Many first-time authors want to find a traditional publisher for their books. While books like Writer's Market and Literary Marketplace annually come out with new editions that list publishers, more and more authors are going to the Internet and publisher websites to find a publisher.
A huge difference exists between self-publishing companies and traditional publisher companies, and for a new author, that difference can be confusing. Here are a few things to look for to determine the difference and to find a publisher who is right for you.
First off, a traditional publisher will never ask you to pay the publishing costs. Traditional publishers will cover all of the publishing costs, which is one main advantage of being traditionally published; another is that the publisher hopefully will have wider marketing capabilities than you as the individual author.
Many self-publishing, subsidy, vanity, and P.O.D. websites (those terms are largely interchangeable and yet there are differences in them which would require an article in itself) will expect the author to pay the publishing costs. Then authors will purchase copies of their books from these publishers. The publishers may also sell the books themselves from their website and to distributors. These sales the publisher makes result in the author receiving royalties. Books the authors buy themselves from the publishers do not. By comparison, while traditional publishers will also sell you copies of your books to resell, again, they will not expect you to pay anything up front for publishing the book.
In visiting publisher websites, a key way to tell the difference between traditional and self-publishing publishers is each one's website layout. Many of the self-publishing companies will have a lot of information on their sites about how to get published and the benefits of being published by them. I've often seen these sites' home pages have half-a-dozen or more pages regarding publishing, publishing packages, author login pages, etc. but only one, often almost unnoticeable page for their store where they actually sell their authors' books. If the website, as in this case, looks like it is more interested in convincing an author to use the company to publish his or her book, rather than appealing to a reader to buy books, then it's probably not a traditional publisher.
Another differentiator may be an advance for the book. Self-publishing companies will not pay the author an advance for the rights to publish his or her book-in fact, as stated above, these companies will ask the authors to pay them to publish it. If a publisher offers an advance, then you have found a traditional publisher. However, just because a publisher does not offer an advance does not mean it is not a traditional publisher-due to the current economy, many traditional publishers have quit offering or only offer minimal advances. If you do begin to negotiate with a traditional publisher, you can always ask for a larger percentage of sales for your royalty in exchange for not taking an advance-you may not get it, but it doesn't hurt to ask.
Self-publishing companies will also sell authors their books at a discount. For example, if you buy up to 25 copies of your book, you'll get 25% off the retail price, 100 copies might earn you 50% off the retail price etc. You then will determine the individual print run of copies you want. These publishers, because they use digital or print-on-demand (POD) technology, also will print just one or two copies if a book distributor wants to buy a small number. The advantage here is you can print as many copies as you want and can afford.
A traditional publisher, by comparison, will pay for the printing of the books, but it will determine how many copies to print. The print run will probably be larger than what you could afford. With a self-publisher, you might only have the budget to print 100 or 500 copies to buy from the self-publisher, while a traditional publisher might print 3,000 copies. But when those 3,000 copies are sold out, the traditional publisher may decide not to reprint the book because it doesn't believe a market exists for another 1,000 or so copies. Whereas, if you pay the self-publishing company to print your book, and you are good at marketing it yourself, you can keep ordering and selling as many copies as you want. If you do go with a traditional publisher, in this case you will want your contract to state precisely how many copies will be printed, and you will want to negotiate terms for additional print runs (which the traditional publisher will agree to if the book sells well), or the rights to buy back your rights to the book to reprint it yourself if the traditional publisher chooses not to reprint it.
In the end, your decision of which type of publisher to use should come down to money. Don't let your dream of being published emotionally interfere with your financial concerns. Use the publisher that will be most economical for you, but also in the long run provide you the greatest financial benefit. Having a traditional publisher print your book for free, and then pay you royalties of $1 per copy for 3,000 copies may be great if that's the most copies the book is likely to sell; however, using a self-publishing company and being able to resell the copies you buy from the self-publisher at a $5 per copy profit, and being able to print endless copies, might be a greater, because more profitable, advantage-especially if you are good at marketing your book. In this scenario you would only have to sell 600 copies to earn what you would have from the traditional publisher, and your book may never go out-of-print and far exceed the traditional publisher's print run in sales.
Advantages and disadvantages exist between using a traditional or a self-publishing company, and only you can decide which is right for you. Do your research, weigh the pros and cons, make sure you actually talk to someone at each company and get all your questions answered satisfactorily before you make your final decision. Do your homework, ask other authors what worked for them, and rationally make your decision. And remember, even if you make a mistake, it's fixable. You will have gotten your book published, and you will be better educated about the process for your next book or the revised edition of the first one. Good luck!