Wednesday, 25 March 2009

When Mainstream Publishers Link With Self-Publishing Services

For years I’ve been advising writers that while self-publishing can sometimes be a route to success, only the very lucky, capable few manage to achieve it: and that unless there are exceptional circumstances surrounding their books, such as an easily-accessible niche market or their own brilliant marketing skills, they’d be better off pursuing mainstream publication if they want their books to reach the widest possible readership. I know that this reasoning holds water because I’ve seen so many writers fail with their self publishing endeavours: and yet I’ve often been shouted down for my apparent failure to recognise that publishing is changing.

Now, several reputable publishing houses seem to be suggesting that self-publishing is the new way forward. HarperCollins’s Authonomy site has teamed up with Blurb.com (which has, in the past, also been connected with Chronicle Books); both the US literary agency, Objective Entertainment, and the UK-based military history publisher Osprey are now referring to writers they reject to AuthorHouse, a straightforward vanity press; and a few weeks ago the independent publisher Accent Press announced its new pay-to-play publishing scheme for its erotica imprint, Xcite books.

This move doesn’t surprise me. We live in difficult times and publishing is suffering: there have been huge redundancies already and I have no doubt that more will follow. There are so many writers in the slush pile who are desperate to be published, but so few who are good enough to succeed: the temptation to steer them towards self-publication and to earn a commission from them in the process must be huge—it’s easy money for the publishers involved and it fills a need in the writer, too. What I don’t like, here, is the way that it’s being done.

It’s being presented as a real route to commercial success and while that might be true for a lucky few, most writers who participate in these schemes are not going to do well out of them. They aren’t likely to make many sales; the writers who pay extra for services like editing and design are unlikely to even earn their money back. And yet none of this seems to be mentioned by the publishers when they refer the writers on.

I suspect that before too long we’ll see many more publishing houses referring the writers they reject to POD-based self-publishing or vanity-publishing imprints. But there are some very obvious conflicts of interest here. Bearing in mind the doubtful quality of most of the books in the slush pile, most of the books concerned will have little chance of getting published in any other way: but is it fair to imply to those that they might do well out of this? And what about the writers who are good enough to do well with other mainstream agents or publishers? If they take the route that’s suggested by these publishing professionals, aren’t they being steered away from potential success?

For these schemes to work well for everyone involved, there will have to be systems set in place to avoid the conflicts of interest inherent in them; and the writers involved will have to be given plenty of appropriate support. But the most important thing here is honesty: the referring publishers must be very clear about the many limitations that publication of this kind involves, so that the writers involved know exactly what they’re up against before they sign up.

11 comments:

Rod H said...

This is an excellent analysis of the situation which goes straight to the heart of the matter.

For those who aren't aware of it, Mick Rooney's blog might be instructive as its sole purpose is the analysis of self-publishing sites and the deals they offer. The tile of his blog is
'POD, Self Publishing and Independent Publishing'.

Elle Scott said...

I think your post is spot on. Those self publishing companies seem like the worst kind of snake oil salesmen.

But I think in certain situations, self-publishing might be the way to go. For example, there was a man who lived in the same small town as my in-laws. He desperately wanted to publish a volume of his memoirs, and so he did. He probably sold 100 or 200 copies. My mother-in-law bought one, and I read part of it. We both thought it was terrible, style-wise, but but there was a great deal of interesting historical information about the town.

If, however, an author believes that self publishing will gain her fame and fortune, then caveat emptor.

NICOLA MORGAN said...

As ever, Jane, cogent and true.

Elle's example is a valid one of the few types of books for which self-publishing is (and always was) the "way to go" but think how many more copies that man could have sold and how much more interest there could have been if he'd paid something for some good editing or collaboration with a ghost-writer to improve his style?

BuffySquirrel said...

Commercial publishing is giving a veneer of authenticity to these vanity mills that they don't deserve. Sometimes you might hope ethics would win out over the bottom line.

I think I would be even more peeved by a rejection that implied my book was only good enough for a vanity press!

Victoria Strauss said...

This is a good analysis of a trend that has me concerned as well. I agree these referrals and/or partnerships are likely to become more common in the future, as a way for smaller publishers especially to help pad their bottom lines.

So far, the self-publishing industry, unlike so many other businesses, seems to be recession-proof. At what point, I wonder, will it top out?

Sally Zigmond said...

Victoria: I'm tempted say, don't hold your breath.

As quickly as many writers get the message about the disappointments, lack of fulfillment and difficulties (or worse) of vanity publishing, either through their own experiences and from the sterling service of people such as you and Jane, there will still be more innocent souls trotting along to fill the gaps and keep the money rolling in.

But maybe, just maybe, the message will get through eventually to all, although the fact that PA (the uber-example of the worst practise) is still going strong doesn't make me optimistic.

Humanity always seems to find the cash for anything they truly believe will bring them health, d happiness and above all, wealth.

JPFife said...

I was going to say the same as BuffySquirrel: the more this goes on the more it looks like publishers are endorsing vanity publishing; the more respectable vanity publishing becomes; the more people get sucked into vanity publishing; the more people are disappointed and out of pocket by vanity publishing.

Matador said...

At a time when commercial publishers are cutting back, some self-publishing companies are expanding, so no wonder that the commercials are seeing how they can exploit (word chosen carefully) authors in this way. The fact that a 'bona fide' commercial publisher recommends a certain company gives that company the veneer of respectability that it may not deserve. Authors will get drawn in and most will be disappointed.

Reputations in any field are earned over time, so anyone considering self-publishing should do their homework as to what they are getting into. Authors who choose it because it's placed in their lap in this way will have no idea of what they are getting into, as they won't understand the market properly.

But this sort of arrangement is going to happen more often because publishers need to find new income streams.

Information like that Mick Rooney supplies in his blog (see posting 1 above) is exactly the sort of thing that authors considering self-publishing need, but many will sadly never get such advice.

adondai said...

While I totally agree with the post and above comments, there are a couple things I think worth considering:

I see vanity-presses like Blurb.com as much less exploitive (if at all) than many of the more traditional ones like authorpress. I think the market Blurb.com is aiming for is one-off personal gift books, which I do think will rapidly grow in popularity.

Want to have a full-colour coffee-table quality book printed for your wife/gf with all your photos and so on? You can now do that incredibly affordably at Blurb and it really does look good.

Secondly, what I would like to see more of is half way houses, something between vanity-presses and full publishing companies. A company which is willing to publish books a publisher wouldn't risk - but is also serious about trying to make the books it does publish a success, rather than simply scamming the author into buying the copies themself.

Jane Smith said...

Adondai, what you're asking for is a self-publishing service provider (known by various other similar names)--and there's a rather good one by the name of Matador, which coincidentally is the name of the person who commented above you (!).

They do exist: the problem is that the vanities all claim to do what they do, so you have to be very careful to differentiate between them.

Blurb isn't a vanity press, it just provides print on demand facilities. My point in this post, though, centres on the issues which are raised by mainstream publishers referring rejected writers to any other non-mainstream publishing company: there are far too many problems with this, as it's being done at present, for it to be a good idea for writers.

Aggie Villanueva said...

I agree with all you've outlined here. It's obvious you have thought this issue through. That said, I still recently re-published my Biblical novel (originally published by Thomas Nelson) completely through POD.

Most can't afford to self publish through a printing company. I believe POD was the way to go for my reprint edition, and for the how-to, and the interview compilations I'm putting together.

I believe in quality literature and can't discount self publishing or POD. But you are so right that there needs to be more information to the writers about what they're getting into. Well said.