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?
- 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.
- 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.
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.