Sunday, November 22, 2009

Definitions for the Perplexed: Self Publishing

Janet Reid has done a fine job of covering the Harlequin brouhaha, so I needn't go over it again here.
And the SFWA has helpfully delineated the differences between vanity, subsidy, and self-publishing.

Let me just get this out of the way: There's nothing wrong with self-publishing. Not intrinsically. And a very small and extremely lucky and persistent percentage of self-publishers manage to sell their self-published works in enough quantity to make a profit. In a few extremely rare instances they sell well enough to be picked up by a trade publisher.

But there IS something wrong with self-publishing presses: They're shitheads.

Self-publishing presses reliably tell their marks ahem, clients all the things that will happen: their book will have an ISBN. It will be available through Amazon. It will have "distribution".

What they do not tell their clients are all the things that won't happen: It won't be available at both national wholesalers. Even if it is, it won't be available on a returnable basis to bookstores. It won't be available at a normal trade discount to bookstores. It won't have been edited, designed, or illustrated in a professional manner, which is what the book-buying public expects.

Which means it won't have a snowball's chance in hell of placement in bookstores, and 999 times out of 1,000 it won't have a snowball's chance in hell of selling. Period.

If self-publishing presses were educating their clients about all of that, I would have nothing at all against them. But education would cut into their profits. So they won't.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Who are both national wholesalers?
Tnx.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Ingram and Baker&Taylor.

Jill Edmondson said...

Bingo! All of that really needed to be said.

Getting printed, I mean published, counts for squat if you ever hope to sell your book. You need retail support. Vanity presses et al. do not lead to the crucial distribution channels.

Thanks, Jill
www.jilledmondson.com
"Blood and Groom" is now in stores!

Deirdre Mundy said...

The problem with self-publishing is that people use it for the wrong reasons.

Something like Lulu is GREAT if your church wants to put out a recipe book, or if you want to publish grandma's stories and distribute them to the whole family....

But it is NOT a good way to get your book into the hands of people who don't care diddly-squat about YOU PERSONALLY.

To do that, you need to go the traditional route. Which makes sense, because by the time you get an agent, an editor, and a professionally published book, your work has been read and liked by LOTS of people who don't care a fig about you....... So you know it has appeal outside the "Great-Aunts and Third-Cousins" market.....

WV: Vende --isn't that Italian for sell?

Anonymous said...

About 10 years ago I self published a few picture (e)books, mostly because even though I had been previously published I was getting rejected all over the place and I wanted to produce SOMETHING.

I look back on those "somethings" and can now see why they were rejected. One of those titles did eventually sell to traditional pub and went on to win national awards and starred reviews. However, that was in spite of being self-published - not because. My editor was not entirely pleased with that story's past.

My word verification is mudists.
Dirty naked people!

Anonymous said...

Huh. Okay, thanks. I always thought retailers ordered direct from publishers.

Beth said...

In some of the current discussion people are pointing out a difference between true self-publishing (defined as taking advantage of services like Lulu etc, with the author arranging things and paying for well-defined services) and vanity publishing, defined as the AuthorSolutions model with the misleading information and active solicitation, plus possibly taking a cut of any profits should they appear. I think it's a helpful distinction.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Anonymous, they do.
I don't know if bookstores can order directly from self-publishing presses, but if they can AND it's returnable AND at a normal discount, they're STILL less likely to trust a self-publishing house than a wholesaler they're familiar with.

fool me once... said...

I just ordered my first self pubbed book written by a ranter who complains that all things published traditionally are crap. I admit, I was uber curious about what he thought was good (his).

The book, besides looking cheap, was awful. Besides being awful, it was like bad porn.

And now, it is in the trash.

I think word of mouth or proven, demonstrable writing talent (excepts or short fiction on a website) will be what makes self publishing work in the future. Which is certainly possible with social networking and blogging. But a rant is not enough.

Anonymous said...

I think nearly half the jobs posted over at Craig's List under art/media/design are people looking for an illustrator for their children's books. And most of them state your compensation will be 50/50 of the sales/royalties.

Oh, my dear....

Anonymous said...

Amazing that the market for self-publishing persists, despite the fact that the tiniest bit of research reveals what a bad idea it is. Fools and their money.

Cam Snow said...

Self-publishing persists because people are vain - end of story. If I make it to 150 rejections/manuscript for the next 5 manuscripts, then I will consider self-pubbing... at my current rate of writing that will take about 37 years and because of my carnivorous diet I'll likely die well before then.
I think that there is going to be some breakthrough in self-pubbing, eventually, but I don't see it coming by publishing houses opening vanity arms.

Anonymous said...

That's not self-publishing. It's vanity publishing. If it was self-publishing, the author would own the ISBN. Vanity presses trick people into thinking they're published when they're really printed, and their book is trapped in un-edited limbo for however long said evil vanity publishers choose to hold it hostage under the guise of helping the author realize his/her dream.

Self-publishing -- the author's "imprint" is listed on the spine as the publisher.

Vanity publishing -- Publish America, Xlibris, Lulu, Harlequin Horizons, etc, is listed on the spine as the publisher.

And far too many people read the promises of "Your book will be available IN bookstores from sea to shining sea" as "We will place your book ON the shelves of national chain stores so people who browse there can find it instead of having to walk to the counter and request a copy." (which means they have to know it exists before they go looking for it)

nauthor said...

Anonymous at 1.49 pm--

There's an article in this month's SCBWI bulletin about how to write up a contract when doing illustrations for a self-published book. Pretty interesting... the basic takeaway, is, of course, don't you settle for no 50% of alleged royalties.

Michael Reynolds said...

In 10 years 90% of books will be self-published because 90% of books will be digital.

The barriers to self-publishing digitally are almost non-existent. A web site and a PayPal button. And a digital self-publisher can sell his book for twice his current royalties and still undercut the dead tree cover price by 80%

Marketing remains the issue, of course. But then it's the issue now. Digital doesn't need Ingram or B&N or even Amazon. Which means they don't need the publisher's marketing muscle since that is directed almost exclusively toward getting the book into bricks and mortar stores and major online retailers.

The growth industry in publishing will be in independent digital marketing. The person who can crack that nut can rule the industry.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Thank you!

I agree with Deirdre, self publishing is fine for niche situations, but not if you want a career.

Anonymous said...

Saying that most books will be self-published in a few years means nothing. More books are self-published now than commercially published.

They also account for the tiniest number of sales. (as most self-published books, are really vanity published) The average number of books sold by self-publishers is double digits (the stand outs make the news because they STAND OUT as unusual stories)

Even if most books go into e-book format, you're assuming that the publishers will vanish - that's a ridiculous assumption. The publishers will still exist, and they'll still put out the lion's share of recognizable titles. An e-book by Stephen King will still be more profitable than an unedited book your gym teacher uploads via Kindle and then has no means of marketing.

The garbage - which most self/vanity titles are - will fund growing numbers of scam outfits, and never been seen by the average reader, while good writing will still find its way to real commercial presses that will invest real time editing them and real money promoting them.

You're also assuming that a casual reader is going to invest in an e-reader. Most people don't buy enough books a year to justify the cost of a Kindle or Nook or Alex or whatever. That will change when the books can be bought and used on most computers/smartphones, etc, but for now, a yearly $30 book buyer won't plunk down $250-$450 and then buy books on top of it. Books can take a lot more abuse than e-readers, too.

The medium may change, but the way people select which books they read won't for a while after that, and right now people trust books by authors and publishers they know can turn out a quality product.

The rest is smoke and mirrors held onto by people who would rather buy their chance at "their vision" than do the work and bring their MS up to standards.

cynjay said...

Until they come up with a waterproof e-reader that you can use in the tub, my money is on the dead-tree book variety.

WV: bledu
Isn't that what vanity presses do?

Michael Reynolds said...

