The Publishing Decision

Bear in mind that copyright ownership is not a subject handled in a standard manner by every publisher. Contract terms between an author and a trade publisher will vary widely, and this topic is beyond the scope of what is discussed here. Generally speaking, the publisher retains ownership of the book’s content, usually in all of its various forms. For authors with a book that has commercial potential in the markets served by a publisher, and who can connect with that publisher, this option has significant advantages, especially for those authors who will be able to produce multiple books with similar mass appeal.

In general, vanity publishing has all of the drawbacks of both self-publishing and commercial publishing. The author pays practically all the costs (and the publisher’s profit), leaving the publisher with no incentive to market and promote the book. Vanity publishers often do not provide more than cursory support for the author’s work, may require a contract that essentially grants the author’s rights to the publisher if it does not do so outright. The author will have little input into the production process as this drives up the vanity publisher’s expenses and time involvement. Costs to retailers are usually on the high side, often pricing the author’s book out of competition with similar books. So, since readers are often reluctant to buy them at their higher price, bookstores are not likely to stock them. As part of their contract, vanity publishers may provide only a small number of books to the author for promotional and personal use, requiring the author to pay wholesale (not production) cost for samples, or may require that the author purchase substantial quantities of the book at minimal discount from list price for “stock.”
When a book is a commissioned work, it is understood from inception that the author is creating a work for the organization paying for the work. Sponsorship can create involvement of the sponsor in every aspect of the work, a virtual co-author with veto power over the content, even after the fact. The advantages of this situation are financial support and other resources such as publicity, plus the likelihood of distribution to a built-in market. Disadvantages include limitations on content, style, and other aspects of the work. A formal arrangement defining copyright ownership and other terms is essential in this case. If you believe that your book, or portions of it, may be of interest to a potential sponsor, it may be more advantageous to write your own work, then later discuss adapting your writing to the sponsor’s interests in a separate commissioned work.

In general, you want your relationship and the copy rights you agree to assign to a publisher to be as tightly defined as possible. A book publisher should have no say so over a licensing agreement with a toy company for a character in your book, for example. The fewer rights you sign away, the more flexibility you will have later on.