Some Thoughts on 5 Key Publishing Paths

A few weeks ago the industrious and expert publishing analyst, Jane Friedman, posted this very useful infographic titled ‘5 Key Publishing Paths’. Since then it has been reproduced many thousands of times by authors across social media channels, blogs and websites, but it has often been reposted and pointed to wrongly as if it represented the holy grail of publishing paths for authors. What some of those reposting the infographic (or didn’t much bother to read the full post) omitted was some of the most valuable pieces of information contained in Friedman’s original post. In some ways, those qualifiers are actually more important than the infographic itself. Maryann Yin, a very wise GalleyCat, reminded us all of Friedman’s intended qualifier when she published her original post with the infographic.

“There is no one path or service that’s right for everyone; you must understand and study the changing landscape and make a choice based on long-term career goals, as well as the unique qualities of your work—not to mention your own strengths and weaknesses.”

… and, crucially, I’ll also add these qualifying points towards the bottom of Friedman’s post.

“I’m also not addressing self-publishing that employs print runs (whether short digital runs or traditional print runs). While neither of these options is necessarily beyond the skill of a new author, it is a more advanced option that is beyond the scope of this chart.
“…I will keep developing it as the publishing landscape changes…”

There lies the answer to much of the misrepresentation of Friedman’s infographic by authors examining and sharing it.

This is a fluid infographic Friedman delivers and acknowledges that it will change over time (probably a lot sooner than you think!). Even the graphic itself is full of qualifiers within the main subtext and under ‘HARD-TO-CLASSIFY CASES,’ noting various emerging paths such as agent-assisted DIY, digital-only  e-book publishing and crowdfunding—all  available to authors but too complex to include in the core five examples of publishing paths.
Here is my brief take on the infographic from my perspective as a traditionally and self-published author, editor of The Independent Publishing Magazine, publishing consultant, and creator of the Publishing Service Index, and reviewer of hundreds of publishing service providers over the last six years.
Despite the voices of doom, I think traditional publishing (a term actually devised for marketing purposes to describe a nefarious and infamous US vanity press) has its place and will be around for a long time, though, I believe this form of publishing path will—in the coming years—reflect an avenue of publishing for fewer authors with a concentration on established, bestselling authors. What makes it distinct from the other four key paths of publishing (as per the infographic) is that it is the only path paying author advances and it also provides access to the widest distribution channels.
But I would add one caveat to this. We are seeing a significant transition in the traditional publishing world from publishing as curation to publishing content services. All major publishers will offer publishing as a paid service—separate to their main imprints—in the future. Penguin and Simon & Schuster have already begun this development by launching such imprints, and while we can argue the validity and moral motivations behind this (additional revenue streams, the use of paid publishing imprints for the purpose of talent discovery, and an alternative answer to the mountainous slush piles); this development is here to stay.
Described by Friedman as a model where the agent, publisher or collective partners with the author and shares the risk and revenue, but still uses industry experience and savvy. In this path, the author does not pay a fee. I have previously used this description to describe some reputable and pretty top-notch assisted publishing services using both traditional and innovative marketing techniques, and significantly, where the assisted publishing provider has developed proper distribution channels for print books as well as online sales channels. I stopped using the term because there are so few assisted services of this calibre. Friedman’s characteristics are even stricter than my mine because she defines a publishing partnership where the author pays no fee and an ‘advance unlikely.’
For me, Friedman’s model of partnership publishing is so close to the traditional path, and the distinctions far too easily blurred and confused. A good partnership publisher with a selection process, proper marketing and distribution in print (not POD) and digital, improved royalties, is pretty damn close to what a traditional publisher does. In my mind, potentially the only distinction is a better profit margin for the author and perhaps a speedier path to publication. I know traditional publishers that pay author advances as low as a few hundred dollars, predominantly small and independent presses! PublishAmerica used to define the payment of $1 to authors in their contract as proof they were an advance-paying publisher! So where do we draw the line?
Add in the fact that there are few partnership publishers (under Friedman’s definition) out there. I’d be hard-pressed to add many more companies to her list of three, and for that reason alone I think partnership publishers as a ‘Key Publishing Path’ is simply too small a percentage of representative authors using this option—difficult to be accurate, but I’d say less than 5% of all published authors, and maybe as low as 2%. For me, either you merge partnership publishers with the traditional path, or you merge it with the best of what is on offer from the Fully Assisted path.
Fully Assisted
There is a huge gamut of publishing services in here, good and bad, from highly reputable publishing services right through to outright vanity presses and scams. Under Friedman’s characteristics of fully assisted publishing services, and the example list she provides, I’m worried her perception of fully assisted publishing does not stretch too far beyond imprints run or powered by Author Solutions (ASI), or at least companies modelled in a very similar way to ASI. Frankly, ASI’s brands might be plentiful and well-known, but a cursory investigation with a proper service comparison with a good assisted provider will tell you quickly that ASI imprints give the whole field (and path) a pretty bad name. I’d actually echo Friedman’s ‘Warnings + Exceptions’ she places under the previous partnership path, where she declares ‘Not all partners are created equal; some may offer little more than digital distribution and administration.’ The very same applies to the fully assisted path and draw your attention back to one of Friedman’s qualifying points. I’m going to repeat it again here because this is the point in Friedman’s infographic where it really becomes most relevant:

“I’m also not addressing self-publishing that employs print runs (whether short digital runs or traditional print runs). While neither of these options is necessarily beyond the skill of a new author, it is a more advanced option that is beyond the scope of this chart.”

