Should I Pay to Publish My Book?

pay for publishing wallet-2125548_960_720Here at IU, we continually get questions from readers about publishers. Should they publish with them? Are they legit? There are so many of these outfits popping up all the time (and fading away), it’s hard to stay current on all of it, so we thought it was time to go back over the general issues you could/should apply to any publishing company you consider. Here are the major issues to research and ponder.

1. Follow the Money

Traditional publishers like the big New York houses you always think of do not charge you to publish your book. NEVER. If they believe it is good enough to publish (i.e. good enough to earn them some money), they will publish it at no charge to you and recoup their costs from the royalties that will accrue. The money flows from the publisher to the author — never the other way.

Any publisher/printer (whatever they call themselves) that charges you up front has absolutely no interest and more importantly no investment in your book selling well. They have their money; why should they care? It doesn’t matter how gloriously they promise to polish your baby and/or market it; if they already have their money in hand, there’s absolutely no incentive for them to work hard for you.

2. Types of Publishers

In decades past, any publishers that were not traditional (see above) used to be called vanity presses. The thinking was that if you were vain enough to want to publish a book you’d written, you’d go to these guys, pay for it up front, and get your book published. The general feeling was that your book was not good enough for traditional publishers, so it was probably crap. The title vanity publishing has continued on, but a lot of writers take exception to it, and they’re right. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the last twenty to thirty years, and the traditional publishers (who now like to be referred to as “legacy publishers”) have gotten much more conservative about what projects they take on. If they don’t think the book will be a best-seller, they won’t touch it — no matter how good it might be. They just won’t take the risk of possibly losing money on a book from an unknown. Now, back to vanity publishing. As I said, the way it used to be, the title worked. Today it doesn’t, because anyone who has not already been published, who is not a name that people recognize and that will draw sales, will not win a publishing contract with a traditional publisher. It’s like winning the lottery. It could happen, but the chances are, it won’t. So, the role of “vanity publisher” has changed. Nowadays self-publishing is a going and growing concern. Nowadays writers can self-publish and have a chance at breaking through, becoming a best-seller, and making a name for themselves. Yes, the odds are small here, too, and I have no numbers to back this up, but my guess is that it is easier to become well-read and well-known via self-publishing than it is to get a contract with a traditional publisher.

publishing money-case-163495_960_720The thing is, publishers/printers call themselves all sorts of things to differentiate them from the old vanity publishers: hybrid publishers, service publishers, composite publishers. (Some of them are just outright predatory publishers, but they’d never call themselves that, of course. Make sure to check out our resource page on predatory publishers here.) They offer a range of services, from full packages to editing to cover design to printing to marketing. And they all want their money up front. Now. First. So what does that tell you? Right—they will have no investment in your book selling. They won’t care if it sells or not. Many people are still seduced by the glowing descriptions and ego-stroking these guys put on their web pages. Some people may still decide that this is the route they want to go. If you decide to go this way, we wish you all the luck in the world. But…

3. If You Pay, Know What You’re Paying For

Those glowing descriptions I mentioned above are often very vague and with very little quantifiable data. Here’s where you need to ask hard questions and get some hard answers.


What they say: We offer professional developmental editing, line-by-line editing, copyediting and proofreading.

What you should ask:

What’s the process? Will someone read it line by line and make corrections, suggestions? Will it be more than simply a pass-through with spell-checker? How many passes will they make through the manuscript? What, specifically, will they look for? Typos and spelling errors, grammatical errors, formatting errors? How many chances will you have to go over the galley proofs to approve or disapprove the changes? What if you find errors/issues after the editing process is over? How hard/easy will it be to make corrections later, after publication? Will you have to pay extra for that? If so, how much? How long does that take?

Cover Design

What they say: We can design your book cover to meet your standards and industry standards.

What you should ask:

What’s the process? Do they have artists on staff? Do they use stock photos? Might someone else’s book have the same cover, or perhaps the same cover elements (background, human figures, etc.)? How many times will you have the chance to review and approve the cover? How many times can you ask for changes and have them made? Is there a cost for changes beyond a certain point? What if you don’t like anything they come up with?


What they say: We will creatively market and promote your book to local, regional, statewide, and national markets, and will distribute to independent and chain bookstores, and libraries both through standard industry channels and outside the traditional book market.

What you should ask: What specific steps do they take to market your book? Do they have their own storefront online? If so, what is their reach, what is their Alexa traffic rank? Do they put your book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other bookseller sites? What specific markets do they advertise in? Where specifically will your book appear? What specific bookstores will carry your book? What libraries will be offered your book?

Are you seeing a pattern here? Don’t fall for the vague promises; make them give you very specific answers to your questions. For some of you, this may seem rude and antagonistic. After all, these nice folks have just agreed to publish your book, and I want you to nail them to the wall? Yes, I do. Let them know you have done your homework; let them know you are gathering information in order to make a very important decision. Let them know when you have doubts, reservations, a queasy feeling in your gut. And don’t be swayed by vague descriptions or unquantifiable answers.

