Some Thoughts on 5 Key Publishing Paths

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A few weeks ago the industrious and expert publishing analyst, Jane Friedman, posted this very useful infographic titled ‘5 Key Publishing Paths’. Since then it has been reproduced many thousands of times by authors across social media channels, blogs and websites, but it has often been reposted and pointed to wrongly as if it represented the holy grail of publishing paths for authors. What some of those reposting the infographic (or didn’t much bother to read the full post) omitted was some of the most valuable pieces of information contained in Friedman’s original post. In some ways, those qualifiers are actually more important than the infographic itself. Maryann Yin, a very wise GalleyCat, reminded us all of Friedman’s intended qualifier when she published her original post with the infographic.


“There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work—not to mention your own strengths and weaknesses.”

… and, crucially, I’ll also add these qualifying points towards the bottom of Friedman’s post.

“I’m also not addressing self-publishing that employs print runs (whether short digital runs or traditional print runs). While neither of these options is necessarily beyond the skill of a new author, it is a more advanced option that is beyond the scope of this chart.
“…I will keep developing it as the publishing landscape changes…”

There lies the answer to much of the misrepresentation of Friedman’s infographic by authors examining and sharing it.

This is a fluid infographic Friedman delivers and acknowledges that it will change over time (probably a lot sooner than you think!). Even the graphic itself is full of qualifiers within the main subtext and under ‘HARD-TO-CLASSIFY CASES,’ noting various emerging paths such as agent-assisted DIY, digital-only  e-book publishing and crowdfunding—all  available to authors but too complex to include in the core five examples of publishing paths.
Here is my brief take on the infographic from my perspective as a traditionally and self-published author, editor of The Independent Publishing Magazine, publishing consultant, and creator of the Publishing Service Index, and reviewer of hundreds of publishing service providers over the last six years.
Traditional
Despite the voices of doom, I think traditional publishing (a term actually devised for marketing purposes to describe a nefarious and infamous US vanity press) has its place and will be around for a long time, though, I believe this form of publishing path will—in the coming years—reflect an avenue of publishing for fewer authors with a concentration on established, bestselling authors. What makes it distinct from the other four key paths of publishing (as per the infographic) is that it is the only path paying author advances and it also provides access to the widest distribution channels.
But I would add one caveat to this. We are seeing a significant transition in the traditional publishing world from publishing as curation to publishing content services. All major publishers will offer publishing as a paid service—separate to their main imprints—in the future. Penguin and Simon & Schuster have already begun this development by launching such imprints, and while we can argue the validity and moral motivations behind this (additional revenue streams, the use of paid publishing imprints for the purpose of talent discovery, and an alternative answer to the mountainous slush piles); this development is here to stay.
Partnership
Described by Friedman as a model where the agent, publisher or collective partners with the author and shares the risk and revenue, but still uses industry experience and savvy. In this path, the author does not pay a fee. I have previously used this description to describe some reputable and pretty top-notch assisted publishing services using both traditional and innovative marketing techniques, and significantly, where the assisted publishing provider has developed proper distribution channels for print books as well as online sales channels. I stopped using the term because there are so few assisted services of this calibre. Friedman’s characteristics are even stricter than my mine because she defines a publishing partnership where the author pays no fee and an ‘advance unlikely.’
For me, Friedman’s model of partnership publishing is so close to the traditional path, and the distinctions far too easily blurred and confused. A good partnership publisher with a selection process, proper marketing and distribution in print (not POD) and digital, improved royalties, is pretty damn close to what a traditional publisher does. In my mind, potentially the only distinction is a better profit margin for the author and perhaps a speedier path to publication. I know traditional publishers that pay author advances as low as a few hundred dollars, predominantly small and independent presses! PublishAmerica used to define the payment of $1 to authors in their contract as proof they were an advance-paying publisher! So where do we draw the line?
Add in the fact that there are few partnership publishers (under Friedman’s definition) out there. I’d be hard-pressed to add many more companies to her list of three, and for that reason alone I think partnership publishers as a ‘Key Publishing Path’ is simply too small a percentage of representative authors using this option—difficult to be accurate, but I’d say less than 5% of all published authors, and maybe as low as 2%. For me, either you merge partnership publishers with the traditional path, or you merge it with the best of what is on offer from the Fully Assisted path.
Fully Assisted
There is a huge gamut of publishing services in here, good and bad, from highly reputable publishing services right through to outright vanity presses and scams. Under Friedman’s characteristics of fully assisted publishing services, and the example list she provides, I’m worried her perception of fully assisted publishing does not stretch too far beyond imprints run or powered by Author Solutions (ASI), or at least companies modelled in a very similar way to ASI. Frankly, ASI’s brands might be plentiful and well-known, but a cursory investigation with a proper service comparison with a good assisted provider will tell you quickly that ASI imprints give the whole field (and path) a pretty bad name. I’d actually echo Friedman’s ‘Warnings + Exceptions’ she places under the previous partnership path, where she declares ‘Not all partners are created equal; some may offer little more than digital distribution and administration.’ The very same applies to the fully assisted path and draw your attention back to one of Friedman’s qualifying points. I’m going to repeat it again here because this is the point in Friedman’s infographic where it really becomes most relevant:


