Thoughts on… Submission Fees and Business Models [by Jannat Ahmed]

What is a ‘good’ business model when it comes to publishing? Are submission fees all bad? And what part does public funding have to play? In this post, I share my thoughts on indie publishing, public funding and submission fees.

Before we get to the main-meal of this, let me be clear that my personal views on business shape what you’re about to read. I generally believe that the more profit a company makes* *and more unevenly this profit is shared, the more likely it is they are exploiting some people more than others on some level; whatever the business situation, in order to make money, someone ultimately has to decide whose money they’re willing to take, by what means and to what ends.

Here’s my overview on the matter: In this commercially-saturated media and publishing landscape, most indie presses publishing niche creative or literary works aren’t likely to be particularly profitable. There are many reasons for this. Let me touch on the first that came to mind:

Why isn’t indie literary publishing that profitable?

“Passive” entertainments like TV and film are more accessible and plentiful than ever. “Active” entertainments like video games and livestreams are more engaging and sensory. Books, whose cheap and portable instruction/enjoyment I think has been its main selling point (once literacy rates increased and printing presses made books less expensive), are more and more crowded out because all is now also portable and relatively cheap. Books are a bigger time, space and trial investment compared to music too. And perhaps the most important of all, because there’s so much to choose from in all the world and history: people choose books based on what the people around them are reading or talking about, and the people around them are likely to be reading what they’ve heard about, seen on award and bestseller lists, marketed to them in some way, placed on a stand, shelved next to or compared with authors/books they already know, or a brilliant cover or title that has caught their eye or imagination. All this to say, in the short-term, books are only as bestselling as their “marketing”, whatever that might look like, and most indie presses can’t afford the minimum £50,000 of human resources, advertising space, book signings, festival events, submission to big awards et cetera to market one new book that a commercial publisher can.

Your average publishers can generally assume that the majority of the book-buying population in the UK are people who were book readers as children or young adults (bringing with it its own nuances of privilege or lack thereof), who now have a source of income, and a healthy or otherwise relationship to money and ownership. I think we can all relate to the fact that people have only so much time in a year to do all the things they want to do, to watch all they want to watch and read what they want to read and buy what they want to buy. There’s obviously a social aspect as well in wanting to share opinions on said watchings and readings and buyings. For watching and reading, that’s more easily facilitated by reading and watching the same things. And because of limited time, money and other expectations, the average reader is looking to read things they already know about, or books on things that really appeal to their own tastes. Everything in between is very easily lost.

So, what can indie presses do to compete with big publishers?

If they’re well-connected, perhaps they have a chance to be featured at a big book festival, or raise £50k of funds per book published to give their published books the very best chance of success. But most indie publishers don’t have that capacity. They instead exist by making connections with individual authors, printers, bookshops, libraries, distributors, and readers. It is slow and hard work. That’s where we turn to public funding to help bridge some of that gap.

How does public funding work?

To keep the publishing market competitive, public funding is available to smaller presses to publish a broader range of books–often literary, niche or otherwise specialised–that just aren’t as likely to turn over a big profit. There’s less money in indie publishing, so it’s more likely the indie press closes up shop and that’s bad for everyone because variety is the antidote to stagnation and homogeneity. A funded publisher might produce worthwhile art that gets attention, but doesn’t have a big a reach or profit margin as popular commercial productions. My understanding is that public funding bodies cover one or more of the following: a shortfall in income, staff costs, overhead costs and/or marketing costs. And that money goes fast. If you’ve ever employed someone , you’ll know that a £25k salary (dream scenario here – new publishers are likely to be on far less) for two full-time employees actually costs £56k for an employer, not £50k. Office space/warehouse space costs vary vastly, as do necessary subscriptions to guilds and distribution representation, etc. At scale, £100k over a period of years is quickly allocated.

Here’s the thing though, lots of these small presses are barely making a profit or covering costs to begin with, sometimes starting out as voluntary or micro ventures, which means that when funding is made available, these publishers still have to work hard to make money in a lopsided marketplace. While staff numbers can increase with funding, small publishers are definitely not afforded the same expansive resources as a commercial publisher who can easily dedicate a team of 10 or more to work on a single book, to publish hundreds of Advanced Reading Copies, identify every notable bookstagrammer and blogger and vlogger and drive hype. Even if commercial publishers do all this to ensure they are able to publish new authors the next year, they remain largely exclusive. In contrast, the most an independent press might hope for is money to ensure their staff stay and that a book might be sent out to a big award or launch event.

The way people discover books, and other indie art, can feel so limited. There’s Goodreads and Amazon lists (I’m anti-Amazon, by the way, especially when it comes to printed books. They’ve really screwed over the publishing industry by demanding ridiculously low trade prices from publishers to cover their free postage.) There are reviewers and bloggers. There’s online advertising too. But you only have to look at recent book news to know that big and conglomerate publishers can afford to have their books front and centre at chain bookshops, which forces independent bookshops selling the same books to also make sure those books are seen in order to make the sales they need to make. And libraries are wonderful but increasingly underfunded, and mismanaged COVID has not helped.