I concur with Jane Friedman when she says this. However, when discussing any non-traditional path of publishing, it completely blows the relevance and validity of the information provided. There are two pitfalls here. The first is attempting to define self-publishing by path or category according to digital publishing models, that is—excluding traditional print runs. You can’t extract traditional print runs from self-publishing and then try and compare one path to another based on this omission. The second point is that it reinforces the misconception that self-publishing is the same as digital publishing or e-book publishing. Compound this with the potential that many authors looking at the infographic won’t properly take Friedman’s qualified omission into consideration.
The field of fully assisted is simply too vast to define by one titan company operating in the area (ASI), or by companies offering only POD, online listing and distribution and a fixation on up-selling authors expensive and needless services via publishing packages. There is a lot more to the fully assisted path as an option than the one portrayed in Friedman’s infographic. You can’t define a path or process by ignoring or not addressing a fundamental and critical element of it. As an example, there are many fully assisted services using physical print (short digital run and offset runs), professional editors and designers; distribution options beyond POD; and marketers and publicists making a real effort to sell books.  Under Friedman’s ‘Warnings + Exceptions’ in the fully assisted path, she states: ‘You get what you pay for; you may end up with a book without commercial viability’—but I’d disagree here. You could end up with a book a lot worse than what you paid for (and authors often do), or a book a lot better than the one you started out with! That is why taking the assisted path can be a perilous one, because the difference between choosing a good or bad provider can be the difference between night and day. It should also be noted that authors also choose this option because they understand their book doesn’t have ‘commercial viability’ and they have other reasons for publishing it—niche subjects or publishing just for family and friends.
DIY + Distribution and DIY Direct
Friedman actually separates these two paths, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why. They are both DIY paths—you either choose to do-it-yourself with your skill set or you don’t, whether characterised by dealing with a distribution service or directly with a retail publishing platform like Amazon KDP or Kobo’s Writing Life. Some of the distribution platforms can make the process a little more manageable than the retail ones, but ultimately what you put in is a reflection of the product that comes out. There is simply too little to define these as two distinctly different paths. I could quite easily argue the point that the assisted path could be divided into companies providing various print options beyond POD or who offers more meat on their distribution.
I’d also like to point out the curiosity of Friedman including Lulu and CreateSpace in the DIY + Distribution path—(Disclaimer; I sometimes do it myself. I often refer and list Lulu and CreateSpace as a DIY Self-Publishing path.) Friedman lists Lulu as an example here with the following qualifier: ‘Lulu (e-books and POD; avoid fully assisted service).’ I’m sorry, but no-can-do! Lulu and CreateSpace technically don’t belong there. Both companies offer fully assisted services and therefore are fully assisted service providers under the characteristics Friedman defines—no matter how many authors only choose to use the DIY platform for load-up and distribution. You can’t bang in your own added qualifier, ignore a gamut of services, and then happily shift a company from one path to the other when it doesn’t belong there.
Like I said, I often refer to both companies as DIY, but not specifically to ignore other premium-priced services I know many authors are paying a lot for. Now I’m going to play devil’s advocate.
Tell you what—I’ll make a deal with you all. Let’s leave CreateSpace and Lulu under DIY (because they look so nice there!) but just as long as I can pretend or ignore the fact that traditional publishers pay author advances. That way I can happily move traditional publishers over into the Partnership path. Agree? Like hell you’d agree, and rightly so!
The devil is always in the detail and placing publishers/services into paths or categories is a very precarious business (particularly when you extract an important element of one path out of the equation). The business is changing all the time and service providers are continually changing and tweaking how they operate—for better or poorer.
Jane Friedman’s ‘5 Key Publishing Paths’ is an excellent guide to the current state of play in publishing, but it should be stressed that it is a general guide with oddities and quirks of its own. I’d merge the two DIY paths and probably remove Partnership because I think Crowfunding and peer community publishing models play a greater role now in the path to publication. I’d also properly define the fully assisted path, because under Friedman’s characteristics, it describes anything but fully assisted.
The most important part of choosing your path to publication is doing your research, finding one which suits you as an author, not how it is defined or how popular it is.   

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