Full Service Publishers

customer serviceEver since self-publishing became all the rage, we’ve struggled to find a way to accurately refer to all the publishers that have been publishing books “the regular way” for decades. We’ve called them traditional publishers and legacy publishers; but both terms seem a bit antiquated and even patronizing. Mike Shatzkin has coined the phrase “full service publishers” as a more accurate way to describe them.

I like it, but as Shatzkin admits, this term describes the relationship of the publisher to the author. It says nothing about how the publisher serves the reader.

I can’t help think it’s a bit strange when we get to the point of defining publishers by how they serve authors. Are we forgetting the most important component of this equation? Who buys the publishers’ (and authors’) books anyway?

Of course, the goal of a full service publisher is the same as any other kind of publisher… sell books. So maybe it’s pointless to quibble about how we refer to them.

What do you think? Do you like the term “full service publisher”? Can you think of a better one?


  1. My two pesos re: “father time”…it takes serious resources to race Dakar, some racers might not be in a position to race it while young for a number of reasons. Also, Dakarby natureis a marathon, not a sprint. And the requisite navigation skills take time to hone.

  2. Abra says:

    I HATE the term “full-service publisher”. When I first heard it I assumed it was the new word for AuthorHouse-type vanity press. They’ll sell you publishing services a la carte, or go full-service to make yourself feel like a real writer! I’ll stick with “publisher” and keep applying the modifiers to the models that don’t meet the most widely understood definition.

    To the reader, publisher models are indistinguishable except by the quality of product.

  3. Stephanie M. says:

    Full-service sounds shady. I agree w/ the reader who said royalty publisher. That sets them apart from everyone else in a succinct way.

  4. Else says:

    Actually, “full service publisher” sounds to me like the way a pay-to-play publisher might describe themselves. “For just $3000, you get editing, publicity, everything!”

  5. Jennifer says:

    I think that full-service publisher is a great name. Plus I feel it applies to the reader as well since often only “full-service” publishers can get books into main stream bookstores. This is changing with ebooks, but the term makes sense for both readers and authors.

  6. Peter DeHaan says:

    How about the labels of “royalty publishers” and “royalty-free publishers”?

    • Joe Pote says:

      Royalties are involved either way.

      Even in working with CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), two of the truly self-publishing options available to authors, royalties are paid to the author on sales.

      The distinction with “traditional” publishers is the willingness to pay an up-front advance to the author, in exchange for more input on how the book, title, cover, etc.

      Some may say that they also provide better access to bookstores as well as marketing. However, that seems to be questionable, depending on the company, the author, and investment priorities.

      • Peter DeHaan says:

        Joe, I figured someone would poke a hole in my labels!

        It’s a matter of semantics, of course, but I look at the royalties in your examples as actually being “net sales.”

        This is because I consider self-publishing to be a business decision where I invest money to produce a product, market the product, sell the product, and receive the proceeds from the sale. Hopefully I will cover my direct costs and eventually make a profit.

        If someone else does these things for me and takes a financial risk to publish my book, then I expect royalties.

        Thanks for your input and perspective on this; it is most helpful.

        • Joe Pote says:

          Yes, a very valid point, Peter, in regard to the definition of the term “royalty.”

          Nonetheless, “royalty” is the term used by CreateSpace, Amazon and Barnes & Noble for net sales payments to the author on 100% self-published works.

  7. “Full-service publishers” makes me think of vanity presses that will do the cover design, etc., for you–for a fee. I use “traditional” publisher, and that or something like “conventional” makes the most sense to me.

  8. Howard S. says:

    My immediate thought when I saw “full service publishers” was a vanity publisher that you could pay to do everything traditional publishers do.

    I’m not sure why “traditional publisher” seems antiquated or patronizing. The term connotes a long history that continues to this day.

  9. “Full-service publisher” sounds like a self-publishing company to me. It sounds like a company that’ll target unpubbed authors, letting them know about their various publishing packages – the packages would give information about printing costs, editing, marketing, etc.

    If I heard the term, I’d tune out immediately, that is, unless I wanted to self-pub a book.

    • That’s a good point. It sounds like a sales pitch.

      The hard truth is that ‘being published’ infers that our work has been chosen, and is therefore a privilege.

      When terms like ‘full-service’ are used, it does sound like the publisher’s pitching the writer, and hoping for a profit.

