Why Do Fiction Publishers Get So Uptight About Self-Publishing?

Recently, Harlequin announced a number of related initiatives (a self-publishing imprint, editorial and marketing services, and an e-pub branch), and the criticism they received for it was at some points withering. Accusations ranged from cashing in on their slush pile to exploiting naïve authors to flooding the market with titles to diluting their brand value.

It reminds me of the old exchange:

Q: “How can you tell a true pioneer?”

A: “They have arrows sticking out their back and their front.”

At the same time, the field I work in (scientific publishing) is experimenting with a phenomenon called “author-pays publication,” which is essentially a self-publishing motif. Supposedly, peer-review occurs to control the quality of the works published, in which case this is a purely financial arrangement, but there are documented cases of publishers using little or no peer-review and cashing in on author fees or employing the most modest peer-review while relying on the fees generated through bulk publishing.

You could level the same charges against these scholarly publishers that are being leveled at Harlequin – they are cashing in on rejects, exploiting naïve authors, flooding the scholarly literature with lower-quality works, and diluting brand value. It’s even gotten to the point in science publishing that some advocates believe such author-pays initiatives are the only viable future.

So we have a paradox – in science, a set of fields that purport to rigorously seek truth and prize quality above anything else, self-publishing initiatives are going over with nary a whisper of criticism. In fact, if anything, such approaches are proliferating, and are being embraced by librarians, scholars, and researchers alike. Yet in commercial publishing of fiction (aka, made-up stories), there is a major backlash.

Why does this paradox exist? Why would a field (consumer book publishing, especially fiction . . . especially romance fiction) have defenders of the faith launching vitriolic attacks at a publisher differentiating into services and self-publishing initiatives – even to the point of revoking memberships in related associations – while scientific publishing does not?

First, let’s look at the charges being leveled at Harlequin, one by one, and we might get a clue as to the level of hypocrisy at work:

  1. They are cashing in on their slush pile. The questions implicit in this is that the slush pile is of inherently less value than the accepted pile. There are plenty of reasons to believe this isn’t the case. Most novels have been in dozens of slush piles before they’ve been accepted. Does being in a slush pile mean a novel is inherently bad? Then nothing but Sarah Palin’s book would exist – hardly a ringing endorsement of editorial quality control over cynical marketing exploitation.
  2. They’re exploiting naïve authors. Um, pardon me, but book publishers are expert at exploiting naïve authors. That’s why royalties tilt so harshly to publishers, why rights are exploited, why contracts are mind-numbing. Do you really think most publishers sit down with an author and works out a custom deal while patiently explaining the ins and outs, creating author-friendly options to ensure goodwill, and conceding contractual advantages willingly? How naïve do they think we are?
  3. They’re flooding the market. The market is already flooded. There are more books published by traditional publishers than anyone can stock, review, read, or list. Publishers have not been an effective check on the promulgation of unread works, unsuccessful novels, or unappealing books. In fact, the consignment model makes the flooded market more wasteful and expensive than it needs to be by creating waste from the outset.
  4. They’re diluting their brand value. Well, temptations to joke about Harlequin’s brand value aside, most publishers have an inflated opinion of their brand value. Do readers really care that Random House published that novel? Does that make it more interesting, even if the topic, genre, author, and cover are revolting? Not at all. There is little brand value to dilute. For Harlequin, the cleavage of the heroine and the chisel of the hero are probably more important for sales and reader interest.

So, the “pot calling the kettle black” criticisms of Harlequin aside, why all the vitriol in fiction publishing for this model but not in scholarly publishing?

Probably because fiction publishing is more subjective, and therefore less defensible on rational terms.

Science publishing involves shorter works based on direct observations, stated study designs, and repeatable experiments. If a lousy report is published in a lower-tier journal, it will quickly vanish unnoticed. There is little harm to the scientists in the field. If a great report emerges from a surprising source, it will usually find its way to the top, so more publishing can lead to some pleasant surprises. Many famous experiments have been initially described in obscure journals.

Science publishing has built-in techniques among the audience to reward quality and reject inferiority, and it’s all based on expertise, facts, and repeatability. It’s rational and objective to a degree that fiction is not.

