The New—and Disimproved—Meaning of “Self-Publishing”
by Norma Lehmeier Hartie
Not long ago, an issue of Publishers Weekly had numerous articles—and eight pages of ads from subsidy publishers, including a four-page advertorial—on how the book-publishing world is changing.
The lead article—“Can Small Press Distributing Survive?”—cited both the recent demise of Book World Companies and National Book Network’s recent statement that it was phasing out Biblio, its small-press distributor. (Biblio distributes my book, and it’s in the clear until at least next September.)
In the meantime, Barnes & Noble just gave its online store a makeover, and Borders released a beta version of its new site; B&N continues to be a major shareholder of iUniverse; and Amazon owns Booksurge. Books printed by subsidy presses like Booksurge and iUniverse rarely make it into bookstores. Clearly, Barnes & Noble didn’t become an iUniverse stockholder because it counted on money from store sales of iUniverse books; it did so because iUniverse makes money off the authors and the books sold online.
Online, buyers shop differently. With search words and Listmania lists and other tools, they can and do find a wider variety of books, including books that would never fit into a physical store.
Online, B&N and Amazon know that there is a place for specialized books. So do the executives who have come from the traditional publishing world and other professions to run the modern vanity presses that have now hijacked the terms self-publishing and self-publisher.
Which leads me to the eight-page advertisement headed “Self-Publishing Comes of Age” and including the four-page advertorial. The subhead on the advertorial says, “Leaving vanity behind, today’s top self-publishers achieve success and offer models for the future.”
The text then coyly suggests that this kind of “self-publishing” is profitable and smart for authors. “The category [self-publishing], once so aggressively cordoned off by other participants in the industry, has over the past decade turned into a booming market, drawing entrepreneurial investment and top editorial talent.”
After discussing how the term vanity press came to be and how authors used to spend lots of money with vanity presses only to have their books collect dust in their garages, the advertorial announces that everything’s different now. “Self-publishers” help authors market their books and make storing them unnecessary because copies can be produced one at a time with Print on Demand (POD). The advertorial also cites the Internet as a huge factor in getting these books into marketplaces—something I do agree with. But it really irks me that these subsidy publishers are using the term self-publisher—which they and their authors aren’t.
My company, Lingham Press, is a self-publisher. Now that the subsidy press has latched onto the term, though, it makes my company sound bad.
Enticing Unwary Authors
All of us true self-publishers aside, the worst threat from this advertorial is to naïve wannabe authors, who may fall for the idea they have two choices: publish with a traditional publisher or with a subsidy publisher.
Wannabe authors can get a bit of a reality check from a close reading of PW’s coverage. Some of my favorite lines:
There’s no guarantee of success—and the top providers have become savvy about keeping reality in check for their authors, since referrals and satisfaction are critical to their business models.
. . . hopeful authors—who remain self-publishing companies’ primary revenue stream . . .
Our sales of self-published authors are minimal overall, but some rare, self-published authors sell exceptionally well.
Today’s top self-publishing companies are heavily invested in the idea that a happy customer is a valuable customer, which leads to the management of expectations, along with the provision of services that can genuinely help authors achieve success. [Gosh, how swell are they!]
What ticks me off most about all this is the gleeful message that this “new model” of publishing is making oodles of money for cutting-edge “self-publishers,” coupled with statements showing that only a fraction of the authors using these publishers will have anything more than a trophy book.
Having read what the subsidy publishers wrote for the publishing world, I needed to read the ads they aim at authors. Looking through the current issue of Writer’s Digest, I noted how each publishing company offers something slightly different (or uses phrases that make them appear to).
Outskirts Press allows authors to contribute to making their books by, for example, using their own cover designs. Lulu lets authors set their own prices. Trafford guarantees that its method is the best.
The only company honest enough to use the word subsidy was Vantage Press, established in 1949 and probably just getting over referring to itself as a vanity press.
Although I saw many ads for subsidy publishers in Writer’s Digest, I did not see any ads for book printers, graphic designers, or book-cover designers.
Again, the message to the uneducated aspiring author is: There are only two choices: publish with a traditional house or “self-publish” with a subsidy publisher.
The Real Alternatives
I find it interesting that there are seasoned author/publishers who agree with the statement that subsidy-published authors are self-published. Some quick comparisons among three types of publishing companies will illuminate why they are not. Please note that hybrids exist, but these are the three main types.
Traditional publishers. An author who signs a contract with a traditional publisher usually receives an advance against royalties. The publisher owns the ISBN, but the copyright is generally in the author’s name. The publisher pays for and makes decisions about the editing, cover, size, price, production, and marketing of the book, and sales channels generally include book wholesalers and retailers, perhaps along with other conduits to readers.
Authors are expected to do a good deal of book promotion and publicity (although this is often not explained to them until it’s too late).
This general business model has not proven to be all that effective, as publishers often report losing money on the books they issue.
Subsidy publishers. Authors who are accepted by subsidy publishers—and I’m estimating 99 percent of them are—pay to have these companies publish their books and get royalties on copies sold.
The publisher generally owns the ISBN, but the copyright is in the author’s name. The author pays for all steps in the publishing process, but the publisher makes most or all of the decisions about editing, cover, size, price, and production of the book, and sales channels are generally limited to the Internet and whatever routes to readers an author can use.
Authors are expected to do all or close to all of their own promotion and publicity. If a book sells exceptionally well, some subsidy publishers provide promotional services. This is brilliant—not only an attractive come-on, but also good business, since if a subsidy book actually sells, it is in the publisher’s best interest to take advantage of the momentum.
Unlike traditional publishers, subsidy publishers take no risks; they get paid up front for their services. And since they make money up front, there is no incentive to design a standout cover, or to be particularly careful about fixing typos and other glitches. If a book does sell, the publisher makes even more money.
Self-publishers. Self-publishing authors assume all responsibility for their books and get 100 percent of the profits. They also own their books’ ISBNs and copyrights; they pay for and make decisions about the editing, cover, size, price, and production, and they can use a wide variety of sales channels, including but definitely not limited to the Web.
Self-publishers understand that they must do all their own marketing, including promotion and publicity. If a self-published book sells exceptionally well, traditional publishers may want to buy rights in the book from the author/publisher.
Call Me Independent
I hope this comparison makes it clear that subsidy publishing is simply a way of doing business that requires payment from authors for publication of their books.
Subsidy publishing is not self-publishing, but subsidy publishers have ruined the term self-publisher. From now on, I will be referring to myself as an independent publisher.
Norma Lehmeier Hartie’s first book, Harmonious Environment: Beautify, Detoxify & Energize Your Life, Your Home & Your Planet, is the Grand Prize Winner of the 15th Annual Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards and a finalist in the ForeWord Magazine and Nautilus Book of the Year Awards. This article will be part of her next book. To learn more, visit LinghamPress.com.