Seems an easy question to answer. One dictionary defines it this way:
pub-lish-er, noun, a person or company that prepares and issues books, journals, music, or other works for sale.
Simple. Straightforward. So what’s there to talk about? Well, things have changed.
Publishers publish for money. No secret there. It's a business. Publishing is time consuming and expensive and that time and money must be recouped. Publishers would upfront the cost of publishing for a chunk of the earnings. That meant they had to select books that could sell, not an easy trick. Some books would fly from the shelves, others couldn’t be given away. That part remains the same.
Then came publishers who charged a fee to publish books. Instead of sharing the risk with the author, they required upfront payment and usually a substantial order from the author. The author made money selling his/her books. The “vanity press” might provide a catalog but little else. Getting vanity press books into bookstores was tough. (The term “vanity press” goes back to the early 1940s.) Vanity publisher are held in low regard by mainstream publishers and authors. While there are exceptions, most authors using a vanity press ended up with a big bill and a garage full of books.
Then things got complicated. Where once there was a simple dichotomy of traditional vs. vanity there evolved variations of the two.
Today there are “shared risk” publishers (aka “co-publishing”). Definitions for this category are a little sloppy because there are different approaches. A shared-risk publisher may ask for some payment to help defer costs. In other words, publisher and author partner on production cost. Money comes out of both pockets.
The industry has also seen the arrival of a hybrid approach to publishing. Some firms offered a shared profit model. The publisher believes the work will sell, signs the author to a publishing deal but offers no advance (“advance” is shorthand for “advance against royalties”) but usually offers a higher royalty rate. Some publishers hold royalties until the book earns back the cost of cover art and editing (this varies from publisher to publisher). After that the earnings are split between the parties.
Traditional publisher. Pays an advance, pays a royalty percentage, pays for front-end costs of production (editing, artwork, formatting, etc). I should note that some traditional publishers have started self-publishing companies.
Vanity press. Author pays a fee to be published. Publisher makes money from the fee and also takes a percentage of profits. No advance.
Self-publishing. Author assumes all the costs. The advent of e-books has made it possible to publish with no cost. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and others take a percentage of profit. Anyone can publish, no matter how poor the work.
Shared risk. Author shares the startup costs. No advance. Author receives a percentage of royalties.
Hybrid. No advance but author receives higher percentage of the royalties. Publisher upfronts the early costs but recoups the money of sales before author royalties kick in.
These are generalizations. Each house has its own quirks so it is in the author’s best interest to read the contract carefully.
One thing is certain: the industry has changed and continues to do so. Authors need to be sharper and more careful than ever before.
Alton Gansky is a full time writer, director of BRMCWC, founder of Gansky.Communications and host of Writer's Talk. He is the award winning author of over 40 books. Prior to turning to full time writing, he was the senior pastor to three Southern Baptist churches. In addition to his writing, he speaks to writers groups and church organizations. www.altongansky.com.
His newest book, 60 People Who Shaped the Church (Baker Books) is now available at Amazon and bookstores everywhere.