Solutions (owned by Penguin/Pearson)
  • Archway Publishing (owned by Simon&Schuster)
  • Author House (the company that runs most of these Vanity Press's behind the scenes)
The recent trend is for traditional publishers to run a "self-publishing" arm that is actually a Vanity Press, so they can "monetize their slush pile." Beware of these.

Digital Only Press - publishers who do not (generally) do print runs. They may be strictly digital or digital and Print On Demand (which results in higher priced paperbacks, but no inventory/up front costs). There are many small publishers that are digital presses. They have small or no advance, sometimes pay higher royalties, and usually do not have distribution channels beyond the regular digital channels like Amazon/B&N. They may (or may not) help the author with marketing in any significant way.

The new trend is for Big Six publishers to start "digital only" imprints.
  • Simon & Schuster's Pocket Star digital imprint
  • Random House's Alibi, Flirt, and Hydra digital imprints
  • HarperTeen's Impulse imprint

Self-Publishing - the author is the publisher, managing services like editing, formatting, and cover design by outsourcing for a flat-rate service or doing it themselves. Self-pub authors may or may not have an agent to manage film and foreign rights. Some DIY self-pubbers even hire their own distributors (for print and some digital), contract with translators for revenue sharing in foreign markets, or partner with voice actors to produce audio versions of their books. There's a whole marketplace of service providers popping up to provide reasonably priced services to help self-published authors manage their businesses. A self-pub author usually pays flat-rates but may sometimes partner and revenue share, but rights always belong to the author.

Which One Is Best?

The right question: "What do they offer me, the author?"

I DO NOT RECOMMEND VANITY (I've met authors who literally mortgaged their house to pay for an overpriced hardback of their memoir that was riddled with typos; I cried for them; do not be that author.)

I've used a digital press (my small press) and I've self-pubbed. 

Small Press Digital
My first book was small press digital. These companies are suffering, because they cannot compete with self-publishing. With no advance and 35% royalties, the money isn't as good, plus authors lose control of covers and marketing. And small presses generally price higher than self-pub, maybe even as high as trad-pub (although some are learning the advantages of low pricing). Unless the small press has a dedicated, exceptional marketing team, they are unlikely to be better at marketing than the author.
Generally speaking, they can't offer a better deal than self-pub, but for first-timers, it might be help to have someone else guide them through the debut process.
Big Six Digital

I have a couple friends who have been offered a Big Six Digital deals. The one who took it, got out of it because things went south in a hurry, even before publication. The (very small) advance wasn't paid on time. The publication date was moved without warning. There was no "editing" or "marketing" even though these were promised in the contract - the only true editing was an editorial direction to add more sexual content to the book (which was contrary to the author's intent). I don't know who gets deep, developmental editing anymore, but it's least likely to be authors at the digital imprints.While it sounds great to be "published by a Big Six publisher" you have to remember: they are using their digital imprints as a kind of internal farm-team, a way to float your book digitally to see if it takes off, and see if they can make money off it. They're not doing it because they love you. 
You're published by a Big Six Press! (Go you!) If this is important to you, this may be compelling (see caveats above). Having a publisher means you have someone else to guide you through the debut process. You will get some money up front (maybe $1-2,000 advance), and you don't have to front the costs of self-publishing. They may promote your book through their marketing channels. They may get you reviewed by the larger reviewers. If you sell big, they may put you in their print catalogue. If you sell nothing, you're out nothing.
Your royalties are still low (15%-20%, possibly less, YMMV). You have no control over cover or marketing or pricing. They may price you badly, making you lose sales. You will most likely have to do your own marketing, without the benefit of having control over things like giving away free books to reviewers - there aren't a lot of "digital promotion channels" that publishers have access to that you can't access on your own. You will be UNABLE to have a print version, which even if it's POD, does come in handy sometimes. If you sell big, you lose out on a lot of money. If you sell nothing, you now have a track record with that publisher of selling nothing.
If you give your book to a Big Six Digital imprint, you are unlikely to make much money on it, but it could open the doors to a print contract with them for your next book, if you sell well. If you already have self-published works that are selling well, and you can afford to "give away" one of your books, this could be a good way to possibly get into the Big Six's print distribution system. If this is your first published book, you could do great or tank, and all of that will be in the Big Six's system. You may be better off learning the ropes on your own, where you can control pricing, cover, and marketing.
Would I take a Big Six Digital Imprint Deal? Only if I was willing to give away that book. Maybe. (Also: I have no plans to submit, so that should tell you something.) I'd rather sell big on my own and get a print offer that way. Or just keep selling big on my own. :)

Obviously, I'm a fan of self-publishing.

The usual "cons" that people associate with it (you have to invest money, the marketing is hard, there's a stigma) are quickly falling away because people are making money at it. Lots of people. If you doubt that, ask yourself, "Why are the Big Six doing Digital Only Imprints?" The answer is easy: because it's lucrative. They know there is only a small cost required up front, and they're more than happy to throw books against the wall and see if they stick if the cost is low and the potential benefits are large. It's (relatively) easy money compared to printing up a ton of books, shipping them to bookstores, and praying they don't get returned. If there's a proven market for the book, then it's easy to take the gamble on printing.

It's the exact same business decision that self-publishers face, only indie authors have more freedom/flexibility to market, can price their books well, and have more skin in the game to make it be successful. 

My best advice: write a book, put it out there, see if there's a market. If not, write another book. A better book. Try a different genre. While you're doing that, your indie books will be making more money for you than if they were sitting in the slush pile. Then query one book while self-publishing another. Take a Digital imprint deal if you're willing to give away a book. Look at this as a long career where you're going to diversify your writing and publishing efforts.

There are lots of options out there, and there's no reason you can't do more than one. Carefully weigh each one, then take the leap. Be bold! It's an ever-changing publishing world out there.


  1. Interesting take on the routes to publishing. Thanks for this post.

  2. If I may say so, you're on a roll.

  3. Great breakdown. Interesting how no real investment was given to your friend. I think this brings about something important--a contract has two sides, and if one side does not hold to the terms, the deal can (and should!) be broken.

    1. The funny thing is that those contract breaks (payment delayed, publication delayed, no real editing/marketing plan) supposedly happen a lot - at least that was the reason given as to why it was "okay" (my friend decided it was not okay). In some ways the Digital Imprints seem to "get" the ebook market - in other ways, in particular the need to treat authors like they have other options (which they do), they don't seem to "get" it quite yet. We'll see if that changes over time.

  4. Lots of good points to ponder.
    You always have such great articles!

  5. Excellent post. Well-structured and informative.

  6. I've read a few quick "Look who's accepting submissions" posts about the digital imprints, but this was very informational. Thanks, Susan!

  7. Thanks, Susan. This is exactly what I've been pondering over the last few days.

  8. Great stuff, Susan! Wise words indeed.

  9. Thanks for sharing the pros and cons of the different options out there.

  10. Really thoughtful post. I suppose essentially it boils down to making sure you're working with someone reliable, who you know you can trust, and will take your work seriously.

  11. I always learn so much from you about all this self-pub business. You are definitely ahead of the curve and a great teacher on this stuff.


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers