4 Pathways to Publishing: DIY, Assisted, Pro-Team, and Subsidy Options

by | Mar 9, 2015

I was honored to be asked to speak today at a half-day workshop run by Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club.

The topic was Pathways to Publication, and here’s how the workshop was described:

“Authors who decide to publish their own books face a dizzying array of choices. In today’s digital publishing environment, it can be difficult to determine which is the best path for you and your book. Come learn the main pathways authors are using today to get their books into print and digital formats. We’ll walk through many of the decisions self-publishers need to make to publish efficiently and avoid the frustration and “analysis paralysis” that stops too many in their tracks.”

As part of this presentation, I realized attendees could use some guidelines on how to deal with all the actors they may run into once they begin looking for help from professionals or “self-publishing companies” (bit of an oxymoron, yes?).

I think it’s good to review these approaches once in a while. There are many new operators in this field with new business ideas and it can be hard to tell one from another.

When you search for help to get your book published, you’ll run into 4 distinct options for how to proceed. Although they are certainly not all “self-publishing,” each is used by lots of authors.

Here they are with my “show notes” of important points to make during the presentation.

DIY self-publishing

Where the author sets out to publish her own books, and to do all the work on her own. Many authors with limited budgets walk this path, with more or less success. It can be time consuming and frustrating, but along the way you’ll probably learn a lot. Some key points:

  • You get total control, but you have to do everything yourself. This is only good for “hobbyists,” or if you really have no budget at all.
  • You will have to accept that your book will be unedited (or self-edited) and designed as an amateur product.
  • DIY works best for books that are direct to digital since print is much more challenging to produce.
  • You may miss efficiencies or economies that professionals know how to use in either editing or design and production.

Pro-team publishing

I coined this term a few years ago to give a name to the practice of self-publishing authors hiring book publishing professionals to complete many of the tasks handled by the staff of a publishing company. While these authors may take on some of the publishing chores themselves, they have a budget that will allow for professional help and the ability to negotiate with and hire freelancers:

  • You’ll contract with professionals for editing, design and marketing.
  • It’s collaborative—you need to control costs closely to stay in budget.
  • This is a more expensive option, but necessary if you think you have a book that will sell in bookstores nationally.
  • The only way to get a professional-level book because professionals will produce it.
  • Your team might include developmental and copyeditors, book and cover designers, illustrators, proofreaders, indexers, publicity, social media, and marketing folk.

Subsidy publishing

This is where you turn your manuscript—and a large sum of money—over to a “pay to play” publisher and they do everything. What most authors new to the self-publishing scene don’t realize is that these companies are in business to sell books and services to authors. Period. It’s not self-publishing, since the subsidy company will be the publisher.

Don’t use this option if you want to sell your books, or if you hope to go on to publish more. The only possible reason to use a subsidy publisher is if you have no desire to get involved in any way with the preparation and publication of the book, and if you plan to only buy copies of the book for your own use. Otherwise, forget it.

The problems with subsidy:

  • You lose control of the project’s timeline
  • You cannot control the price of your book and many subsidy-published books have their retail price set unnaturally high, hurting any chance of sales but maximizing the profits from sales to authors.
  • Contractors used for “package” deals may have no connection to the rest of the project or be of unknown expertise
  • There is still a stigma attached to subsidy-published books
  • You will be dealing with a company whose sole source of income is selling services to authors, not from selling books to buyers
  • Even though you pay for all the services, you will likely be unable to get reproduction files at all, or if available they may be very expensive.
  • The quality of purchased services may be very low for the price you are paying
  • You will end up paying a very high price for books you purchase direct
  • Example: 180-page softcover priced at $22.95
    Author price is $11.50, subsidy pub takes $6 profit from each sale to author(!)
  • Beware of overly emotional appeals, these firms are masters at tweaking your heartstrings for their own benefit

Assisted self-publishing

There are alot of experiments going on bringing new models of the publishing process into play, and many fall into this category. Mainly, I take assisted self-publishing to mean an author buying a “package” of services from a vendor to help them set up their own publishing company and bring their books to market.

I would also include book shepherds in this category, since they provide assistance all along the publishing path:

  • A book shepherd can oversee your book project, bring in pros that you need, orient your marketing, and help educate you about the process
  • There are many companies and individuals offering author services for a fee, but they don’t become your publisher, they help you set up your own publishing enterprise
  • Some say that for true self-publishing you need to “own” your own ISBNs and be shown as the “publisher of record” for your books
  • Costs more than DIY, less than Subsidy
  • Unlike Pro-Team, you may not have direct contact with the people working on your book
  • Since these services are often sold through “packages” with varying levels of support, don’t be tempted to buy more than you actually need.

The presentation went well, and I expect it brought some clarity to people wondering how to enter this process.

What path have you traveled to get your books published? Have I left something out? Let me know in the comments, because I’ll be talking about this for some time to come.

Photo by ereine

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Laura Bastian

    I definitely see plenty of authors go the Pro-Team route these days, including via Booktrope. I’m curious to see what happens with the new marketplaces seeking to match authors with publishing professionals – among them, Reedsy, whitefox, and BiblioCrunch. There seems to be a rapidly growing need for CURATED publishing talent.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Laura, I’m as interested as you are. Book designers, editors, book shepherds, and publishing consultants have all fulfilled this role in the past, but the idea of setting up a “marketplace” where authors can find the help they need, without the fear of being scammed, is a good one. We don’t know yet whether one of these firms will turn out to be the solution, but they are great developments for authors.