“I’m also not addressing self-publishing that employs print runs (whether short digital runs or traditional print runs). While neither of these options is necessarily beyond the skill of a new author, it is a more advanced option that is beyond the scope of this chart.”

I concur with Jane Friedman when she says this. However, when discussing any non-traditional path of publishing, it completely blows the relevance and validity of the information provided. There are two pitfalls here. The first is attempting to define self-publishing by path or category according to digital publishing models, that is—excluding traditional print runs. You can’t extract traditional print runs from self-publishing and then try and compare one path to another based on this omission. The second point is that it reinforces the misconception that self-publishing is the same as digital publishing or e-book publishing. Compound this with the potential that many authors looking at the infographic won’t properly take Friedman’s qualified omission into consideration.
The field of fully assisted is simply too vast to define by one titan company operating in the area (ASI), or by companies offering only POD, online listing and distribution and a fixation on up-selling authors expensive and needless services via publishing packages. There is a lot more to the fully assisted path as an option than the one portrayed in Friedman’s infographic. You can’t define a path or process by ignoring or not addressing a fundamental and critical element of it. As an example, there are many fully assisted services using physical print (short digital run and offset runs), professional editors and designers; distribution options beyond POD; and marketers and publicists making a real effort to sell books.  Under Friedman’s ‘Warnings + Exceptions’ in the fully assisted path, she states: ‘You get what you pay for; you may end up with a book without commercial viability’—but I’d disagree here. You could end up with a book a lot worse than what you paid for (and authors often do), or a book a lot better than the one you started out with! That is why taking the assisted path can be a perilous one, because the difference between choosing a good or bad provider can be the difference between night and day. It should also be noted that authors also choose this option because they understand their book doesn’t have ‘commercial viability’ and they have other reasons for publishing it—niche subjects or publishing just for family and friends.
DIY + Distribution and DIY Direct
Friedman actually separates these two paths, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why. They are both DIY paths—you either choose to do-it-yourself with your skill set or you don’t, whether characterised by dealing with a distribution service or directly with a retail publishing platform like Amazon KDP or Kobo’s Writing Life. Some of the distribution platforms can make the process a little more manageable than the retail ones, but ultimately what you put in is a reflection of the product that comes out. There is simply too little to define these as two distinctly different paths. I could quite easily argue the point that the assisted path could be divided into companies providing various print options beyond POD or who offers more meat on their distribution.
I’d also like to point out the curiosity of Friedman including Lulu and CreateSpace in the DIY + Distribution path—(Disclaimer; I sometimes do it myself. I often refer and list Lulu and CreateSpace as a DIY Self-Publishing path.) Friedman lists Lulu as an example here with the following qualifier: ‘Lulu (e-books and POD; avoid fully assisted service).’ I’m sorry, but no-can-do! Lulu and CreateSpace technically don’t belong there. Both companies offer fully assisted services and therefore are fully assisted service providers under the characteristics Friedman defines—no matter how many authors only choose to use the DIY platform for load-up and distribution. You can’t bang in your own added qualifier, ignore a gamut of services, and then happily shift a company from one path to the other when it doesn’t belong there.
Like I said, I often refer to both companies as DIY, but not specifically to ignore other premium-priced services I know many authors are paying a lot for. Now I’m going to play devil’s advocate.
Tell you what—I’ll make a deal with you all. Let’s leave CreateSpace and Lulu under DIY (because they look so nice there!) but just as long as I can pretend or ignore the fact that traditional publishers pay author advances. That way I can happily move traditional publishers over into the Partnership path. Agree? Like hell you’d agree, and rightly so!
The devil is always in the detail and placing publishers/services into paths or categories is a very precarious business (particularly when you extract an important element of one path out of the equation). The business is changing all the time and service providers are continually changing and tweaking how they operate—for better or poorer.
Jane Friedman’s ‘5 Key Publishing Paths’ is an excellent guide to the current state of play in publishing, but it should be stressed that it is a general guide with oddities and quirks of its own. I’d merge the two DIY paths and probably remove Partnership because I think Crowfunding and peer community publishing models play a greater role now in the path to publication. I’d also properly define the fully assisted path, because under Friedman’s characteristics, it describes anything but fully assisted.
The most important part of choosing your path to publication is doing your research, finding one which suits you as an author, not how it is defined or how popular it is.   
Authors

