Do Self-Publishers Need to Lighten Up? [Updated]

First off, I didn’t wade into the Penguin self-publishing controversy because I took some  days off work to work on my novel and I was keeping to that.  I agree that it’s a rip-off as illustrated by David Gaughran:

Book Country offer a range of options to self-publish your work, all vastly over-priced.

The premium package costs a whopping $549. To be clear: there is no editing or cover design included in this package (the two biggest expenses for self-publishers). There is also no marketing or promotion included in this package, aside from a “Publishing Kit” with “tips” and “ideas”.

All you receive in return for your $549 are your formatted e-book files and your typeset print files which they upload for you. Needless to say, there are a whole host of companies out there that will do the same job, quicker, for a lot less money.

For those with slightly less money to waste, the next package costs $299. The astounding thing about this package is that you get nothing other than the aforementioned “Publishing Kit” (with those “tips” and “ideas”), and the ability to use their software to format your own print and e-book files, which they will upload for you.

It sucks, miserably.

At the same time, I’m not a person who’s totally opposed to self-publishing services like Author Solutions.  For many people, having someone else do all the formatting/publishing work is attractive – and you pay for that convenience.  That ebook formatting is easy isn’t really an issue – it’s easier to do nothing except pay some money.  The difference with a place like Penguin is that they have such a renowned brand name that they’re more likely to take unsuspecting writers for a ride who might think that they’re getting a ticket into traditional publishing that they might not get with another service.  This is probably not true – Penguin’s just looking for a way to make money on formatting, not looking for new writers to market.

But even here, I don’t side 100% with writers, as callous as that sounds.  If writers enter into an entirely bad arrangement, this is partially their fault. So yes, Penguin’s bad for offering a bad service, but writers are also to blame for not doing their homework.  My first instinct when seeing the headline of the Penguin deal was – cool, self-publishing is expanding.  I still haven’t lost all of that feeling.

Mick Rooney gets at this in his recent post on the subject.

There is something deeper here going on that we should not ignore. For so long the self-publishing community has fought for acceptance and recognition within the publishing industry. Just when we have eroded some of the stigmas, and proven that some self-published authors and their books can compete at the forefront of publishing, it would be a shame to start to show a divided front in self-publishing. I understand Joe Konrath’s ire because he came from a foundation within traditional publishing, did an about turn, and embraced the changes and benefits for the author as an individual business concern by self-publishing. So, I can understand him having a pop at one of the big six when they ‘cream’ it off the little guy.

Us vs. them is the wrong stance to take. By all means, call out Penguin on a bad enterprise, but there should also maybe be a bit of welcoming Penguin into the fold as well. Some writers are going to get taken for a ride by the service, but mostly it’s Penguin saying: we get it, self-publishing is taking over.

Smashwords & Agents

Meanwhile, a similar response has happened with Smashwords’ new Agent category – which differentiates itself from “publishers” if agents have been hired to be the go-between.  A commenter writes:

I’m troubled by this move.

I believe in “calling a duck a duck”. And this seems to be one of those cases where it quacks, waddles, flies, and swims like a duck – so even if it’s a little different color, it’s probably still a duck.

To be more specific – if someone takes a writer’s work; has the writer sign a contract giving them the right to produce and distribute that work; produces ebooks of that work; distributes those ebooks to retailers via uploading; collects income from the retailers for sales; and then disburses some portion of that income back to writers…

…then they’re fulfilling all of the major, critical roles of a publisher. They ARE publishing that ebook. Not the writer.

Someone who does your formatting for you and hands you back the work to upload yourself is “assisting self publishing”. Someone who takes a writer’s work, uploads it to their account, receives money from sales, and pays the author a percentage of that money is a publisher.

This change seems to me designed to continue obfuscating the fact that many agencies are now acting as publishers.