Readers of fiction have the same discerning characteristics, but fiction is more subjective, which is why I think there was so much vitriol against the Harlequin moves. Publishers realize their brand value is weak to non-existent; that their editorial process can be disintermediated from book marketing and manufacturing processes; that print-on-demand and e-books put authors on the same playing field; that the consignment model’s flaws are being exploited; and that readers have more ways to connect with, discover, and consume fiction than through the publishers’ traditional marketing and distribution channels.

But holding onto the status quo as long as possible beats change, so when one of their own begins to leave the fold with bold initiatives that hint at the future, the rest of the herd will try to beat them back into formation.

Science publishers have stronger brands built on decades and centuries of reputation-building; more objective measures of quality; and audiences possessed of an academic spirit of experimentation. That’s why self-publishing approaches are less criticized in those fields. They are less likely to do any harm, don’t really hurt the brands that stay above the fray, and are viewed as harmless experiments.

That’s not to say that naïve authors and rejected manuscripts aren’t being exploited. It’s just that the flood of materials is more efficiently diverted and the brands are less subject to erosion. So, the status quo is thought likely to withstand the experiments.

I think many commercial fiction publishers are scared by self-publishing, what it portends, and how they might be disintermediated.

As Clayton Christensen said, “When a layer gets commoditized, value is created through proprietary services in adjacent layers.” In Harlequin’s case, the traditional model is struggling (it’s a layer being commoditized), so they are looking for value in adjacent initiatives – self-publishing, e-publishing, and editorial and marketing services.

Harlequin knows that manufacturing can be independent of selection, which can stand apart from editing, which can be separated from distribution. They’re experimenting in disaggregation.

Good for them.

But the herd will bellow and snort in worry because they can sense the beginning of the end.

  • One way to do self-publishing is to put “publishing” first. Make a competitive product. Not only should you match the big houses for editing, typography, cover design, etc. You should exceed them and produce beautiful and interesting books. (By the way, this is very hard to do with e-books.) To succeed you need to do the heavy lifting and really get into the physical processes that make a good book as a product. You need your work to stand out from the crowd.

    Given that most brick and mortar outlets are not receptive and that’s still where most books are sold you need to develop fresh channels. Amazon.com is not the answer here. I’m currently experimenting with special offers direct from my distributor Pathway Book Service where customers can call their toll free number (1-800-345-6665) and use a special promotional code to get a discount that is close to “free shipping” . The code for Facebook is “Face” and for LinkenIn “Link”, so I’ll be able to track results.

    I also set up a Facebook page specifically for the book and a LinkedIn group for its fans. I’m paying for an ad on Facebook. That’s gotten a few fans. I don’t believe on competing on price alone, however. That just devalues the “brand”. You have brand equity and so does every title you publish. You signature on the book is a value-added item. I charge full price for signed copies and they are only available from the web site or at book signings. (I have to mail them individually from the local post office because of security regulations, so that is an added cost for service.)

    The key to this is creating a big enough price that will allow you to give up 40% to brick and mortar book stores and 55% to distributors and even a bit more. And this is why I’m backing away from an e-book version of my novels on first publication. First of all, it’s still a niche market. Secondly, some customers will always seek the lower price. I really think that e-book versions should be released simultaneously with mass-market paperback editions at comparable prices. Not with the hardbound or trade paperback edition of first impression. These are different markets with different populations.
    One size does not fit all.

    If you think of publishing first and put the “self” part in the background, you have a better chance of eventually getting to a profitable book. And don’t kid yourself; you need to make a profit so you have money to do the next book.

  • Hi Francis,

    I completely agree with your perspective. I think what you’re saying is equivalent to putting the reader first, as well, a key to telling a good tale and making it appealing. The situation for major publishers makes this entirely feasible — publishing imprints are hardly looked at or known, so any imprint can work; manufacturing for POD books is as good as or better than offset books; and editing is a commodity that can be separated from publishers. The distinctions around distribution and marketing are the trickiest for independent authors, but as you note Facebook and Twitter and email and blogs and other e-outlets can level the playing field to some extent.

    I’d be interested in what others think about e-books, even though this post wasn’t really about that topic. My experience is that while PRICES may be lower, MARGINS on e-books can be better for authors. So, if your goal is to make a profit, e-books may be a key.

    Also, more books are available this way, and my sense is that this holiday season will double or triple the size of the e-book margin (it seems like the darkhorse “must have” gift this year). So having an e-version available is increasingly part of having a professional publishing approach.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Scientific publishing is not a particularly commercial medium, while fiction is. The pool of people hoping to be published is much bigger for fiction, and the desperation level is higher.

    And while the slush pile isn’t inherently bad, the occasional jem can be rare. Most unpublished novels go unpublished for a reason.

    Also, many people have no idea how the publishing business works. The idea that someone might pay to be published doesn’t seem unusual to them. They need to learn the phrase many of us in the Science Fiction Writers of America employ: “Money flows toward the writer.”

  • An interesting response on a number of levels. Scientific publishing isn’t as commercial as fiction, that’s true, but how “commercial-ness” bears on quality control eludes me. In fact, I could argue that when something is MORE commercial, then gatekeepers should be more willing to drive things into the market, especially if the market is already effectively flooded. So, while the pool of people hoping to be published is larger, the reading public is also larger, and the commercial reality is the only reality. Therefore, why not have more things on the market and let the commercial nature of the market sort it out?

    As to the desperation level of fiction writers, I could also argue that scientists who have labored for years, even decades, hoping for a published paper, might be just as desperate for publication as any novelist.

    Also, if fiction writers are desperate to be published because they think they’re going to get rich, then they are naive. Which bears on my point that it’s hypocrisy for fiction publishers to call a self-publishing entity of any kind on the carpet for exploiting naive authors when that’s what commercial fiction publishing companies do all the time.

    My point about the slush pile is about the subjectivity of publishing fiction. Every manuscript has been in a slush pile. So, if every manuscript has seen a slush pile, it’s more like the luck of the draw that they get noticed, rather than inherent, consistently detectable value. If novels stood out to every agent, buyer, or editor as “publishable” at first, then every publishable book would be accepted when first submitted. The slush pile would truly be that. Instead, one publishers slush pile today holds perhaps a dozen novels that will be published someday, and some that may outsell the books that were preferred over those that were rejected. Again, to say that any slush pile is all junk is just illogical.

    As for “most unpublished novels go unpublished for a reason,” let’s see . . . anyone care to educate Dave here? This is the kind of thinking people here have become very adept at (and perhaps weary of) smacking down.

    I think I’m going to follow up with another post based loosely on Dave’s point about how “many people have no idea how the publishing business works.” Let’s see if this is roughly how you understand it — you have to sell your book to one person (agent), who may or may not be able to sell it to another person (publisher); the publisher, if sold, may pay an advance to you ranging from $1,000 to $20,000, certainly not enough to live off of, while also asking you to sign over all rights to the work; then the publisher prints more copies than it will ever sell and lends the finished books to bookstores, taking a 45-60% cut of sales and sharing 10-15% of this with you (so, you net of forty-five cents to sixty-seven cents on a $10 book); in the meantime, you have had to share 15% of your advance with your agent, leaving you with $850-$17,000 net; that advance will not be met until tens of thousands of books are sold (net), so over many months and more likely years, you have had to live off the advance less the agent’s commission. The entire time elapsed for this merry journey? Probably 3-5 years to publication, and then another 3-5 years before the advance is met and royalties start trickling out in small aliquots.

    Dave, are you telling me that this meets your idea of, “Money flows toward the writer”?

    I might defend commercial publishers, except for the fact that half the novels I pick up these days feel like the author is tired of his or her own trade — sloppy plotting, two-dimensional characters, rotten dialog, and uninspired emotional arcs. So, does the industry need to try different things? Can editing be sold separately from manufacturing, from marketing, and from listing? Are there different models to get more money flowing toward the writer? What if a writer wants to take some of the risk?

    People who defend current publishing models for commercial fiction are defending a system that can be reconfigured so that it’s better for authors and readers. Defending the current status quo with its broken distribution systems, measly author payments, and abysmal marketing approaches reminds me of the George Santayana quote: “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

  • I’ve done way better than average on my self-pubbed fiction, but it is targeted to a niche market. Strangely, I didn’t even know it was a niche market until the “niche-folk” started buying it. Now, I get nice sales from the Texas, Historical, Farm/Ranch, Large Print, Animals market.

    So, you never know when your scorned work will become a successful self-pub. I’m sitting here praying that my order for a whole bunch of books comes in soon. I’m running out of copies fast. Hee hee hee. Me, laughing all the way to my on-line banking site where I see deposits from my vendor sales through Amazon.

    I wrote a couple of blogs noting Harlequin’s savvy business move and was thrashed by commenters for agreeing with a publisher “trashing dreams” or “cheating” or “how could they?!?!?” Excuse me, but all I said was that Harlequin will make money from their vanity press.

    Writers need to quit waiting for the Impossible Dream and make their own way in the publishing world. I wouldn’t self-pub through any of the vanities that require several hundred bucks to take your money. I would highly recommend writers doing it on their own and using the free-to-play places like CreateSpace. I used to use Lulu, but they make the author set their retail price artificially high. Don’t tell ME I have to double the price to sell my book over costs, suckers! I won’t play that game.

  • If there’s a company I would want to be, it’s Kirkus Discoveries. How does a well-written, self-published novel stand apart from the POD slushpile? You need an independent authority to rate the quality of the piece, which must be paid a fee for its time, and is allowed to hand you a nasty review in exchange for your money. That’s the only way it can work if you think about it.

  • Andrew, in your excellent rundown of how *ahem* money flows toward the writer *ahem*, you forgot the 1/3 the IRS will take for self-employment taxes (including the other half of social security/Medicare that an employer would normally pay).

    So, yeah. In traditional publishing, money DOES flow to the writer. And from the writer to the agent to the marketing materials’ companies to the IRS. What’s left? Enough for groceries? Once?

  • I think the problem publishers had with the Harlequin endeavor was that Harlequin was attempting to disguise a subsidy publishing enterprise as a self-publishing enterprise, which it wasn’t. It wasn’t just about the “money flows to the writer” maxim; it was also that Harlequin was asking for steep editing and production fees while many thought they were also misleading potential clients in that there was a clause that Harlequin might just pick up the book and publish it “for real,” and also by marketing it mainly to clients via rejection letters. It’s important to note that the model really did tend to make authors more like clients of Harlequin than anything else; they would be paying Harlequin for certain services.

    Also, from what I read, authors did not retain all rights, and only earned percentage profit. This is in contrast to independent publishing many authors implement, by which they retain all rights and all profits. This is what is traditionally meant by “self-publishing.” Then again, the more people who start calling the Harlequin model “self-publishing,” the more people might start referring to the model so many writers we know have implemented as independent publishing.

    I’m not sure about your mentioning scientific publishing. I get why you brought it up, with your expertise there, but even in the situation you mention–authors paying to publish–there are substantially different models and motivations. I worked in health care publishing for a major publisher of journals. Besides the peer-review process, which can be somewhat akin to having three different editors decide the viability of any prospective manuscript, the editing performed is mainly line/copy-editing, and not content/development editing. In addition, there is more regulation in that, for every scientific journal I’ve ever seen and every professional journal I’ve ever worked on, authors must have credentials, usually at least a master’s degree in their field, to be even read, much less considered for publication. Many articles have two or three or seven authors, in fact, because young scientists conduct the research and then have their mentors’ names on it for professional cache (making it in ways akin to the James Patterson model of publishing, sort of). Finally, while publishing a novel (or even just writing one) tends to be more a dream for most writers who ultimately turn to self-publishing, it is generally viewed if not as a hobby at least not as something on which life and career depend; scientists, however, generally must have publications to be considered for many positions in their field, be they professional or academic. It’s ludicrously difficult for professors in any field to be considered for tenure without a publication or two under their belts.

    So no, I don’t believe you can, in fact, level the same criticisms against scientific publishing as many publishers and organizations leveled against Harlequin. Also, that Scholarly Kitchen article doesn’t really prove what SK thinks it does; maybe he knows it’s nonsensical, but that’s generally how most articles in such journals read, littered as they are with jargon like his paper is. Truthfully, that article could easily have passed my desk, and in editing it, I would have simply asked him to spell out his acronyms on first mention. Then again, who knows if it would have actually made it to my desk; our peer review process was rigorous. But I’m pretty sure authors still paid quite a lot of money if they wanted reprints of the article.

  • “As Clayton Christensen said, “When a layer gets commoditized, value is created through proprietary services in adjacent layers.” In Harlequin’s case, the traditional model is struggling (it’s a layer being commoditized), so they are looking for value in adjacent initiatives – self-publishing, e-publishing, and editorial and marketing services.”

    This is a hi-faluting way of explaining diversification. In most industries, even agriculture, diversification is a good thing for a business. What’s wrong with diversification in Harlequin’s case is that instead of addressing the underlying reasons for their “struggle” they are trying to support a failing business model by diversifying. They don’t want to “change” a pre-World War II business model that gives them “control” over what America reads, they don’t want to be more efficient or seek new ways of acquiring and producing higher quality work. None of the traditional publishers want to pay writers more or even undertake the responsibility of paying the agents who act as filters for them. Harlequin wants to fatten their bottom line. Period. It boils down to power and control, and money. Those slush piles probably contain many, many hidden gems, and Harlequin wants, needs, to capitalize on them the quickest way possible–as usual, at the expense of the writers.

    Where is ethics in this equation? How about honesty? Just because you can steal doesn’t mean you should. What’s wrong with exercising a little fairness, especially toward those who produce the raw material that traditional publishers MUST have in order to produce a product the consumer can ultimately buy? What about tightening the belt in other aspects that don’t necessarily have a thing to do with the quality of the work, the editing, or the final product? What about, instead of finding new ways to part a would-be author with his or her dollar, changing the failing business model in regards to returns? Everyone who is even vaguely familiar with this business knows that the practice of returns is a losing proposition, i.e. unsustainable, yet do you see one of the major traditional publishers making the slightest noise toward that end? Why, that company would be drummed from the elitist New York fold. Instead, they intend not only to try to separate even more would-be writers from their dollars by subsidy publishing, but also to foist the expense of editing onto the writers they would publish by agents “suggesting” in interviews and speeches to writer’s conventions that a would-be author ought to have his or her manuscript professionally edited before submitting it to an agent. This is the same method the traditional publishers employed to make “the author MUST market” an accepted practice, a done deal, as if traditional publishing had never known any other way. But as little as ten years ago, “the author MUST market” was barely spoke of, much less accepted practice. The first time I heard an agent say that a writer ought to have his or her manuscript professionally edited (and this was a couple of years ago), I knew what they and their agents were planning to do. And they are doing it now. Get a leg up on your competition, you lemming writer–have your manuscript professionally edited BEFORE you submit. Damn the costs to you, writer.

    More and more writers are coming to the realization that all they’ll get for their hard work on behalf of one of the traditional publishers is a logo on the spine of a book, a logo to which the consumer barely pays any attention. Have you ever heard any reader say “I only buy books from Simon and Schuster?” No. And you never will. All other things being equal, the publisher barely matters. And the traditional publishers, by focusing less and less on quality, by failing to look at their own wasteful practices, by refusing to invest in their future via new writers, have sealed their own fates. What Harlequin and others diversifying in the same manner are hoping is that enough would-be writers and authors remain ignorant of true self-publishing, or independent publishers, to keep their failing business model from drowning in its own red ink. And there again, the traditional publishers are simply too late to the party. I wouldn’t be surprised, and in fact I expect, the traditional publishers and their agents to be gone in five or ten or, at most, fifteen years. The real shame in their demise is that they’re taking the brick and mortar bookstores with them. At least all those bookstores who refuse to entertain true self-published and independently published fiction merely because the true self-published authors as well as the independent publishers will not play by the major traditional publishers’ antiquated, outdated rules.

    You can never beat a man at his own game. You have to force him to play yours. And that’s what the true self-published authors and independent publishers are doing right now–we’re stealing the talent; we’re running our businesses more efficiently; and, most importantly, we’re recognizing just where our bread is truly buttered and sharing more of the profits with the authors without whom our products simply are not possible. We’re re-injecting ethics and honesty and fairness into the publishing business, one book, one author, at a time. And Harlequin’s decision to diversify in the manner they’ve chosen only reaffirms that we who choose to self-publish and/or independently publish others are doing something incredibly right.

