Self-Publishing Killed the Vanity Press

Jane Friedman makes this very interesting point:

Right now, Author Solutions is the biggest self-publishing/POD service company in the world. Over the last decade, they’ve bought up the most significant competitors, such as iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford. Their growth has been astronomical and reported on by outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Inc. magazine.

To keep growing their business, they’ve been soliciting and establishing partnerships with traditional publishers, to set up new self-publishing brands that they exclusively service, such as Harlequin’s Horizons and Thomas Nelson’s West Bow. They’ve also started an author education arm.

But this is appearing more and more like a huge scramble to squeeze a few more profitable dollars out of a service that is no longer needed, that is incredibly overpriced when compared to the new and growing competition, and has less to recommend it with each passing day, as more success stories come from the e-publishing realm where author royalties are in the 70-85% range. (An author typically earns less than half that percentage for royalties on a POD book.)

Basically, the main thing that an Author Solutions POD company offers is book design – the cover and the interior.  Otherwise you could just take a pre-designed book and sign up with CreateSpace for free.  As recently as 2006, when I self-published my first novel, print was the way to go, and maybe you’d get sales for an ebook.  Now it’s entirely the other way around.  It’s good to have print available if someone wants it, but the majority of sales are more than likely going to be for an ebook.  So once you have your cover/interior you can take it to CreateSpace/Kindle/and Smashwords and you’re done.  There’s no reason to pay the $600+ for an Author Solutions company that’s going to take the bulk of the profits from whatever sales you might have.  It makes the for-pay POD company look as staid as traditional publishing itself.

This is not to say Author Solutions is valueless – $600 isn’t a terrible deal for a book cover and interior.  But really, you can hire a designer at Lulu independently.  And eventually the learning curve for Photoshop won’t be as high.  Friedman goes on:

That’s why today’s fee-based self-publishing company will be forced to change its service, the value of its service, and/or the price of its service—or otherwise become irrelevant (and die). Just how fast such services decline depends somewhat on how quickly e-books become the preferred format for a majority of readers.

The “vanity” part of vanity publishing was in large part due to paying your own way to publish.  But if you’re paying nothing, and potentially making a lot of money in return, it’s hard to consider this “vain.”  So hopefully vanity houses can offer some more valuable services in the future – a one-package deal of book cover design/interior design/ebook formatting/and editing.  Mix that with a reasonable royalty rate (if any) and there are still customers who would like a one-stop place to do all that, just as it’s more convenient for a traditional publisher to do all that work.  They just have to take down the price a lot when they’re competing with free.

  • Thank you, Henry, once again. I’m hoping for the day when people will stop to consider whether to say or write the “V” word in full. I’ve noticed there are many pricy services on the internet for independently publishing authors, who need to examine carefully what the deal is before they agree to it and send the money for it through PayPal. On the other hand, there are some things we brilliant writers aren’t qualified to to. A 90-second trailer? I can’t do that. A cover for a print version? I can’t do that. A Pump Up Your Book virtual tour? I can’t do that. But I can pay for somebody else to do those things. I can pay to enter competitions and obtain honest reviews. I hope the companies I pay to do those things make a profit. I hope they exist far into the future. I’m quite certain I’ll need them.

  • This explains why iUniverse has some dim-witted telemarketer call me every other week wanting to discuss a thousands-of-dollars “marketing package” for a book I did with them ten years ago. Sorry dude, I can go to vistaprint and get the same bookmarks printed for a dollar.

  • There’s a fundamental fault with “free” publishing and the $600 publishing packages: they don’t include editing.

    As wannabe authors learn that they can produce what sort-of look like real books without paying for professional editing, a huge amount of garbage gets published. Sadly, some of the worst of the unedited garbage is books advising wannabe authors.

    If you can’t afford professional editing, you can’t afford to publish a book. Even editors who write books need to hire other editors.