Someone just below that says:

It is to bad that Smashwords decided to sell out….agents as publishers….poor choice Mark 🙁

Sell out? Really? It’s adapting to the changing world of publishing. I understand if people are irritated with agents after countless rejections (like myself) but agents are a separate category. If this helps facilitate a new world where agents are more likely to enter into self-publishing, then good. That’s not “competition,” that’s legitimizing self-publishing for all types of writers.

As much as traditional publishing has disappointed me throughout the years, I am glad to see them adapting to the new era, even when they fail at it.  People also had the same viscerally negative reaction to Publisher’s Weekly Select. Does anybody care about that anymore, or just see it as: if writers are willing to pay that money, that’s their prerogative.

There have been so many rip-offs related to self-publishing that it’s unsurprising if people are concerned about another possible rip-off, especially when they’re honing in on our territory.  But self-publishing has changed.  Basically, it’s winning, so there’s less cause for alarm about these new services. Some people will get sucked in and lose money, but most will read an article or two and publish for free. Others will publish with a cheaper service. It’s a much friendlier environment for self-publishers than the Publish America era, and traditional publishers are more screwed than anything because they’re losing an increasing number of marketable writers to ebook publishing.

Maybe I’m done with fighting these battles, now that self-publishing has lost its stigma, and there’s less reason to be defensive. It’s nice to have a breather. So go ahead and criticize those services for what they do wrong – but what people might see as a dangerous precedent on the part of a traditional publisher is also evidence that they’re flailing, and that self-publishing is the future.

Update: Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware has a post along these lines:

Book Country And Self-Publishing: Why the Hate?

Am I endorsing Book Country’s self-publishing program? No. Am I suggesting that anyone run out and use it? Certainly not. And I remain concerned by the potential conflicts of interest that arise when trade publishers expand into self-publishing.

But given the realities of Book Country’s program–especially compared with other trade publishers’ self-pub divisions, all of which are much more directly connected to their parent companies–it seems to me that the hating is out of proportion (and I do wish that some of the commentary were more accurate). Sure, Book Country’s packages look costly when you contrast them with self-publishing on the Kindle or the Nook; sure, there’s no need to use a middleman service when you can DIY for free. But the truth is that not everyone wants to DIY–and there’s absolutely no shame in that, as long as you do your research and choose your middleman wisely. If you want a middleman, you can do a lot worse than Book Country.

  • The real problem with Penguin and Book Country is that it’s not “self-publishing.” It’s a vanity operation. It’s not just formatting services; authors who sign with them and pay their fees also pay them some royalties (I think I read authors get $1.47 from a $2.99 ebook).

    I also might disagree with your claims about agents as publishers, and being a separate category. It’s not “a new world where agents are more likely to enter into self-publishing,” mainly because the agents I’ve heard of aren’t publishing their own novels. I’ve heard of agents publishing books (Pinter, Bransford, Knight, etc.), but they go through corporations. I’ve heard of a different set of agents setting up shop as publishers (Wylie springs to mind).

    The commenter you mentioned has a point. If agents fulfill all the business roles of a publisher, they’re publishers, not agents.

    But overall you’re right. You know “self-publishing” is okay when a major corporation like Penguin is trying to pawn of vanity services by disguising them as “self-publishing.”

    • By “enter into self-publishing” I mean use the tools on a writer’s behalf. If agents publish a writer’s book using self-publishing tools, then, yes, they’re technically publishers, but what does it matter if they have a second category? Who does that hurt? I may be missing something.

      I agree that Book Country is vanity publishing, just like Author Solutions. I don’t see a problem that these services exist. It’s up to writers to decide if they want to shell out that money or not. But then, I’ve also never been a person who thinks vanity publishing isn’t self-publishing. Royalty doesn’t decide the type of publishing – it’s the decision to release your own book, no matter how that’s done.

      • I see what you mean. I think the thing that confuses me is why “agents” would need their own separate category. It’s not a second; it’s the third. I’m just unclear why one would want to complicate the matter. But hey, it’s Coker’s site.

        “it’s the decision to release your own book, no matter how that’s done.”

