Friday, 18 September 2009

Vanity Publishing or Self-Publishing?

How can vanity publishers and self-publishers be distinguished from one another? And why is it important that we make this distinction?

When an author self-publishes then the copyright page of his book bears the name of his imprint; his publishing company—even if it publishes just one title—owns his ISBN and the publication rights to that book. As publisher he’ll know exactly how many copies of his book have been printed, where and when they have been sold, and who to. Consequently he remains in full control of both the production and distribution of his own books.

A vanity publisher, however, will usually have its imprint listed on the copyright page of each book it publishes, and will control most aspects of their production and printing; consequently, the author will not have authority in the publication of his own book, nor will he have immediate access to vital information about stock levels and sales records. While vanity publishers often masquerade as mainstream or self-publishing services, their books usually carry the name of their own imprint: and by definition, if the imprint doesn’t belong to the author, it’s impossible for them to have self-published the book.

If you're considering self-publishing your book then it's important that you understand this: otherwise you could end up making a very costly mistake, and losing your precious first rights to an unscrupulous vanity publisher.


Dan Holloway said...

Very simple advice, Jane. So simple it should be unnecessary, but sadly it's very much needed.

Also worth adding here that Lulu has very recently changed its practice. It no longer offers the "Published by You" package it used to. You can still self-publish through them but must get your ISBN through Bowker/Nielsen (or wherever services your country) and add it. You will be offered a free ISBN - GREAT!! NOOOO! NOT GREAT. If you take the free ISBN, the publisher will be listed as Lulu - you won't have self-published at all.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

interesting. So a lot of people who we consider self-published aren't self-published at all, but are...vanity-published?

Josin L. McQuein said...

And with vanity publishing, the author has no chance of quality control and very little recourse if the final product is lacking.

If they self publish, they're in control of the design and materials so they're the only one to blame if the end result is amateurish.

Self publishing - flying without a net.

Vanity publishing - the net=a noose.

Sally Zigmond said...

Tamara asked: So a lot of people who we consider self-published aren't self-published at all, but are...vanity-published?

Very true. Only I always ask writers when I can whether they are truly self-published. Many think they are when they're most definitely not.

I've yet to meet anyone who claims with pride that they're vanity published. They'll argue like billy-ho.

You see, self-publishing sounds good. It's a noble tradition. So, while vanity publishers choose to be economical with the truth, they continue to deceive and confuse.

Unless of course, you read this blog...

Marion Gropen said...

For whatever it may be worth, let me add something from the financial front. If you self-publish well (and yes, that's a very big IF), you have a shot at making money. If you use a vanity press (even if it calls itself a self-publishing service), you face some very nasty numbers.

Why? Because the typical retail terms of trade require 40% discount, fully returnable, on hardbacks, and more on paperbacks. The wholesalers get another 15%. And a distributor like IPG or NBN (and yes, you do need one if you want to be on bookstore shelves), gets another 15%.

So your publishing company's cut is 30% of list price. From this, you pay for everything else.

If you're using a vanity press, you can't set a competitive price AND offer those terms. If it looks as if you did, look more closely.

Hope that's of use.

Anonymous said...

Jane, bless you! The biggest problem we combat is how these terms have muddied the waters - and they've been propagated by the guilty.

Vanity presses started using the term "self-published" when they saw the true self publishers gaining respect.

PODs started calling themselves "indie presses" in order to make themselves look like a trade press - which they are not because of their Print on Demand business plan.

The verbiage has worked very well because authors are too happy to continue the...ah...exaggeration in order to feel good about the decisions they made.

These aren't mere opinions on my part, but collected stories from hundreds of vanity/POD authors, who admitted they desperately wanted to believe they had a chance at success.

I did a whole blog post on publishing definitions in the attempt to halt the confusion.

catdownunder said...

I would prefer to remain unpublished and unknown than tell the world, "I was not good enough but I still think I am". I squirm with embarrassment at the very idea of vanity publishing - and even feel a bit the same way about self-publication for some things. I do think that self-publication has a place though, especially where someone has written a highly specialised work with a niche market but no commercial viability.