    At least to my way of thinking.

  • I’ve gotta catch up on my replies!

    To Will Entrekin, the point of comparing gatekeeping between fiction and scholarly publishing was to illuminate what I see as a strange rigidity on the commercial side that I don’t often see on the scholarly side. While credentials matter in scholarly publishing, authors without credentials or even high school degrees have been published in reputable journals (e.g., a 12-year-old was just published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine). The works are vetted differently in scholarly publishing, and as you note, peer-review processes are like chocolate cake recipes — each one is different. The SK post illustrates that something nominally called “peer-review” can actually be nothing more than hand-waving (i.e., E-Z-Bake Oven chocolate cake, if even that). Why scholarly publishing tolerates this abuse of the term probably goes to the academic tendency to practice “aggressive neglect” on things it doesn’t like, knowing it will go away soon enough.

    To M.L. Bushman, diversification is vital. Harlequin is trying it. If it’s dishonest, my point is that it seems no more disingenuous than traditional publishing, except that the money flows differently because the risk is moved somewhat. You make good points, and I agree that Harlequin’s manner of diversification does make self-publishing all the more attractive (and shows more clearly why it’s most likely a major part of the future way readers will find writers).

  • One of my favorite reads of recent years is Anthony Trollope’s autobiography. His mother was a novelist, of romance novels, and turned out a hundred or so, but he took a “day job” with the British Post Office and kept it until he was 54 years old. His first three novels never earned him a penny because he went into partnership with the publisher. Seems that Hollywood did not invent the “rolling break-even point” after all. Trollope never got rich, but he did get fairly famous and rose quite high in the Post Office before he quit six years short of his pension. Towards the end he heeded the advice of another businessman turned writer, Omat Kyam to “take the cash and leave the rest” He insisted that the publishers bid for his copyrights and there is a list of them in the back of this book. Impressive if you do the math. He lived well.

    The very idea of self-publishing raises rage and fear within the ranks of traditional publishers, but I have to disagree with M.L. Bushman. We’re not stealing the talent. We ARE the talent and until we sign a contract we own what we write, outright. (Register those copyrights, people.) Right now, self publishing has a bad rap because much of it is badly donw. The cure for that is same kind of mild obsession that predominates in hobbies like model railroading. Why do it at all, if you’re not going to do it right?

    (And if you want to see how I did it you can order “The Shenandoah Spy” from Amazon.com, or Hastings Entertainment, or by calling our distributor at 1-800-345-6665, and mentioning one of our special promotional codes from Facebook or LinkedIn or , if you actually want a signed copy at BrassCannonBooks.net , our web site.)

    See what I did there? I took an opportunity to ask for the order, to solicit your business. This is where most self-publishers fall short. They don’t aggressively promote their work and seek out new audiences for it. There are all sorts of places you can sell and ways you can sell, but the first task is to have a good product. One that puts traditional publishers who rush out their books and abandon them a few months later to shame. Quality sells. This is my problem with e-books (and I’ve published a few dozen) the quality control isn’t there and the lower prices mislead consumers into thinking they are getting the same product and experience as a printed book for less money. The text may be the same, but I submit that the ease, convenience and reading experience is completely different. These are different and discreet markets for the same text. IMO quality is always a sales advantage. E-books aren’t there yet and placing them on the market simultaneously with a print edition simply hurts sales of the latter. If you produce your print book by POD, then it really doesn’t matter. If you have a stock of a higher margin offset edition, then you really have to sell those first and make the e-book fans wait their turn.

    In the end I don’t really care where, how or why you buy my book, as long as you buy it.

  • Francis, a sentence I have to dispute: “E-books aren’t there yet and placing them on the market simultaneously with a print edition simply hurts sales of the latter.” More and more readers are finding that e-books are just fine and dandy, and more and more authors are finding that e-book sales are robust and more profitable than print book sales.