      And BTW this was the same impetus behind my recent book, coauthored with Betty Sargent, The Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide where we gathered almost 1,000 curated and verified resources that authors might need in bringing their books to market.

  2. Amanda McTigue

    I attended this workshop, Joel. On the money. Clear as a bell. So helpful. As an author who has published DIY-Self, with a Team and Traditionally, I’m struck by how muddled the information can be on this topic. Not so your presentation, not to mention, your resources. I’m on my way to completing Novel #2 along with a compilation of short stories. Looking forward to course correcting my plans with new strategies. I’ll be steering folks here to your info-hub. Many thanks.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Amanda,

      Thanks so much for your feedback, I really enjoyed the event—and your great group of writers—quite a bit, and I’m glad it helped bring some clarity to a subject that can be very confusing.

  3. Diane Tibert

    It’s interesting that you gave authors who control all aspects of their publishing (including hiring an editor) two different names: DIY and Pro-team Publishing. I would consider myself a DIY even though I hire an editor. I’m not a Pro-team publisher because I seldom hire anyone except the editor.

    From your meaning, DIYs are the authors we want to avoid when buying books. It is well known that you can’t editor your own material, even editors can’t edit their own manuscripts to a certain degree.

    I wrote a post on my blog more than a year ago entitled Four Types of Book Publishers: https://dianetibert.com/2013/09/09/four-types-of-book-publishing/

    I did it because I found too many authors falling for Joint-Publishing schemes, which sounds more like a mix of what you call Subsidy Publishing and Assisted Self-publishing.

    Self-publishing (to me) means the author maintains all control and rights to their finished product. Many who venture into Joint-Publishing often find out the hard way that they don’t own everything when they part ways with the company.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The “joint publishing” sounds a lot like what we used to call “partnership publishing” and I bet it’s pretty much the same thing.

      There’s nothing inherently wrong about a publisher agreeing to publish a book where the author pays the production costs and, in exchange, becomes an equity partner in the book’s profits.

      But in the real world, where there’s likely to be a real power imbalance between the author and the publisher, these arrangements don’t always work out well.

      And if that’s the only model the publisher offers, I’d probably classify them as subsidy publishers anyway.

      Despite the differences in terminology, I think we’re on the same page. Many authors hire only 1 or 2 professionals to help them bring their books to market, and whatever we call them, they are true self-publishers.

  4. Ernie Zelinski

    I have always taken the DIY route when I have self-published.

    For “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”, I hired two editors for around $400 each. I also hired a professional cover designer for $500 (she gave a great deal given that others would have charged much more). I used a Quark Express template that I had from a previous project to lay out the book myself. I hired a graphic designer for about $500 to create a few cartoons for me. So the total cost initially was around $2,000 to me.

    Then I got a US distributor. I did all the marketing myself, creatiing between 50 and 100 unique marketing techniqes that most writers are not creative enough to come up with and that are more effective than things like social media. I also sold the foreign rights to 8 foreign publishers by myself rather than using a North American rights agent. The result is that I have a book that has generated me $1 million in pretax profits since 2003 and could possibly generate me another $1 million in the next 10 years. Nowadays, when I order a print run of the book for my US distributor, I order 15,000 copies. That gets the cost down to around $1.50 a copy and adds to my profit margins.

    One other thing: I have given away around 5,000 copies of the book over the years. That has added a cost of over $20,000 (with mailing costs) in the last 10 years but the return of giving that many books to the right people has far exceeded the cost.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  5. s.k. bright

    Hey, thanks for writing this. Very helpful

  6. Kate Tilton

    Love this Joel! Most authors I know go through the Pro-team option (which includes me sometimes). I have a few authors I know who work on the assisted self-publishing route which is great for authors who want the support and guidance.

    What is your take on publisher’s like Booktrope?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Kate, thanks. Part of the reason I posted this was so that I could point people to it later to explain these options in a concise way. Most of my clients go the Pro-Team route as well, although we have many DIY customers for our templates.

      Booktrope is another interesting experiment, this time in “team publishing” but I think it’s too early to evaluate how useful they will be to indie authors. Another interesting experiment that bears watching is Inkshares.com, a publishing business built on top of a crowdfunding platform. Interesting days.

      • Kate Tilton

        Yes, that’s a great plan Joel! I’ve also seen authors do the pro-team option but use our templates instead of hiring on a team member for formatting. It’s pretty cool how much control an author can have over their journey now.

        Maybe in the future we will see a section for “team publishing” on this article. It would be a great addition.



  1. Top Picks Thursday 03-19-2015 | The Author Chronicles - […] today. Eliot Peper discusses the pros and cons of going with a small press, Joel Friedlander gives 4 pathways…
  2. 4 Pathways to Publishing: DIY, Assisted, Pro-Team, and Subsidy Options — The Book Designer | - […] 4 Pathways to Publishing: DIY, Assisted, Pro-Team, and Subsidy Options — The Book Designer. […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *