Beware The Self-Publishing Sharks
Written by Allan M.
Self-publishing your book may be your best option... if
you don’t fall prey to some of the money-grubbing companies who will
suck up your cash without a moment’s hesitation.
Self-publishing giants such as Xlibris employ reverse
psychology to entice prospective clients. Full page advertisements in
magazines such as Writers Digest show a photograph of a renowned
author, and underneath his name, “Loser?” The author in question is
someone who initially paid to have his work published, then later
achieved outstanding success. Thus these companies anticipate a major
objection to this method of propagating ones works. Once known as
“vanity press” the self-publishing industry is fast becoming huge. But
is self-publishing the way to go?
Anyone Can Self-Publish
The good news, and the bad news, is that anyone can
self-publish a book. This means that a ton of garbage gets
self-published - books that any self-respecting publisher wouldn’t
touch with a 20 foot book mark.
The biggest advantage of self-publishing is that there
is no chance of rejection. Anyone who has ever submitted a manuscript
or a query to a publisher knows how difficult and discouraging this can
be. While some of the smaller presses may be willing to consider new
writers, the Royalties received are not commensurate with the amount of
time and effort, and anyone who quits his job to write books full time
wages an uphill battle.
Publishing novels is nigh impossible without a literary
agent, most of whom will not even consider neophytes. Even those
literary agents who claim to be open-minded about beginners generally
are not, and more than half the time, will not bother responding. With
self-publishing there is no rejection. Your novel, chapbook, biography,
reference manual or how-to guide will at least have a chance.
Self-Publishing a book
is the EASY part...
Assuming that you do self-publish your magnum opus, your
next step is to somehow spark interest in your book. Traditional
publishers have catalogues, marketing departments, sales
representatives and connections with major book stores. Self-publishing
companies list the authors, titles and subject matter in searchable
online databases, but that is no guarantee that this will generate
The Onus of Book
Promotion Falls to YOU
So the onus of promoting your book usually falls to you.
Some authors are good at networking, and are very effective at setting
up interviews, book signings and media coverage. Others are good
writers, but possess few marketing skills. The Internet, while a great
boon for seekers of information, can be a great hindrance as well.
But You’ve Got All the
Control of Your Self-Published
A second advantage, one which closely ties in with the
first, is that authors who self-publish have complete editorial
control. Unless you are Stephen King, your published book will not be
the same as your original manuscript (and even Mr. King may be forced
to make one or two changes!)
Editors have deadlines and space constraints, and
authors may be forced to delete their favorites passages, or rewrite
entire chapters at the editors whim. Some authors claim that they
hardly recognize the result of months, or years, of labor.
Self-published writers have the first and last word, literally.
But with complete editorial freedom comes an obvious
downside: lax editorial standards. Quite bluntly, this results in a
veritable bumper crop of really bad books! Misspellings are fairly easy
to catch with built-in spell-checkers, but misplaced homonyms are
easily missed, and plot flaws, poor syntax and boring story lines are
much more elusive to the subjective reader (usually the author).
Also, self-publishing tends to cheapen the literary
process. This may sound pompous, but with so many people writing and
publishing their own works -be it online or through print-on-demand
arrangements- the status of author is not held in as high a regard
anymore. Writers who go through the traditional route are often asked,
“Oh, did you self-publish that?” Some bookstores are not interested in
sponsoring book signings for non-traditional authors, and many
newspapers will not run feature articles about them.
The Real Appeal of
Still, with the obvious disadvantages, many authors
still find self-publishing appealing. Writers who are shy of rejection
might otherwise be leery of ever submitting something, or even worse,
of writing anything, resulting in, to paraphrase Thomas Gray “some mute
inglorious Miltons.” Lending legitimacy to the industry, Writers Digest
magazine holds an annual competition for self-published books. Now in
its 15th year, the contest awards a top prize of $3,000. In addition,
there are several, although not many, self-published authors whose
books have been picked up by mainstream publishing houses.
The Price of
Self-Publishing is Reasonable
Self-publishing can cost you anywhere from a couple
hundred dollars to a couple thousand, depending on how much work you’re
willing to do, and how much you want to leave to others.
I do highly recommend hiring a professional editor,
which will cost you a few hundred dollars. Then, you’ll need a quality
cover design and someone to format the interior. Add about $750 or more
for those tasks. Finally, you’ll sign up with one of the many Print on
Demand publishers (they print one book at a time. This will cost you
anywhere from nothing (Lulu) to around $900. Read ALL contracts and
agreements carefully, because they do vary.
Most self-publishing companies offer a basic package for
less than $500, and with new print-on-demand technology, the author is
not stuck with boxes and boxes of books.
Self-Publishing Packages... Fries with that
You can bet that most self-publishing companies will
want to sell you their marketing, proofreading, copy editing and ghost
writing services. Most of these services aren’t that good, with a few
exeptions. You’re better off seeking outside professionals to do your
editing. And you can expect to do the bulk of the real marketing
yourself, even if you do pay your self-publishing company a hefty fee
for book marketing services.
If you are considering self-publishing, look at least
five different companies, compare their prices, and if possible, talk
to other authors to see if they were satisfied with the results.
Reading testimonials that self-publishing houses post on their websites
will not tell you anything; you will only get one side of the story.
Allan M. Heller is a free
lance writer, and the author of three books:
Fabjob Guide to Become a Life Coach (Fabjob, Ltd., December, 2003),
Philadelphia Area Cemeteries (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., April, 2005)
and Monuments and Memorials of Washington, D.C. (Schiffer, May, 2006).
Blurred Distinctions: Vanity Publishing vs.
Posted by Victoria
Strauss for Writer Beware
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
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
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
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
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
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).
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