Thursday, 9 April 2009
Mainstream publishers focus on selling their books to readers. This is done through the efforts of salespeople, distributors, wholesalers and booksellers, with the assistance of publicity teams which manipulate a vast network of media contacts in order to bring books to their readers’ attention. It’s a two-pronged attack which simultaneously makes the book widely available and makes potential readers aware of the book, and publishers which only focus on one side of this equation rarely succeed.
Vanity publishers focus on selling to their own authors because they know that those writers are keen to see their books sell well, and they provide a guaranteed market for their own books. Vanities don’t attempt to sell to bookshops or to promote to new readers because that’s a complex system which can be very expensive; and because they know that bookshops aren’t likely to buy their books and reviewers aren’t likely to review them.
Saturday, 28 March 2009
On reading the publisher’s website I got the distinct impression that they were a pay-to-play publisher, although prices weren’t mentioned. Most of the site focussed on advising writers how to submit, and how to prepare their work for submission: but surely a publisher should focus on promoting the books they’ve already published? I emailed the publisher to find out more and their reply confirmed to me that they were, in fact, a vanity press. I posted this information at Absolute Write and thought no more of it until a few weeks later, when I received by email a threat of legal action against me. The person who made the threat worked for the publisher concerned, and was upset that I’d put his name up at Absolute Write.
I was happy to edit his name out of my original post: my objection wasn’t directed at him, but at the publishing company he worked for, which was charging writers to publish them; and I do prefer a quiet life. However, I did find it intriguing (and still do, hence this post) that while he asked me to edit his name out of my post, he didn’t make any objection at all to my identifying the company he worked for as a vanity press.
Now, why do you think that might have been?
Thursday, 26 March 2009
There are exceptions: few textbooks ever make it into bookshops and are instead sold direct from the publisher to the end-user, sometimes through the university or school. Few self-published titles or vanity-published titles make it into many shops either: most of these books are sold via the internet, or as a result of the authors’ efforts to sell into individual bookshops. But their overall sales are notoriously low, which has a lot to do with the fact that they just don’t get the exposure to their potential readers which comes with bookshop placement.
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
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.
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Despite some highly publicized successes, the average book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies--mostly to the authors and to "pocket" markets surrounding them--friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order. According to the chief executive of POD service iUniverse, quoted in the New York Times in 2004, 40% of iUniverse's books are sold directly to authors.
POD services' own statistics support these low sales figures. AuthorHouse's online Fact Sheet, updated in September 2008, reported 36,823 authors and 45,993 titles. According to the New York Times, AuthorHouse reports selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008, which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 54 sales per title.
iUniverse's most recent Facts and Figures sheet reports that the company published 22,265 titles through 2005, with sales of 3.7 million: an average of 166 sales per title. Obviously some titles can boast better sales (Amy Fisher's If I Knew Then sold over 32,000 copies)--but not many. According to a 2004 article in Publishers Weekly, only 83 of more than 18,000 iUniverse titles published during that year sold at least 500 copies. And in a 2008 article in The New York Times, iUniverse's VP, Susan Driscoll, admitted that most iUniverse authors sell fewer than 200 books.
As of 2004, stats for Xlibris were similar. According to a Wall Street Journal article, 85% of its books had sold fewer than 200 copies, and only around 3%--or 352 in all--had sold more than 500 copies. Things looked up in 2007: according to Xlibris's own internal reports, recently obtained by Writer Beware, 4% of its titles had sold more than 1,000 copies. However, the averages still aren't good. As of mid-2007, Xlibris had 23,000 authors and had published 23,500 titles, with total sales of over 3 million--around 127 sales per title.
Once independent companies, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, and Xlibris are now all owned by the same company, Author Solutions. In a New York Times article published in early 2009, Kevin Weiss, Author Solutions' CEO, put the average sales of titles from any of the company's brands at around 150.
Lulu.com, one of the most popular and cost-effective of the POD services and still independent despite the apparent trend toward consolidation among POD services, is explicit about its long tail business model. In a 2006 article in the Times UK, its founder identified the company's goal: "...to have a million authors selling 100 copies each, rather than 100 authors selling a million copies each." A Lulu bestseller is a book that sells 500 copies. There haven't been many of them.
Many thanks to Victoria Strauss for giving me permission to use this piece.
Saturday, 14 March 2009
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
Thursday, 19 February 2009
As is so often the case, all is not necessarily what it appears.
A vanity publisher is one which makes the majority of its money from its authors, rather than from selling its books on to new readers. Ordinary vanity publishers do this by charging their writers fees upfront for publication, and often making further charges of extras that they consider optional, like editing, design, press release writing and distribution and so on—all of which are done as standard and for free by reputable mainstream publishers.