Jason Rutherford said...

A true self-publishing service provider will charge reasonable fees for editing, design, printing management, distribution set up, marketing, and publicity. The author is in control, retains ownership to all source files created, and uses their own ISBN.

I define a Vanity Publisher as a company that has one or more of the following abusive practices:

1. Charging fees for publishing related services and keeping a percentage of the profit from their book sales.
2. Charging a fee and then tying up authors rights to their book.
3. Masquerading as a commercial publisher and then charging a fee.
4. Publishing anything without warning authors that a book that is not properly edited, designed, distributed, and marketed will not have a chance of doing well.
5. Charging a fee for publishing services and not providing the author with source files for their book upon request at no additional charge.
6. Claiming to be a traditional publisher and providing poor editing, design and then simply setting up a book with Lightning Source.
7. Charging authors more than they can print books direct with Lightning Source or Create Space.

There are legitimate self publishing services that will help guide an author through the process. I know of one for sure.

Welshcake said...

Behlerblog said:

"PODs started calling themselves "indie presses" in order to make themselves look like a trade press - which they are not because of their Print on Demand business plan."

This is where I get VERY confused.

Does POD equal vanity publishing?

Lots of new 'indie' publishers seem to be springing up. They seem to mostly use POD, their books are a pound or two more expensive than the norm and they don't pay advances to authors. Plus they don't seem to be able to get their books into bricks and mortar bookshops on a national basis.

These aren't vanity presses, but then what exactly are they? And are they worth submitting to? I have my doubts, but a lot of people seem to think they're worth a shot, so I wonder if I'm too cynical.

Cheryl Pickett said...

I agree the term self-publishing has gotten very confusing. Although, I also think the term "vanity publishing" doesn't really fit anymore either in most cases. Some people use the term (including myself) "fee-based" or "pay to publish" for the types of companies we're talking about here, I think that helps a little in clarifying.

In addition, I have to say that there are times when I believe using one of these companies is okay-as long as you are fully aware of how it works.

I have two friends who are fine with starting out this way, though they may eventually switch to independently publishing and I know of another who was fine with this route as well.

I believe every individual needs to consider things like the time and knowledge and desire to handle the business side of things. Not everyone is DIY, especially at first. Also, sometimes people aren't sure how much they're going to be able to market and promote and what they do may be local at first. Starting fee-based is not necessarily a worst case scenario in those situations either. Again, everyone needs to decide based on their own situation.

Glad you are keeping the discussion going on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Welshcake asked:
Does POD equal vanity publishing?

Not in the strictest sense. PODs don't charge upfront publication fees, but they get you at the back end because they make their money from their authors buying their own books.

PODs don't have distribution, so the books are rarely on store shelves (I'm talking about the US - it may be different in the UK). In truth, they don't really want to be on store shelve because that requires print runs.

This increases their risk. Should those books be returned (and they probably will because they have no promotion or marketing on a national basis), they still have to pay for those print runs. It's too expensive and that's how they invariably go out of business.It's much more cost efficient to make their money off their authors - who do the lion's share of promotion.

This is why PODs have a lot of authors; they need a large number to offset those who choose not to buy their books.

A big point of note: if no author of a POD company bought their own books, that company would be out of business within a month.

Dan Holloway said...

@Todd Hi. To get the daftness out of the way first, I've seen you around the blogosphere and every time I read "Yorkshire Pudding".

Anyway, I can see what you eman about charging for editing and design, but for me the whole point that makes self-publishing attractive is the control I have as an author. I don't want to pay someone to publish my book.

What I want is the flexibility to choose a printera nd pay them to print my book; choose the best designer and pay them for a cover; choose an editor who knows my genre and pay them to edit it. One of teh problems with the publishing industry is that one company is in control of everything, meaning the writer has no flexibility and is removed from the specialists working on her book. Self-publishing gives that control back - but not if you go to a company that wants to do it all for you again.

Matador said...

Great, you self-publish under your own ISBN, then try and sell your book to bookshops. Sorry, who are you? What history in sales do you have? Where's your sales back-up?

