Normally I might subtitle this "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," but in this case, I want to help you distinguish between the Professionals and the Con artists, as well as understand one fundamental truth about all subsidy publishers. Understand this harsh reality, unflinchingly incorporate it into your strategic thinking, and you'll be able to make wise decisions concerning the role of professional subsidy publishing in your path to publication.
Subsidy publishing, or "vanity publishing" as it is less-charitably called, has been around for a long time. As long as books have existed, in one sense. But modern subsidy publishing began with companies like Xulon Press in the 1980s, and really took off with the emergence of print-on-demand (POD) technology. This required the confluence of three different but intimately related technologies: First, the ability to digitally print different books on the same high-speed, high-volume printing machine without making any physical changes to the machine. This was the biggest breakthrough. Fast, high-quality color digital bookcover printing and high-speed "perfect" softcover bookbinding capabilities combined with the book printing capability to make it possible to create and ship physical softcover books as fast as customers ordered them—and only as many as were ordered on that day.
While big traditional publishing houses dithered, early adopters cashed in on this new technology. Companies like Xulon Press sprang up, offering to “publish” your book at low cost and tiny print runs; when internet-based order fulfillment firms like Amazon came of age, those “print-on-demand publishers” were able to distribute your books directly to customers who searched for them on those internet platforms… especially Amazon.
It wasn’t long before those print-on-demand publishers began to flood the market with low-cost, low-quality books of all kinds and genres. The ebook self-publishing revolution only added to the tsunami of dreck that gave “self-publishing” a bad reputation in its early years. A huge percentage of those books, both POD and ebooks, were scantily edited or naked drafts, and while some readers found them raw and titillating, an extremely small percentage of them were really ready to be seen in public without causing beholders to cringe with embarrassment (at best).
Still, between POD publishers and ebooks, the big traditional publishers—all traditional publishers, really—were badly hurt. Among other adjustments and modernizations, every big publishing house opened its own POD “subsidy press” imprint, a backdoor for authors intent on self-publishing and willing to pay to create a better-quality product. It gave those authors access to the big publishers’ top-quality editors, designers, marketing and distribution services, if those authors were willing to foot the bill for their own production costs and first print run.
Many of them were, and this helped the big publishers retain valuable employees during their difficult adjustment to the new realities of 21st Century publishing. But unlike the physical book production, which could be largely automated, even the best editors could only do so much with mediocre manuscripts and flawed, poorly-timed, poorly-executed ideas. Marketing had an even harder time with these books and authors: good book marketing depends heavily on having certain raw ingredients in place ahead of time (only a few of which are the author’s platform, author participation in the process, and realistic expectations of a marketing team). These “vanity clients” usually brought nothing to the table, expecting the marketing experts to perform magic ex nihilo, just as the editorial team of alchemists was expected to transform leaden manuscripts into gold.
With editorial help limited by the amount the client agreed to pay for it, and marketing usually doomed to fail despite their earnest diligence and creativity that did help to some extent), many clients were disappointed if their goal had been “to become a successful author.” Yet many clients were delighted and wrote rave reviews because their motives were different, and the subsidy presses did indeed achieve those clients’ goals. Well-heeled hobbyist authors, public speakers who wanted a promotional book, and any “trophy author” who was happy to display a copy of their book in their office, all these clients were thrilled with subsidy publishing through one of the alter-egos of a big publishing house.
Now that the shake-out is past, some full-subsidy publishing houses have emerged, usually in deep and well-established niche markets (Christian living, cozy romance, soft porn, etc.). All these publishers perform (or should perform) all the services of a traditional publisher… with one exception. Beyond basic topic and genre definitions, they have virtually no submission standards that authors must meet in order to be accepted for publication. They have no minimum standards of quality or marketability before they take your money and begin working on your manuscript. Of course, this means they will never refuse to publish a book, as long as it is recognizable as such and doesn't seem to violate any laws (they will, after all, be the publisher of record for your book). Since the author is taking the financial risks of publishing the book, they are willing to push that baby into print, as long as the author pays the bill to do so. And although you, the author, bear all the cost and risk, you may also share a portion of your royalties with your subsidy publisher, if against all odds your book does take off and sell well.
The primary task of a publisher is the one task these “publishers” don’t touch: determining whether or not a book is of sufficient quality and content to appeal to an audience that publisher can reach, an audience big enough to make a lot of money for the publisher and for the author.
This is the “traditional” part of publishing: the publisher enters into a partnership with the author, taking on the risks and costs of the refinement and production of the book and its first year of marketing and distribution: the author pays for none of this. In fact, the publisher usually offers the author an “advance,” an up-front payment equal to the royalties the publisher expects the author will earn in that first year of the book’s publication.
If the book is a failure, the author keeps the advance, even if those royalties are never “earned out.” The publisher is the one who is hurt, the one who suffers material loss for having gambled on that book’s potential. Because of this, traditional publishers are very careful which authors and manuscripts they are willing to gamble on, and once they accept an author for publication, they do everything in their power to make it as sure a bet as possible. This dynamic duality—of exclusivity and economic incentive—simply has no place in subsidy publishing. The whole point of subsidy publishing is to remove both the exclusivity and the risk of failure from the business model, letting all the judgment of quality, suitability, marketability, profitability, rest solely with the client, who bears all the risk and pays all the cost.
So if you want to make a living as an author, the one publisher you must not use is a subsidy publisher. (Unless you have tons of startup capital and you want to begin with a “trophy book” of some kind… but even then, subsidy publishing would probably be the wrong way to go about that.) Bribing a publisher to produce your book no matter what is going to be a bad investment in your career in nearly every measurable way except print quality, and even that is cheaper and possibly better if you contract with a book printer directly.
But if you have a different motive for writing a book, and you can afford them, and you do your own due diligence regarding editing quality and whatever marketing fits your motive and goal for your book, then a subsidy press might save you a lot of time in book production.
So write well, and publish wisely!