Anonymous:

Even if most books go into e-book format, you're assuming that the publishers will vanish - that's a ridiculous assumption. The publishers will still exist, and they'll still put out the lion's share of recognizable titles. An e-book by Stephen King will still be more profitable than an unedited book your gym teacher uploads via Kindle and then has no means of marketing.

Why will publishers continue to exist? Let's say I decide not to wrap GONE after six books but want to do a 7th. (I don't, but let's pretend.) Since I make 1.80 per hardcover now, why don't I just publish a 7th book digitally and charge, say, $3.99 per direct-to-consumer download?

Why precisely is it ridiculous to suppose that publishers will disappear?

The garbage - which most self/vanity titles are - will fund growing numbers of scam outfits, and never been seen by the average reader, while good writing will still find its way to real commercial presses that will invest real time editing them and real money promoting them.

Yes, most self-published stuff is crap. But why wouldn't established, competent writers go digital? That's an assumption on your part.

All we make is our royalty (well, assuming we earn out, but let's keep it simple.) So why don't I just sell my books digitally for whatever my royalty is? Or let's have some fun and say double the royalty, approximately $4.00 in my case. Readers pay $18 now, or a discount to $12, let's say. Why won't those same readers by a digital version for $4?

As a rule if you lower prices while simultaneously increasing availability you increase sales.

You're also assuming that a casual reader is going to invest in an e-reader.

On the contrary, I'm assuming e-readers are transitional devices. Gateway drugs to move people away from paper to digital. My son at age 10 read an entire 600 manuscript on his iPhone. Straight from my laptop to his phone.

The medium may change, but the way people select which books they read won't for a while after that, and right now people trust books by authors and publishers they know can turn out a quality product.

True.

The rest is smoke and mirrors held onto by people who would rather buy their chance at "their vision" than do the work and bring their MS up to standards.

Yep. But you're talking apples while I'm talking oranges. I'm talking about established writers and wanna-bes, not just the cranks and wackos.

The economics are irresistible. Costco and Amazon put downward pressure on dead tree books, but just imagine what kind of price pressure we'd see if even a few dozen established writers went digital and sold their books direct-to-consumers for twice their royalty -- an 80% discount.

How do the legacy publishers compete in that environment? How do they sell an $18 dollar book when it's available for 80% less in digital?

Now, here's a fun bonus for writers to think about: most published books never make it into the chains, and if they do they have at best a few weeks to make a mark. If they fail they disappear. But in the digital environment there's no up-or-out pressure. A digital book can stay on the virtual shelf forever.

This isn't scary for writers. This is an opportunity.

Anonymous said...

The ONLY writers in a position to "go digital" on their own are those with established fanbases. And if they ONLY go digital, they risk alienating the 75%-90% of the readers who have no desire or use for an e-reader (until it goes way down in price). Again, it's those $30/year readers who only buy best sellers and make up the bulk of best seller sales.

Sure writers and voracious readers will go the e-reader route, but most casual readers aren't either of those.

Casual readers will still plunk down $12 books for a print copy - and will continue to do so because it's more cost effective.

Until the ratios reverse, it will still be more profitable for publishers to put out physical books.

And, as I said, in e-books, the big name publishers still have the resources and reputation to get a book seen by people who wouldn't know it exists otherwise. THEY pay for publicity. THEY use their connections to leverage reviews. THEY get the word of mouth going in ways no one with a blog, twitter, facebook, whatever can match.

Mid-listers like to dream about the end of the "gatekeepers", but it's just that - a fantasy. A publisher's stamp is a reader's first line of defense against lousy material. And as much as writers wave the "it's the story that counts" flag, it's not true.

It's the hype that counts. And it's the hype that builds fervor to create a best seller where there would otherwise be birdcage lining.

Sue Campbell said...

Thanks for addressing this. I am a professional book designer, mostly for a small press, but I also do covers and production on occasion for individuals self-publishing. I have tried to dissuade every one of them from self-pubbing at that time. Instead, encouraging them to seek out an editor and polishing and submitting to an agent or traditional publisher.