You can be as individual as you like, publish under your own ISBN number, and then sell, oooohh, tens of books... mostly to family and friends. To many self-publishing means control, determining what goes onto a cover and how it's marketed. And of course, most authors are experts at marketing, cover design, selling... not.

So why do most authors who publish under a recognised self-publisher's ISBN choose to do so? Most don't offer any marketing support, some do. Most don't actually try and sell their authors' books. Some do. Most have no reputation within the books trade itself... one does... so much so that its self-published books are repped into retailers in the UK by a mainstream sales rep force. And their books sell by the thousand each month.

But no. maintain control over every aspect of presentation and marketing, sell tens of books a month, and you'll be truly self-published. Meanwhile, authors who really want to get into shops and sell books will choose a self-publishing services provider who gets on with it and sells into the retailers directly, because they have the contacts, reputation and knowledge on how to do it.

Must dash... it's the Gardners trade show tomorrow at which we've been invited to exhibit, only one of 50 UK publishers to be invited to attend. The only self-publishing company that will be there. Selling. Our authors' books.

* said...

Good points in this post. For some, both terms may gel together like Jello in the brain.

Personally, I vote for neither, having worked for a non-fiction publishing house and being a Librarian and Writer, to boot. Although I can be quite vain...

JFBookman said...

Jane, thanks for the post:

If you're considering self-publishing your book then it's important that you understand this

It's always surprising to me that people jump into self-publishing because of their intoxication with the book, the product, but don't take the time to understand the business they are about to enter.

Dan, well said:
Self-publishing gives that control back - but not if you go to a company that wants to do it all for you again.

The route that's worked for many years for self-publishers is they one you describe, where the author brings a team of professionals together to create a book that can compete with anything else in the market.

In many cases, particularly niche nonfiction, self-publishing actually represents the best alternative for the right author. Some of the strongest self-published books are those that have significant special sales, and don't actually rely on the bookstore market very much at all.

Dan Holloway said...

@Matador Hi. It's extraordinary how this post has been used as a cue for ads! Seriously, though, I have purchased one of the books published through Matador, Polly Courtney's Poles Apart, and the job Matador did was very impressive. It may be true that most authors aren't design or marketing experts - but given they're going to need to hire one in, surely it's better for them to have the freedom to choose which? I wuold also dispute the authors aren't marketers claim. I think it results from a misunderstanding of marketing. Marketing in our 2.0 age is about engaging with customers. I would have thought authors are particularly adept at that.

@JF yes, the very best examples of self-publishing-suitable books are things like "a growers' guide to orchids", written by the president of the UK orchid growers' society, and others in the ilk, where there is not only a niche and enthusiastic market, but very obvious ways to access them. With fiction you have to be really careful that you know who your readers are and where/how to reach them. Which doesn't mean it's impossible. But when you set up as a self-publisher you are, in efefct, becoming a sole trader business. You should be preparing a business plan of at least the detail and research as you would were you approaching a bank for a business loan. And like any other small business, location is the most impotrant feature - which is why self-publishing for a niche group to which you belong is way the most likely route to be successful

jonathanbooks said...

The Business of self publishing is maturing rapidly from the days when there was a very uneven playing field for anyone wishing to follow this route for their work . Compared with ten years ago there is a varied and complete selection of companies offering publishing services which range from the publish as it is process with no editorial input to the one stop boutique shop style of service shop .

I do not understand companies that charge royalties as well as fees and believe that if an Author has invested in the production of their work they should receive all the income available from that work until their original investment has been returned

Jane Smith said...

Dan Hollway's comment is spot-on, as are Josin's, Sally's, Marion's and Lynn's.

Welshcake, Lynn (Behler Publishing) has blogged about POD presses, so until I get around to writing my version of her post you'd probably find all your answers on her blog. It's worth reading. POD is used to refer to a digital printing technology AND to certain publishing companies which rely on that technology: it's pretty safe to say that if a publishing company uses POD exclusively then no, they're not going to get decent sales and distribution for the books they publish, their authors are likely to end up doing far too much of the marketing for their own books.

Jane Smith said...

Todd, thanks for stepping in here. You're on Twitter as PublishingGuru, right?

