Of the many issues highlighted by the recent launch of pay-to-publish divisions by two major commercial publishers (Harlequin Enterprises’ DellArte Press–nee Harlequin Horizons–and Thomas Nelson’s West Bow Press), one of the most interesting, to me, is how blurred the distinction between self-publishing and vanity publishing has become.
Like many other changes in and around the publishing world, we owe it all digital technology. Pre-digital, self-publishing meant that you became your own publisher, undertaking or contracting out every aspect of the job yourself–from editing to design to printing/binding to warehousing to sales (famous example: What Color Is Your Parachute?). Vanity publishing meant that you paid a company to do it all for you (examples: Vantage Press, Dorrance Publishing). Although the end result was similar (since either way, you paid the full cost of production and had to store and sell the books yourself), self-publishing provided greater control over quality and cost.
In the late 1990’s, a different kind of vanity publisher began appearing: one that took advantage of the then-new print-on-demand technology. Because the books were produced on demand on glorified photocopiers, rather than in quantity on offset presses, these new digitally-based vanity publishers could charge much lower prices, as well as eliminate the problems of storage and unsold stock. There was even some degree of distribution, via Internet booksellers such as Amazon. Writers paid an initial setup fee, and the company recouped production costs at the point of sale, keeping the lion’s share of profits and paying the author a “royalty.” (Among the first digital vanities: AuthorHouse and iUniverse, both now owned by Author Solutions).
Looking for a way to set themselves apart from the expensive offset vanities of old, and also for a stigma-free term they could use in advertising, these new companies dubbed themselves “self-publishing services.” This has been the accepted term for fee-based digital publishing ever since–even as the costs have skyrocketed to old-fashioned offset vanity press levels, even as the old offset vanities have gone digital, even as major commercial publishers have begun experimenting with fee-based publishing, even as ambitious publishing service conglomerates like Author Solutions attempt to confuse the issue even further by re-christening themselves “independent publishers.”
This is the answer to one of the questions I’ve seen asked over the past couple of weeks: how Harlequin could have failed to understand that DellArte Press was not self-publishing, but vanity publishing. The kind of service offered by DellArte has been called “self-publishing” since the late 1990’s, with little criticism or protest. For many if not most people, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and their kin have become the standard definition of self-publishing. (Example: when Lisa Genova’s iUniverse-published book, Still Alice, got picked up by a commercial publisher, the extensive news coverage described her as a “self-published author,” and no one disputed that designation.) For a sizeable group of writers, this method of publishing has even become an ideological position, with iUniverse, Lulu and others supposedly leveling the field by allowing writers to bypass slow, exclusionary, and behemothic “traditional” publishers, while avoiding the DIY hassle of true self-publishing.
There’s been a lot of effort, in the discussion over DellArte (and, to a much lesser extent, West Bow), to establish an unambiguous dividing line between “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing.” Is self-publishing keeping 100% of the profit from sales? Is it owning your ISBN number? If the company that produces your book takes a cut, or if you use its ISBN, are you by definition vanity published, even if you didn’t pay an upfront fee? Is any print-on-demand publishing service vanity publishing, or are there meaningful differences between them? There’s also been discussion of how the pejorative connotations of “vanity” distort the discourse. Some feel that the term should be retired–but coming up with a new term is difficult.
These are all relevant questions. But I think that the lines between self-publishing and vanity publishing have become so hopelessly blurred, both by custom and ideology, that crafting an authoritative set of definitions is impossible (not to mention, no matter what one comes up with, someone is always bound to disagree). I think it makes more sense to see fee-based publishing as a continuum, with true self-publishing and full-on vanity publishing as the extremes, and many variations in between.
Moreover, beyond matters of terminology, or the ethical concerns that arise when commercial publishers attempt to monetize their slush piles by setting up their own pay-to-play publishing divisions, there’s a much more fundamental question: no matter who offers it or what it’s called, is paying to publish a good choice for authors? In some cases, the answer will be yes (in which case the writer must then decide which kind of fee-based publishing best suits his or her needs). In many others, it will be no.
In the end, what’s important is that writers know their goals, do their research, understand the challenges, ignore the hype, and do their best to make an informed decision. Wishful thinking, I know. Still, I live in hope.
Having said all of the above, I’m going to add to the confusion by offering my own set of definitions.
When the DellArte discussion began, I felt it was fair to make a distinction between vanity publishers (fee-based publishers that presented themselves as publishers, rather than as publishing services) and digital publishing services like AuthorHouse, which were perhaps not entirely forthright in their presentation of the issues surrounding fee-based publishing, but at least didn’t try to pretend to be something they weren’t. On reflection, however, I feel that in terms of hype, expense, and value, there’s not a hair’s worth of difference in most cases. There is, however, a subset of digital publishing services that do provide something different (IMO, anyway), as you’ll see below.
So here goes: My attempt to define the major points on the continuum of fee-based publishing.
Self-publishing. I described this above: you handle or contract out all aspects of production and marketing yourself, from editing, to design, to printing/binding, to warehousing, to selling. In true self-publishing, you own your ISBN number (it has also been pointed out to me that some self-publishers don’t use ISBNs), and keep all sales proceeds. You do not grant or encumber your publishing rights in any way.
Assisted self-publishing. Assisted self-publishing companies charge no setup or other fees (although most sell a variety of add-ons, some quite expensive), recoup production costs at the point of sale, and make their money by keeping a cut of profits (you can usually determine what the profit is by setting your own price). They’ll provide their own ISBN, or let you use or buy yours. To enable the company to produce your book, you may be required to grant nonexclusive publishing rights (terminable at will), and to indemnify it against legal action. Examples: Lulu, Cafe Press, Blurb, CreateSpace (although with CreateSpace and BookSurge merging, that may change).
Vanity publishing. Any kind of publishing or publishing service that requires you to pay an upfront or setup fee. This would include print-on-demand publishing services like the Author Solutions brands, former offset vanities like Dorrance Publishing that now use a digital model, and book manufacturers like Brown Books that offer a more elaborate (and more expensive) service, but also the option of short-run printing. Such companies handle the entire publishing process for you, and may or may not exercise some degree of selectivity. In return, you grant publishing rights (usually nonexclusive and terminable at will), accept the company’s ISBN and pricing structure, and are paid a pre-set “royalty.” While not attempting to conceal the fact that they charge fees, or pretending to match your resources with their own, these companies can be quite misleading in their presentation of the benefits of fee-based publishing.
Deceptive vanity publishing. Fee-based publishers that pretend to be something else–whether by failing to reveal their fees on their websites or in their promotional materials (SterlingHouse Publisher, Strategic Book Publishing), charging fees for something other than printing and binding (such as requiring or pressuring authors to buy their own books–American Book Publishing, Anomalous Press, VMI Publishers), claiming to match authors’ fees with their own money or resources (Commonwealth Publications, Northwest Publishing), or denying that they are vanity or subsidy publishers despite charging a fee (Tate Publishing).
A vanity publisher does end to end publication of an author's MS for a fee.
I prefer the term subsidy publisher because it is less offensive. A subsidy arrangement has some or all of the following features:
The vendor sets the price or the range
of allowable prices.
The vendor is the publisher of record.
The vendor provides the ISBN from its own block.
The list price is higher than for comparable books.
The net profit on each book sold is less than with self-publishing.
Musicians, sculptors, filmmakers and painters all may pay for publishing services when they can DIY. They are not called vain for doing so.
There is an elitist element behind the term "vanity publishing" or "vanity author." If one wants to steer authors clear of scams, using a more neutral term would be helpful.
You do not find this kind of elitist phrasing in other art forms.
If an author pays for a service-it shouldn't necessarily be seen as vanity unless all writing or artistic expression is viewed that way.
Frances, we are coming in on this topic (authors paying for illustrators) from perhaps different angles so this could be part of the problem.
You obviously work, as an author, in a variety of markets, perhaps fiction and non fiction.
I work as a children's book illustrator (mostly fiction)
In my circle of professional CB Illustrators friends,none of us would willingly (meaning unless we are starving, and it happens:) work with an author unless it was a WFH situation, and paid very well.
We are always contacted by the publishers (the editor or the art director/art buyer) We go back and forth with terms, amount of advance, royalties (typically 5% to the illustrator, 5% to the author) etc, then they set the illustrator up with a, seperate to the author, contract. The manuscript is sent to us and we begin the project. We, most times, never hear or talk to the author before, during or after the books.
Many of these illustrators work with the publishers on non-fiction and craft books etc. With the educational books it is often WFH and royalties are not involved but it is still all handled through the publisher and the payments are made by the publisher.
My experience with authors emailing to hire illustrators has only been because either they are self publishing or they are dealing with a publisher who is not willing to financially back the book to any great degree. They are often small, start up companies. I must add, I have heard of publishers that traditionally deal with adult non-fiction telling the author to find their own illustrator or photographer. They do not have the same need for illustration, so do not keep files of illustration samples, as do Children's book publishers. This may be where our confusion is coming from. I'm thinking, Scholastic, Random House, HarperCollins etc and you may be thinking of more adult publishers?
Now, Illustrators on the other hand, are often welcome to submit dummy picture books (with sketches/illustration) to the commercial publishers. That is a whole other story)
Now…. if only I could write!:)
There are many different publishers, and they do not all operate identically. Even if they all publish a certain type of book, and even if they are all commercial publishers. Which I'd define as publishing to make money, and succeeding at it.
I think we fully agree that authors should learn as much as possible about the publishing business to keep from getting scammed. And also, to avoid hiring people who are competent and fulfill the terms of their contracts honestly, but who the author did not actually need to hire in the first place.
To do that, I think authors should do plenty of research on the publishing industry, using a wide variety of sources, and on an ongoing basis. If it's possible, it's really good experience to work in-house for a publisher for at least a while.
There is always something new to learn, and that is one of the really great things about writing and publishing in general.
For children's books, if the author has hired a high-quality illustrator who has worked under his or her direction, and the contract is in order and the rights correctly transferred, there is no reason for the publisher to reject the book because it is not a royalty-sharing collaboration.
Well, yes, there is. It simply is not what commercial children's fiction publishers want. Publishers prefer to pair authors and illustrators themselves.
This issue is discussed in detail in this article by a professional children's book illustrator. She says,
Including illustrations will only make your chances of publication slimmer, because the publisher has to 1) like the story, 2) like the art, and 3) like the story and the art put together. You will have a much better chance of publication if you submit the story alone.
I have also come across a few writers who are under the impression that hiring a reputable illustrator will give them an “in” into the industry. Most illustrators, in fact, don’t have much clout with industry insiders; artists, even the published ones, struggle to find work just as writers do. Either way, it doesn’t matter because again, art and writing are judged separately and often by different people.
It's also addressed by experienced children's book editor Harold Underdown on his excellent Purple Crayon website. He says,
I do sometimes hear from writers who know a published illustrator who has created some illustrations for their manuscript, or who has offered to do so, or who might be persuaded to do so…They wonder if in such a case the usual warnings about submitting manuscript and illustrations together still apply…[E]ven if you submit your manuscript with the illustrator's samples, and even if the editor likes the samples, she may not believe that they are a good match for your manuscript, or even that teaming up your manuscript with that illustrator's work will "help" it. The editor still has to want to publish the manuscript.
Yes, as I've been saying, there are different types of publishers, and not all of them publish fiction.
For children's books, if the author has hired a high-quality illustrator who has worked under his or her direction, and the contract is in order and the rights correctly transferred, there is no reason for the publisher to reject the book because it is not a royalty-sharing collaboration.
I am not saying that disreputable literary agencies never induce clients to hire illustrators for no good readon. I am just saying there are legitimate reasons to hire illustrators and there are highly competent ones available.
I should really get off this b-board but I will leave you with some thoughts. At the time Lark offered me a contract they were not using packagers. I don't know if they use packagers now.
But, I once interviewed as a writer with a packager. If they are typical of packagers, you could write another whole scam column about packagers. The amount they were offering me for writing a book on a work-for-hire basis was astoundingly low. When I expressed my indignation, they said, "Lots of other writers will be happy to accept our offer."
Then there was the agent who would only sign me on if I wrote under the name of one of his authors. The author was to take a percentage even though he would have nothing to do with writing the book. I knew that author: I was the editor for his first book. I told the agent, "If I'm writing the whole book, I want to write it under my own name." The agent said, "His name will sell better." I called the author up directly and said, "What's in this deal for me?" And he said, "Look, _I_ don't think there is anything in this deal for you, it was all the agent's idea."
Scams. I may have sometimes have to screen out incompetent freelancers, I may sometimes have to make my printer rebind a run because they screwed up printing the cover, and some customers pay so slowly I have to require payment up front. But by self-publishing–really self-publishing, not through a vanity press–I simply do not have to worry about most scams.
Who was the publisher, Frances? This is not typical practice among commercial children's fiction publishers, unless the author is also the illustrator or the book is an author-illustrator collaboration.
Lark Books is a nonfiction specialty imprint. For nonfiction projects, it's not at all unusual for publishers to expect authors to provide all illustrations, charts, graphs, etc. (I'd also expect that many of Lark's projects are packaged.) For fiction, however, this is not typical of commercial publishers. If you're the author of a children's book that is not a collaboration, and you submit it with illustrations provided by someone else, you'll probably be rejected. (This is one way that disreputable literary agencies soak their clients: by making them buy "sample" illustrations that they claim will dress up their submissions and make them more appealing to editors.)
Sierra Club Books. That was my first publishing job, years ago. Their kid's books were often collaborations. For their nature books, some of the authors were basically photographers rather than writers.
My point is that if you have proposed a heavily illustrated book and you don't have the illos, you may well not get it accepted unless you provide illos. The publisher may not care whether you find a collaborator and share the royalties, or whether you hire an illustrators. They just want to see the illos–and will not necessarily pay you for them up front.
I agree that publishing arrangements are often not favorable for authors. That's exactly why I self-publish. Christina may not think it's "real publishing." But I've spent over 40 hours a week at it for over 15 years, spent several hundred thousand dollars on it (and made a profit over my investment), gotten into Ingram, and learned how to do graphic design and create illustrations, plus many other skills. I have complete control over the quality of my work and who I work with. I have a large variety of interesting things to do, and I make more money than if I were paid royalties.
Self-publishing is not for everyone. It is definitely not for people who want to just write, nor for people who don't want to deal with business. It's very hard work. But it can also be very rewarding for those with the skills and temperament to tackle it.
Yes, I have indeed worked for a midsize publisher who required all their kid's books to be submitted with art and illos together, and if the author did not do both, it was usually a team sharing royalties. Likewise with their coffee-table books.
I am not saying all these arrangements are necessarily fair to the author or illustrator. I am saying that the publishing business does in fact sometimes work that way.
For myself, I learned graphic arts and illustration skills, and set up a business where I get all the profits. I don't have to worry about anyone exploiting me. End of problem.
I should add that, by free art, these publishers don't mean Dover clip art. They mean professional-quality photos or line art, and lots of them. Sometimes the authors do the photos themselves.
Again, I'm not saying you personally have to provide illos, I'm just pointing out that some authors do.
The publisher who offered me that contract was a commercial publisher. I don't know what their policies are these days, but here is their website:
The publishing world is not divided between megapublishers, who are commercial and pay for everything, and shoestring micropublishers, who can barely pay royalties. There are many kinds of books and many publishers. Not all books are fiction. For fiction, interior illustrations are often scarce and peripheral, if present at all.
For sewing and needlework books, crafts books, antiques/collectibles books, children's books, and some coffee-table books, the author, or an author/photographer team or an author/illustrator team, often has to come up with all the illustrations. (Likewise with computer books–except screen shots and boxes-and-arrows charts don't require much illustrating ability and the author usually does them.) Since good, original illustrations are vital to the quality of the book, the publisher often requires them to be present or at least contracted for, before accepting the manuscript.
And, although budgets vary, yes, even established midsize publishers are not above trying to shove as much of the illustration cost as they can onto the author, or telling the author to find a coauthor to do the illos and share the royalties with him or her.
I'm not saying, by any means, that every time you submit any manuscript you should go out and hire an illustrator. I am not saying, by any means, that it is fair to saddle an author with illustration costs. I am not saying that, if asked to bear illustration costs, I would not aggressively negotiate to have the publisher bear them.
I am just saying that the publishing world is complicated and that a publisher is not necessarily itty-bitty-shoestring just because they aggressively negotiate illustration or other costs in their own favor.
For myself, I've gotten really good at using Corel PhotoPaint.
When I pointed out the advance they proposed would not cover these costs, the publisher told me, surely I had lots of friends who'd work for free.
Frances, I appreciate your reply but any publisher that thinks FREE art, be it illustration or photography, is suitable for a book of theirs, is a publisher that does not care about the books quality or marketability. Most likely they are only offering only royalties and perhaps even expecting the sales to come from the author and his/her family and friends. Any reputable publisher investing financially (advances to author and illustrator/photographer, printing, marketing, editing costs) and emotionally in a book would want it professionally done, text and art.
When I speak of publishers, I'm always thinking commercial (I learned from this blog that is the proper term, used to say traditional:) I believe I know what kind of press your speaking about. They are small, no finacial backing and usually started by an author who self publishes, then decides to spread out to self publishing other authors work.
I have seen postings from author on various writer sites that are looking for illustrators, saying their publisher has asked them to find the artist. That is not, to me, publishing in the true sense of the word.
Show me the money:)
It's by no means unknown for publishers of heavily illustrated books to require authors to pay for photos or line art, or to find an illustrator who will work for part of the royalties.
Just to note, for any children's book authors who may be reading: Commercial children's book publishers do not require authors to pay for illustrations or art, or to find illustrators themselves.
The illustrated part really depends on the book and the publisher. It's by no means unknown for publishers of heavily illustrated books to require authors to pay for photos or line art, or to find an illustrator who will work for part of the royalties. This can be required in the contract and the illustrator hired later. But sometimes the publisher wants to see the whole package up front, or at least be sure the author already has a suitable illustrator on board before signing the publishing contract.
I worked for one publisher that required complete packages of text and illos for all the children's books they acquired.
When I was offered a contract for my first book, the publisher (a midsize crafts book publisher) insisted that I hire not only a photographer but models. When I pointed out the advance they proposed would not cover these costs, the publisher told me, surely I had lots of friends who'd work for free. (I don't.) I talked to someone who had worked with them on a previous book, and she said they required the author for that book to provide the photos and models. (She did.)
There are many kinds of books and publishers, so hiring an illustrator helps with some books and not others. Obviously, you need to find out what publishers want from authors of books like the one you are publishing, and you don't want to spend more than you have to.
and sometimes illustrated, before submission to an agent or publisher, to increase chances of acceptance.
Frances, I would leave this illustrated part out, as it does nothing but hinder an authors chances of getting published. Most, if not all, authors can not afford a professionally illustrated manuscript and even if they could, the publisher may want to pair an author (especially a first timer) with an established artist. Seperate author/illustrator submissions almost never work. It would be a waste of an authors hard earned $7000 and up.
The publishers I have encountered who I believe to be offering genuine cooperative publishing are very small, which may be why you have not encountered them.
There is nothing whatever wrong with offering editorial, graphic design, illustration, indexing, proofreading, translation, or other freelance services to authors. Whether they are self-publishers or not; there is a growing trend for authors to have manuscripts edited, and sometimes illustrated, before submission to an agent or publisher, to increase chances of acceptance.
What matters is whether the services delivered are of professional quality and are in line with what was contractually promised.
It's unethical to lie about whether you are the book's publisher, it is in my opinion unwise for either party to engage in cooperative publishing, and it is unethical to promise services that are not delivered.
That doesn't translate into it being wrong to ever work for an author and charge the author for it.
I've been answering Writer Beware correspondence since 1998, and in that time have gotten hundreds of questions about publishers claiming to provide co-operative publishing. I have yet to encounter a single genuine co-operative publisher.
Rejections mean nothing. Even PublishAmerica rejects manuscripts, if they're written in crayon on cocktail napkins or if they come in over that day's quota of acceptances. Other so-called cooperative publishers reject mss. that are too long (read: too expensive to print) or that don't fit their stated focus (for instance, if they present themselves as Christian publishers). Still others may employ some level of genuine selectivity to keep their numbers down. That doesn't change the fact that their profit is made the moment the author hands over the money.
One way of telling whether a press that claims it selectively publishes "good" books "cooperatively" is really a vanity/subsidy press, is to find out whether anything is actually rejected. Because the publisher seldom states a real rejection percentage, the usual strategy is for several people to submit that are clearly awful from any rational editorial viewpoint, then see if the publisher sends glowing acceptance letters.
I've known at least two micropresses who offered "cooperative" publishing and I believe them to be sincere. It's certainly possible to receive a proposal for a book worthy of publication and not have the money to publish it. But copublishing seems like a very messy arrangement to me.
One of the publishers I know who does, or did do co-publishing, is a retired doctor who specializes in publishing gay-oriented books. Some are co-published and many are not. I have not read any of them so have no idea if they are good books.
His co-published books are written by people with AIDS who want to create a book while there's still time. The publisher truly believes he is helping his clients in an important way. Maybe he is. But, he's also run against problems in the industry because both his co-published books and his others have been called subsidy books. For example, the Library of Congress stopped giving him CIP data for any of his books. Of course he can hire a service to do his CIP blocks, but he was very upset and called it anti-gay prejudice. Maybe it was. However, being branded a subsidy press is a risk run by any publisher who co-publishes.
I know of publishers using this model but I'm reluctant to "name" them because I don't know if they put this out as common knowledge.
There was a lot of activity along these lines about 10 years ago among smaller publishers looking to expand their lists without the need for huge amounts of capital. Their contracts did not seem predatory to me when I reviewed them some years ago.
Most at that time were calling it "partnership publishing" but I think it was very different (for the reasons stated earlier) than "vanity" publishing although it is, by definition, subsidized.
I don't know how common this practice is now, it may have been rendered obsolete by print-on-demand distribution.
I'd like to request that we keep the comments on-topic, and not branch off into side discussions. Thanks.
Re: co-operative publishing: I would genuinely like to have an example of a publisher that actually employs this model, rather than just pretending to. The promise of co-operative publishing is most typically a marketing ploy designed to make writers feel better about handing over large sums of cash. Most of the time, the writer's fee covers not just the entire cost of publication, but the publisher's overhead and profit as well.
I do not "reject" manuscripts, I supply design, editorial and production services to publishers and self-publishers. The only books I publish myself are my own or works in the public domain. Not sure if that is what you were getting at?
What percentage of manuscripts do you reject?
Thanks for your elucidation. And as far as:
if anyone offered to pay me to edit hopeless dreck by the hour I'd turn down the project.
we are in complete agreement.
I should add that at times I have considered doing freelance editing again, perhaps coupled with graphic design. I am especially good as a developmental and rewrite editor. Working with the author, there is a great deal that can be done to improve a book.
But there's also a limit. Even without "cooperative editing," I just would not want to work on any project that I considered hopeless. I have to sincerely believe in the book and the author. In other words, if anyone offered to pay me to edit hopeless dreck by the hour I'd turn down the project.
I agree cooperative publishing exists, I just don't see it as especially beneficial for either auhor or publisher. The author can get all those services from freelancers. The publisher can fill in financial holes and use some down time by selling editorial and design services by the hour without calling it "cooperative publishing." So I wouldn't really recommend it for either party.
No matter who publishes your book, the current marketplace is unfavorable for either getting it widely noticed or making money from it. There are no magic solutions. Having someone else publish your book may feel good (you were chosen and others were not), but may not end up compensating you well financially, unless that publisher is willing to make it one of their handful of targeted bestsellers. Self-publishing a book well means you’ll have to take real financial risks and work very hard to get noticed in a market still stacked against all micropresses. In all cases, your book will be one of many thousands published per year and be marketed to readers who are comparing it with freebies and pirated books, possibly even a pirated version of your own book.
Although self-publishing was once how almost everyone got published, I was trained in the late-20th-century publishing world people are now calling traditional. There wasn’t much reason to self-publish unless every publisher on the planet had rejected the manuscript, not only because POD, e-books, and the Internet had not been invented, but because many of the copyright and financial issues that make self-publishing a better choice for some writers did not exist.
That publishing world is gone. I’m not saying you have to like the changes, chaos, and crowding in the industry. There are many things I don’t like, including piracy (coupled with the refusal of many publishers to even try to prevent it), massive overcrowding in the marketplace, readers who expect not only free books but constant free advice and interaction with authors, and publishers who feed reader expectations in ways detrimental to their authors.
However, you can’t change the industry. All you can do is think carefully about what solutions are best for you, be willing to adapt to changing conditions, write and/or publish the best book you can, and market it vigorously.
The book-publishing business is not split into two parts, one consisting of large publishers who only publish pre-screened, high-quality books and the other consisting of ego-driven authors who self-publish dreck because no large publisher would touch it. The business is far more complex, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
* There are some books published by large publishers that I personally consider dreck, or at least completely redundant in the marketplace, but the publisher believed they’d make money. In fact, a lot of them have.
* There are many micropresses and small independents that differ from self-publishers primarily in that some or all of the books they publish are by other authors. They have little more than self-publishers in terms of resources or market clout. They cannot afford to compensate their authors well.
* There are many self-publishers who publish on a fully commercial basis, with the purpose of making money, and who edit and produce their books as well as larger publishers. (The really ego-driven authors just put out a free or practically free e-book instead.)
You cannot look at the book business as a whole in terms of what ought to be published, but in terms of what is. These days, what is published is anything and everything that someone feels like publishing. Yes, it would be nice if only high-quality books were published, but that’s not a realistic expectation. Although writing (and creating images, if the work has them) takes time and effort, after that, technically publication _can_ be reduced to a minimum of putting the book in some e-format like Kindle’s, spending a few hundred dollars on print-on-demand, or just posting the files on a website. I am not saying it should be, but it can.
Yes, it is not easy for readers to find the best books for their particular purposes of entertainment or edification. What’s brutal is that a depressing number of readers now value low price over high quality. They are increasingly expecting information to be financially free or close to it. Many do not care if anyone in the chain of writing and producing books gets paid. Many do not care if their freebies are pirated. No matter who the author and publisher are, such readers claim all authors are working “for fun” or to stroke their egos, and do not view editors, graphic artists, or any of the other people involved in producing books as necessary.
Frances Grimble said:
The cooperative publishing method mentioned on your website is just another form of vanity publishing. …There's no need for "cooperative publishing."
Well, Frances, need or not this type of publishing has been around for a very long time, and can be effective in the right circumstances. It isn't really "vanity" publishing because the publishers don't accept just any book, they contribute to the shared equity, and they expect the "partnered" books to sell alongside their own, because they are actually in the book publishing business.
Very far from vanity publishing to my mind anyway.
Frances Grimble said, "If you self-publish, two factors decide whether your book is worthy of publication: How well you market it to your audience and whether enough of them buy it to make the venture profitable for you."
This is like saying that grocers should offer a selection of fruit, most of which is rotten, and it's up to the consumer to find the edible fruit. The basis of commercial publishing is that the books are pre-screened by people other than the author, and so there's some guarantee of readability going in. Your idea that customers will find and buy the good stuff in a market crammed with bad stuff seems very naive.
If you self-publish, two factors decide whether your book is worthy of publication: How well you market it to your audience and whether enough of them buy it to make the venture profitable for you. These are exactly the same factors that decide whether a book issued by a very large publisher is worthy of publication. In either case, you, the creator, usually need to work your tail off to make sure the book sells.
This is a commercial definition, but I'm afraid that although some consumers want "art," many just want entertainment or information. It's also the definition all publishers use, because even when their mission is to support fine art or high-minded goals, they still have to make enough profit to stay in business.
My studies of relative success on Amazon show that books with the Booklocker imprint are the most successful by far, Infinity.com is about half as successful
and the other big names trail, with of course PublishAmerica at the very bottom.
Some subsidies are less bad than others. Booklocker.com and to a lesser extent Infinity.com do try to screen out the absolute losers.
Another point: before publishing a book read some books about marketing and publishing books. I put marketing first because that makes the difference between a good book that goes nowhere and a good book that has some success. I
have a short list of useful books on all aspects of publishing:
False choice number one: you can use a subsidy publisher or end up with a garage full of unsold books.
Fact: You can self publish and go to the printer directly.
False choice number two: You can use a subsidy publisher or learn all the ins nd outs of publishing. Many first-timers are frightened by the apparent complexity of the task list.
Fact: A book coach can provide the necessary advice, on a more personal basis, without any stigma.
And to the gent who sold thousands of copies publishing through a subsidy firm: congratulations. But only one half of one percent of subsidy books sell more than 500 copies.
>Why are you afraid of people putting their work out there? If it's good, it's good and it will succeed. If it's lousy then it will go the way of so many other books<
The only thing that I fear about people putting their work OUT THERE is the toll Vanity press's take on them financially and emotionally. I have NO fear for the person who prints their books themselves for cost and has a marketing plan, going in, eyes wide open, not being "told" by a van press that they are now pubished.
>Who should decide which books get published? Should their be some supreme panel to decide? Would you restrict what art is produced and displayed?<
Art is always restricted, I don't know what you are talking about. Do you really think I could truck my art down to the national gallery (or even a private one, in it for profit) and they would gladly HANG it?? Of course not.
Yes, I have the right to print copies of a painting and then try and sell it myself (which would be much like printing my own book) but how many copies doe you think I would sell on that street corner or via a web site, ha!
If "Author Solutions" can point me to one, just ONE children's picture book that they have had a hand in designing, that has become a success story, that actually has decent illustration (and not googleyed, digital, bucket coloured art) I would love to see it.
Out of 120,000 titles in 13 years, there HAS to be ONE!!!!
The cooperative publishing method mentioned on your website is just another form of vanity publishing. There are some micropresses who do it because they want to sell freelance services in addition to their books and this is their model for doing it. Some of them do believe in the books they vanity publish, but the bottom line is, if so they should be willing to acquire those books using the normal acquisition process. Those books do have the subsidy taint in the industry if anyone finds out, and sometimes the taint also extends to the books those presses are publishing in the normal way.
Some micropresses sell straighforward freelance editing, graphic design, and/or marketing services by the hour in addition to publishing books. There is nothing wrong with that.
Any self-publisher who needs freelancers can find them, and any self-publisher who cannot figure out how to coordinate them can hire help if they need to. There's no need for "cooperative publishing."
Using a book coach is just self-publishing. There's no standard definition for "book coach." I asked around recently on the Yahoo self-publishing group (see below) and every book coach on it defined their work differently. (And some prefer to call themselves book shepherds.)
Usually they start out as freelance editors, designers, or marketing people who have also published a book or two they wrote themselves. They have discovered that their self-publishing clients often ask for general publishing advice, and/or referrals to people who provide different services (freelance editor asked to recommend a freelance graphic designer, etc.).
Some book coaches basically don't do anything but freelance editing, graphic design, or marketing. They just think "book coach" sounds fancier.
Some, in addition, charge for general publishing advice by the hour because they have found answering questions takes a lot of time and they need to make a living. Some book coaches don't do anything BUT provide advice. Some also act like general contractors or agencies, doing some of the freelance work themselves, finding other people to do other parts of it, and then taking a percentage of what is being charged for the freelancers other than themselves.
I don't think anyone really NEEDS a book coach if they can hire and supervise freelancers directly, read books on self-publishing, and ask questions on free, open-to-everyone e-groups like this one:
But if you do hire a book coach, figure out what you want from them and what they can do for you. And get references from other clients. Most book coaches are competent and well meaning, but it's not like any of them are certified in any way. Also, many book coaches charge the same hourly rate for advice as they do for their other freelance services. That is the level of payment I'd recommend as reasonable.
@John, I think you missed one. Check the article here for an explanation of another way to
get your book published.
There are four and only four paths to getting your book in print.
1. Traditional publishing: The author pays notheing and usually gets an advance.
2. Subsidy publishing: The author pays to have someone else publish their book.
3. Self-publishing (DIY). The author buys an ISBN block, establishes a publisher name, and either does or hires out all the work in publishing the book.
4. Self publishing (with coach.) A coach is hired to handle the technical details, but full control remains with the author.
Most of the companies discussed on this thread are subsidy houses, pure and simple. My study shows that among the subsidies Booklocker published books have the highest success rate on Amazon, but they screen for quality. Infinity comes in second among the well-known houses, but the margin is cohnsiderable.
Re acquiring your own work: I think whether you are a self-publisher, a writer being published by another publisher, an editor, or a reviewer, you need to be able to analyze exactly how and why a work is good or bad, whether it is your own or someone else's. You need to get into the constant habit of analyzing how everything you read does and does not work. You need to require anyone editing your work to present this kind of analysis to you, in detail.
Much of the rest of acquisitions is analyzing who your readers are, why they would buy this book, and where to reach them.
There is a cliché left over from the Romantic era that authors are all emotion-overwhelmed, ego-driven creatures incapable of real analysis. Actually, I think successful authors are generally quite good at it, no matter who publishes their work.
Other than that, I'd like to mention another way the "lines are being blurred." It is not just vanity/subsidy presses who view self-publishers as, well, sources of additional income. Large wholesalers such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor, and large retailers such as Amazon, are now trying to require not only self-publishers but micropresses in general to use their print-on-demand services as a requirement for carrying those books. As I've said, for some publishers and books, the print-on-demand process can have a major negative impact on the cover price of the book and/or on its technical quality. Plus, the particular POD printer owned by that wholesaler or retailer does not necessarily produce the best POD quality or price available to that publisher.
I think it is a valid, if disappointing, business decision for a major wholesaler or retailer to say to a micropress or self-publisher, "Your books are not profitable (or numerous) enough for us to carry them." However, it does seem like over-leveraging to say, "We'll carry your books but only if you also pay us to print them." I will add that as far as I know, these required services are limited to printing, and do not include editing or graphic design. So far I have managed to avoid getting pressured into this system, but it is becoming increasingly an issue for micropresses.
Great post. There has been such a heated ongoing discussion about self-publishing and vanity presses. As stated, it is probably only to get more blurred in coming months.
POD PUBLISHERS: SCAMS AND FRAUDS
–Dan Poynter, http://ParaPublishing.com
Authors and publishers have been contacted lately by organizations offering “self-publishing services.” They employ "boiler rooms" of sales people making relentless calls. They wear you down and are hard to resist.
Be very careful.
Some of these companies have tarnished records with a lot of unhappy customers. Several authors have complained to the Better Business Bureau and some companies have been sued.
When people are victims of scams, they often report the incidents on the Internet. Before doing business with POD publishers or any other person or company that wants your money, make a Google search for:
(That company name) + Scam
(That company name) + Fraud
(That company name) + Rip-off
(That company name) + “Better Business Bureau”
Read the reports and be advised.
Frances: It sounds like you are a righteous one-person press! I appreciated your comment about reviewers knowing who the vanity presses are.
You can tell I'm avoiding work today. But: Aside from whether a book sells, the test of whether it is flawed is the presence of identifiable flaws. If it is disorganized, contains inconsistent copy-editing choices, hard facts are clearly inaccurate, and it has lots of typos, then it’s flawed regardless of whether the author edited his/her own book or hired a freelancer. If the type is too small to be read by the book’s audience, it’s not visually clear what the levels of heading are, or the text is crawling into the gutter, the book is badly designed. If the cover is blotchy and unevenly trimmed it’s badly printed, and if the book falls apart quickly it’s badly bound. And so on.
I hesitate to discuss “badly designed” covers, because you can set an e-list at any professionally designed cover and every person who comments will insist something different should be done to it. The bottom line is, does the _book’s audience_ like the cover? Does it make _them_ want to buy the book?
Whether you hire freelancers or not, you have to learn enough to know whether they are doing a good job and to get the results _you_ want. Hiring a team and turning it over to them is no guarantee of a good book, no matter where you get the team.
I have never used a subsidy publisher, even one of the subsidy publishers that claims not to be one. I own a small business, formally registered with my city. I have a block of my own ISBNs from R R Bowker. (The party that owns the book's ISBN is the publisher of record. If a subsidy press owns the ISBN, the author is not the publisher.)
Self-publishers vary considerably in how many tasks they hire out and which ones. I've done a lot of do-it-yourself, but I've had some formal training in graphic design and marketing as well as editing. And when I worked as an in-house editor, I constantly learned as much as I could from the production and marketing personnel.
If you want to self-publish, and all you know how to do at this point is write, freelancers of every kind are widely available: Editors, proofreaders, indexers, interior designers/layout artists, cover designers, illustrators, translators, back-cover-copy writers, press release writers, marketing plan consultants, and more. Most larger publishers routinely use freelancers to cut down on overhead. When I have hired for my business, I've posted a job online, collected resumes and portfolio samples, interviewed the best candidates, and eventually chosen one.
I think authors choose subsidy presses because they make publishing sound easy. I've always enjoyed learning new things and performing a wide variety of tasks. If I'm risking my money, I want as much control over the project as possible. I've had enough experience working for other publishers to know that publishing is always hard work. It’s a little hard for me to sympathize with authors who think publishing is or should be easy.
But, if all you know how to do is write and you feel overwhelmed by even the idea of hiring multiple freelancers, some of the more experienced micropublishers offer packages of freelance services to newer self-publishers. (I've toyed with the idea of offering them but I’ve always been too busy.) There are also "book coaches" who offer advice and referrals as needed.
I'd definitely recommend some such arrangement over a subsidy press. It will usually get you much better results than a subsidy press, and it will not carry the industry taint of a subsidy press. It's hard to get a self-published book reviewed, but it's practically impossible to get a subsidy press book reviewed. Reviewers know who all the subsidy presses are, and who all the subsidy press ISBN blocks belong to.
About believing in your book: Even self-publishers get on e-lists and make vague, scary pronouncements about other, unnamed self-publishers who are too blind to perceive their book is flawed or that it has no market. Such pronouncements are often motivated by self-interest when made by freelancers selling editing, graphic design, or marketing services. But yes, there _are_ many awful self-published books. Some of them were published by people who did hire freelancers. Most of them were published by authors who really believe in their books. Before I started my business, other publishers had already taught me how to choose and produce a high-quality book with a viable market. I believed that if I could help them publish such books, I could publish my own. So far it’s worked. It’s hard for me to tell how other people can do acquisitions, as it were, without that training. But some of them _do_ publish good books that sell.
All I can say is, no matter who publishes the book, it’s success in the marketplace—after publication!—that ultimately determines whether the book should have been published. Subsidy press books are the least likely of all to succeed. As for true self-publishing versus mainstream publishing, it’s up to authors to decide what will work for them.
Chris said, "If a 'vanity author' is one who is vain enough to believe in the viability of his/her own work, then I guess that's what I am. I certainly would not have embarked upon this journey were it not so."
The problem is that virtually every author is vain enough to believe in the viability of his/her own work, regardless of its actual viability. In fact, there's an inverse relationship between an author's competence at writing and his or her perception thereof. It's called The Dunning–Kruger effect.
You (and the other participants)have made some excellent points. So has Victoria. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the traditional publishers and their authors, but I chose a different path. My reasons are my own.
I 'vanity published' three novels, all of which are selling well. (They are fiction–no niche market.) They sit on the shelves in a fair number of bookstores (I have a signing tomorrow, actually). I estimate my readership at approximately 3,000 (more or less). I have a healthy fan base, nearly a hundred reviews, and I've sold a thousand e-books (they rank in the top 100 sellers in their genre on a regular basis). By some standards that's not impressive, but I have met and exceeded my original goals.
I made my publishing costs back in four months. Most of the profits since then have been put back into my own marketing efforts, but not all. I've been to L.A. and New York. The books have won a couple of minor awards.
I viewed the subsidy publisher as a sub-contractor. They provided the services I was not prepared to do myself. I knew how to write, but not how to publish. Since then I have learned quite a lot about the mechanics of books production, and I could probably do a total DIY. The publisher has been very accommodating in 'showing me the ropes'. I know that not all such authors have a positive experience, but I certainly have. I went in with at least one of my eyes open.
My books are very well edited, and they are of professional quality in terms of design, covers, illustrations, and so forth. They are fully returnable, so the bookstores aren't afraid to carry them. I have been pleasantly surprised to find them in places I did not expect, sometimes turned around on end-caps under 'staff recommends'–I'm not afraid to place them beside any mainstream fiction. I'm no Victoria, but I'm a successful 'vanity' author.
I know I'm going to need help to acquire a wider distribution, and I'm wondering about possible avenues for the next book. I can say this: I have enjoyed my modest success and modest profits. I love interacting with fans. Given the choice to go back to the beginning, I would do the same thing again. (I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.)
Seven Waldenbooks in my home state are closing in a few months. That makes me sad–I love bookstores–and I hope Victoria's optimistic view of the future proves true.
If a 'vanity author' is one who is vain enough to believe in the viability of his/her own work, then I guess that's what I am. I certainly would not have embarked upon this journey were it not so.
I will add that it is certainly possible for self-publishers to market to brick-and-mortar bookstores, and to non-bookstore retailers who carry related merchandise (for example, you can sell a book on backpacking to camping supply stores). Almost all bookstores, and some other book-carrying retailers, are listed in Bowker's book trade directory.
Usually self-publishers market to retailers of any type by postally mailing catalogs or brochures to the stores. That's what I do, and I choose the stores very carefully according to whether they already carry similar books. Libraries can be marketed to directly also, and Bowker publishes a library directory.
It does help to have an account with a major wholesaler, because most bookstores prefer to order from a wholesaler. Distributors really exist mostly to get self-publishers into major wholesalers who think the sales level of that individual publisher will be too low. Distributors don't do nearly as much marketing as most self-publishers hope they will.
Warehousing is easy. Just find a local warehouse that rents pieces of space to numerous businesses. People who publish POD often find that their own garage will do.
Some self-publishers are selling e-publications on the "music model." Of course, this does not work for a whole narrative. But many modular books can be sold in parts–books of short stories, essays, how-to instructions, or usable diagrams such as house plans. There are also large publishers selling subscriptions to online references, such as dictionaries and _The Chicago Manual of Style_.
I don't publish e-books at all (I think the risk of piracy is too great), so I can't tell you how well parts of books sell.
For a huge smorgasbord of marketing and publicity techniques, suitable for authors as well as publishers, I highly recommend John Kremer's _1001 Ways to Market Your Books_.
I've worked in publishing for 25 years. For 10 of them, I was an editor and writer for other book and magazine publishers. I started my self-publishing business 15 years ago. (I've also worked freelance as a journalist, a technical writer, and a book editor/proofreader/indexer.) I did get a contractual offer from a respected midsize publisher for my first book. It's just that I realized I could make more money self-publishing. And I already had many of the skills needed to self-publish and was willing to learn the rest.
I've made a reasonable amount of money publishing eight books so far (two more are close to the printing stage). My books are niche nonfiction, but they are carried by the industry's largest wholesaler (Ingram) and sell to brick-and-mortar bookstores and museum stores. I have printed them all offset, not print-on-demand, because POD produces lower quality than offset for illustrated books, plus I need larger print runs. Also, POD currently has a higher unit cost than offset printing, so my cover prices would be higher if I used it.
However, POD is of reasonable quality for books that contain only text or only simple illustrations. POD technology is heavily used by not only self-publishers, but by large publishers for printing backlist titles, and new academic and professional titles with small markets.
In the world of self-publishing, there is a very clear and practical definition of vanity/subsidy publishing versus print-on-demand. A POD _printer_ agrees to print your book-—and that’s _all_. The outfits that call themselves POD _publishers_ lure naïve authors by claiming to provide other services, such as editing, cover design, and marketing. There is nothing wrong with hiring someone else to do your editing, cover design, and/or marketing. The problem is, these outfits claim they will do it but do an incredibly minimal job.
I think it is sleazy for “POD publishers” to charge self-publishers for services that are not provided. I think it’s sleazy for large publishers to try to create confusion over which books they have been paid to publish and which books they have not.
However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. It’s becoming an increasingly attractive alternative, and not only because POD technology enables small print runs. Many larger publishers are forcing authors to assume increasingly greater responsibility and expense for marketing, often some editing, and sometimes even page layout. It can be very reasonable to say, if you’re doing (or paying for) all this work yourself, why not get all the profits instead of a percentage in royalties? Also, the existence of not only POD but e-book technology has inspired many publishers to try to avoid reverting rights to authors. If the publisher is keeping the book “in print” forever, but not really trying to sell it, this is not good. It can also be very reasonable to say, if your book is only being sold at a very low level with very little effort, why not at least get all the profits yourself?
I’m not kidding aspiring self-publishers: This is really hard work. You have to run a small business, work a lot of overtime, max out on the computer equipment, and either learn most publishing and business skills at a professional level or fork out your savings to freelancers who already have them. You alone have to make sure your self-published book succeeds in the market.
Not all self-published books do succeed. But: Let’s give real self-publishing—-not vanity publishing—-the respect it deserves. It’s no more contemptible to start your own publishing house than to start your own software firm. And everyone respects that even though 80% of software startups fail within a few years.
Elitist, Kevin? I don't think so. I just don't see that book publishing belongs in the catalog of human rights. That hardly translates into advocating restrictions on free speech or limitations on who can publish.
The fact that services like Author Solutions have expanded the methods by which people can publish, and increased the ease of access to publishing services, does not transform a choice made by a minority of the population–to create a book–into an entitlement.
Victoria has been called everything in the book, I believe. Probably "elitist" is nothing new. Her statement is not scary.
I think this quote: "Book publishing is a choice, or, sometimes, a privilege. It's not an entitlement" is incredibly elitist.
Why shouldn't everyone be entitled to publish their book? Who should decide which books get published? Should their be some supreme panel to decide? Would you restrict what art is produced and displayed? Limit speech? Why are you afraid of people putting their work out there? If it's good, it's good and it will succeed. If it's lousy then it will go the way of so many other books — even those traditionally published books. Let the market decide.
Are you contending that only traditionally published books have a chance of retail/critical success? Again, I ask you to address one central question, what gives anyone the right to impose limits upon who can publish a book? You've said it yourself, the right to publish is not an entitlement.
This is a scary statement, Victoria.
Kevin from author solutions says, "This conversation is great for publishing which is undergoing tremendous change and growth."
There can be no denying that something has changed and something is growing. But what I want to know is *what* is growing; author sales? author advances? readers per book? Nope, what's growing is the self publishing/vanity publishing/author subsidized publishing industry. I wish some of the folk who tout self publishing would be clear about this. It's for sure a good time to own a printing company that creates books for a fee. Yes, it's wonderful that more people can publish/print than ever before, but as Deep Throat growled in a Washington D.C. parking ramp so long ago, "follow the money." Where is the money going?
Pointing out the occasional financially successful noncommercially published book does not validate noncommercial publishing as a business plan, any more than does either pointing out that there are indeed lottery winners or professional athletes who didn't even go to college. Frankly, the latter two have better statistical odds than the first (and yes, I do have the data to back that up…).
I have absolutely NO problem with the person who would like to "print" a number of copies of a book, say their family tree, to then gift them to relatives and friends. I might even wish to do that some day, for my children. Thing is, that is called "printing" not publishing.
It's a bit like how I took all the old films (super 8) of me as a child and sent them to a company who made them into dvd's, and gave them to my kids. I did not turn around and think I was a film maker/producer. When a company tells, or at least misleads an author into thinking they are published (and charges them more then a regular printer would cost) when they are only being "printed", that is when I take issue with.
Kevin, you already know what I think of Author Solutions' use of the term "indie" to describe its services, so I won't belabor that point.
No one is disputing that self-publishers can achieve significant success (though this remains rare), or that the meaning of "success" depends on the individual and his or her goals. I've said again and again that in specific circumstances and for specific people, self- or vanity-publishing can be the right choice. You've enumerated a number of those special circumstances. Both the books you name, for instance, are nonfiction projects with a niche audience and a platformed author who can directly reach his or her potential readers.
What I object to is using these isolated successes and personal choices to present fee-based publishing as potentially the right option for anyone.
Reg has sold more copies of his book this year than more than 90 percent of U.S. titles sell in a given year (Nielsen reported in 2008 that 91 percent of titles sold fewer than 1,000 copies)
Nielsen's figures include books published by services like Author Solutions, which typically sell fewer than 200 copies (by the admission of your own CEO, in this 2009 New York Times article). If the enormous number of such books was removed from the calculation, I'm betting the average per-book sales figure would be quite a bit higher.
Book publishing is a choice, or, sometimes, a privilege. It's not an entitlement.
As always, I enjoy reading your blog. The conversation here as I see it is about publishers continuing to offer more opportunities to writers. I agree that writers should certainly do their homework. Going the traditional route is not always the best route for everyone; neither is the indie route. If someone offers you a huge advance – take the money! But that’s not practical for everyone. As well it’s not necessarily the best option for every writer.
A couple of examples of authors who’ve benefitted from indie/self publishing
Reg Green published The Gift that Heals – a collection of organ transplant stories – through AuthorHouse in 2008. Green, a former business reporter for large national papers in both the U.S. and U.K., is now regarded as one of the world’s foremost organ transplant awareness advocates.
Green’s eight year old son Nicholas http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Green was murdered by bandits during a family vacation in Italy in 1994. The Greens donated his organs – an unprecedented act in Italy at the time – to save the lives of seven very sick Italians.
The story made worldwide headlines and was told in the made-for-TV movie The Nicholas Effect. He published the book The Nicholas Effect through a traditional (and recently re-released it through AuthorHouse), and realized modest success.
For The Gift, Reg certainly could’ve gotten an advance, but wanting total control of the prject, he chose to self-publish. Reg donates proceeds from The Gift that Heals to a pair of organ donation organizations.
Reg has sold more copies of his book this year than more than 90 percent of U.S. titles sell in a given year (Nielsen reported in 2008 that 91 percent of titles sold fewer than 1,000 copies). Reg has sold somewhere between 15,000-20,000 copies of in a little over two years.
Some are sold through the channel, but most he sells through speaking engagements (500 at one engagement last month alone). He purchases these books in quantities he wants and sells them at nearly a 50 percent margin. I’d say he has a pretty good enterprise going. Would Reg have been better off surrendering control of his book for a $10,000 advance from a large traditional?
Another group that is seeing great success with indie publishing is small business owners/consultants/speakers. For brevity’s sake, check out this Smart Money article.
They’re using their book to grow their companies/personal brand. Doug Wojcieszak, whose profiled in the piece, has sold at last count just under 15,000 copies of Sorry Works! More importantly, the book has helped him fill his consulting calendar.
There are countless others who’ve achieved success through indie/self publishing: the woman who wanted to publish her mother’s cookbook; the retired couple who publishes children’s books and travels throughout the country selling to books and speaking to children.
Indie or self publishing provides a lot of authors a chance to publish and achieve success by their definition – which believe it or not doesn’t always mean turning out the next ‘Great American Novel.’ Certainly not every indie published book will be a critical or retail success; but that’s true of books published by the most mainstream of traditional publishers.
This conversation is great for publishing which is undergoing tremendous change and growth. When criticizing those that pay to publish their books the question that needs to be considered: “Why should any writer be denied the opportunity to publish their book?”
I invite your comments and questions and look forward to hearing from you.
Kevin A. Gray
PR Manager – Author Solutions, Inc.
kgray at authorsolutions dot com
I don't have an agent, so that probably makes my royalty cheques stretch further:)
I have too many books out there to be promoting 1 of them, if I did promotion I would have only 1 book out there. If I get called to do an interview, tv or radio, I'll do it (and hate it… a hermit at heart:) but I can not justify the time it takes to do signings other then perhaps at one school event a year. I do school and library visits with the books but they are paid. I will say that at least a self publisher does not have to deal with a publisher that begins to default on statements or payments, that's a blessing at least.
In Canada, we have Chapters book stores and I hear you April in that the children's section is becoming more and more like a toy store. There are still some independents but very few and too small to stock many books. I try to support any local indie children's book sellers when I can.
Funny enough, just the other day another illustrator shared an email they had recieved from a self pub author who has decided to call himself a publisher. He has a plan, a plan to offer publication to other would be self pub authors for $600 or so. Out of that, any illustrator (he is trying to recruite illustrators with samples of their art for the authors to chose from) will make a "whopping" $450 to illustrate a whole book and it's cover. Of course, all rights to the illustration will belong to him (er, I mean the publisher) and the author.
Not only is it an insult to the illustrators but does this guy really think any good illustrator would want to be part of this take advantage of naive new authors scheme?
You don't want to know what the reply to him was:)
Correction – in some *very* specific, narrow circumstances in which the author has a built-in audience for the book, working with a vanity/subsidy outfit can still make financial sense. This would be something along the lines of a college professor who's publishing a book that will be required reading for his course.
Also, if you're willing to fork over thousands of dollars to get your book in print, would prefer not to do any legwork yourself, and don't care if you ever break even on the project, then subsidy/vanity is the way to go for you as well. But my book, blog, articles, etc. are all directed toward authors who, while they may not expect to get rich off their self-published books, at least don't want to *lose* money.
Apart from the two scenarios above however, in my opinion it doesn't make sense to work with a subsidy/vanity outfit because they charge large fees for services you can do yourself for free or much less expense (e.g., copyright registration, $35 to do online yourself, $200 or more for a vanity/subsidy publisher to do for you), typically bundle services into packages that include items you don't need or don't want to pay for, and they also require you to use their editors, cover designers, etc. True, you don't get to choose your own service providers when working with a mainstream publisher either, but you're not *paying* the mainstream publisher for those services. If I'm paying, I want the freedom to choose who gets the job based on the quality of their work, how well our working styles mesh, and cost, among other things.
I wrote an article on why it's difficult to turn a profit on a subsidy/vanity book here:
RE: "money in your pocket" –
I don't pay anything upfront to self-publish my books, and no one else has to do so, either. I go through Createspace, which has no setup fees. It's also free to publish to the Kindle via Amazon's DTP, as well as in multiple ebook formats via Smashwords and Scribd. Nowadays, you can self-publish without paying anything up front, without ordering a minimum print run, and without signing away *any* of your content rights. You only have to pay big up front fees and/or order minimum print runs if you're working with a subsidy/vanity publisher, and that's just a poor business decision.
I'm not using Viehl's info as a blanket statement, just a starting point. She is not the only mainstream author going public with her figures. While there are *some* mainstream-published authors who do earn a comfortable living even without being household names, I have come to understand that they are exceptional cases and are typically very prolific. If you can get (and keep) multiple books in print per year, I'm sure it's a lot easier to earn a decent living off your advances and royalties. But how many authors are capable of turning out quality work at that pace year in and year out? I know *I'm* not.
As for where I'm getting my information, I am acquainted with many mainstream-published and self-published authors and have myself just signed over one of my self-pubbed books to be republished in an updated and revised edition by a large, mainstream publisher.
If you want to stick to the mainstream path for all your books, that's totally your choice and I respect it. I'm going mainstream with at least one of my books, so it's not as if I'm saying it's a terrible choice no matter what. I'm just saying it IS a choice, and each author needs to be able to make an informed decision when confronted with that choice for each of his or her manuscripts.
I was shocked and a little outraged to learn it was possible to hit the NYT list multiple times and still earn such a modest income from it, because like everyone else I know, I've always assumed that any author on that list is doing very well financially. I think Ms. Viehl and her fellow authors deserve to earn much more, but the business is what it is, and its margins are slim. I'm not saying they'd definitely earn more if they self-published, though.