They all wanted: complete control, not to rewrite, and not to wait—they WANT to self-publish. So I try very hard to reign in their expectations—to tell them what you just wrote.

Without exception, they don't want to hear it. They don't believe that the "rules" of the game apply to them. They want to believe that their book is special. I agree that the self-pub presses prey on this weakness in these authors. And they gouge them at every turn inventing non-existant charges and fees and don't deliver any value for those fees.

Though I think that it wouldn't matter if these presses really did tell it like it is, because authors want to believe the lie.

RCWriterGirl said...

EA, first, I'd like to say thanks for all your posts. They're always informative and interesting.

But, I must disagree with you here. I think self-publishing presses are no different than self-publishing, and I'm not sure why everyone seems so negative toward them. Self-publishing presses give exactly what they promise: publishing. There's no bait-and-switch or bad promises going on. And not to sound like an ideological group I've been opposed to since childhood (*gulp,* Republicans), but if people feel misled by vanity presses, they need to take a look in the mirror. There is such a thing as personal responsibility. Before ponying up money to someone, you need to understand exactly what you're going to get, and I think anyone who has looked at the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing will understand exactly that.

If a person has tried through to get his book published through traditional means and failed, but still thinks the book is worth publishing, Vanity presses (or self-publishing presses) are the easiest way to go.

I have a friend who "self-published" under your standards. And guess what? It's a pain in the arse. ISBNs are sold in groups. You can't get just one. It's a hassle to get identified as a publisher and find a company who will then print your book on demand (so you're not out oodles of money for copies that don't sell). If you can't find a POD company as your own publisher, then it's really expensive to get printers to do quality print runs of your book because they require you to purchase several thousand copies that may or may not sell.

Vanity publishers give you flexibility if you want to publish your book. People who choose vanity presses know this is not the mainstream. They know their book has been rejected by mainstream and are choosing a different path. So, to suggest that publishers are somehow taking advantage of them is wrong. These people are getting what they pay for: a published book. It's up to them to choose if what the vanity press is providing is worth the fee.

There's a market for vanity presses because people want to be published, and not everyone can be (at least through the traditional method). I think it's wrong to act as if the vanity presses are taking advantage of people. It's like suggesting the people who shop at the supermarket are being taken advantage of. Yes, they could raise cows and chickens to get milk and eggs and grow vegetables at a communal garden. But, going to the store is easier.

Yes, people could "self-publish" but vanity presses are much easier and serve the same need.

Michael Reynolds said...

The ONLY writers in a position to "go digital" on their own are those with established fanbases. And if they ONLY go digital, they risk alienating the 75%-90% of the readers who have no desire or use for an e-reader (until it goes way down in price). Again, it's those $30/year readers who only buy best sellers and make up the bulk of best seller sales.

Again, it's not about e-readers. It's about a web page and a PayPal button. Kids -- my readers -- will read books anywhere, in any form. They aren't loyal to paper. In fact they often feel limited by paper because they are accustomed to being able to navigate freely in and out of a text.

This isn't theoretical, I've seen it. As for adult readers? I'm 55, and when they ask me to blurb someone's book I ask for a digital copy, not paper.

Until the ratios reverse, it will still be more profitable for publishers to put out physical books.

This can happen in a heartbeat. I think we'll be stunned by how quickly this happens.

I can send a manuscript directly from my laptop to a reader by way of a PayPal button. No wholesaler, no retailer, no need to validate parking.

And, as I said, in e-books, the big name publishers still have the resources and reputation to get a book seen by people who wouldn't know it exists otherwise. THEY pay for publicity. THEY use their connections to leverage reviews. THEY get the word of mouth going in ways no one with a blog, twitter, facebook, whatever can match.

Publishers market to bookstores and libraries. They are clueless at reaching the reading public. In fact they're busy cutting back on marketing and publicity.

What they are good at is getting books into stores. Stores which may not be around 10 years from now.