  10. Oh, my first thought when I read the title of this post was; full service publisher means they do it all – including vanity and e-pub. Some traditional publishers have begun to do that; recruit authors to publish for a fee in the hopes the company will decide to adopt them permanently. Another publishing house accepts manuscripts in the traditional manner but charges the author a $4,000 marketing fee up front. Thankfully, most publishers will also e-publish everything they publish traditionally.
    Thanks for clearing up my misconception of what is meant by full service.

  11. Seven says:

    I like ‘trade’ or ‘commercial’ publisher. It says clearly what they do; get books into book stores. These publishers can reach stores that self-publishers generally can’t. In my mind, these are usually physical books and physical stores.

    I don’t see an ebook only publisher as ‘traditional’ (it is not a traditional model), nor do I know how successful they will be in the future. In my mind I put these in with the ‘small presses’. I don’t like to think of them as ‘independent presses’.

    ‘Full Service’ is vanity to me. You pay for every service they offer, and they offer a lot of services. But they don’t place in bookstores. I would expect Publish America to hop on this terminology, particularly if people think full service means commercial.

    Self publishing is self publishing. I prefer thinking of it as going solo rather than being independent, mostly because I’ve seen independent used in many, many other places and the word is getting diluted.

    In the whole clarity of language thing, people don’t really know what you mean when you say ‘I indie published’. Did you publish with an ‘Independent Press’ (one not owned by a multinational conglomerate) or did you ‘Self Publish’?

    Just my thoughts.

  12. Dean Merrill says:

    My term is “conventional publisher.” It’s straightforward and value-neutral.

  13. Joe Pote says:

    Okay, thinking about the primary functional distinction between “traditional” publishers, as compared to all the other varieties available (self, vanity, e, etc.) what stands out is the willingness to pay an advance…and to demand the right to more say-so in the book’s content, title and marketing, in exchange for their investment.

    So…how about “investment publishers”?

    Isn’t that really a better description of the delination? Their willingness to invest money up-front, in the author’s work?

    And…on your other question…as to whether the naming should be a function of the relationship with authors or the relationship with readers…quite frankly, I don’t think many readers give much thought to their relationship with a publisher…to a bookstore or author, maybe, but not to the publisher.

    • Readers don’t, but the publishers need to understand their relationship with the readers or at least to them. If they don’t define themselves, they’ll lose the market.
      There’s so much junk on Amazon that I either know the writer or look at the publisher. If I see Thomas Nelson on it, then it must be at least descent. At least I hope so.

      • Joe Pote says:

        Ah…now you’re starting rumours about the descent of Thomas Nelson… 😉

        Seriously, though, I don’t think most readers ever even notice who the publisher is when they read a book.

        Yes, I know that writers pay attention to such things, but writers are not “typical” readers.

  14. “Full service publisher” is sorta, kinda Evil Nascar-ish.

    “We’ll rotate your tires, fill the gas tank, check the oil and rad fluid AND clean your windshield. But not til our editorial board chews you up and spits you on the ground so that 50 Shades of Garbage can walk by and laugh at your pathetic self”.

    While “traditional publisher” sits back in a leather armchair, lights a Bellicoso cigar and gets Downton Abbey and PBS-y while it embosses your name in gold and offers you a brandy with that (legal in Canada) designer Cuban cigar.

  15. Arrr, me hearties! (couldn’t help it on International Talk Like A Pirate Day…sorry)

    Agree with nearly everybody here. “Full-service” is a misnomer for traditional publishers. All they do is publish the book and arrange for some distribution. It’s still up to the author to publicize. Perhaps we could call them “Nearly Full-Service Publishers”? “Ninety Percent Service Publishers”? “We Almost Do It All Publishers”?

    Yeah, no. I don’t see anything demeaning or patronizing about identifying those who publish in the traditional manner as “traditional publishers.”

    On the matter of serving readers–publishers have never done that, so why worry about it now? Nobody ever walks into a bookstore asking for the latest Tor book, at least as far as I know. There’s a reason the author’s brand is printed in huge letters on the cover and spine while the imprint’s logo is in a teensy little spot near the bookshelf.

  16. David Todd says:

    My preferred terms will never catch on due to their being cumbersome.

    I like:

    publisher-financed publishing
    author-financed publishing.

    I think this best describes the difference. The range of services provided by publishers isn’t as clear cut as it used to be.

  17. Lynn Rush says:

    I’m not really into labels. Whatever publisher you sign with…sign with and be invested in. I’d rather write, hang out with readers & authors, and just enjoy the journey than get too caught up in titles for publishers. There are a lot to choose from these days, so just do your research before signing with any of them to make sure they’re a fit for ya. And most of all, enjoy the journey! It’s an exciting one!!

  18. As a small Christian publishing house, we refer to our company as a hybrid company. We’re somewhere between a self-publishing house and a ‘traditional’ house, including editing, marketing, etc.

    The industry is changing so radically, it’s sometimes hard to keep up and using the correct labels for different types of companies is important. Thanks for the great discussion in this blog!

  19. Timothy Fish says:

    “Full Service Publisher” sounds like how many of the subsidy presses would refer to themselves.

  20. I just found a publisher that I wouldn’t know how to categorize…perhaps y’all can help?

    I recently got a book from Amazon. On the inside from cover there’s a disclaimer that it’s from a ‘Public Domain Publisher’, and that no one owns the copyright, as it was published before 1923.

    Two pages further on is the ‘Library of Congress’ page that shows a copyright date of 1992.

    Cover art’s interesting, too. A pear sitting on a couple of books, I think a part of a painting…for a book about armoured warfare in the Middle East.

    The book was clearly xeroxed – photos have that typical washed-out look.

    Alrighty then…names for this ‘un?

  21. Rick Barry says:

    I receive advertisements from vanity presses that call themselves “full service publishers,” meaning that for a fee they will edit your manuscript, create your cover, print your book, etc. Seems to me the vanity presses had their fingers on this label first.

    For both authors and readers both, the term “traditional publisher” still seems to be the one that cuts through the confusion and identifies the type of business.

  22. I don’t find the term traditional publishing patronizing. I like it.

  23. I think “traditional publisher” is the best term. First, because “legacy” has a counterintuitive meaning outside the computer world. A “legacy” can be a good thing, but folks who use “legacy” want it to be exclusively negative in connotation. It’s a loaded term, therefore. “Traditional” publishing best captures the idea that something from the past still exists, and can be a good thing in the right circumstances.

    “Full service” implies that trad publishers are the only ones who can assemble a suite of services for a writer. We know that’s not the case for a self publishing writer who contracts out various jobs relating to a project.

    So I’ll stick with “traditional” because it’s not meant to be loaded, loathed, or lauded. It’s simply meant to be accurate.

    • I agree with Mr. Bell. And I’ll add that I think full-service implies that traditionally published authors don’t do some things on their own. For example, I know many traditionally published authors who have hired freelance editors before they’ve sent in their manuscripts to the editors of their traditional publisher. And we all hear the stories of authors doing much of their own marketing. So, full-service just seems a little misleading. I think “traditional” continues to fit.

    • Jane Steen says:

      I think James Scott Bell has pretty much summed up my opinion. “Traditional” carries the connotation of the years of experience and expertise that exist in the established publishing industry, and even though I self-publish I have a whole lot of respect for those attributes. I’d hate to see traditional publishers disappear.

    • David Todd says:

      Traditional relative to when? What we call traditional now—publishers financing the entire book through advances, multiple editing, paying for the printing, promoting the book—didn’t exist before somewhere around 1900, or maybe a little earlier. The writers in the 1800s mostly self-published their work, arranging for all those services, and paying for it through pre-publication subscribers.

      So in my mind traditional is not a good word to describe what those publishers do.

  24. Actually, ‘Premium’ might be that best choice of all.

    * Authors ‘pay’ a premium in the difficulty in getting a deal with them.

    * They offer a premium service – there’s a distinct difference in quality in the finished product…hardback or paperback…that you can discern just by holding the book in your hand.

    • Joe Pote says:

      Premium makes sense, but, again who defines what constitutes premium service?

      • Me.

        Seriously, I think there is a combination of factors, including ‘depth’ of editing, quality of materials used and the printing process, and the degree of author support, including advertising and degree of bookstore placement.

        This kind of standard could be codified by taking a weighted average of the performance of mainstream publishers (weighted according to genre and NF topic).

        This begs the question of how the ‘mainstream publishers’ are selected. How about number of titles in impression, number of copies printed/sold, and tenure in business?

        • Joe Pote says:

          Discussing, yesterday, in a marketing meeting, what to name a new product.

          Our major competitor has already branded a name prefixed with the word “smart.”