    In a very interesting argument, Scott Lowe at Publishing Tidbits (http://www.publishingbits.com/ebook-strategy/7-do-ebooks-cannibalize-print-sales.html) talks about how users of e-books will browse and buy e-books, so if your title isn’t there when they’re seeking a book, you have lost a sale and possibly alienated an avid reader. Very few authors have a strong enough reputation brand to cause a reader to shift from e-book to paperback if they want an e-book (or, for that matter, to purchase the hardcover if the paperback is available). If you’re not published in the format the reader wants, you will lose sales.

    In addition, e-books drive sales, as shown in an analysis from BYU (http://www.boingboing.net/2009/05/11/free-ebooks-effects.html) and in a piece by the notorious JA Konrath (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2009/10/kindle-numbers-traditional-publishing.html).

    So, while quality is a sales advantage, you aren’t the one to define it, I’d argue. If a reader thinks the convenience, price, and disposability of an e-book = quality, then they’re right. If you’re not there with what they would consider to be a “quality” offering, you lose sales.

    From what I’m hearing, 2009 will be the year the Kindle goes mainstream. It’s becoming the “gadget gift” of the year, with the Nook oddly proving the validity of the space and driving Kindle sales (first-entrant advantage shows again). With the potential of a tens of thousands of new customers browsing e-bookstores in January, I’d be getting my files up there now!

  • As one of the traditional publishers which have recently launched self-publishing services divisions, we have found it interesting to read how many different motives we had for doing so. I would have thought it obvious but just in case it is not: we are in it to earn a profit and contribute to the financial health of our company.

    We recognize that publishing is in transition and that people seem to want to be heard as much as—if not more than—they want to read what somebody else has to say (as evidenced by the success of blogging and other social media). We also continue to receive hundreds of inquiries from authors who are experiencing a high degree of frustration with traditional publishing and lack the ability (time, knowledge, perseverance, or some other factor) to publish the book themselves (self-publish). They have considered it (some to greater lengths than others), but would rather just pay a publishing company to do it for them. So we launched WestBow Press so that aspiring authors who want to see their inspirational books in print can do so, and we can generate revenue off the transaction.

    We are not the cheapest option around and do not intend to be. Brands mean something in the marketplace. Consumers pay more to have their car repaired by a brand they trust. We believe that the quality of what we provide is higher and more consistent. We state our prices and other terms clearly, and we deliver on what we offer.

    We really are not trying to be definitive about what we call this kind of publishing. I have not seen any authoritative source that provides industry standard definitions of vanity, subsidized, independent, and self-publishing. Since we are in a business based on words, it may be important to establish and maintain distinctions, but I think most aspiring authors care about them about as much as most readers care about imprints.

    Pete Nikolai
    WestBow Press

  • A great, relevant post (thanks to RJ Keller for the link):


    Provides a convincing argument that the direction of money flow initially doesn’t determine fairness or success.

  • Andrew:
    The term “Hobson’s choice” comes from a stable owner in London long ago who would rent you the horse closest to the door, but no other. He limited customer choice. Some fairly famous businesses have been very successful doing the same thing. The airport book stores and warehouse store book departments have very limited choices and sell about 40% of the total number of books by volume in the nation. The big publishers are heavily favored, but every once in awhile you see a self-published title at CostCo. MIke Ramsey’s CIA memoir famously sold over 66,000 copies that way. Given the time to prepare a book properly, I am thinking that limiting choice may be a viable strategy for people who have one or two titles. Stretching out release times and controlling which editions hit which channels and when may be a way to maximize profits….and this is a business. Profits are essential.

    The distribution model is changing and I’ve just turne in an article to Henry about that and how it will affect prices. My point is that there are different levels of consumers. Early adopters and collectors should be accomodated first simply because they pay a premium to get to the head of the line. I’m thinking about putting out a signed, limited edition of the next novel in my Civil War series. An absolute limit on the number of copies printed, and each signed and numbered by yours truly to add value…and since collectors like to keep their treasures pristine, throwing in a copy of the trade paperback so they can read the thing. Flipping that the other way, the Expresso Book Machine is now being leased, which makes ts widespread adoption more viable and makes POD a point-of-sale phenomena. The big question here is can it print and bind books quickly enough to make money? The margins will have to be high. I have e-books priced as low as 49 cents and they sell, but not as fast as printed books. Different editions always have different prices, If you can’t afford the hardbound, you wait. I’m not saying don’t do e-book editions; just put them in the proper place in the distribution model.

