Democratization or Disinformation?

Per a recent press release posted online, Author Solutions–owner of a number of print-on-demand publishing services, including AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford, WordClay, and Palibrio–has just issued another whitepaper.

 A previous whitepaper, released in early 2009, attempted to re-brand AS as an “indie” or “independent” publisher (see my debunking of this co-opting of terms with already-established meanings that don’t fit the AS business model at all). In the current whitepaper, AS announces “The Democratization of Publishing,” crediting “the historical convergence of three technologies for bringing about the end of the publishing ‘aristocracy.’”

Which three technologies? Well, first, desktop publishing, which “replaced traditional typesetting, [and] meant an individual could design a book more quickly and cost effectively”. Second, print on demand technology, through which “copies of a book could be printed individually, at costs comparable to traditional, large offset runs” (actually, this isn’t true; low setup costs make digital printing cheaper for one-at-a-time production and small print runs, but offset printing, which can benefit from economies of scale–i.e., the more you produce, the lower the unit cost–is far more economical for runs of more than a few hundred). And third, the Internet as a distribution channel, which “leveled the playing field for authors who wanted to distribute their books broadly and cost effectively.”

The result? “These technologies, all developing at the same time, meant the elite no longer held the power. Authors now had it. This fundamental shift in control has transformed the publishing industry.”

Here’s the proof of this seismic change, according to Author Solutions:

While this revolution has been taking place for over a decade, this year marked a milestone. Publishers Weekly, the leading industry periodical, published an article titled “Self-Publishing Titles Topped 764,000 in 2009 as Traditional Output Dipped” essentially declaring victory. Reporter Jim Milliot states the latest Bowker data, the industry measuring stick, shows “the number of ‘non-traditional’ titles dwarfed those of traditional books.”

There’s just one problem with these figures (which I analyzed in much more detail in a recent blog post). More than 697,000 of those non-traditional titles weren’t self-published at all, but reprints of previously-published works (most in the public domain) put out by reprint specialists such as BiblioBazaar and Kessinger Publishing (despite its misleading title, the PW article makes this clear). According to the statistics PW provides, self-published titles from the largest publishing services, including two of the Author Solutions brands, actually numbered around 77,000. That’s an impressive figure, but even if you double it to account for the many smaller publishing services that PW doesn’t mention, it’s still considerably fewer than the just over 288,000 titles issued by “traditional” publishers.

A “victory” for self-publishing? A pie in the face for the elitist traditional publishing industry? Not so much.

Not content with its skewed presentation of facts and figures, Author Solutions next pulls the trick of the non-comparable comparison, invoking nonfiction author Seth Godin, who recently made the decision to bypass his trade publisher and self-publish his next book. “In other words,” Author Solutions declares, “he is taking his message directly to the people.”

Now the question remaining is how many other authors like Mr. Godin will follow his lead. Is he a lone rebel or the first one to take advantage of the new freedoms afforded authors? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: The walls have come down. Publishing is no longer a closed society. As Mr. Godin stated in a recent interview, “[After the fixed costs of an editor and book formatting,] your book is packaged as you want, and it can then be put on sale next to other potential best-sellers on Amazon and elsewhere.”

In other words, there is equal opportunity for authors to be successful and achieve their dreams. Long live the revolution!

Now, I really don’t think I need to get up on a soapbox about how Seth Godin–best-selling author of numerous books, with a high profile, a huge platform, and (presumably) substantial financial resources–differs from Joe First-Time Author or Jane Midlist Novelist. Godin’s choice to self-publish (and the choices of other well-known authors who are bypassing the traditional system in various ways) says a great deal about the changes that are currently rocking the publishing industry, and the ways in which savvy, entrepreneurial-minded writers who are already successful can use their existing platforms to exploit the opportunities offered by the free-for-all of the Internet and the burgeoning world of digital. But it says nothing whatever about the viability of self-publishing for writers in general (for a succinct analysis of why, see this blog post from Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt).

Nor does it demonstrate that publishing has been democratized (or that it would be a good thing if it were), or support the claim that the accessibility and relative inexpense of digital printing–which hasn’t so much transformed the publishing industry as created a brand-new, parallel industry–equates to providing writers with equal opportunities for success. Digital technology has made it possible for just about anyone to turn their manuscript into a printed book and offer it for sale via the Internet–but it has not solved the problem of how to grab reader eyeballs. If anything, by vastly increasing the number of new books in circulation, it has made that task even more difficult.

I am sure it won’t be long before an Author Solutions staffer stops by to chide me for my negativity. But even if you ignore the misrepresented facts and misleading comparisons in this latest whitepaper, AS does writers an extreme disservice with its glib presentation of self-publishing–all upside, no downside, suitable for anyone no matter what their needs or ambitions. Rah, rah! Vive la revolucion! Cue clenched fist! But the truth is that the choice to self-publish is a complicated one that should be made only by writers who have studied the alternatives and clearly formulated their goals. Too many writers fall into self-publishing out of ignorance, unrealistic assumptions about its potential benefits, or misconceptions about traditional publishing.

Judging from this latest whitepaper, that would seem to suit Author Solutions just fine.


  1. Author Solutions POD publishers are a rip-off.They charge too much for too little when it comes to service. Most POD services provide, Poor quality covers, amateurish page layouts and editing that isn't that great.

    If authors would take a little time and learn how to self-publish on their own and they could produce a quality book product.

    I started out with POD services then realized their limitationos. I got tired of the poor quality covers and pages with NO whitespace, and decided to move on to Self publishing. As I overcame the learning curve, I found it was cheaper through Lulu and even cheaper through a Lightning Source account.

    With an ISBN an author can publish a book for $225 with Lightning source and $40 with corrections. Why pay Author solutions $500+ for pages that are crammed together and an amateur looking cover?

    Self publishing works best for Niche books with small audiences. Having published a couple of books I've found that marketing is the hardest part. I spend more time marketing than writing these days, promoting, sending review copies and getting the word out. This is where 90% of my work is these days.
    Books are the hardest thing to sell, and it's better to have a self-published book with your own imprint than a POD Press label on your title.

  2. The total number of titles in self-publishing or traditional publishing is irrelevant anyway. A more telling measure of success could be had by dividing the annual unit sales for each business by the number of titles available for that business, and comparing the numbers. I'm pretty sure what kind of result we'd be looking at. As for Seth Godin, a lot of motivatinal speakers self publish, helping them to pick up speaking engagements, seminars and classes. That's not a 'business model' for professional writers, but one for professional gurus.

  3. Self-publishers object to vanity/subsidy presses (like Author House) co-opting the terms "self-publish" and "print on demand." True self-publishing is buying your own ISBNs, and hiring out or doing all your editing, indexing, book design, page layout, illustration, marketing, etc. And on top of that, running a small business. Vanity presses try to sell writers on the idea of an easy package. Their packages may be easy (though not necessarily high quality or cheap), but commercial self-publishing is hard. It can however be rewarding both financially and in other ways.

    Print-on-demand is just a printing method. There are numerous printers that can do it for you without any need to involve a vanity/subsidy press. You can also self-publish offset-printed books, e-books, and audiobooks.

    Probably nothing will ever level the playing field between self-publishers and large publishers. However, if you self-publish you get all the profits. And you maintain firm control over your e-rights, which is very important these days.

    No matter how you publish (even with a large publisher), you will have to market your tail off.

    For much more information on true self-publishing, see the e-group:

    It's free and anyone can join.

  4. Vanity press gurus are implying that traditional publishing is fading as a result of the new technologies. Actually, commercial publishers are doing quite well now, after some turbulence, and taking advantage of the new ways to sell their books in different media and markets. Returns, which have tormented publishers for generations, are diminishing with e-book publication. (Authors should like that.) And the huge costs of warehousing and trucking heavy paper around the country are declining as well, greatly reducing expenses for publishers. The future is bright for traditional publishers who continue to maintain standards and publish only what is distinctive and valuable.

  5. Peter Dudley–

    Wow, that's quite a link. Even the ad is authentically badly written.

    I expect they'll clean up, though, with those entry fees. "Enter early and enter often!" Yes, quite.

  6. All those self-published books aren't selling, and neither are the ones being commercially published. All those celebrities combined are not bringing in the revenues like they used to because they STINK. Nobody is buying anything, and the publishers have all downsized. If you are self-published it means you STINK because no one would give you an advance; Random House's x libris is just taking you for your money, and so you get a disappointing royalty check for 45 cents! And if you are a celebrity and you didn't sell 6 million copies, then you STINK TWICE because you are not earning your advance. No one just wants to read anything good. In fact, very few can read at all in this country. God forbid if you went to an editorial service to make your work not stink so that it could be sold commercially. Self-published books stink and are not carried in the local stores because they stink on ice. And Crispin and Strauss have done nothing to help, because they advise you not to pay anything to fix up your work. So stew in your own juices all of you, and keep on stinking.