Mid-listers like to dream about the end of the "gatekeepers", but it's just that - a fantasy. A publisher's stamp is a reader's first line of defense against lousy material. And as much as writers wave the "it's the story that counts" flag, it's not true.

I've sold 150 books with those gatekeepers. I have nothing against them. They're my friends. They've written me a lot of checks over the last 20 years.

But nostalgia won't save the current publishing business model any more than it saved the music business or the newspaper business or the carriage-making business.

zettaelliott said...

I chose to self-publish because after five years of rejection from mainstream and small presses, I was tired of waiting for someone else's approval. I have a significant publication record and an award-winning picture book, but STILL couldn't get the interest of an agent or editor. The kidlit market is 95% white, so if you're a person of color trying to "break into" the market, good luck. I didn't self-publish in order to make money; I did it with two goals in mind: to get my YA novel into libraries and public schools, which is exactly what I've done. Through Create Space, your book is assigned an ISBN and put up on Amazon.com right away, though most of my sales have been directly to schools. I have a relationship with Baker & Taylor, and Barnes and Noble called me at home last week to place an order...my self-published title's going out of production only b/c I sold the rights to Amazon Encore, and the "new" edition (same book, new cover) will come out in February. More and more gifted writers are turning to self-publishing because the publishing industry isn't looking for good writing about diverse kinds of people. And their closed door leads frustrated authors to look for the open window that is self-publishing. It's not always about vanity--it's determination to see your work live in the world.

http://zettaelliott.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/its-official/

Josin L. McQuein said...

RCWG -

The problem comes with vanity presses that say they aren't vanity presses, and there are several of them.

"We are a traditional, advance paying publisher!" (they give usually $1 as a "token")

"Don't self-publish your book, go with us! Self-publishing has a bad reputation!" (No, vanity publishing has a bad reputation, and if you're pointing it out, you're probably one of the worst.)

"We believe in you and you're the top of the list for quality!" (It's in English and you didn't send us a word for word copy of Harry Potter, so you're golden.)

"Your books will be available in bookstores nationwide!" (If someone knows they exist and goes to the register to ask for a special ordered copy.)

"Achieve your dreams!" (Because our business is selling them to you at a premium so you can play Author: The Role Playing Game.)

"You'll be in the same league as Stephen King and James Patterson!" (Unless you actually talk your way onto a "writer panel" at a convention and the others find out who printed your book, then they'll make faces at you and scoot to the other end of the table.)

"No publisher accepts material from the unpublished! You have to pay to play the first time out!" (Except for the thousands of times publishers have accepted material from the unpublished... which all writers are before their first deal.)

"Agents take too much of your money, and they really hate new writers!" (So give us at least 50% of your money, then pay us to run spellcheck, then pay us to format, then pay us to run a stock image search, then pay us to spam you with ads for your own books! Nevermind that agents don't hate authors at all.)

"Your friends will be impressed!" (So mention your book to them all and tell them we take credit cards.)


The problem is that most vanity published authors think they're commercially published, and they don't realize the truth until it's too late to do anything about it.

Anonymous said...

"But nostalgia won't save the current publishing business model any more than it saved the music business or the newspaper business or the carriage-making business."

True -- but the music industry is about ten years further down this road than the publishing industry is, and so far it is not working out well for the labels *or* the artists. Everyone is losing money.

Artists who could once make a living can no longer do so.

Katrina said...

In some ways, I've fought posting about this here, because the author I'm going to post about is the perfect storm. He's also NOT in the children's or young adult field (unless you twist and shove the nostalgia bits to fit that lable).

He's already known and has an audience.
Standard publishing was tried, and to his mind, failed spectacularly; although a book resulted from the process.
He has an editor.
He has someone who can work on cover-art for him that ends up looking at least as professional as many Penguin books published for graduate work. (Haven't handled one, I'm going off of what I can see on the internet; although most people writing in appear to say it "feels nice".)
That stuff matters to him, so he's gone to the trouble.
He is making a small amount of money off the books. Not enough to live on solely, but enough that he's happy with it.

He uses Lulu, at the moment.

