A concept many writers don’t think about or question is what exactly is a publisher, and what do publishers do.

The job of a publisher is to publish a book. That’s it. They will take your manuscript, edit it, format it, cover it, and make it widely available for readers to buy. Some will provide additional services, but they are usually limited and geared toward assisting you as part of their house, rather than you personally. If you’re looking for someone who will do your marketing, promotions, bookkeeping, etc., you’re probably thinking of something other than a publisher.

There are different types of publishers and their terms of service will vary, which is why it’s important to read up on any place you want to submit your manuscript.

Vanity Publishers are pretty much a thing of the past. Though some do still exist, in the digital world of self-publishing, it could be argued they do actually provide a useful service now. Not so in the past. In the past, vanity publishers would essentially create the printed book for you. They would charge you for it up front, and then ship you as many books as you liked, but the selling of them would be up to you. Hence the vanity part of the title. They were really an option for writers who just wanted to have their books printed and couldn’t get a reputable publisher to give them the time of day. You don’t see them as much these days because, like authors, many professionals in supporting industries like editing, cover design, and formatting have gone independent and will offer their paid services to anyone.

Small/Independent Publishers are much like independent authors, except in groups. They still provide the essential services of a publishing house, but on a much smaller scale, and with limited resources, which means they can’t go as big or as far as the bigger houses. They will usually focus on eBook publishing and leave print and audio rights in the hands of authors. If they do offer print, it’s likely print-on-demand, and will not guarantee a book any shelf space at brick-and-mortar stores. On the plus side, they tend to be more open to new writers just starting out and are often an excellent starting point.

Big Name Publishers are the traditional behemoths who have been in business for years and years, and have built up a reputation and author roster that can make authors want to weep with envy. They are extremely difficult to get into, often necessitate the hiring of an agent, can be very demanding, and leave very little control to the author (read: almost none). While signing with a big publisher can open a great many doors for an author, it also costs a great deal in terms of freedom and control. Big publishers contract for all rights to all formats of a book, and sometimes even a pen name, and will often lock a successful writer in for a particular series. Authors with big publishers have zero say in things like format, cover design, or pricing and distribution. On the other hand, those are four things authors don’t need to worry about.

Self-published Authors are also publishers. They essentially do everything a publishing house would do, plus a few things extra. But while it’s a lot more work, the reward can be greater as well. Publishing through a distributor like Smashwords or Draft2Digital gives authors royalties that are sometimes a multiple of what they would have gotten through a publisher, while giving them a similar reach. Authors also have the option to publish directly to some stores like Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Kobo, which might net them slightly higher royalties, but it limits their reach and is a lot more work. Bottom line: writers with good business instincts and work ethic can still make good money publishing independently.


  • Reputation
  • Absorbing upfront production costs
  • Industry contacts and negotiating power
  • Worldwide distribution and (sometimes) international translations
  • Some (limited) marketing as part of general house marketing
  • Support staff
  • Author community, networking
  • (Rarely, and not as great as people assume) book advances


  • Creative control over formatting and cover design
  • Pricing control
  • Copyrights to manuscript and sometimes pen name
  • A large cut of net royalties