In this decade of cuts to the arts, publishers also have to consider how to ensure their press remains profitable if/when funding is decreased or stopped. I do have a lot of sympathy for independent presses because until such a point as their books are reliably selling well, which comes with longevity in the industry as much as funding, publishers have to look to diversify their income as much as possible.

So, what is a good business model for the independent publisher?

Let’s look at potential business models for small publishers with niche audiences and consider how they might generate most of their income, with what I think might be the respective drawbacks of each.

A press that charges submission/reading fees.

  • Money from selling books.
  • Money from multiple submissions fees – an opportunity to get money upfront from a wide market of writers.

Cons: Can make the publisher exclusive without tiered options, i.e. excluding writers on low-incomes who cannot afford to pay. Exploits writers to some extent, especially new or naive ones. Can also be seen as a worthwhile investment for some – more usual in USA than UK at the moment, except for competitions. Optional fees create false impression of income for publisher, but without clear guidance of expectations, most people don’t pay optional fee.

A press that is funded through preorders primarily from the author(s).

  • Money from selling books.
  • Money from bulk preorder sales to pay for print run – an opportunity to get money upfront to cover costs. (A small black and white 48-page pamphlet might cost as little as £120 to print 100 copies. If the author, for example, purchases 50 copies for themselves at £3.50 (RRP £6.50), that gives the publisher a “profit” of £55.)

Cons: Exploits the published author to some extent and pushes the risk on the author to make sales. Can also be seen as a worthwhile investment if the book is likely to sell well by the author. Main source of income for publisher to potential detriment of author.

A press that is funded by the editors/staff.

  • Money from selling books.
  • Money from the staff.

Cons: Exploits writers and staff members to some extent, especially if staff work voluntarily without a reliable source of income or support. Limited available income. Can become a bad investment scheme for people, friends and family involved. Can often mean no reliable income for published authors. Writers published with no financial reward.

A press that is funded by a public funder.

  • All of the above, potentially.

Cons: It’s public money. ACE funding comes from the Lottery, where people from lower income backgrounds proportionally tend to spend more money than other groups – can be seen as a tax on the poor. Public funding often continues to reserve its biggest funding pots for organisations who have been in receipt of hundreds of thousands for many years. Means less money is available to new and different organisations, and that an older publishing organisation can become reliant on a level of funding. Public funding doesn’t address structural inequality in terms of pay and access, and sometimes plugs a gap that helps to continue to facilitate systems of inequality. It’s up to publisher to decide from whom and how to raise additional income, because book sales alone is often not enough.

Are submission fees all bad?

As long as there is space for everyone to get involved (tiered fees and a free option), and the risk of exploitation to the new and naive writer is minimised, I think it’s one of the better ways to raise money as an indie publisher. If there is no movement in terms of fees, I’m excluded, so I know others must be too.

In related thoughts, I wish Universal Basic Income was already established so that art-making wasn’t so profit-driven to begin with. Publishing is a weird arts model because unlike, say, acting, where an actor in a small-sized funded film production is paid (I hope) a living wage for the time they spend acting, and then residuals thereafter depending on the reach and success of the thing (I assume), authors cannot expect that. Yes, actors do have to audition and that is an unpaid time/energy investment.

While authors might get a small advance fee from a small funded publisher (in the UK, I should add), it will in no way actually pay for the cost of the author having written the book, and the majority of any money will come from royalties over the time the book is in print. This static thing relies on continually making a profit for a royalty payment to be made, for the author to pay the bills and invest more time in their next project.

Being any sort of sustained writer requires time, space and energy, but as it is, lots of people have very little of those things, and now they’re also expected to part with their money to submit their work to be considered. It feels like the scales are very imbalanced there. On the other side of that, I think submission fees, even the knowledge that one exists even if your own is waived, can help to make sure the writer takes the publisher more seriously. I’m not sure say I would say it ensures the writers take their own writing seriously because that’s something I don’t think many regularly submitting writers need help with.

I wonder about submission fees that push work to the front of the queue, for example, in terms of response times. That seems to me far more likely to imbalance things if those who pay have their work considered first. If money is a proxy for greater opportunity and networks, how do you mitigate all that? Read between two piles of submissions at the same time? Fee for feedback is an interesting model. A publisher recognises itself for its editorial services. And any imbalance that might be created by allowing time to offer feedback to a paying writer can be mitigated by ensuring free feedback is afforded to some portion of self-identifying writers who can’t afford to pay.

What is Lucent Dreaming’s business model?

We’re a mixture of many models at the moment. As a magazine publisher, we’ve known from the very beginning that our audience is made up of mainly writers. We know that the majority of people buying Lucent Dreaming’s magazine are people who know about the authors we publish, or people who want to be published in the magazine, or last but definitely not least, people who like the look of the magazine.