8 Comments

  1. Jane Friedman said:

    Mick,

    Thanks so much for the excellent analysis here. It’s the kind of conversation I was hoping would develop.

    I created this chart to assist very new/beginning writers who struggle to understand the differences among the many (and proliferating) services out there, and don’t even clearly understand that, in any traditional publishing deal, you’re not supposed to pay money upfront.

    Of course, as you’ve pointed out, the devil is in the details—and I’m acutely aware that drawing lines, adding color, and boxing things up makes things appear more orderly and defined than they are (or might ever be). There are considerable shortcomings to this approach.

    Still, I believe in the attempts at a framework, however flawed, to help people begin to develop a path themselves. You’ve raised some excellent questions and issues that need to be incorporated into future versions. Until then, a couple items I’ll give my thoughts on now.

    1. DIY Direct vs DIY Direct + Distributor
    I make a distinction here because I believe it’s always important to acknowledge when you’re involving a third party who (a) takes a cut of the profit (b) has some control over what changes you can make & when—such as pricing, metadata, etc—but perhaps most importantly (c) might bind up your rights in some way.

    I almost added the ebook distributors Inscribe & Argo Navis to DIY + Distributor because it is possible for individual authors to work directly with those companies, but it’s not common. (Another devil!) But such companies are more likely to ask for agreements that commit you for 1-3 years, in addition to taking a cut, which a very different business proposition than handling it all yourself directly with the retailer. One thing that’s not reflected in this chart, but needs to be, is how most self-publishing authors will handle the high-volume accounts themselves (eg, Amazon), but use an ebook distribution service to handle the outliers that may represent no more than 5-10% of sales, if that.

    Another distinction between these two paths is that some distributors do some of the work for you (formatting and conversion), whereas with DIY Direct, there is no such hand-holding or customer service.

    2. Removing Partnership, adding something else.
    It’s probably true that partnership represents the smallest number of authors or deals out there. Yet in the way one hears it discussed and written about in the trades (at least in the US), you’d think it were a much more prevalent path. I suppose I’ve fallen victim to that, plus I admire these outfits, such as Berrett-Koehler (not listed).

    I also find Partnership nearly impossible to define—eg, I think Amazon Publishing might rightly fall into this column, as well as startups as Byliner and Atavist—so perhaps it’s best left out entirely or added to my “hard to classify” area, since there are no standards to speak of.

