Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The New Vanity Publishing?

I asked one of my Twitter friends to contribute to the blog. The publishing industry is changing rapidly. Power is shifting. Indie publishers and self publishers now have the same opportunities as the big houses.

Guest Post by Scott Nicholson

When you first get into this writing game, you get hammered with lots of truisms by writers who have been around for 30 years.

One of those is "Never self-publish." And that was probably sound advice for something like 29 of their years, but it's a new ball game now. Previously, the major publishers not only held court and serve, it was match point and they owned the ball and the racquet, too, as well as employing the line judge.

Today, major publishers only have three distinct advantages over the self-published author: the ability to pay an advance, the ability to get your books onto store shelves, and the prestige afforded to authors talented, skilled, or lucky enough to enter the inner circle.

I've been in the inner circle, though admittedly the edge of it, where mid-list paperbacks get their three months in the sun before hitting the compost heap of forgotten tales. Close enough to glimpse the ivory tower, anyway, up there where decisions are made and best-sellers determined.

Yes, best-sellers are made, not born, because there is only one way to be a best-seller and that is to get paid a lot of money and have hundreds of thousands of discounted hardcovers stacked across the world.

It's a pretty good system for everyone involved in the making of a best-seller. Efficiency, ease of promotion, a pre-determined outcome, and everyone gets paid, even though about half of those hardcovers will eventually be composted, too. If you can publish a best-seller, you'd be crazy to publish anything else.

If you are at the bottom end of the mid-list scale, you'd be crazy to give your book license away at current industry standards. Let's examine the three publisher advantages in light of the modern digital/print-on-demand landscape.

Advances are shrinking for non-bestsellers, especially for new writers. Sure, new best-sellers are still created, but generally, someone has to bear the brunt of declining sales and shrinking profits. The writer is the easiest line item to cut, because of Advantage Three--writers have been indoctrinated to believe they aren't "real writers" until they have published in New York, and it's not like there's a shortage of them.

The generally quoted standard advance for a new, unknown writer is $5,000. For that, the publisher usually seeks a specific time period in which to sell the book. For paperbacks, it's a fair arrangement, since most books lose money, at least on paper. The catch now is e-books, where publishers are increasingly imposing Draconian terms that could leave the writer forever indentured.

The most onerous are the clauses that say something like, "If the book earns $100 in e-book royalties in six months, Publisher retains the electronic rights." Ad infinitum.

E-books have little additional overhead, depending upon the value you place on formatting and the original editing involved. Yet publishers are pushing e-book royalties down to between 15 and 25 percent, mainly by wielding the club of prestige and the virtual hammerlock on store distribution.

Yet, haven't we all read of the dramatic rise of e-books, the fastest-growing segment of the industry? And how bookstores are going out of business? Sure, the tipping point is five to 10 years away, but at that time, is the author better off getting nickels and dimes on their e-books, or earning dollars per sale?

And print-on-demand technology is changing the role of distributors and rack jobbers. Remember when every convenience store, drug store, and grocery store had a paperback rack near the checkout counter? Now you're lucky to find 20 titles, those aforementioned best-sellers, if there are any books at all. Even some "legitimate" smaller publishers are now using POD to help control inventory and reduce warehousing costs. And plenty of authors can find POD sources for their own books and reach the same Internet market as the large publishers.

If Advantage One and Advantage Two are neutered, all we have left is Advantage Three. Congratulations, you have a corporate imprint on the spine of your book, and it only cost you between 88 and 94 percent of the cover price. For the e-book, you have given away up to 85 percent of your book's income, possibly for your entire lifetime, and the rest of the copyright term which you'd hoped to leave as an inheritance for your children.

The prestige may be worth it. There's no price on self-esteem, and there is no barometer of vanity. Everything else is just math.


Scott Nicholson is the author of DRUMMER BOY, THE SKULL RING, and seven other novels, six screenplays, four comic-book series, three story collections, and the freebie manual "Write Good or Die." A freelance editor and journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, his Web site is www.hauntedcomputer.com. He blogs about writing and publishing at http://hauntedcomputer.blogspot.com.


  1. Don't forget the smaller epublishers. Both Damnation Books and Eternal Press pay authors 40% net royalties on ebooks. While the big houses are discouraging ebooks by pricing them higher than print and, in some cases, releasing them later than print editions, others are actively pursuing the ebook avenue in a positive light.

  2. I don't want publishing done to me, but I have such respect for editors. Editing my first novel is more painful than stubbing a sunburnt toe. My love of writing and my hatred of editing are in perfect balance. Mind you, there's something scrumptious about seeing the first drop capital in a book you made.

    There's something even more delicious about BETA testing it for durability - throwing it at one's husband, reading it in the bath, generally putting it through all the trauma a book is expected to endure to earn the title 'well-loved'. Mind you, I don't plan to sell many tree books. They are there for the physical world purists. I'm much more intrigued by the scope of ebooks - without DRM.

    I couldn't give two hoots about the 'if a publisher doesn't publish it then it's not published' brigade. I think, therefore I am. I think I'm a writer, therefore I am a writer.

    The people who matter to me are my readers. Just as I've stated that I am a writer, they have stated they are my readers. I've looked at my traffic stats and worked out the demographic - it's exactly what I hoped for. The perfect age, education, location... everything. I could not have picked a better group of people. There's no book on sale for them to read, yet they keep listing me as an author. Every day, people ask to buy my book.

    A wonderful thing has started happening recently: they tell me which books they'll read before my book. I'm being put into their reading schedule. Love it!

    People need to get over the knight-on-a-white-horse BS syndrome. The publishing industry is an industry. It offers editing and distribution services. It used to offer marketing services too, but it does less of that now. If you are prepared to get off your rump and take care of all those things, why do you need a publisher? Statistically, I'm the most influential non-celebrity woman in my country on Twitter. I've got my readers. In a couple of months, they'll have my book. That makes me happy.

    I'm pretty confident that at least one of my first four books will be a best seller, and once I get to book four, I'll be earning a nice stack of cash. I did the maths. I wrote a business plan. That's what you do when you go into business, and that's what being a writer is. My books aren't magic beans... they are beans, but I grew them myself and they taste good.

    10 Easy Steps to Publication - an animation I made about this subject.

  3. Used to be "vanity publishing" was, indeed, synonymous with self-publishing. But it's true that publishing's been turned on its head. Over the last 18 months, fully 5 of 15 of my book design/layout projects were self-published. And not a one of them was a weak vanity effort unworthy of publication. Rather the authors have a great understanding of their natural audience and how to reach it, the plan being for them to do it well enough to have big sales and no one to share the receipts with.

  4. Publishers do one more thing for authors: they invest large sums of money in the book. And they spread the risk.

    A typical trade non-fiction book takes more than $20,000 to launch. If you're willing and able to bet that hard on your book, fine, but understand that the larger houses put down dozens of these bets, in order to get the odds in their favor. You're only betting once, and the odds of breaking even or making a profit will be worse for you.

    Just an extra thought . . .


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