I know it would be wonderful if you could simply surrender your manuscript into loving, willing hands, and they would make it beautiful and sell a zillion copies. You’ve done the hard work: you’ve written the thing, massaged and tweaked it into a masterpiece. Can’t you just rest now, just trust someone else to take it the rest of the way? Well, you can, but I would advise against it. Do the rest of the work — do your research. Make sure you pick the right path to publication.

And remember the old adage: Act in haste, repent at leisure.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

25 thoughts on “Should I Pay to Publish My Book?”

  1. Melissa,
    Thank you for the very well written article on publishing predators. New Indie-authors need to realize that the internet is a place where it is difficult to tell the real publishers from the scammers. Your wisdom about not paying is invaluable. Readers really need to follow your links and read about the major offenders. It is sad that many writers do not heed your warning.

    1. You are entirely welcome. Yes, it is sad how many writers are taken in by the schmoozing from these predators. I have had several writers send me the details of an “offer,” which I’ve warned them against, pointing out the vagueness of the promises, yet they still go with it. I don’t know any who have not regretted that decision. I would love to keep some from falling into that trap. *sigh* Maybe someday.

    1. Because different people have different descriptions, it’s possible with one exception: CreateSpace doesn’t demand thousands up front. You can publish absolutely free. The only small expense might be for a proof copy and shipping, which usually is less than $10. I’ve never investigated Book Baby, so I can’t speak to that. I do, however, teach classes on self-publishing using CreateSpace, which is my very favorite way to go. Matter of fact, I’ve just published my 30th book with CreateSpace! It’s free AND I have total control over my book. I like that.

    2. I use CreateSpace all the time for my printing and distribution. That’s free. I have editing clients who paid for CreateSpaces “editing” services. It was quite obvious that all they got was a proof read. It was a good proof read, but it went no further than spelling and grammar. Sentence structure? Forget it. Paragraphing? Not by any decent standard.
      It’s an interesting dichotomy, that the stuff they give for free they do well, and the stuff they charge for they do poorly. Maybe that’s why CreateSpace may go under the axe soon.

      1. That is interesting, Gordon. I’ve never used any of their paid services, nor known anyone who had, so that’s good to know. I teach a 3-hour workshop on using CreateSpace, but the paid stuff I can’t speak to. Thanks.

  2. Excellent information, Melissa. I learned these lessons the hard way (which is another story)

    I now pay someone to edit my work, another to create a cover, and yet another to make sure all the formatting is correct for uploading to the venues I choose. I also make sure they have the qualifications to do those tasks, and that we work together well. None of these sources belong to a “company” that provides all of them. So far it has worked well.

    1. Sounds like a good plan, Yvonne. You know what you want, they do their thing and you bring it to completion together. Excellent working relationship with no surprises (hopefully) at the end.

  3. I hope people are aware that they can do most of the work themselves if they’re willing to put in a small amount of time. Independently contracting for a cover artist isn’t that hard, and both ebooks and paperbacks are not that hard to format. None of this, imho, is half as time-consuming or hard as writing the book in the first place! Publicity is tough but I am learning. It is hard to accept that none of us can ever hope for a traditional contract. Makes me wonder about the conferences that bring in rafts of agents and editors promoting the idea that an invitation to send “the complete” is serious. I’ll probably still pitch at conferences from time to time–I’ve found that preparing the pitch makes me take a good hard look at my story, and I get some pretty rigorous critiques through the process. But in the meantime, thanks for underlining: DO NOT PAY SOMEONE TO PUBLISH YOUR BOOK!

    1. Virginia, yes, we cover a ton of the self-publishing options and tasks, and many of us here at IU do all the work on our books ourselves. For newbies, however, sometimes the many steps seem overwhelming, which is when they need to consider outside help. Personally, I don’t do conferences, and I would be very skeptical of the offers there for the very same reasons that I list above, but it sounds like you found some positive reasons to attend. Good for you!

  4. This site provides to many helpful ideas for writers, and this article is no exception. Since I have a nasty and sarcastic sense of humor, I can only smile when people say they want to self-publish because that’s free. Well, not it isn’t. By the time you pay for an editor, cover artist (or service), file your own copyright registration, convert (or pay somebody else to do it) your files into the proper formats for print and e-book, a fair amount of money has been spent. With so many small traditional presses out there, I don’t know why more people don’t submit their novels to a few of these first before racing into a process where they’ll (in most cases) spend more money getting their free books in print than those books will earn.