    Michael N. Marcus
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    • I agree – that’s why they need a reasonably-priced package that includes everything. But even then, you’re more likely to find a compatible editor independently than hire someone from the assembly line at AuthorHouse.

  • RF

    Whilst I broadly agree with the sentiments here, I’d take issue with the statement that “it makes the for-pay POD company look as staid as traditional publishing itself”. Most authors whose work solely comes out in ebook or POD form haven’t chosen to avoid commercial publishing because it’s “staid”; they simply weren’t able to write to the standard to land a deal from a mainstream trade press. (And yes, of course I’m aware that some very good writers self-publish, and that certain types of niche book can be more profitable in self-published form.)

    But the idea that vanity publishers aren’t evolving is wrong in one sense: consider the new generation like PublishAmerica. They offer all the services of AuthorHouse, purportedly with editing as well, and all apparently free — at least until you examine their business model a little more closely and add up the real costs.

  • Matt Syverson

    My experience is that most consumers (over 30) still want a book they can hold in their hand. The media will convince you that everyone out there has an iPad in one hand and a Kindle in the other, but this is just not the case. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do an e-book, but the majority of people still want the tactile experience of reading a physical book.

    • That may very well be true, but due to the distribution channels, realities of ebook pricing and attitudes of e-book early adopters, many indie authors are finding that they sell a heck of a lot more books to the growing digital crowd than they ever could to the (potentially larger) group of people who still prefer print.

      • Matt Syverson

        I don’t disagree at all, Matt, but it seems that ebooks really are successful mainly in specific genres- mainly the Twi-hards and the usual big name writers. I have my book available for Kindle. Of course, you should use all mediums possible.

  • I originally published my first three works with Xlibris, but got fed-up with their horrible ability to track eBook sales. It was pitiful. So, I got off my duff and learned how to become my own publisher, opened an account with Lightning Source, and just migrated all of my three books over on my own. I will admit that I was petrified over the process, but it was an eye opening experience to see exactly what I was getting for my buck over at Xlibris.

    Yes, they help you with the interior and the cover. They take your manuscript and make it eBook ready. I did my own interiors on MS Word and hired Robin Ludwig Design to do stellar covers for me that have actually increased my sales. I learned how to upload on Kindle and Smashwords and format my text for eBook sales. I analyzed the fees I paid Xlibris and discovered here is where they made their money off of me:

    1. Royalties. I received $2 per print book. Now I’m receiving $2.58 to $4.00 per print book on my titles. They are obviously pocketing a large portion.

    2. Cost of books. This is what really blew me out of the water. Because you can’t set your price or discount with Xlibris, you’re stuck at the $19.99. (Price is based on page count.) If I wish to order 10 copies of one title, I get a 35% discount off of $19.99. So my books cost me $13 a piece. I order the same title now from Lightning Source for $5.18. What a huge difference!

    I think what they charge to put you in print is fairly reasonable, especially when they have their two books for one sale. After all, they do the leg work for ISBN, copyright registration, interior, cover, setup at LSI, etc. etc. It took a lot of hours for me to reformat my manuscripts into print and eBook format, let alone learn how, and resubmit them for release under my imprint.

    In conclusion, I think if enough “v” authors get smart, like me, and pull their books from these companies, they may need to turn to other avenues in order to generate money. It may not just be because of eBooks, but because of more savvy authors who become truly independent self-publishers in the end.

    • Matt Syverson

      Xlibris and similar sites are such a rip-off! But, sadly, those who use them aren’t usually willing to learn the ropes enough to use LSI. I’m SO GLAD I found out about LSI and educated myself enough to complete my project with them.

  • Matt Syverson

    Anyone serious about self-publishing a book eventually finds Lightning Source. And those able to read some fairly technical guidelines regarding formatting and file submission actually publish their book with LS. The beautiful thing is that this only has to be learned once. Get that first book done (it’s not too hard if you read enough blogs) and you are eager and ready to tackle the next one. Considering you can publish a 200 page book for $3.70, you might even make some money and be able to afford to send out a few promo copies.