Lucent Dreaming was and is funded by the editors for the most part, but we are now also in receipt of a small grant by Books Council of Wales. Before the BCW grant we started with £60 for a website from our own pockets, and we were fortunate to get £750 seed funding from a graduate scheme in Cardiff which went towards our first print run, launch event and an Adobe subscription. Since then we’ve put all the money we make from our previous issue to our next issue. Contributors were unpaid at the start, but received a free copy of the magazine paid for by the editors and donations via Patreon. We wanted to pay contributors more, so we applied for a grant from the Books Council of Wales who receive money from the Welsh Government. We now receive about £1,150 funding per Lucent Dreaming issue (since issue 8) to cover a shortfall in our costs in order to pay contributors. The original co-founding staff members on the team still volunteer as we currently all have other jobs.

We don’t charge magazine submission fees, but we do encourage people who want to submit to buy a copy of the magazine. (You would be unusual here if you own less than 5 books from Penguin Randomhouse for example. Of course you would want a book deal with them; they can afford to pay you well because you, and many others, have already bought about £50 worth of books from them, which must amount to at least £40 of profit.) We also make some money from our competition fees where there is a free option and option to receive feedback. We trialled a feedback editorial service at the beginning and it didn’t work for us. The admin on already limited time and human resources outweighed the financial benefits.

Is Lucent Dreaming’s business model sustainable?

In terms of growth and editorial staff, not right now. We’re looking into public funding to bridge that gap for us. Ultimately, we would like to be in a situation where we can pay ourselves and our authors well from the beginning, and make enough income from sales not to require any public funding of any kind. But we, like many other small, independent publishers, don’t have access to the structures that support mass book sales, so we all have to look to other ways of earning income that can sustain us long enough to keep producing and platforming the things we want to see in the world.

Final thoughts

As far as I can see, every publishing model has its drawbacks, so it has to be up to the publisher to decide how they mitigate these drawbacks, and whose money they’re willing to take. It’s up to the publisher how they’re going to use and redistribute the money they receive and by what means and to what ends. In my mind, I’d rather see a small, new, and exciting independent publisher, who pays their staff and their authors with pay-what-you-can fees in receipt of public money, rather than an older organisation that reinforces middle-class exclusivity and mediocrity with member-only submissions and submission fees with no reference to access, inclusivity or payment. Why judge the newer one so harshly when the older one has years of funding to answer for?

Until there’s any kind of recompense for established funded publishers doing worse, let’s allow newly funded publishers to do trial and improvement in their own businesses, and put good and beautiful work on our shelves.

And if you have an alternative business model to propose to publishers in receipt of public funding who charge to read work, please do submit it to them with your pay-what-you-can fee attached.

The thing is, identifying the problem is easy. Offering a viable alternative of least exploitation in the absence of being able to sell vast quantities of books is much more difficult, especially in a world where COVID and Brexit has diminished old possibilities and everything future is wholly unknowable. I understand why writers might not want to submit to a market that forces them to pay a fee, and I understand why that can be even more galling when it’s a publicly-funded one, but I’m fairly certain that many newer writers don’t necessarily buy books from the independent publishers they submit work to, never mind having 5+ books from them like I might have from Penguin. I know many people don’t purchase a copy of Lucent Dreaming, or even request one for free, even when they have the option to do so from us. Maybe this is just a Lucent problem, maybe it’s a problem of who we’re marketing to, but if not, then, should even half as many people purchase as submit to new presses, things would be different for everyone. And honestly, it has to be writers and more general readers buying indie books in a schedule more similar to conglomerate-published books to redress the issue of limited finances once and for all. I’m certain in many instances the quality is there, but the sustained marketing isn’t.

Publishing isn’t just a platform where authors are seen, heard and read, it’s a service that refines, packages and sells a product. It has to generate an income from somewhere to meet costs including the costs of paying its published authors. Conglomerates can wait for the reader because they know they will reach them because they can essentially buy their way in. I can see why independent publishing is going the way of academic publishing in making the author pay to publish–or to be read in this instance–, because the most likely candidates to be a buying-readership aren’t there in big enough numbers. Isn’t that peculiar? So, if we aren’t voraciously buying and reading indie books, independent publishers have to front-load their income generation to have the funds to market the books they make, so they can find the buying-readers they need to break that cycle. That’s what Unbound addresses, doesn’t it? The audience front and centre. But that teeters, for me anyway, on the edges of a publicity contest, no matter what the quality, but so does all of publishing to some extent. It’s difficult. I think a lot needs to change to make publishing a healthier industry for independents, not least that we afford new-comers a bit more patience and a lot more generosity.

Let me conclude with this cynical model for the conglomerate publisher:

A press that is funded by sales.

  • Money from selling books.

Cons: Exploits readers to some extent. Can create a book-buying rather than book-reading culture – TBR bookshelves. More emphasis on marketing, publicity, cover or author name than the quality of the book.

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