Home / Features / More on Harlequin, Vanity Publishing, and True Self-Publishing
SPR AWARDS 2016 OPEN FOR SUBMISSIONS!

More on Harlequin, Vanity Publishing, and True Self-Publishing

One of the major things revealed by the Harlequin self-publishing debacle is how much of a stigma about self-publishing still lingers. Some would say that it’s not self-publishing that’s the problem, but vanity publishing – the subsidy houses that charge too much for too little. But in much of the dialog about the controversy, self-publishing was talked about as a single entity: as if a writer is ever shelling out any amount of money to publish, this is an illegitimate road. Nora Roberts chimed in with “When a big brand publisher uses its name and its resources to sell this as dream fulfillment, advertises it as such while trying to claim it’s not really their brand being used to make money on mss they’ve rejected as not worthy of that brand in the first place.”

The criticism was about “dream fulfillment,” not about vanity publishing vs. self-publishing, it’s that any self-publishing venture is quixotic – which is a nice way of putting it. To get down to basics, what’s the difference between vanity publishing and self-publishing?

Briefly,

  1. Vanity publishing is when you hire a subsidy house to do the work all in one package – i.e. you hire iUniverse to design the book and distribute it. For this convenience you pay not only an upfront fee, but the subsidy publisher takes a larger cut out of each book.
  2. True self-publishing is when a writer retains all the rights to the book and the bulk of the profit.

Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware has more on the distinctions, which I don’t totally agree with, as print on demand publishing can still fall under true self-publishing.  Author Solutions and Lulu are using Lightning Source to print books, it makes more than a little sense to publish independently directly with LSI so you make more of a profit on each book sold. This would be true self-publishing, even with a set-up fee. And if Harlequin paid their cards right, they could have offered a fairer package to their self-publishing clients. Fairer to Harlequin as well because having Author Solutions as the middleman takes away from Harlequin’s profits, just as it takes away profit from individual writers.

Even so, in both cases the writer is paying out – it’s just the level of profit that’s different, which is why self-publishing and vanity publishing get mixed together.  Personally, I don’t think there’s too great a difference – it’s just that people level the word “vanity” as a way of implying that the writer is a shallow no-talent.

Advocating for Author Solutions

Check out the thread about AuthorHouse on this site: it’s explosive. I post there as a lone small voice in a very angry crowd. People have very, very valid criticisms about AuthorHouse, but on the surface I don’t think a subsidy publisher is the worst deal. If you read my post about my own book release, it cost me roughly $1400 to put out my book – and that’s a pretty good price. With AuthorHouse, you can get a package for $600. Complaints about customer service aside, this is a decent deal and saves writers the work of having to hunt down designers, figure out distribution, and the like. That’s not the best way to go about it, but there are plenty of people who want this convenience and so pay for this convenience. Call it fast food publishing. Fast food has its place.

The trouble of course is that these services prey on people who get taken advantage of. So they pay $3000 or so for a marketing package and have few book sales to show for it. This issue is a two-way street. The subsidy publisher is too predatory and the writer is acting too much like prey.

When done right, however – for a limited cost, subsidy publishing is not the demon of self-publishing, it’s just not ideal. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with Harlequin’s ploy if they approached it a little differently. Profiting off of writers is the core business of publishing. This is just another way to do it. However, dishonesty crept into the equation, as Harlequin made it seem that writers may be one step closer to getting a legitimate Harlequin contract, when really all they’re doing is getting an AuthorHouse book with a different name. Many writers wouldn’t get this was the case until it’s too late. Call me a corporatist, but I don’t totally side with the writer in this scenario: they should know better.

All in all, it seemed like Harlequin got piled on too quickly. Dropping Harlquin from the RWA? An absurd overreaction. For publishing to evolve – as it needs to – publishers will need to investigate new publishing models like this. Though self-publishing has come a long way in the last year alone, the Harlequin debacle was a giant step backward.

Yog’s Law

This is a long way of saying that self-publishing is valid – including vanity publishing. It’s not ideal, and publishers should look beyond Author Solutions before creating self-publishing partnerships, but self-publishers do not comprise the dregs of the writer class. Nor do traditional publishers represent the cream of the publishing class.

Ditchwalk has a must-read post about the state of the industry. Yog’s Law is the maxim that money should always flow to the writer and not away from him/her. He says,

Do we really have to have a conversation about all the ways a publisher might rip off a writer? Do we need to get into the reserves-against-returns issue? Do we need to talk about publishers holding authors’ rights even after they’ve stopped exploiting those rights? What about phantom charges deducted from a book’s costs? Is there anyone on the face of the earth who really believes that a publisher cannot screw a writer just as effectively — and perhaps even for a greater total amount over the life of a contract — as a vanity publisher?