    1. Malcolm, as we all know, there are many steps involved in publishing, and authors can do as much of them as they can (“free” except for their time), or they can pay a professional to do what they can’t. Most of us here at IU do some combination of that. The only thing I pay for is my cover designer; otherwise I do everything myself (with the help of beta readers) and yes, the publishing through CreateSpace is absolutely free. We can always make the case that our own time and effort equals money, but the publishing itself is free. As for approaching small presses, that’s a viable option and some authors might give that a shot. Several of my first books were printed by small presses, and those were good choices for me at the time. Now I prefer having total control of my books, even if it does mean more work. Different strokes, right? Luckily in this day and age, an author can choose one of several paths or even make up their own!

      1. I don’t know many authors who are capable of copy editing or proofreading their own work, but those who can do it, save a lot of money because professional editors are somewhat expensive.

        But yes, multiple options here for authors.

  5. I haven’t found that to be the case. I found very reasonable cover artists and did all my own formatting (it’s not really that hard if you already know Word, and there are lots of how-to books out there). My books are “republished” editions of traditionally published books, so they were already “edited,” but there are options for less expensive and even free editing if you are willing to put in the time to be a good partner. Time is the key. Even if you hire an editor, you still have to put in the time to follow up on the revisions–and you have to hope that the one editor you can afford turns out to be right about what you need to do for your book! Not guaranteed. Publishing a book just plain requires a certain risk of resources, and time is an alternative to money. My two novels are far from bestsellers but in two years have earned more than twice what I spent to get them back into print and are still selling. I get it that newbies might be intimidated, but once they’ve done their own work that first time, they can do it again and again. I encourage them to try.

    1. Excellent points, Virginia. There are a zillion combinations to this, a juggling of time, effort and money, and each of us has to find the right mix for ourselves. It’s a process, and not easy for a newbie, but well worth the trouble down the road if we’re going to keep writing and keep publishing. I just released my 30th book, and at this point, I can publish in about 15 minutes, just the amount of time it takes to enter all the info into CreateSpace and KDP. The caveat is that this is after 30 years or trial and error discovering the best way for me. Thanks for weighing in. I’m with you.

  6. I “accidentally” became a publishing consultant. Having myself been taken by a vanity press, I learned how to publish my own books. My editor had a gentleman who’d written a book, paid her to edit it, and then said he had no clue how to get it published. She asked if I could help him. Well, the poor guy had previously been taken for over $10,000 by a vanity press and had nothing to show for it. I agreed to help. I was upfront with what I’d charge and what services I’d assist with. The process took about two months, and by the end, his book was published in print and ebook. He called to thank me, nearly in tears because I’d only charged him a tiny fraction of what he’d originally paid, and the book was exactly what he’d dreamed of. He was now able to tell all his friends and family that his book was on Amazon and Smashwords. Admittedly, having a little extra income has been handy, it’s helped pay for my own editing costs and cover art when I need it.

  7. Good article, Melissa. I like to harp on the definition of “publisher,” because I think understanding that can bring a lot of clarity to the process. A publisher is someone who pays to have a book produced. “Traditional publishers” (or whatever they call themselves) are publishers because they pay the costs of book production. A vanity press is not a publisher, because they charge authors to produce books. They are really a service provider, and the author is the publisher. Many print-on-demand outfits work essentially like vanity presses, although not all do. Editors, artists, printers, binders, and so forth all provide services needed to publish a book, but the publisher is whoever pays their fees–in the case of indie authors, the authors pay and are therefore the publishers. Any outfit that has “publisher” its name but that derives its income from authors instead of book sales is NOT in fact a publisher, but a service provider.

    As the publisher, an author who pays for these services should think like a publisher and make good business decisions regarding cost, quality, and the like. There is nothing wrong with paying someone for these services, but it’s a mistake to misinterpret the relationship.

    1. Dale, you make some very clear distinctions here, which I think will be helpful to anyone going forward with their publishing plans. It does, also, clarify some of the many descriptors that scammers use to confuse authors.
      Interestingly enough, I once entered a book contest that asked for my publisher’s address. I contacted CreateSpace and asked them, since their website has NO address anywhere, and they responded by telling me that I was the publisher; they were simply my printer. I had never thought of it like that, but it’s true. Thanks for your comment.

  8. I would never pay up front to publish my books. I’ve used Smashwords, CreateSpace and KDP, and also a small independent publisher.
    The first three are free. With the fourth, I pay a small amount for some of the services, but it comes out of my royalties and so they have a vested interest in selling my books.
    One definition I would say as a definition of a ‘vanity publisher’ is that they will publish whatever you submit to them, regardless of quality, just as long as you pay. My publisher does not accept every book that comes. I know this to be true, because I know an author who had his book rejected by them. Not a bad book, either.
    I don’t like the hybrid publishers. I was offered a contract some years ago for my first book, on a 50/50 basis. I can’t actually remember what they wanted me to put up, but it was in the thousands. I rejected their offer as there was no way I could afford the sum they were asking. Especially as it was my first book, and I had no idea how it would sell.

  9. I should have this information before I publish my books, I could have save myself money and greif.

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