So how can a publisher which charges no upfront fees be considered a vanity press? Especially when, like PublishAmerica, it pays its authors an advance? Simple.
Instead of charging of those upfront fees, our reverse-end vanity publisher gets its authors to pay after the event, usually by persuading them to buy copies of their own books for resale, often at inflated prices. PublishAmerica does very well out of this business model: at the last count it claimed it had signed up over 35,000 happy writers. No wonder PublishAmerica’s CEO Willem Meiners can afford to fly a helicopter.
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
There's also a sequel to it, in which a better strategy is revealed, which will be useful to all writers, whether they're self-published or with a mainstream, commercial house. Go and read these two pieces now. You will be glad you did. Honest.
Thursday, 5 February 2009
Arts Council England’s funding has forged a link between Arts Council England and YouWriteOn which many people perceive as a stamp of legitimacy. When the YouWriteOn publishing scheme was first launched, there were writers who saw it as a chance to get published by Arts Council England; others felt reassured that the scheme had to be above-board because of Arts Council England’s apparent involvement. However, when Arts Council England was asked for clarification of its involvement in the publishing scheme it replied:
YouWriteOn.com receives funding from Arts Council England to run its website forum and professional critique service for writers.
Arts Council England has not funded, and has not endorsed, the separate Print-on-Demand self-publishing service offered through the site.
As with any self-publishing service, Arts Council England would encourage writers to read the terms and conditions carefully and make an informed judgement about the service on offer. If in doubt, you should contact the Society of Authors http://www.societyofauthors.org/ who have information sheets and guidance about self-publishing and vanity publishing.
We have asked the site moderator to make this absolutely clear, so that there is no confusion about the involvement of Arts Council England.
You’ll find Arts Council England’s letter reproduced in full in comment number 5 to this blog post. Soon after that letter appeared on the blog, a disclaimer was posted on YouWriteOn’s home-page which stated that its vanity publishing arm was separate from the Arts Council England-funded area of the site: that disclaimer has since been edited, but at the time of writing it reads,
The Arts Council fund critiques for new writers from leading publishers each month on YouWriteOn.com.YouWriteOn also offers its own book publishing initiative, funded solely by us.
Despite YouWriteOn apparently being taken to task by Arts Council England and instructed to distinguish between the Arts Council England-funded and vanity-funded areas of the site, the Arts Council England logo still appears at the top of every one of YouWriteOn’s web pages—including the pages which offer the vanity publishing packages.
Some writers have now contacted Arts Council England (and here's a handy list of its chief executives, just in case you were considering doing the same) to ask why it funds a vanity publisher, but have received what they consider to be less-than-satisfactory replies: while I’ll not reproduce them here, I suspect that anyone with a complaint would do better to contact the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Government department to which Arts Council England reports: one of the ministers there is the rather effective Barbara Follett, who also happens to be married to a writer called Ken something-or-other.
It’s widely felt that it’s inappropriate for Arts Council England to be associated with a vanity publisher in this way: vanity publishing doesn’t support writers, it exploits them, and Arts Council England has apparently stated independently that it does not and will not condone such schemes. While I’ve been unable to find written evidence of this stance, it seems likely considering Arts Council England’s remit to support and encourage the arts. My opinion is that YouWriteOn should either accept funding from Arts Council England or continue its vanity publishing operation, but that it shouldn’t run the two projects side by side: there are too many conflicts of interest between them. But YouWriteOn is unlikely to give up its Arts Council England funding just because I think that it should, because there's too much at stake: it's received nearly £85,000 from Arts Council England in the last three and a half years (the following links will download PDFs when you click on them):
June 2005: £29,896
February 2007: £24,000
February 2008: £10,000
October 2008: £11,000
Total Arts Council funding received by YouWriteOn since June 2005: £84,896
I’m particularly interested by the £11,000 paid last October: the grants information form states that this amount was paid to Edward Smith of YouWriteOn.com to fund “A major new writing competition in partnership with Random House. This will give new writers the opportunity to have their books published by a major publisher”. I’m intrigued to know more about this competition: this funding was approved four months ago, and yet no announcement of any competition has yet been made. I wonder what Random House will have to say about that?
This Arts Council England funding, plus the £11,000 or so which YouWriteOn has received as a result of its vanity publishing operation, works out to a rather nice turnover of around £27,400 each year—impressive for a start-up business which seems to be run by just one man. It’s worth noting that there are a few layers of potential income that I’ve not included here:
- Its original vanity-publishing package, which it runs in association with Legend Press, costs £399, £699, £899 or £1,499, depending on which package you choose.