Then again, maybe what you’re thinking is that no writer would ever be caught in a contract like that if they had a good agent, and I agree. But now we’re falling so far back from our original assertion we’re assuming it’s agents who will ultimately protect writers from any publishing nightmares. While that’s certainly an agent’s job, this assumption destroys Yog’s Law completely…

But if writers need agents to protect them from bad publishing deals of any kind, and if the process of finding a good agent is as fraught with risk as the process of finding a good publisher, then writers today aren’t facing any unique threats. In fact, the only thing that’s changing is that the stigma of self-publishing is dying at exactly the same time that the pay-you-later publishing industry has discovered there may be considerable profit in the self-publishing space.

Apart from any stupefaction at this amazing coincidence, the net effect on writers is trivial. Instead of buying into Yog’s Law and trusting pay-you-later publishers who may bleed writers through bookkeeping scams, writers now have to use the same savvy and suspicion necessary for surviving the agent-hiring phase of their careers in the dealings they have with publishers or publishing-service providers.

Read the whole thing, and bookmark his site. Again, it comes down to the savviness of the writer. Instead of people assuming that writers are going to do their research, people assume that writers are going to be taken advantage of. Frankly, this is not entirely the publisher’s fault. And perhaps someone can make the calculation of the level of talent of a writer vs. the likelihood a writer will be taken in by scams. So Mark Barrett has a new Yog’s Law:

Money can flow in any direction you want, but it’s your job to know where every penny goes and what you’re getting for those pennies.

All subsidy houses should not be blamed for a writer not doing his homework. But this is the strange old fallacy in self-publishing: if one writer is scammed by a subsidy publisher then all subsidy publishers are bad, just as the bad self-published books somehow represent self-publishing on the whole. People have to get out of this mindset.

Now, Author Solutions has problems, considerable ones, as illustrated by the thread linked earlier. But publishers should be able to enter into these types of agreements with the amount of knee-jerk backlash that Harlequin received.

  • RF

    “Even so, in both cases the writer is paying out – it’s just the level of profit that’s different, which is why self-publishing and vanity publishing get mixed together. Personally, I don’t think there’s too great a difference – it’s just that people level the word “vanity” as a way of implying that the writer is a shallow no-talent.”

    No: the two business models are completely different. With self-publishing, the writer pays to have the books produced, and then owns the books and the materials used to produce them. Any profit (and well-targeted, specialist non-fiction works can indeed generate profit when self-published) belongs to the writer. With vanity publishers, the writer pays for the books to be produced, but the publisher owns them. Unbelievably, the writer has to pay for copies of her own books, and only receives the same sort of royalty as in commercial publishing (usually 10% to 15%).

    As to whether vanity-published authors are “shallow no-talents”: most of these books are truly awful, as a glance at, say, AuthorHouse’s front page (on which they charge gullible writers £120 a month for placement) makes clear. But whilst a minority of these authors may have flair, they’re all basically gullible: with vanity publishing the publisher gets paid twice, and even if your book sells (which is enormously unlikely) it’s virtually impossible to recoup your outlay due to the one-sided contract.

    “People have very, very valid criticisms about AuthorHouse, but on the surface I don’t think a subsidy publisher is the worst deal.”

    Except AuthorHouse is not a “subsidy publisher”. Where is the subsidy? The author pays 100% to have the work produced, and AuthorHouse pays nothing. In addition, AuthorHouse offers no ancillary services that are not paid for – and some of them are ridiculously overpriced (£175 to have three copies of your book stocked by a London branch of Waterstone’s, anyone?).

    “If you read my post about my own book release, it cost me roughly $1400 to put out my book – and that’s a pretty good price.”

    It might be, if you get to own the books you paid to produce. With vanity publishing, you don’t.

    “Fast food has its place.”

    Fast food makes people ill. So does vanity publishing, when they go into it believing that it can make them rich or famous. Most vanity publishers like to give this impression in their marketing materials.

    “Self-publishers do not comprise the dregs of the writer class. Nor do traditional publishers represent the cream of the publishing class.”

    No, that is true, but vanity publishers’ output usually comprises books that could never be commercially published as there is no obvious large market for them. Put another way, it’s usually a surefire way for a writer to lose money.

    “All subsidy houses should not be blamed for a writer not doing his homework.”

    No, and I have nothing whatever against any vanity publisher who makes clear upfront that a writer is likely (not certain, but likely) to sell only a few dozen copies of her book, meaning she could lose 95% of her initial investment. I have yet to meet one that does.

  • http://www.selfpublishingreview.com Henry Baum

    Good points, but with true self-publishing you’re still paying to have a book produced – whether it’s going directly through Lightning Source or via a print run, the money comes out of your own pocket. The main difference between that and AuthorHouse is how much books cost to produce and how much profit you make. Either way: it’s pay to play.