As Victoria says above, writing books is no reliable way to make a living—and I'll add, no matter who publishes you.
You also cannot expect significant promotional backing from your publisher.
Authors have never been able to expect this. Publishers have never provided significant promotional support to more than a handful of their most successful writers, or, occasionally, to new ones they have designated as hot.
That hasn't changed. What has changed is that now authors are expected to engage in promotional activities. This expectation did not exist until relatively recently, but has become essential in a hugely overcrowded marketplace.
What commercial publishers have always provided, however, and still do provide, is marketing. This includes review copies, but also catalogs, sales forces, trade advertising, book fair presence, website features, and other efforts, most of which occur many months before publication, and are designed to bring books to the attention of those who sell them. Whether or not the death of the physical bookstore is imminent, the fact remains that at present, a big chunk of book sales occurs offline. For most books, a balance of online and offline presence is essential in order to achieve volume sales.
Even the most insignificant and poorly paid new author can expect basic marketing support from his or her commercial publisher. Like non-wholesale distribution, it's something that isn't available via self-publishing services and vanity publishers, and that it's very, very difficult for true self-publishers to access on their own.
For an interesting look at actual first novel advances in a very small segment of the book market–science fiction and fantasy–see Tobias Buckell's advance survey. The median advance for a first novel was $5,000 (a bit higher for agented authors) and ranged up to $40,000.
I'd be the last person to argue that it's reasonable to expect to earn a living as a writer. It's not a lucrative profession (I actually blogged about that a while back). But no matter how small the advance, the author hasn't paid out of pocket to publish, and doesn't have to worry about recouping his or her investment.
If you don't believe me, check out that post from Lynn Viehl on Genreality;
That is Lynn Viehl. You cannot take the information that Lynn so graciously shared with us and use it as a blanket example of what is happening to ALL authors in the commercial publishing industry.
Are you an Agent or something? Do you have access to some hidden cache of information that allows you to make these broad sweeping proclamations about advances etc?
$3-5k advance is not a bad thing. You have the money in your pocket, rather than paying out $3-5K to get your book published and ending up with a garage full of rotting books that nobody wants.
RE: Seth Harwood, in case you don't look at the article—
Even though his book (Jack Wakes Up) is terrific and he'd already built up a big online audience before Random House came into the picture, he had to set up and finance his own book tour at his own expense.
But as a debut novelist, you don't dare *not* do those things, because your future publication prospects depend on the performance of that first book.
There's another excellent post on the subject of how tough it is out there for mainstream-pubbed authors from Kelly Diels over on Write to Done, here:
And I'm not saying it's all easy-peasy for self-pubbers by comparison, or that self-pubbers are all doing everything right while mainstream-pubbed authors are clueless, not at all. I'm just saying the prevailing opinion that it's a slide on ice for mainstream-pubbed authors once the contract is signed is a fiction.
Again, mainstream pub is right for some books, self-pub is right for others. It all depends on your goals for yourself and your book. I just want aspiring authors to know what they're in for regardless of which path they choose. =')
CE Petit –
I am seeing the DVD and CD depts at my local Borders and B&N shrinking, but at the same time I'm seeing the floor space turned over to things like games, stationery, makeup, audio/iPod accessories, additional discount book bins and tables, and even food (e.g., kiosks loaded with Godiva, Harry & David and other treats).
They're sure not increasing their regular, retail books offerings, though.
Advances are WAY down and after your agent and the tax man take their cut, as a debut novelist who doesn't have a huge head of steam behind you (e.g., you're not a celebrity or otherwise famous for something), you can only expect to have enough of your advance left to maybe pay your rent or mortgage for a couple of months. Advances in the range of $3-5K are not at all unusual in such a scenario.
You also cannot expect significant promotional backing from your publisher. Review copies, sure. But again, unless you've already got some buzz around you, you're pretty much on your own to set up your own book tours, do your own paid advertising (if you choose that route), and build up your author platform to whatever extent possible. If you don't believe me, check out that post from Lynn Viehl on Genreality; it's called "More on the Reality of a Times Bestseller". I'm pretty sure if you just Google that title, you'll find it.
Also check out Pat Holt's Holt Uncensored blog for more info on what's happening with Seth Harwood since his debut novel was released by Random House last year. She's run a whole series called "DIY Author". I reprinted the latest entry in the series on Publetariat, here (includes links to parts one and two)
I do not agree that the commercial publisher
ACK! Meant to say "commercially published author"!
Mainstream-pubbed novelists whose books don't hit the NYT bestseller list will find their books removed from first-string brick and mortar store shelves within 4 months (usually less), and then those authors are in the same boat as their self-published brethren who never opted for brick and mortar distribution at all.
I will agree that commercial books that do not become good sellers do not last long on the limited shelf space of the stores. I do not agree that the commercial publisher is then in the same boat as the self pub author. First of all, the commercial author has his/her advance, rather then having paid out of pocket. They also can still make royalties, via school and library sales.
They are not souly responsible for the promotion, distribution and sales of their book and are (even long before the book is published) free to create their next manuscripts.
If "one" of a commercial authors books did not sell all that well, perhaps their others are. I think were many authors do make enough to earn their living is via multiple books, it WOULD be hard if an author was expecting their one and only book to keep them the rest of their life.
As always, I respect, admire and utterly SOAK UP what Victoria writes about in this blog. If I had pom-poms in her favorite colors, I would be leading cheers: "Gimme a V! Gimme an I! Etc Etc."
There's more than one way to "divide up" publishing; I prefer something that's a little easier to explain to judges and juries. (Y'all have no idea how much less they know about publishing than even authors taken in by PA!) That's why I emphasize money flow and legal title to the books, because those aspects aren't subject to obfuscation by technology. That said, Victoria's scheme certainly makes sense, particularly when trying to demonstrate to someone that they've been had…
April, I think your prediction for the future of bookstores is off. Borders and B&N are both already backing away from carrying nonprint media items: The average B&N carries fewer media titles, and fewer copies of each title, for the same-sized store than it did three years ago, and it's even more extreme for Borders. Some of this is just economics; more of it is that recorded music industry and recorded video are, in some ways, in even more chaos than the print publishing industry. Regardless, though, Victoria's point remains valid: Even if Amazon (et al.) replaces the brick-and-mortar store, one must still get into Amazon… and Amazon's history is one of increasingly tight/persnickety standards for favorable treatment there. In the foreseeable future, I cannot see just posting availability on one's own website as sufficient distribution! (And, for those — like me — who've spent too much time studying the history of the publishing industry, the present looks an awful lot like the first decade of the eighteenth century; that is, these problems are not exactly new!)
Finally, regarding Tate: So far as I've been able to determine, Tate's practices have not substantially changed since the last time I reviewed them… in detail, and Tate's president has a copy of that review. The short version: Tate is still substantially a vanity press that just happens to publish a distinct and small minority of its books using non-vanity methods. That it's possible for an author to evade vanity-press treatment through Tate is far less important than the probability that an author can evade vanity-press treatment through Tate.
Tate Publishing offers no-investment contracts, contracts that pay negotiated royalty advances, and refundable author investment contracts. This information is posted on our website. Hardly "deceptive." Please see it clearly listed: http://www.tatepublishing.com/information.php
By the way, I think a picture is worth a thousand words: http://www.tatepublishing.com/news/index.php?n=2 I am available by phone at 405-376-4900. Thank you.
Of course not, Victoria! I don't think I said anything of the kind. ='p
I'm just saying that the attraction of bookstore distribution is rapidly diminishing, and all authors must now be prepared to drive sales online, no matter who published them.
And I've never said "the physical bookstore" will die, just that the big chain stores will stop being dedicated bookstores and become more like variety stores that also happen to carry books—but only recent bestsellers, reliably-selling classics, gift books and bargain books. Come to think of it, my local Borders and Barnes and Noble are already like that.
Indie booksellers have an opportunity to fill the gaps left behind by the behemoths, and there's an owner-operated indie bookseller in my community that's doing very well because it caters to a specific audience and does it very well. Bookstores will always be around in some form, but I fear the large, well-stocked, brimming-to-the-rafters-with-books-on-every-subject stores of my youth are already a thing of the past.
So, all self-pubbed authors are forward-looking and savvy, and all mainstream-pubbed authors are slothful and stupid?
Borders notwithstanding, I think that the reports of the death of the physical bookstore have been greatly exaggerated.
Ah yes Victoria, but physical bookstores are losing market share by the hour. The collapse of Borders UK is something I saw coming (in the general sense) last year, when I blogged "Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch".
Mainstream-pubbed novelists whose books don't hit the NYT bestseller list will find their books removed from first-string brick and mortar store shelves within 4 months (usually less), and then those authors are in the same boat as their self-published brethren who never opted for brick and mortar distribution at all.
Only, where the self-pubbed author has known all along that he'd need to drive sales online, the mainstream-pubbed author has likely assumed brick and mortar stores would always be his prime sales channel.
The times, and the markets, they are a'changin.
April, I don't disagree with much of what you said, but I have to take issue with this:
Authors who are bypassing the mainstream paths have access to the same distribution channels as their mainstream peers, so long as they work with service providers who provide that option.
This is simply not true. The wholesale distribution you're talking about, such as that available through Lightning Source, is only part of the distribution picture. Commercial publishers also work with distributors such as IPG or Consortium that have sales forces, or else maintain their own warehouses and sales forces.