          Ideas for our product naming included smarter, smartest, genius, …

          You see the problem with use of an adjective with no objective definition…

          Now, in the case of gasoline, the terms are well defined and government regulated in terms of octane levels…

          • Perhaps verbacide is a necessary part of marketing. “Quality” and “value” are tossed around like beach-balls at a Grateful Dead concert.

            Competitor uses “smart?” I’d go with something “intuitive” or “symbiotic.” That’s why I’m not in marketing, I imagine. 🙂

  25. I think that the choice of a label is somewhat disproportionately important to us now – on the cusp of changes and challenges wrought by the past decade’s massive increase in computing applications.

    What we’re calling ‘traditional’ now will probably have another name in a few years, but that name’s going to drift into common usage like a mist rising from a forest floor. We can’t choose it.

    As an example of ‘labeling the future’ gone hideously – and hilariously – wrong, Arthur C. Clarke correctly predicted the popularity of movies available in a portable format, like DVD.

    He called them ‘viddies’.

    (I believe this was from ‘Rendezvous With Rama’)

  26. Richard Davison says:

    Personally, learning this for the first time, I would like to voice my opinion that I like the term ‘Full Service Publishers.’ Thank you for this sharing of information and opinion. It is appreciated.

  27. Catherine Hudson says:

    I think ‘Trade’ or ‘Traditional’ are more accurate as they better describe what was, before the technology age.

    For me those words recall the days when authors were thought of as mysterious creatures, recluse-like wonders who only made contact with their publisher when they were ready to offer their next best seller… he he he.

    But seriously, no matter what term is used, we as authors must research and understand what each and every company offers as the market continues to change. As for the reader? I’m afraid those I ask, check out publishers very rarely – more often or not it is us as authors that they are interested in.

  28. Iola says:

    I don’t think ‘full service publisher’ will work. What services are they offering that PublishAmerica and other vanity publishers don’t claim to offer?

    Traditional publishers include things like editing, proofreading, cover design, ISBN and marketing support in the standard ‘package’, for which the author doesn’t pay a thing.

    The vanity publishers would still claim to be ‘full service’ publishers who offer all these same things to authors – but expect them to pay. Many authors don’t (and won’t).

    As you say, the reader is important. A traditional publisher attempts to make a profit by publishing and selling books that readers will buy. A non-traditional publisher more often makes their money by selling services to authors. These ‘publishers’ don’t care about the reader, as they already have their profit.

  29. R.A.Savary says:

    I think it’s late in the game to be concerned with it. The mistake was made when someone used the term “e-book” instead of “book wanna-be.”

    Maybe “publisher wanna-be” is too rough, but when the real deal is called “traditional” . . . well, let’s just say there’s nothing left but “non-traditional.”

  30. I think it’s the wrong gas station term. “Premium Publishing” gives one the idea that it is only the choicest blend of words.

  31. Paula says:

    Hi Rachelle,
    I thought I had decided before I read everyone’s comments and now I guess I might be ignorant. When I read “full-service” my mind went to a friend who recently self-published. She’s sending out the books for review at her cost. She has to line up the speaking opportunities. She pays to go to events with the hopes of getting to sell a few books. It’s tough. She’s hardworking but still…

    I’ve made an ebook and it didn’t go anywhere. It’s seasonal and the season is coming soon so I’m giving it another shot with more knowledge under my belt. But, I have to pay for extra editing and each element; the cover image, the interior design, etc. I do the leg work on getting it listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, etc.

    When you take into account all that goes into being “self-serve” I don’t think it’s ignorance talking. When someone says,”full-serve” you got my attention.

    It may not be perfect, but it might be worth the extra effort to acquire.

  32. I also don’t like “Full Service Publisher.” To me, that means the sort of publisher who offers extra services–the kind that cost you money. Traditional or Self describes it best.

  33. “Full Service” makes me think of being at a hotel where EVERYTHING (and I mean everything) is done for me and I don’t have to lift a finger. When I saw the subject line in my email I thought, “Hmmm, maybe they do all the marketing, too!” So it seems to me ‘full service’ is maybe excessive.

    I never thought “traditional” could be considered patronizing at all. I know exactly what it means as soon as I see it and it describes publishers accurately because it is what they are (even if they go with an e-book, the means to get published remains the same right? And you bear the name of a known house). If I was in a really patronizing mood, I’d call them “real” publishers. I think “real” is more antiquated as more and more people seem to be making a fair go of self-publishing which has oft been considered “fake”.