    The writer “own the materials to produce them”? Not unless the writer owns his own printing press, like Hamish MacDonald. By and large, writers are going to have to pay someone to put that book together.

    I’m in total agreement that AuthorHouse other services for “marketing” are dubious, I just think a package deal has its place. Good books have come through this system: The Greatest Show on Earth by Daniel Scott Buck or Threshold by Bonnie Kozek (iUniverse books).

    Fast food makes people ill. So does vanity publishing, when they go into it believing that it can make them rich or famous.

    This is precisely my point – people who are this deluded are the problem, not the system itself. Unfortunately, AuthorHouse-type publishers prey on just this type of naivete, but I don’t have limitless sympathy for people who think they’re going to be an overnight success for no reason whatsoever.

  • RF

    Agreed that you can’t always protect people against their own stupidity, but it’s still fair to expect a certain level of straightforwardness from self- or vanity-publishers. Before I was a novelist, my first career for many years was as an advertising copywriter, and strong laws exist in most countries to protect against misleading advertising. In particular, ads for investments require a clear disclaimer that the investor could get back a great deal less than they pay in; I wish something similar could be applied to vanity publishers.

    In fairness, AuthorHouse are not snake-oil salesmen like the vanity publishers of old; they don’t pretend to be a commercial publisher, and I’m sure they don’t send out form letters claiming to be “very excited” about works they receive (this deceptive flattery being the origin of the term “vanity publishing”).

    But there is also a certain opacity to the way they present themselves, which could easily fool people – including intelligent people – unfamiliar with the publishing industry.

    For example, their website claims that:

    “Through AuthorHouse Essentials, your book receives professional bookselling services that make your book even more attractive to bookstores”

    and that:

    “booksellers are more likely to purchase your book if they can return unsold copies” (which, for some reason, costs AuthorHouse writers a staggering £600 a year).

    Whilst the latter statement is true – bookshops won’t stock anything on a non-returnable basis – it’s also misleading in its implication. Because the reality is that bookshops won’t stock anything issued by AuthorHouse anyway, partly because AuthorHouse has no direct sales force and partly because of the stigma attached to vanity publishers. (This stigma is deserved, by the way – most vanity published books are poorly written, poorly proofed, poorly typeset and more expensive than equivalent commercially produced books – why would any national book chain buy them?)

    I just wish vanity publishers could be more honest about the chances of their writers being distributed nationally, and make clear that any sales are likely to be online or via nearby bookshops with a “local authors” section.

  • Maria

    “All in all, it seemed like Harlequin got piled on too quickly. Dropping Harlquin from the RWA? An absurd overreaction.”

    I disagree and RWA did not drop Harlequin because of the vanity press deal with AuthorSolutions. It had more to do with the deceptive and misleading marketing that Harlequin was and is continuing to do. Rather than Harlequin rejecting a manuscript and then in the same letter advising them to use the services of DellArte, it would be more honest for Harlequin to say:

    “Your book is not good enough for our regular lines and we wouldn’t pay you a nickle to print it, but if you’re desperate enough to get it into print, then we can do that for you for a minimum cost of $600. Go to http://www.harlequinripsyouoff. com and you can buy a variety of publishing packages for your book that we actually think stinks, but we have been wrong before. In case your book actually sells somehow, we’ll also keep 50% of the net costs that you already paid for. We think this is a good deal because really you can’t write your way out of a paper bag, but hey, you have the money, we have the time.”

    Do I think that writers should be educated? Absolutely. Do I think that publishers need to find a way to make money? Absolutely. I simply do not think that a group that was started to protect the interests of its members, writers, should applaud hypocrisy and deceit – no matter how big the publishing company is. I applaud RWA’s stance on Harlequin.

    I believe self-publishing has a place. I do not believe that using a company and paying for their services entitles them to any of the money I make from the final product. They were paid for a service and they are not entitled to any profit I make on my book. Stating that they are and that this model is reasonable is similar to saying that after paying an architect to redesign my home, the architect is also entitled to a percentage of the profit I make when I sell the home. This is what a vanity press does. It is why writers groups do not support this model of business.

    It seems that Harlequin wants to have it all ways. They want to be a traditional publishing house; they want to be a vanity press and they want to use their status as a traditional publishing house to benefit the vanity press, but they don’t want to have any of the bad reputation of the vanity press rub off on the traditional house.

    This is the real reason for the piling on that has occurred to Harlequin and not the fact that they have entered into self-publishing models that rip the writer off althought that is distasteful. I think the truly amusing part of the whole arguement that Harlequin had was the increase in numbers of self-published books. It is why they decided to go into this venture. What most writers do not see and you certainly have not mentioned is that while there are more books being self-published every year, the sales number of self-published books has not risen as quickly. Writers should know this and you, as an advocate for self-publishing, should do more to educate people on this.