Regardless of how you define it, a vanity press is one which makes the bulk of its income from its authors, rather than by selling the books it publishes onto new readers. This is the definition set by Jonathon (Jonathan?) Clifford, who coined the term. If a publisher charges an author then chances are that it's a vanity press, not a reputable publishing house. No matter how that vanity press tries to redefine the terms involved.

(And yes, I too keep reading your name as Yorkshire Pudding, not Yorkshire Publishing. Why did you call your press that when you're so very far from Yorkshire?)

Jane Smith said...

Cheryl Pickett wrote, "I have to say that there are times when I believe using one of these companies is okay-as long as you are fully aware of how it works."

Absolutely: if someone wants to pay someone else for services rendered, and know exactly what they're getting in return for their money AND the full implications of doing so, then that's fine. But the point is that few writers who sign up with vanity presses realise what that means, for them or for their books: when they find out, they feel bewildered and betrayed, and have often lost a sizable chunk of money in the process. That's why I blog about vanity presses so often: it helps people learn the difference. I hope.

miss pitch said...

Not sure if this is too grey an area to get an answer, but I've been reading about people who use Lulu (or similar) to hard copy their work in progress. I would imagine this is very handy for reading/critique groups, and it does give a sense of the 'book' a word document might become. What is the legal position on that as pertains to first rights?

I used Lulu to bind my notes from my last project, but they weren't the work itself, just a reference for the future, and wouldn't mean anything to anyone else. Still, Dan's comments have made me think about doing it again.

Jane Smith said...

JFBookman wrote, "In many cases, particularly niche nonfiction, self-publishing actually represents the best alternative for the right author. "

Absolutely, again. What self-publishing often isn't good for (some would say it's positively bad for it) is someone who has written a novel. Fiction is one of the hardest things to self-publish successfully, which is why I'm watching Dan Holloway's progress so very carefully. He's written what seems so far to be a very good book, and has taken care of all those things like design and editing and so on. I hope he does well, and look forward to seeing his sales stats.

Jane Smith said...

Miss Pitch, as you very well know, if you publish something then by definition it's been made available to other people.

If you put your book up on Lulu and allow it to be found, and potentially bought, by anyone who is browsing for it, then yep, that's your first rights gone, right there. However, if you use Lulu to print up a few copies for yourself but don't allow anyone but yourself to view or buy it, your first rights remain intact. I've used Lulu for a couple of family projects now, and know that it's possible to keep things hidden from everyone else but me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for finally writing an objective look at the difference between vanity, POD and self-publishing routes. The comment thread has also been refreshing.

I've read too many blog posts by people who draw a hard line (anything less than traditional is a waste of time and something to be ashamed of), but there are plenty of people out there who want their work to be available in print...without using a copy machine and stapler. Some writers understand that they won't be enough of a draw to boost the bottom line for a traditional publisher, so they take the route 'less expensive'.

That said, so-called publishers who charge their writers just to get a contract and POD set up... that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

JFBookman said...

Jane, I agree that just about the most difficult thing to do is self-publish a novel.

I hope he does well, and look forward to seeing his sales stats.

I wish him well also. Over the years I've helped a number of authors self-publish their novels, but I'm pretty certain none of them gained their investment back. Of course, that may not be of concern to some writers.

But I think one of the first thing someone who is contemplating self-publishing should do is sit down and have a long conversation with themselves about exactly what their aims are and what they hope to accomplish, then go talk to someone who's been through it.

I love empowering authors to publish, but only when they go into it with "eyes open."

Jane Smith said...

Jeremy/Matador wrote, "Must dash... it's the Gardners trade show tomorrow at which we've been invited to exhibit, only one of 50 UK publishers to be invited to attend. The only self-publishing company that will be there. Selling. Our authors' books."

As I inderstand it, Gardners invited about 300 of its wholesale clients to exhibit at its trade show (after all, it would be foolish to hold a trade fair and then not invite anyone to take part). Around 50 bought a stand, and I assume that you were one of those 50. Have you mis-typed your reply a little there, do you think? I wonder if you've left a word or two out. Just wondering.