    If I added something else, I would lean toward peer or community publishing, a column that would identify the phenomenon of Wattpad, fan fiction, and serialization, if that’s possible in one broad category. I’m less inclined to add crowdfunding, only because I see that as a method of funding a project, not really a publishing path. Or perhaps it could be considered yet another facet of peer/community publishing given the services popping up in this space. What do you think?

    (continued in next comment)

  2. Jane Friedman said:

    (continued from previous comment)

    On a final note, I wonder how much our respective geographies play into our view of the landscape. In the US, we have higher digital consumption of books, and perhaps it’s more feasible to start digital-only. It’s not easy to find an author who offers a print edition that’s not print-on-demand, unless they are speakers selling from the back of the room, or have high-quantity orders to fulfill. This usually doesn’t describe a new author, thus my low prioritization of that path (only for the purposes of this chart).

    This issue plays into the fully-assisted column, where you’ve discussed the existence of a richer field than what I mentioned. In the US, this approach is so totally dominated by ASI (and ASI models) that the most important thing is usually to advise authors against them!

    Are there particular services in the UK (or US) that provide full assistance, that are non-ASI companies, that you find to be fair and transparent about prices and author expectations?

    That said, in the US, a small percentage of new authors have the funds to support print runs (warehousing/fulfillment concerns aside)—and I advise most new authors stick with POD until they have large orders to fulfill. If an author is that position from the start, I’d probably tell them to hire a consultant to manage the publishing process for them rather than hire a full-assistance company. But that brings me back to the question of whether you can help me identify full-assist companies that offer good value to authors, especially those who are ready to sell or distribute in bulk out of the gate, without taking away any of their control over the process, or any rights. (An example of this in the US might be Greenleaf, but they are a very singular outfit, and have a selection process. Another devil!)

    Thanks again, Mick, for a useful and enlightening discussion.

  3. Mick Rooney said:

    Hi Jane,

    I think it is also a conversation so many in the industry avoid, Jane, because new models and paths to publication–outside of the established traditional and DIY paths—emerge into the publishing arena often untried and untested. I’m particularly thinking of the partnership, trade digital imprints and fully assisted service paths. Years ago new and innovative presses and services would come and go without the batting of an eyelid from the industry and authors alike. With the advent of new technology and emerging players beyond the white picket fences of publishers, together with the democratising of publishing; everything new or outside the box comes under extraordinary scrutiny.

    A good example of this was the debate on Random House’s digital imprints, and proof now that debate in the open arena can have direct benefits. But there remains a great deal of reluctance and lack of transparency by some players to share critical operational elements on models of business when you really try to drill down into the detail of a new imprint or service provider.

    Yes, I agree. I should have stressed the point that you intended the infographic more for those authors entering the field of publishing for the first time, unfamiliar with how the business works and the new emerging paths in publishing. It is frightening to consider how many new writers assume that all publishing is an upfront paid game. I know many indie authors won’t like me saying this, but there is a huge benefit to be gained from pursuing the traditional path to publication (direct to publisher or through an agent) when a writer first starts out, regardless whether you have any success or not. The writer at least learns a little about how the business of publishing works (whether they ultimately like how it works or not) and it exposes their writing to a critical audience before reaching their readership. One of my criticisms of the self-publishing community is that while it is becoming more adept at understanding the mechanisms of the publishing world, it often forgets the most important element—the craft of writing. I hear so many emerging authors in the self-publishing field talk a great game when it comes to the how’s and why’s of self-publishing, marketing plans and the power of social media, but on closer inspection, I discover some of the strongest, loudest and most independent voices can’t string a coherent paragraph of prose or dialogue together—let alone a cohesive plot.