  • Steve

    Hi Andrew,

    I am generally in favor of self-publishing. I mean actual self-publishing, where the writer is the publisher and owns the ISBN, and subcontracts the mechanics to a company like Lulu. Places like Westbow or the new Harlequin product are not self-publishing. They are subsidy publishing or vanity presses. Their self-descriprion as “self-publishing” is deceptive, and I must suspect knowlingly so, as the correct usage of this terminology is not difficult to seek out on the Internet, and these people are professionals in the industry.

    But my main disagreement with your post is on the issue of the slush pile. I frequent several literary agent blogs and the low quality level of the typical submision is almost universally acknowledged even by the aspiring writers who comment. It is true that low quality work is sometimes published. It is certainly true that much high-quality work has spent time in slush piles and is rejected by many agents.

    That being said, the kind of stuff that stays at the bottom of the slush pile forever and is never published has to be seen to be appreciated. Although I have never seen an actual slush pile, the experience can be approximated by visiting sites where writers who have not been traditionallly published make their work available free online. Some of it is reasonably decent, Much is simply unreadable. I’m talking about just extremely bad writing. Writing is very easy to do badly (and, let me note that published scientific papers are some of the worst offenders). A typical piece of work is much more likely to be bad than good.

    But didn’t I acknowledge that much excellent work languishes in slushpiles? Certainly. And this brings us to the logical fallacy I was taught about in high school English. I believe it is known technically as the assertion that the converse of a true proposition must itself be true. We called it the four legged dog fallacy. To wit. All dogs have four legs. Therefore all four legged animals are dogs? Uh, no.

    Every good manuscript has been in a slush pile. So every manuscript in a slush pile is good? Not even close. There really is a lot of actual crap out there.

    Now, I’m not against low quality work being published. We have freedom of the press in this country for a reason, and nothing in the First Amendment requires you to clear anything with your English teacher. However, at the end of the day, good work is still more likely to find an audience than incompetent work.

    However, a flood of incompetent work can help limit audience discovery of good work, if they are presented on an equal footing. This fact leads to the necessary evolution of a gatekeeper function. In the recent past, editors at publishing houses were the gatekeepers. As the volume of submissions increased relative to the number of slots available in a publisher’s catalog, most major publishers became reluctant to accept submissions form an unagented writer, and literary agents became the new gatekeepers. As Internet and self-publishing channels provide means to bypass traditional publishing, the gatekeeper function will continue to evolve. In brick and mortar venues I forsee buyers for major chains and influental independent bookstores becoming the new gatekeepers. On the Internet, things are less clear. But I do know that what every writer whose work is on Amazon hopes for is the favored status of a high (i.e. low number) sales ranking, which aparently provides greater visibility on the site.

    Most readers will not, indeed physcally can not, read any appreciable fraction of published work. As the volume of published work increases, it will become increasingly difficult for a potential reader to spend the scanning time necessary to make an informed decision about what to read, So, some form of gatekeeping will always occur. This is not particularly sinister, although sinister individuals can and probably will manipulate it. It is simply a technical requirement based on the necessity of sorting out signal from noise within the context of the human bandwidth of the reading audience.


  • Francis, there’s a great piece just up at “On the Media” (http://bit.ly/7Vs9DL) related to all this. Basically, there are many ways to succeed or fail in the book business. Picking the best approach for a particular title is tough. Putting e-books, POD, etc., in “the proper place” will be title-specific. But in aggregate, availability helps sales, I think.

    Check out the “On the Media” piece. I think you’ll find a lot to agree with.

  • In only slight relation to this post, but underlying all my experience with offset/consignment publishing vs. POD/firm-sale publishing (or, if you prefer, traditional vs. self publishing), I will note that on a long trip this week, I read a good book from a big-name publisher that was filled with lazy writing and a couple of mind-bending typos. Still, the book was good because the subject was good, but these things were clearly deficits; and my wife read a book from a traditional publisher that was very poorly written and sloppily edited.

    Again, there is plenty of junk in the offset/consignment model. A publishing model doesn’t determine quality. Authors and readers do.