This kind of distribution, which is principally what gets books into physical bookstores, is not available through vanity publishers like AuthorHouse, assisted self-publishing services like Lulu, or printers like Lightning Source. And while some true self-publishers may be able to obtain it if they are able to build good sales, it's very, very difficult.
Authors who are bypassing the mainstream paths have access to the same distribution channels as their mainstream peers, so long as they work with service providers who provide that option. Lightning Source provides distribution through all the same online, brick-and-mortar, library and bookseller channels all over the world as any mainstream publisher can offer, for example, and doesn't charge exorbitant fees for it.
As for the argument that the only 'legitimate' authors are those published by the mainstream, that's just ill-informed bias. There are plenty of valid reasons to bypass the mainstream that have nothing to do with a lack of patience or unwillingness to submit to an editorial vetting process or "pay dues".
Anyone who follows Lynn Viehl on the Genreality blog knows by now that the great majority of mainstream-published authors, even those such as Viehl who've enjoyed NYT bestsellerhood multiple times, are not earning a living wage off their book proceeds, never mind making a comfortable living. She netted less than $25K on her most recent book that debuted on the NYT list (in her first year's worth of royalty statements, and she says she doesn't anticipate any further profit from the book for at least another year—or two!). That's right: you can spend decades chasing after a brass ring that will turn out to be made of aluminum if and when you ever grasp it.
Then there's the fact that big, conglomerate mainstream publishers are businesses first and foremost, and they are only interested in publishing the books that seem poised to appeal to the widest possible audience. There's nothing wrong in this, it is what it is. But it means an awful lot of quality lit is rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. If it's edgy, controversial, or just doesn't look like a potential bestseller, you're not likely to get an offer for your manuscript, no matter how fantastic it may be.
I could go on and on, but I'll close by mentioning the many, many mainstream-published authors who have, or are currently, self-publishing their back catalogs (which the publisher no longer keeps in print), their more experimental work, and their manuscripts that have been rejected by their publishers for whatever reason. Fantasy and Sci-Fi legend Piers Anthony is part of this group, as are Stephen King, Stephen Covey (the 7 Habits guy) and JA Konrath (author of the very popular Jack Daniels series of crime novels).
Konrath has blogged extensively about how much more money he's earning on his self-published Kindle books than he earns on the Kindle versions of his books released by his publisher. Konrath used to be very much opposed to self-publishing, but even he has come around to seeing it's simply a business decision, nothing more nor less, and it's a decision each author needs to make on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis.
All the judgmental rhetoric really needs to stop. Can't we just all be glad, both as writers and readers, that we are not limited to writing or reading whatever the mainstream conglomerates have determined will sell the most copies?
JFBookman, I don't expect my categories to catch on. As you say, there has been too much muddying. Mostly, I was trying to sort things out in my own mind, so I can think more clearly about this tangled issue.
The bottom line, for any author, is what's good for you? That's a decision that should always be based on as much knowledge as possible.
Victoria, thanks for trying to hack through the undergrowth here, although I wonder how readily your categories will catch on.
Many of these terms have been muddied by the big publishing-services companies apparently with intent, for their own profit motives.
The whole situation has made it very confusing for authors contemplating publishing their own work. I get these questions virtually every day from prospective clients.
But I think it's beyond dispute that for the savvy self-publisher, the system has never been more accessible and, in some cases, less expensive, than it is today.
And taking the time to get a decent edit and a professional design will immediately vault you to the top 1% of all self-published books.
Thanks for the discussion.
Fantastic post! Thanks for putting it all in perspective, and an easy to follow historical guide, for this rapidly changing marketplace.
For a new writer (still polishing that first novel) the waters sure look chummy! Thanks for clearing it up.
Writer Beware regards PublishAmerica as an "author mill" which is why Victoria didn't include it under the "vanity press" umbrella.
In a day or so, maybe I'll blog about the differences between an "author mill" and a vanity press, as WB perceives them.
-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
Dick Margulis said,
there is no real advantage to the traditional model other than access to the distribution chain.
But that is one mother of an advantage. Distribution is the wall that even the most professional self-publishers run up against, and most never find a way to climb it.
I'd argue that there are other major advantages as well, such as not laying out large amounts of cash you may never get back, as well as commercial publishers' access to book marketing channels that authors are shut out of (professional review venues, for instance, which are important in persuading booksellers and libraries to place orders).
I'm not disputing that for some writers, in some circumstances, self-publishing (or even vanity publishing) can be a good option–or even the best option. What I object to is when it's presented as just one of many different publishing alternatives, suitable for anyone (it's not) or as somehow better than other kinds of publishing because Big Commercial Publishing is [pick one] dead/dying/hidebound/slow/elitist/corrupt.
Henry Baum said,
By your definition, publishing directly with Lightning Source is vanity publishing, b/c you have to pay a set-up fee, and I don't think that should be the case.
I'd actually consider LS a printer, just like Thomson-Shore or Victor Graphics, to which you would also have to pay a fee.
"learn enough about typography and design to come up with something reasonably professional looking, do the same for the cover . . "
I've only skimmed typography (got a 2 hour crash course from a former printer and have read like, one Jan Tschichold essay), but I do know enough to know that I don't know enough — and that self-pub vanity folks don't know either.
That's what I find the most off-putting about self-pub/vanities; the awful cheapness of the words on the page. Once the former printer explained a thing or two, much more of the problem became clear.
By virtue of technology, much has changed in every industry since the 1990s, opening up doors of opportunity for some, and closing them for others.
A hole in the market place for hopeful authors in a hurry, seems to have been filled by this method of publishing, however I believe, and perhaps antiquatedly so, that the most legitimate authors are still those who are not vanity published or self published.
As a reputable publishing house asserts; you, author, have something so worthwhile to bring to the table, heck ya, we'll pay you for that!
I equate money with success. Money with legitimacy. However, it's true that drug dealers make a great deal of money so… always not a good plumbline, is it?
Summing it up: superior authors tend to make money for their work and nominal ones do not.
I own three companies. I tend to get paid for a good product or service. I do not expect to get paid if I don't have one!
@Dick Margulis–by 'objective' I meant outside the author. If an author is able to act as a publisher and create a team to edit and produce a quality product, than full steam ahead.
For the most part, this does not seem to be happening with self/vanity/independent publishing.
Another distinction: Do-it-yourself publishing, where the author attempts (with varying degrees of success) to self-edit the book, learn enough about typography and design to come up with something reasonably professional looking, do the same for the cover, create and execute a marketing plan, etc., etc.
That's very different from knowing what skills you have mastered and knowing which tasks you should hire out.
@LJ: What do you mean by "the objective vetting and editorial process"? It's all subjective. Once an author takes on a team of professionals and works with them in a collegial way—acting now as the publisher and not as the whiny, self-centered author—there is no real advantage to the traditional model other than access to the distribution chain. That's the one power the majors bring to the table that the self-publishing author has trouble accessing. But in terms of putting out a quality book, there is nothing barring the self-publishing author from doing that.
I actually don't think that the definitions really matter. All of the options out there to get your book to market in non-traditional ways seem to have one thing in common–the author is able to bypass the objective vetting and editorial process.
Having said that, I did choose to put out a small volume of poetry independently. I did so for several reasons: 1–there is virtually no money to be made or commercial market for poetry, 2–many of the publishing options are fee based contests, some of dubious reputation, 3–I wanted to have a volume of poetry I could use as a gift for friends and family, and 4–all of the poems had been work-shopped extensively and had the benefit of some objective vetting/editorial process.
I have no plans, however, to release any of my fiction independently. That's why I worked so hard to get an agent. There is money on the line, and this is the process by which my work will be vetted and edited.
Yes, the publishing industry may be clunky and slow to change, but until the other options have a more rigorous quality control mechanism, I'm not willing either to publish my novels that way, nor am I willing to risk buying independently published books.
Paris Hilton is vain. It's not vain to want readers for a book. I don't know why it's any less vain to think your worth a publisher paying you a six figure advance for a novel. Paying money to release your own book does not automatically make you shallow. It just means you want to find any way possible to connect with readers.
It seems to me that the actual line is where someone other than the author (or his/her family) is willing to invest money in the publication of the book. Everything else is literally driven by the vanity of the author, and qualifies for the term vanity publication.
Heh, you left out the mother of all deceptive vanity publishers: PublishAmerica.
By your definition, publishing directly with Lightning Source is vanity publishing, b/c you have to pay a set-up fee, and I don't think that should be the case. Print on demand through LSI should still be considered self-publishing – you don't necessarily need an upfront print run and a warehouse to be a true self-publisher. Really, that print run is a "fee" just like setting up shop with LSI, which further blurs the distinction.
Cate, I don't know the answer to your question. But musicians have two advantages in self-publishing that book writers don't. First, they can sell both whole albums and individual songs (book writers can't break their books up into chapters and sell them individually). Second, they have a second income stream and promotional opportunity–performance–that's not really available to writers, or most writers, anyway. Their recorded music can promote their performances, and they can also sell CDs when they perform.
I wonder how this compares to musicians who "self-publish" their music, which people can buy. With itunes and magnatunes and CD Baby and others, what's the set-up on those sites for musicians who aren't picked up by a big-name label (or, perhaps, don't want to be because they want more artistic control)? How do they fare with those sites in terms of distribution and profit? Is it a model that might work for writers?
I didn't realize there were so many fee-charging publishers out there. Thanks for telling writers where to beware. 🙂