    New writers want the paths forward to be clearly defined with explanations and signposts in a publishing world where many of the newest roads are not even fully completed yet. But I think you are right, Jane. It shouldn’t stop us putting some kind of framework around it.

    see next comment

  4. Mick Rooney said:

    1. DIY DIRECT vs DIY DIRECT + DISTRIBUTOR

    I agree the DIY paths need to reflect any concession of rights, but whether retailer or distributor, they all take some kind of profit cut and once your book is loaded up; you are beholden to the vagaries of their system to a greater or lesser degree. I think the key here is how flexible is the third party and how easily can an author extract themselves and their books from the platform. It’s more a case of horses of a different colour, so I’d still keep the DIY path as one. Dissect this one into subparts and you may as well do the same for the other paths.

    On the issue of the formatting and conversion for some of the DIY services—that’s why I’d move these (Lulu, CS, Bookbaby) across to assisted. I wouldn’t define them as solely DIY. They sell extended services and though Bookbaby is associated with ebooks, it also does digital print for authors who want copies. Likewise, I’m glad you didn’t include Argo Navis, as I think it is a bad example of this path and it has too many vagaries and exceptions to fill neatly in. It’s more assisted than DIY.

    2. PARTNERSHIP

    Yeh, my favourite path to research but often the most intriguing and difficult area. Berrett-Koehler is the one I would have added to this list and I would only keep partnership publishing in if you were prepared to break with tradition and bend your ‘no fee’ rule. Hillcrest Media are developing a number of imprints that might fit in this area (with and without fees). But if we hold the no fee rule then the numbered existence of true partnership publishers just doesn’t stack up. I can think of a number of UK companies using traditional marketing techniques, good distribution (not just wholesale), print runs and of a high calibre. Matador and Silverwood Books would be good examples. You could argue the case for Indepenpress, Apex and Janus as well.

    Yes, in my book, Amazon Publishing is a partnership publisher and I’m convinced that there are several authors signed up with Amazon’s imprints with small but nevertheless advance paying deals. Technically, this also makes them a publisher—full stop! And in the next year or so, they will be dangling out the window of their London offices waving at the people down the road in Bloomsbury and Random House.

    see next comment

  5. Mick Rooney said:

    I don’t see why peer community and crowsourcing could not be placed together, though, I agree, crowdsourcing is more a means to a publishing path than one itself. I do think we will see someone harness the Kickstarter model and create a dedicated publishing one for authors with added services. There’s probably already some bright spark in Silicon Valley putting the final coat of paint on the door. But yes, some kind of path to reflect community publishing needs to go in.

    I think geography does play into this.

    As far back as the 1970’s, Irish and UK booksellers were more open to self-publishing than I think their US counterparts. What knocked that a little, for a time, was better point of sale and inventory systems not being about to deal with non-ISBN books. Now distribution is a little more sophisticated for self-published books and ISBN’s more the norm, the future is even brighter. With ebook growth a year or two behind the US market in the UK, and even further behind in mainland Europe, publishing providers and authors are still print focussed, but now using it in combination with ebook, rather than doing a digital solo dance.

    I think there is also a cultural element that exists in Europe—embedded in the genes—that makes us strong on community and support, helping the little guy and not being afraid to celebrate the independently minded. You’ve also got a multitude of countries with distinct languages.

    There are some pretty mind-blowing digital short run machines and bindery machines coming out of Germany at the moment and they, I suspect, are find their way into the UK, European and Irish print industry quicker. Because of their quality and price, they are often not the workhorse machines being used en mass by many of the print manufacturers servicing the POD-driven publishers. That’s why you hear so much debate in DIY self-publishing circles about why so-and-so does better quality books, or offers a wider variety of papers and trims than other companies.

    I think publishers over here are also getting the benefit of watching the digital growth in the USA, and not immediately charging in and making initial mistakes. I think publishers therefore are better and more slowly integrating digital with traditional methods of business—whether with systems or marketing.

    The TIPM Publishing Index will probably give you a good indication of the companies that stand out on both sides of the pond.

  6. Connie Wilson said:

    At least she was polite to YOU, Mick. Jane Friedman was exceedingly rude to me at the final Hawaii Writers’ Conference, and I ended up losing my entire investment to fly over and be present, thanks to her spinelessness.

  7. Pingback: Infographic: 4 Key Book Publishing Paths | Jane Friedman

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