A recent trend among some major publishers is to create special imprints where writers pay to get published or ask for a pre-purchase commitment of a minimum number of books. A key distinction is these offers are coming from established companies that have had a tradition of paying writers an advance as well a royalty, even if it’s a low advance, or in some cases making a no-advance offer. But whatever the specifics of the deal, the writer has not had to pay anything or make a purchase commitment.

However, now the pay to play offer has come about because publishing has become much more difficult for what has been traditionally called the “mid-list” book by a relatively unknown author, so sales have gone down, as have advances. Instead, what publishers increasingly want and are willing to pay for with big advances are books by well-known and celebrity authors with a high-profile platform. For example, authors like Hillary Clinton may make millions in advances, plus millions more in sales, while advances for mid-list book authors have commonly shrunk to about a third to a half of what they were. So instead of getting $15,000 to $20,000 for an advance, you may get offered $5000 to $10,000, or even less.

These lower and no advances are a matter of market economics and reflect the growing inequality/rich and poor divide throughout society generally. Likewise, in publishing, the very successful high profile authors are getting more – often much more — in today’s celebrity and media driven culture, while other authors are getting less.

At least in these low or no-advance scenarios, the writer is simply getting less. But in many instances, publishers now are asking writers to be like self-publishers who are paying for the cost of their publication by committing to buy a minimum number of books. However, when this publishing is by an imprint of a major house, the publishing house still is in control, though the copyright as it has traditionally, continues to remain with the author. The main advantage of this arrangement compared to self-publishing with a company which just prints your book and then the marketing is up to you is that the imprint is affiliated with the major publisher. So the book is normally distributed through that publisher’s channels, rather than being a print-on-demand or e-book available on your own imprint or an imprint associated with the self-publishing company. Thus, with a pay to play deal with a traditional publisher, you may be more likely to get reviewed and distributed, though you are still paying a hefty amount up front, rather than the publisher paying you something – or at least not making you pay for publication.

Commonly, these payments range from about $10,000-50,000, which is a substantial amount – and unless your book sells very well, you are unlikely to make all of that money back or turn a profit. For example, one author was offered a deal from Wiley requiring a commitment for 10,000 books, which would cost at least $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the wholesale purchase price to the author. Three co-authors were initially offered a deal based on buying 3000 books, later negotiated down to 2000 books, at $15 each – a total of $30,000, so even if the publisher offered an advance, possibly as much as $5000, the authors would still have to pay $25,000 up front for the books. No wonder they turned down the deal.

A rationale for this requirement to pay up front to buy books is that publishers expect authors with a platform to be doing programs where they can sell high numbers of books, which will be a win-win for the publisher and writer. But if the writer doesn’t have such a platform, the writer will end up with huge piles of unsold books to be stored somewhere like a basement or garage. Or maybe the books might make a nice charitable give-away.

Perhaps the main advantage of such a pay for books arrangement is getting the credential and bragging rights of having a book with a major publisher, which might open other doors down the road. But if the book doesn’t sell very well because you aren’t able to do much to support these book sales, this credential might not matter very much in pitching future books to other publishers. In fact, the low sales of a previous book might prove to be a disadvantage in pitching the next. And today major publishers do little to promote these mid-list books; they depend on the authors to do much or most of the publicity and promotion, so low sales can be a problem.

At least publishers with these pay to publish arrangements are in most cases still somewhat selective in what they publish, so they don’t offer these deals to everyone, as do the self-publishing companies who are essentially printers. So there is some selectivity. But you still have to pay.

Thus, be cautious when you are offered such a deal. Ideally, it’s best to get a publisher who actually wants to pay you to publish your book or at least offers a no advance arrangement. But if you aren’t able to get such a deal, under some circumstances it might be an advantage to go with a pay to play publisher for the aura of publishing with a traditional publisher, as long as you understand you may get little or none of your payment back, though there is always the chance of getting more.

On the other hand, if this is the only option available to you from a traditional publisher, it might be worth considering self-publishing under your own or a self-publishing company imprint. These prices can range from nothing if you do it yourself under CreateSpace or Kindle or similar platforms to a few hundred dollars for help using these platforms or to a few thousand dollars from many self-publishing companies who charge more. Just be aware that you will still commonly need to do your own promotion and publicity to call attention to your book if you set up distribution through a self-publishing platform or company. But now with most publishers today, even those who pay, you still need to cover most or all of the publicity and promotion. Unless you are already a very well-known personality or celebrity, that’s the way of the publishing world today.


Gini Graham Scott, PhD, is the author of over 50 books with major publishers, including two on the writing and publishing books: FIND PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS AND GET PUBLISHED and SELL YOUR BOOK, SCRIPT, OR COLUMN. She has written and produced over 50 short films, has written 15 scripts for features, and has one feature film she wrote and executive produced scheduled for release in February 2015. She also writes scripts for clients, and has several book and film industry Meetup groups which have meetings to discuss members’ books and films. She is the Creative Director for Publishers Agents and Films.