- YouWriteOn runs a paid-for critiquing service: prices start at £75 for a short story of up to 3,000 words, and then increase with your page count: a report on a 400-page novel would set you back £550. Writers are asked to state which three advisors they'd prefer to comment on their work: while the people who provide these reports do seem reputable and experienced (although I haven't checked out any of the names), I could find no guarantee that anyone would get the advisor(s) they requested.
- It’s not yet clear how many books YouWriteOn/Legend has vanity-published at £39.99 each and it seems that not all books have yet been published, so the initial income from this will almost certainly reach a figure higher than the £10,906.35 I quoted yesterday.
- YouWriteOn will continue to earn money from every one of the sales of those vanity-published books as their writers work to sell them.
Meanwhile, I’ve found this quote about YouWriteOn and the man who runs it, Edward Smith, buried in the depths of this PDF from Arts Council England:
Just yesterday, Tom Chalmers of Legend Press told The Bookseller that the project has "largely been a success". Meanwhile, there are many writers who Smith promised to publish in time for Christmas who, despite making numerous attempts to contact Smith, have still heard nothing from him, several weeks later. Many don’t know whether or not their books will even be published; and while several have now cancelled their contracts, few have received any confirmation of their cancellations, leaving them worried about the future of their books.
I wonder just how empowered they feel right now.
Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Up to five further copies may be requested by the The Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries, which coordinates such requests on behalf of the five other Libraries which take part in the scheme: the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; the National Library of Scotland; the Library of Trinity College Dublin; and the National Library of Wales. If these copies are requested then once more, the publisher has a legal obligation to provide them.
These copies must be supplied at the publishers' cost within one month of publication. Their details are then added to the searchable integrated online catalogue which the British Library maintains, and this huge resource is available for inspection at the British Library. If they are not supplied then the Legal Deposit Office will demand a copy of the publication in order to maintain the UK’s national archive, which has been established for over four centuries. Consequently, it knows what it's doing: so when it tells me (as it did just last week) that it's the publisher which is obliged to supply these copies, and not the writer, I have every reason to believe it.
Monday, 2 February 2009
The deeply sceptical felt that it was at best an ill-thought-out scheme or at worst, a cynical vanity publishing plan to separate naive writers from their money; the optimistic saw it as an innovative publishing scheme designed to break the mould of corporation-controlled publishing (in case you haven’t read my original posts, I fell in with the sceptics).
Publication was initially scheduled for the first week of December but as we moved into the second week of the month, only a tiny handful of writers had been notified that their books were available. Books trickled onto Amazon and Barnes & Noble—but only those written by authors who had paid what Ted was misleadingly referring to as the “distribution fee” (the £39.99 he had charged writers to assign an ISBN to their books): not a single book appeared from the writers who had chosen the free option.
YouWriteOn members began to post questions on the YouWriteOn message board, asking when their books would appear: but Ted Smith, who seems to run YouWriteOn single-handed, largely failed to respond directly to their questions: instead, he pointed out that publication by Christmas had always been an aim, but not a promise. When the level of complaints and in-fighting threatened to overrun the message board, Smith began deleting posts (including a few of mine); then he began deleting whole threads; and then, on December 19, he closed down the entire message board, supposedly for its brief annual Christmas break. The board remains closed to this day. It’s apparently undergoing upgrades. They had better be good.
What is YouWriteOn doing with this break from message board moderating? You’d think that it would be taking care of the legal obligations that come with running a reputable publishing company, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Last week a representative of the British Library confirmed to me that despite all publishers having a legal obligation to provide it with copies of all their books under the Legal Deposit scheme, YouWriteOn has not provided a single copy of any of its latest titles. And YouWriteOn can’t say that it was unaware of this obligation: it was discussed on the YouWriteOn board before the board was taken down, and in Absolute Write’s thread about YouWriteOn which Ted Smith has contributed to; and if that were not enough, the Legal Deposit team alerted YouWriteOn to its legal obligation last summer when it had to make an official request for one of YouWriteOn’s previous publications, when YouWriteOn failed to provide a copy within the legal deadline.
Meanwhile, what of YouWriteOn’s authors? As I write this, 192 books are listed under the YouWriteOn imprint on Amazon, and 273 on Barnes and Noble—although I’ve also noticed several YouWriteOn books listed without any imprint details, so the actual number will be higher.
Not one of those books that I’ve checked (and I've looked at over half of them) has any form of synopsis to tell the browsing reader what the book is about: and most of the jacket designs use the same standard template in purple, cream and black which is, I’m afraid, downright ugly; or an image of a blue planet, which renders the superimposed title illegible. So much for the ten foot rule.