Wil Wheaton was an actor first, but he's also a blogger, internet journalist, a "standard" published writer, and a "self" published writer. He still puts a lot of work into it, and will be the first to admit that it isn't easy. But I think that saying that self-publishing and Lulu specifically fail almost 100% of the time is a bit unfair. I'd go for 75-80%, sure! Not everyone will have that dedication.

If you'd like, a chunk of his website which discusses his books is at: http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/books/

I do not know him personally, I've never met him, and by fan standards - I probably hardly rank. I miss plenty of things he's done. I just wanted another side of the argument to be mentioned.

Thank you.

namelos said...

Points taken but the merits of "a returnable basis to bookstores" are debatable. The industry is shackled to the returnable model but it is a burden. As for "a normal trade discount to bookstores," I assume you accept short discounts as "normal." In both areas, new models are emerging.

christine tripp said...

RCWrighterGirl, there is a huge difference between the two self publishings. One, an author knows from the on set, they are paying to print a book. The other, they believe they have been offered a "contract".
I have seen it again and again, author so excited, posted on forums how they have been "offered a contract" from pub America or whatever name suits, and they honestly think they have "sold" their book to these people. I agree with Cam Snow, it is all about ego, just as responding to Nigerian emails is all about greed.
When someone self publishes their story, with the full intent to do all the marketing leg work and finacial backing, that is fine, when someone thinks a "publisher" has accepted their manuscript, that's just really sad.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Namelos,
I do recognize that the returnable business model is problematic. Know who doesn't think it's problematic, though? Bookstores.

And do you know who will DEFINITELY not take a book on a non-returnable basis FOR A SHORT DISCOUNT? Yes, it's bookstores.

If they take books on a non-returnable basis, they expect to get a higher than normal discount, and they'll often only take books non-returnably when the books have an extremely good shot at selling out. Which does NOT describe self-published books.

Now, maybe you (and other people) are happy to seek out those retail operations that WILL take a non-returnable book for a short discount. That's fine.

My problem is that self-publishing presses don't tell their clients that BOOKSTORES are extremely unlikely to accept that model, and so many self-publishers end up feeling taken advantage of. They think they're producing a book that they'll be able to sell in bookstores. They aren't.

kim said...

I recently when to a talk from an established author. He has published over 100 books with 7 different publishers. (Educational material at first, now successful picture books.) He still has a day job.

If you meet him and want one of his books, he has to call his agent to arrange it or find the proper distribution channel with the publisher.

Also at the workshop there was a successful self published author- he sold the paperback rights to random house. He sells his book on line, at markets, boutique stores and by word of mouth. His average customer buys more than one book, as they are fabulous gifts. (one couple bought over 30 for friends and family.)

The distribution is time consuming, but this is his day job. After the talk, the speaker wanted to learn more about self publishing. He was happy he retained rights to his books now out of print.

Anonymous said...

Check out this example of one of the extremely rare instances in which Harper Collins picked up this self-published children's book
http://www.amazon.com/Pete-Cat-Love-White-Shoes/dp/0061906220/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1260978304&sr=8-1

Michael said...

>>But there IS something wrong with self-publishing presses: They're shitheads.<<

Although shitheads exist in all endeavors, you are describing vanity publishing, not self-publishing.

There is a fundamental difference between the two paths to publication.

A real self-publisher tries to make money by selling books to readers. Vanity publishers make most of their money by selling services to naive writers, not by selling books to readers. The books are often ugly, error-filled and overpriced -- and very few copies are sold.

Just as no one can eat lunch for you, no other person or company can self-publish for you. The words just don't make sense.

OTOH, a "real" self-publisher establishes a business, hires editors and designers, purchases photography, owns ISBNS, obtains LCCNs and copyrights, chooses a printer, and promotes the books.

That's very different from paying for the services of a vanity publisher.

Michael N. Marcus

author of "Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press," http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661742

author of "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)," coming 4/1/10. http://silversandsbooks.com/storiesbookino.html

http://BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com