Thursday, 16 April 2009

Self-Publishing vs Vanity Publishing

Self-publishing and vanity publishing can be very difficult to tell apart.

There are marked similarities between them: both often involve little or no editorial selection or input; both usually produce books which are difficult to market or sell effectively; and very few books from either sector make a decent number of sales. But there are differences too.

Self-publishing involves a writer publishing their own book, and controlling everything from the content to the sales. So the imprint on the copyright page has to be theirs, and not that of the publishing service they’re using. The copyright statement refers directly to them, or indirectly by referring to the copyright holder (who happens to be them), and not to the publisher or printer. If a book is published with someone else’s imprint on the title page, it can’t logically be self-published, right? Further, the self-published writer maintains control of the editing, production, PR and sales processes all the way along: while they might pay other people to do some of the work for them—like editing or design—they project-manage the whole thing. This means that at any stage in the process the self-publisher knows exactly what’s happening with their book, how many copies are printed or sold, and how much profit or loss has been incurred as a result.

As I’ve written before, a vanity publisher is defined as a publisher which makes the majority of its money from its writers rather than its readers, whether by up-front charges or through selling books back to them once the book is published (which is how PublishAmerica does business). It’s a question of focus here, and websites are a good source of information: if the publisher focuses on finding new readers to sell to, chances are it’s a mainstream house; if its focus is on impressing writers and getting them to submit then chances are it’s a vanity press. Writers who use a vanity publisher have little or no control of the publishing process, they usually don’t have easy access to sales or royalty figures, the imprint on the copyright page is rarely theirs (although I have seen this happen) and often the copyright statement doesn’t refer to them either. Then you can argue that there’s a question of intent on behalf of the vanity publisher; and a question of the author’s knowledge and understanding of the process—but those two points are much more difficult to quantify and establish, and sound either spiteful or insulting, depending on whether you’re the publisher or writer concerned, so I’m not too fond of them.

This is a difficult distinction to make. It’s made even more difficult by most of the vanity presses insisting they’re self-publishing service providers, subsidy or cooperative publishers, or are working to a new business model or other similar nonsense; and by writers not understanding that there are so many differences between mainstream, vanity and self-publication. Many organisations don’t distinguish between vanity and self-publishing: I remember hearing that the Arts Council, for example, lumps them in together. But I know of several dedicated self-publishers who do very well for themselves; and I know of many writers who have been stung by vanity publishers and have been deeply hurt as a result.

23 comments:

Ian Sales said...

If a book is published with someone else’s imprint on the title page, it can’t logically be self-published, right?Not necessarily true. Lulu.com offers a service which is effectively self-publishing except the publisher is named as Lulu. If the author wants to be named as the publisher, they have to pay extra.

Emily Cross said...

Jane,
perhaps in a future post you could compile a list of well known vanity (Publish america) and self published presses?

Just so some of us can be on the look out! :)

BuffySquirrel said...

I don't think Lulu is self-publishing; too much control lies with them and too little with the author.

(word ver: haggicky)

DanielB said...

I once heard Lulu defended on the grounds that they "sell huge numbers of books". This is a profound misunderstanding - they may sell huge numbers of *titles*, but the vast majority of those will be bought by the author's friends and family. What's the average sale for a Lulu title?

BuffySquirrel said...

I bet Lulu aren't saying.

People go to Lulu to sell their own book(s), not to buy books.

But having a Lulu-'published' book means you can be a GoodReads author, an honour not conferred by mere publication of a short story in a paying venue....

Kristen said...

Buffy,

I published using Lulu (and my own imprint, which I paid for - I use them only as a printing press and as a way to distribute my book to online stores and, now, a couple of "real" stores). I control / have controlled pretty much everything BUT information.

That is, there are copies out there I'm sure I'm not being paid for. All the "used" copies on Amazon, for example, that aren't "used" but are being sold by independent booksellers. The copies purchased for the stores aren't showing up in my revenue.

Etc.

Aside from that (and, "that" is very annoying), I controlled everything. They're certainly a self-publishing POD. They don't solicit, they don't ask for money unless an ISBN is desired, and while they offer links to companies or people who provide helpful services, they don't push customers to use them.

BuffySquirrel said...

Thanks for the information :).

JP_Fife said...

Going off topic. Kirsten, can you explain what 'that' is and how you think you're not being paid for copies of your book? Surely if it's POD any time there is an order it would get processed by Lulu and your payment would be automatic.

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Jane, first off a techie thing - I'm afraid the link to new business models doesn't work.

Second - I'm with JP, I'd like to know the detail of "that".

Which leads to my main point, and it's something I've often talked about with family and friends but never really articulated in writing. How do people here feel about secondhand bookshops and charity shops selling books? Given the bruhaha all our colleagues in the performing media kick up about royalties for repeats and the like, it has always surprised me that authors don't kick up a real stink about this but often actually think it's a good thing. I won't say which side of the fence I'm on yet (happy to later) because I want to see what other people think in answer to an open question rather than an expressed opinion.