    Do we need a new name for it/them? It’d be difficult to create a name for one and not offend the other somewhere along the line. Facts are facts, and traditional publishers are established houses whereas Print-on-demand etc are more randomly known (if at all). EH Publishing/Publisher = established house… versus solidarity publishing 😉 But when is publishing NOT a team effort?

    When someone says “Traditional Publisher”, I don’t have to think about what they mean, and I definitely do not view it as being unadventurous or lacking innovation. These guys are in the game for a reason, and they know how to keep at the forefront. It’s the in-road that’s traditional.

  34. I like “full service publisher”, and
    I think it can be used to describe the publishers’ service to readers, as well.

    When I read self-published books, the most common weakness I see (though it’s certainly not present in every self-published work) is a lack of editing at all levels — from substantive editing down to basic proofreading.

    A good “full service publisher” provides quality editing services. The reader benefits along with the author.

    Therefore… full service publisher works for me!

    • Jackie Ley says:

      Laureen, I’d like to think that traditional publishing involves quality editing services, but in these cash-strapped times I’m not so sure. Increasingly my enjoyment of trad-pubbed fiction is marred by the need to edit in my head as I read. Maybe that’s the common curse of writers, but a lot of what I pick up on should have been dealt with by an in-house copy editor.

  35. Yes, I agree that, given how publishers offer virtually ZERO marketing and promotional help to authors these days, (outside of the top 5), “full service” publishing is quite inaccurate.

    I am not crazy about “traditional”, but it makes the most sense, I dare say.

  36. I will stick with Traditional Publishers – They are traditional, sticking to their stuck in the mud ways OLD ways. Full Service implies Full Service, but to all or only those who can jump through the right hoops (Query, Agent, Cover Letter) pay Traditional royalties, and take the authors rights to his work in the process.
    There are problems with the traditional method and hence why there is a revolution going on in the Publishing world.
    Wouldn’t a Vanity Publisher be a Full Service Publisher only the unwitting author foots the entire cost up front?
    You can probably guess which side of the fence I am on. Traditional publishing is unfair in its broken down system of operating procedures. God knows how many great authors of the past never saw their work in print to be shared with the world. When you have publishers and agents who are also authors it is a conflict of interest.
    Self publishing has its problems and the new slush pile is on E-books web sites but the winners and losers / those with talent and those without will be sorted out in due time all at the expense of readers and Traditional Publishing.

  37. Mira says:

    Actually, Shatzkin talks about how publishers have historically been set up to provide full service to other publishers. He would like to extend the term toward writers, most likely to support the idea that Traditional Publishers provide value to the writer.

    However, ‘Full service’ is not yet an accurate description of what Traditional Publishers provide. There are large gaps in what Traditional Publishers provide writers, such as marketing support, a collegial relationship, decent contract terms, and adequate compensation.

    Hopefully, that will hopefully change, as the drift toward self-publishing begins to convince Publishers they need to offer a higher value in exchange for book rights.

    So, rather than talking about Publishers ‘serving’ authors, I think a better way to put it is that Publishers need to offer services to writers that are of enough value that the writer will choose them.

  38. I’m not sure “full-service” works. Traditional works because self-publishing is still “non-traditional.” It’s unconventional, but that is changing. You’d think with so many writers involved, we could come up with a decent label.

  39. Natalie says:

    Traditional vs self for me. I don’t like “full-service”, I don’t think it gets across the distinction at all.

  40. Ruth Taylor says:

    I don’t care for Mike Shatzkin’s term. If I hadn’t read this blog post and someone used it, I’d have no idea what they were talking about.

    Traditional publisher works for me. Everyone understands what it means.

    Ditto B.B.Burke’s comment.

  41. But are all publishers providing the same ‘full’ service? There are independent publishers that can’t afford as much marketing as the big 6; there are electronic only publishers sprouting up. I think it’s all getting very confusing. I think ‘trade’ still fits and is more meaningful than ‘traditional’.

  42. Ron says:

    For me, it will always be publisher (or traditional publisher) and self-publisher. I don’t think “full service publisher” adds to the value. Possibly a publishing company versus a self publisher? I self published my book, which makes me the publisher, but I am not a publishing company. That makes the most sense to me.

  43. So I suppose that by extension, self-publishing is really “self-serve publishing.” Just like gas stations.

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