  7. Their use of words like revolution and democratization reveals a lot about how their thinking. They think the publishing industry is like politics, so they're acting like politicians and filling everything with half-truths and bold lies.

  8. I swear this is all you ever write about. We get it. Self-publishing = bad. We get it. We promise we won't indulge in self-publishing. Now, please, move on to a different topic.

  9. It's ALL about selling whether you're indie or traditional. The same was true in the old days; we just didn't have the communication tools to appreciate that fact. Houses did not put money into marketing most of their authors-they made them earn it by selling well. THEN they help them market-perhaps with the 2nd book, (though I could list 3 bestselling authors right now who got nothing until book 3, 4, 5 came out). It's just business-you invest in the best 'risks'–
    I know Seth Godin is not the typical indie published author but remember when Seth started out, he had good credentials and brilliant ideas that he didn't want to 'share' disproportionately with a House—that's what propelled him into indie publishing. He was a business man who just couldn't rationalize why he should give the lion's share to the House..AND being tech savvy, he saw the cyber train coming down the track so he jumped on first….
    'The rest is history' as they say…
    Good post, thanks

  10. Excellent stuff, as always.

    It's impressive (and also, a little saddening) to see the ability some folks have to bend facts to suit their argument.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  11. The current level of self publishing options are pretty good for a person who wants to self publish and understands what that actually means. On the other side of the fence, most conventionally published authors have to put in a lot more marketing time than they used to. It's not an easy industry and it's no place to make a fast buck.

  12. Self publishing works for some things. It's probably the best option for a local history and it will likely prove useful for a book with a clearly defined target readership who can be reached with a couple of judiciously placed adverts. But for the typical novel it's got to be a non-starter. 100% of the profits from a dozen copies sold is not an improvement on 10% net royalty from a couple of thousand.

  13. Your post makes great points and clarifies many issues. Thank you for this wonderful service you provide, free and unbiased.

  14. Issuing a "white paper" that is really just a long press release about how wonderful you are was–in my former profession of corporate PR–always considered the Hail Mary pass of communications strategies.

  15. Anonymous, Thomas Nelson still runs West Bow Press, and I'm not happy with some of Mr. Hyatt's commentary on that, and on publishing services in general. But he is a savvy publishing insider, and often, as in the case of the post I linked to, gives very good advice.

    Peter, I've been planning to blog about that contest for a while now. Watch for a post sometime next week.

  16. If only "getting your book published" were all there was to do. Getting word of your title out there is hard, hard, hard, and getting more difficult the more titles pop up to compete with it. Small presses have a similar issue with getting books into bookstores. There seems little enthusiasm on the part of the chain stores to stock a small press title, much less a self-published or subsidy published one. Maybe this is why small presses who strive for print go belly-up so frequently.

    No, AS, solve the bookstore-placement problem and you will have done something. Until then…um…no.

  17. Timely! I was just reading about the San Francisco Writers Conference 2011 contest.

    Would love to know what you think of this new approach they're taking to their contest.

    (Full disclosure: I've been a SFWC volunteer three years running and find it a really wonderful, worthwhile conference. I have not entered any of their contests, though I have had stuff published in the conference anthology.)

  18. Great post, Victoria. Could not agree more with your conclusions. It's unfortunate that any writer considering self-publishing isn't required to take a class on all of the ins and outs of publishing, and just how difficult it is no matter what avenue you take, some of which are much worse than others.

  19. Victoria,

    Thanks for another excellent article debunking the tactics being used by AS and others.

    As someone who works with self-publishers every day, the stories of how people get swept into deals with these companies are common. "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."

    "But the truth is that the choice to self-publish is a complicated one that should be made only by writers who have studied the alternatives and clearly formulated their goals. Too many writers fall into self-publishing out of ignorance, unrealistic assumptions about its potential benefits, or misconceptions about traditional publishing.

    Well said, and something all publishing professionals should take to heart as the best advice for those thinking of self-publishing.

    It's not easy, fast, or simple. The people who pursue self-publishing at its best are committed to educating themselves and using as much professional help as they need to get their book in print in good form.

  20. Excellent, thought-provoking post, Victoria. I think too that people considering going POD or other non-traditional pub offerings forget that it's not just a question of getting your book into print but actually selling it! And that's something too many would-be authors disregard or don't consider…until it comes time to sell the book and they realize that's where the real work begins.

  21. Did Thomas Nelson get out of the vanity publishing business then? Seems odd that Michael Hyatt would be posting a blog about why most people shouldn't self-publish when he spent so much time defending the vanity imprint, WestBow Press he set up with Author Solutions.

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