Jane Smith said...

Ian Sales wrote, Lulu.com offers a service which is effectively self-publishing except the publisher is named as Lulu. If the author wants to be named as the publisher, they have to pay extra.Hmmm. So in order to truly self-publish through Lulu, you have to pay for it. This troubles me. Give me time, I'm sure I'll work my way aroud this one, and meanwhile, I think Buffy Squirrel makes a very good point.

Emily, if you have a look at the Bewares and Background Checks forum at Absolute Write you'll find all the information you need there--and if you want to know about a publisher which isn't listed, you're free to start a thread. I'm reluctant to produce the list you describe because things change; I don't have the knowledge or expertise to be comprehensive; and I don't particularly want to attract the attention of nutjobs who dish out lawsuits like pickles. Otherwise I would!

DanB, I'm working on finding those sales figures but as has already been pointed out, Lulu isn't saying. Can't imagine why.

Sally Zigmond said...

I think that if authors get angry that they're not getting a 'cut' from second-hand or charity book shops, (especially charity shops) then they ought to look deep into their hearts.

They've got the profit once. Repeat performance rights for music is a bit different (although such shops sell old discs as well.)

I know libraries pay PLR but if second-hand and charity shops had to pay something, then many would have to close. They're squeezed enough as it is.

Word ver. soogrudg: A writer who once found a copy of his book in Oxfam and decided to take them to court.

Jane Smith said...

Kristen wrote, ...there are copies out there I'm sure I'm not being paid for. All the "used" copies on Amazon, for example, that aren't "used" but are being sold by independent booksellers. The copies purchased for the stores aren't showing up in my revenue.Quite often, those Marketplace books won't be bought from the publisher until the Marketplace seller sells them--once they get the order confirmed, they place their order and have it drop-shipped direct to their customer. Which could be why they don't appear on your royalty statements: they've not yet actually been bought.

Aside from that (and, "that" is very annoying), I controlled everything. They're certainly a self-publishing POD. They don't solicit, they don't ask for money unless an ISBN is desired, and while they offer links to companies or people who provide helpful services, they don't push customers to use them.You see, if they control all your sales and royalties and printing and everything, I'm still not sure if you really have self-published. Because self-publication involves the writer controlling all of that.

It's not a thing worth bickering about here, so I'll not push the point: but it's worth considering, I feel.

Sally Zigmond said...

Back on topic.

Karen wrote: "That is, there are copies out there I'm sure I'm not being paid for. All the "used" copies on Amazon, for example, that aren't "used" but are being sold by independent booksellers. The copies purchased for the stores aren't showing up in my revenue.

Etc."

I can't see how you're happy with publishing this way when you're left totally in the dark. And could you elaborate on 'etc' please.

That's why I would either properly self-publish and control everything or keep trying to find a small mainstream publisher who would work with me.

Jane Smith said...

Dan, you're right about the link. I've had a look for the piece it should have linked to and it's disappeared into my drafts folder (oh, god, what have I done wrong now?) so I've stripped out the linky-code, and will republish that particular post later. Thanks for the alert.

As for the rest of your point, re the second-hand book sales: I shall write a whole new blog post about that. I know just the woman to ask about it, too.

Sally Zigmond said...

Jane Smith. Again, you went and sneaked in there between my two posts and (once again) make me look totally foolish. Bah.

Jane Smith said...

Ha. I'm good, aren't I?

Never mind, Sally. That Nicola Morgan has made you look wonderful this morning, and I have to try to balance things out just a little bit.

Dan Holloway said...

Don't you love technology :-)

And thank you for the explanation about the marketplace books - that makes sense - rather like the way many ticketing companies sell tickets for music/theatre events - takle their orders in advance (along with the cash) and then place the order upon release - only with books there's obviously not a finite supply so the end buyer isn't in the same kind of danger. Still what may be deemed (and I believe this is the technical term) "a blooming cheek" in terms of cashflow - the middlemen get their cash up front - the producers of the commodity get theirs even more in arrears than they already did.

It does make you wonder why it's always the midlemen who seem to have the cashflow tricks. That's why I think I'm with you, Jane, about controlling things yourself (or having a manager do so) - the advantage of the self-pub model is that (I'm always harping on about flat businesses and outsourcing, and what I really mean is this) you are never more than one step away from any single process.

It seems to me the big walnut for writers to crack in the self-pub thing to get this degree of control is decoupling (should that be detripling?) cashflow, printing, and distribution. The problem at the moment is that either means downloads (but for all I'm into "the new" I think paper books are the future) or using someone like Lulu who does printing and distribution, or holding stock (which means you need money). The person who has the REAL answer to this question will make a lot of money. I keep hoping it will be me.

Jane Smith said...

It seems to me the big walnut for writers to crack in the self-pub thing to get this degree of control is decoupling (should that be detripling?) cashflow, printing, and distribution.