I’ve spotted many errors in Amazon’s listings: one author’s first name was correctly given as Tamsin on her book jacket, but was listed as Jasmine in the Amazon details, which would have made searching for her by name impossible; there were several cases where the Amazon details referred to one book but a completely different book appeared in the cover image provided by YouWriteOn. Many more showed spelling errors in names and/or titles on the provided image of the book jackets, in the details provided to Amazon, or on both; and there were some particularly odd inversions of the authors names. Two authors have discovered that their titles, names and ISBNs are confused to such an extent they’re not sure which is their book, and which belongs to the other. Am I nitpicking? Hardly. Out of one hundred YouWriteOn books that I chose at random from Amazon UK two weeks ago, sixty seven had errors in the details provided to Amazon by YouWriteOn. Of those sixty seven books with errors, only one now shows corrected copy. The remaining errors are still in place.
One writer paid to have her cover professionally designed and, while the designers did a good job, all thirty of the copies which she ordered for her launch party arrived with a green stripe running across the cover, as did copies that her friends ordered at different times: which implies that this was not a printer malfunction, but an issue with the PDF held by Lightning Source—which was, of course, supplied by YouWriteOn.
At least she has a book, though: several writers have still heard nothing about their books’ status from YouWriteOn despite repeated requests for information. Writers who didn’t cough up for the “distribution fee” have been told that their books will be available to order from the YouWriteOn website on some unspecified date in the future and as the contract states that they won’t earn any royalties on copies they buy themselves, they have no real way to make money from the sales of their own books. Some writers have cancelled, but have received no confirmation that their cancellations have been received; and meanwhile, YouWriteOn has blithely announced on its own website that following the huge success of its publishing scheme it’s planning to open its doors to a new round of submissions in the spring.
I have to ask: a success for whom? Not for the writers who still have no idea when, or if, their books will published; nor for the writers whose books are incorrectly listed on Amazon. And while I’m genuinely pleased that some YouWriteOn writers are happy with their books, I wonder how well their books will do bearing in mind that YouWriteOn has provided these books with no editorial input or distribution whatsoever.
One thing that has been provided, though, is a nice big chunk of money to YouWriteOn: the authors of every single one of those 273 YouWriteOn books now showing on Barnes & Noble paid £39.99 to YouWriteOn to get them there: a total of £10,906.35, plus the income provided by the authors whose YouWriteOn books are listed as “imprint unknown”. That’s a very nice return for making a couple of slapdash downloads every day in the four months or so since this scheme launched: and it doesn’t take into account any of the money which YouWriteOn has earned on the back of the sales of these books. Is this vanity publishing? It certainly looks like it to me.
(Please note: I'd have liked to have linked to various posts at YouWriteOn's message board to provide my many sources for this piece, but as it's been taken down that's not possible; and while it might have been useful to link to some of the many errors I've seen on Amazon I didn't want the authors concerned to feel that I was poking fun at them: so I've decided not to highlight any individual books here.)
Friday, 30 January 2009
Vanity publishers often insist that what they offer is serviced self-publishing. For a fee (often a high one) they offer services like editing, typesetting and design: the problem is that there are some very useful self-publishing service providers out there which also charge for those services but which don’t count as vanity publishers.
The imprint under which you’re published provides a useful (but not infallible) guide. If you pay anything towards your own publication, either up-front by way of fees for editing, an ISBN or printing, or at the back end of the equation by buying copies of your own books for resale, then if the book has the name of your own publishing company on the imprint page it’s likely that you self-published it, while if it has the name of the service-provider as the imprint you are definitely vanity-published.
And, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with paying for expert help, remember that real, commercial publishers provide everything at no cost to the writer: it's part of the package when they agree to publish a book. If you do hand money over to anyone, make sure that the people you’re paying really are experts in their field, are going to add real value to your book: and aren’t just charging you a high price for help you don’t really need.
Friday, 18 July 2008
After all, why should the publisher shoulder all the risk? Shouldn’t the writer invest a little something too? By subsidising the cost of publishing their own book, or by taking part in the cooperative publication of their book, a writer will end up with their book in their hands which wouldn't otherwise have been published.
They will also be several hundreds of pounds poorer, because both these schemes are disguises for vanity presses, and don’t represent any sort of publishing credit. Their books are highly unlikely to be stocked by any real bookshop (online bookshops are another thing entirely). And they’ll be lucky if they sell even a hundred copies in the end.
Writers invest their time in the books that they write, and should not invest their money too. They take their share of the risk when they write their work. It’s a publisher’s job to pay for publication and if none are prepared to buy a particular book, then it’s because the book just isn’t good enough to sell.