Thing is, cashflow involves cash out--paying for printing and distribution--and cash in, via book sales. "Flow" doesn't specify direction, just movement; and you can't separate the two directions of flow, as the one supports and defines the other.

And in any case, it doesn't matter how self-publishers divorce their cashflow from their printing costs etc: if they don't have proper sales and distribution their books just won't sell, pure and simple.

If a self-publisher can get good sales and distribution, and get the books onto bookshop shelves, then they'll be able to reach their readers directly and have more chance of selling them.

This assumes, of course, that the books are good enough for people to want to buy and that, sadly, is not usually the case.

Dan Holloway said...

I was simply expressing the difficulty of retaining control of every part of the process - I agree with you - real self-pubbing is about doing just that. There are many oter barriers to the self-pubber - these are just the ones to keeping in control - by cashflow I mean in and out - what I mean is - self-pubbers need a way of doing what the middleman does - paying out once they have cash in - in other words their check-out device has to be one that's not run by the printer and/or distributor but by them. The fact that this isn't currently doable is why - I was suggesting - people currently use a company like Lulu (or hold stock - bad cash flow) or do downloads (not really servicing the main market)- but that there isn't an alternative doesn't mean there couldn't be.

The reason I didn't mention sales and marketing wasn't because it's not important - it's essential - but because it's actually quite easy to decouple from other processes (to reiterate - I'm only talking about the PROCESS, because that's what the topic is today, of self-publishing).

Likewise, the importance quality goes without saying - but again, process-wise, it's actually quite easy for the author to handle the stages of production separately should they so wish - On Songs from the Other Side of the Wall (note I didn't hire myself a good terse title consultant) I have worked directly with 3 editors, cover designers, web specialists, and marketing people - all separately from each other, and all separate from the printing/distribution/checkout side of things.

On cashflow finally - I do think a writer who is self-publishing as a business should expect to pay out as well as in – in any other business you don’t expect to get money in without an outlay – even an artist pays for raw materials. So the fact a printer charges one for printing is hardly something to complain about. What we do need to be careful of is 1. Being charged more than the going rate (if we are approaching self-pubbing as a business we would expect to pay business rates) and 2. Being charged for something that isn’t delivered (or – just as importantly – as with those rip-off current accounts banks try and charge – things you don’t need)

I think it seems to the outside world as though we sit on totally opposite sides of the fence, but actually I think the substance of what we think is pretty similar. That probably goes with the common usage of a lot of the terminology – I often forget just how dire a lot of “self-published” books can be simply because it wouldn’t occur to me to produce something that wasn’t at least as good as anything a publishing house could knock out. Of course there are differences between us about how important the various things that make up a book are to READERS – but there are just as many differences on that score amongst a group of self-pubbing zealots.

Anyway, I'm over to Twitter to watch queryday when the Americans decide to wake up :-)

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

I can't see how you're happy with publishing this way when you're left totally in the dark. And could you elaborate on 'etc' please. Not really. The "etc." just referred to the difficulty with nailing down how the orders and payment are tracked by Lulu. But, then, I've put less effort into finding out than I should if I really want to know - other things keep me busy, and because I don't make much off the book anyway (money was not the goal), it only matters so much, only frustrates me so much.


That's why I would either properly self-publish and control everything or keep trying to find a small mainstream publisher who would work with me. As many have said. Others - those of us who have tried that route, and for whom it didn't work, but who knew people were likely to enjoy the work even without the benefit of an agent or publisher - go in a different direction.

There are probably quibbles an author can have with every form of publication. Authors gripe about lazy agents, and about publishers not offering or doing what they think publishers should offer or do. They want a "better" agent, or a "different" publisher.

Nothing is perfect. I've been pretty happy with Lulu, minus the small issue of revenue tracking. :)

BuffySquirrel said...

I usually feel mild twinges of guilt when I buy books from secondhand shops, as I often do, but the twinges are less when buying from charity shops.

There are I think several arguments in favour of secondhand book sales.

Firstly, what would we do with unwanted books if they couldn't be sold secondhand? Recycle them into toilet paper? Compost them? Fill up landfill? We're talking about a LOT of books. Millions.

Secondly, buying secondhand can make readers more willing to try out an unknown author. Whose other/later works they may (you never know!) then buy new. Force readers to buy everything at full price and they will be more cautious in their choices.

Thirdly, many books are out of print and unavailable new. POD may eventually change this situation, but, at present, the only way to get hold of millions, if not billions, of oop books is to buy them secondhand. Information doesn't want to be free, but it does want to be available.

That said, it does sting when someone cheerfully informs you they bought their copy of GUD used. Okay, okay, but did you have to TELL US?

(word ver: string)

David Dittell said...

Jane,

Always good to have things summed up (as best as possible) in a single place. Makes it easier to locate/point to when someone needs the info.

Kristen,

Thanks for sharing your personal experience with Lulu. That in and of itself is noteworthy.