        Which is why neither agents’ use of various tools nor Book Country are “self-publishing.” I’m not sure vanity presses are self-publishing: one pays to publish, and when one pays a vanity press to publish, one publishes with them. If Book Country were offering formatting and such services, and authors could simply, say, use their tools and then go to Amazon (or wherever), that would be one thing. But for $99, one is publishing through Book Country, with Book Country’s distribution services. I think it’s a little different from, say, Smashwords or wherever because, though other places (like Lulu, for example) offer some premium options, they have free options. Book Country doesn’t. So far as I know, that makes it a vanity operation, at least according to definitions propagated by writer associations (SFWA, RWA, etc.).

        But, of course, what do they know, besides.

        It certainly is interesting to watch things develop, and exciting to participate. Not every new development is a good one, of course, but many certainly are.

  • It’s natural for people to feel like “their” space is being invaded by the very people who told them it was going to fail. It’s just human nature. When you blaze a path you become by proxy the hero of that path and when the people who told you the path would fail want to start to use it…

    Jim Kukral

    • That’s a good point, and part of it is throwing back a punch. My point I guess is that as self-publishing becomes more and more entrenched, it’ll really no longer be us vs. them, but we’re all in the same boat. Probably too early to be making that pronouncement.

      • You’re right, it is about throwing back a punch. Good analogy.

      • I don’t think it is too early to make that pronouncement. We are all in the same boat. In many ways, we’ve always been in the same boat. The best self-published books are about being in that boat, and that’s what the cream of them have been arguing for years. They have their tickets! What we are seeing unfolding here is a slow but deliberate move by some corporate houses to hug the ‘new and unsolicited’ authors they once disparaged, knowing there is a life-saving and legitimate revenue stream on tap, while still appearing to be captains at the helm of the Good Ship Publishing.

  • Henry’s right. As long as I decide what to publish under my name and how it’s done, I don’t give a damn what somebody else calls it. I prefer “independent” or “indie,” but that’s like preferring the color blue. As far as the costs are concerned, that’s up to each of us to decide. The new self-publishing services popping up every other day are making that decision ever more difficult, but nobody told us what we’re doing is a walk in the park. So we do our tedious homework. Penguin’s entrance into the game along with those literary agents using Smashwords tell us what’s happening on Mick Rooney’s Good Ship Publishing. And now, after all that homework, I’ll fix myself a drink and celebrate. Or should I say “lighten up”?

  • I started out as self-publisher in 1985, in order to move a book caught in a publisher bankruptcy back into print. I had had several books published by mainstream publishers by then, and I was writing books full time. At the same time I self-published myself, I published a book I had just co-authored, a war memoir the principal paid me to publish, so I was kind of a self-publisher and a vanity press. (I defend myself by pointing out that I’ve sold many times more of his book than my book.)

    Cutting to the chase, I’ve lived a hybrid existence ever since, publishing my stuff with my money and other guys’ stuff with my money, and getting more of my stuff published by mainstream publishers (right up to mid October, when my swan song was released by a mainstream house). I’ve also ghostwritten books, edited books, mentored authors, done freelance and staff acquisitions, and occasionally placed books out of the goodness of my heart, for no pay.

    I’ve published about fifteen ebooks by other people in the past year or so, and I have more lined up. I pay a 50 percent royalty. I have also done formatting, editing, typesetting, and other work that others have self-published, usually with my help. I have ten more such ebooks lined up. And all this has been to keep me busy in retirement, which officially began when my last book was released in mid October (a book I wrote speculatively, out of boredom from cutting back too much and too soon a year or so ago.)

    What I’m blathering on about here is that facilitating publication of one’s own books =and= books by others isn’t anything new or special, and one can earn a living doing it, or mixing it with writing lots of books that will be published one way or another.

    If the big publishers are getting into the game, it says to me I’ve been right for the past quarter-century. Our job, if we want it, is to make sure they’re kept honest and sincere. Because now we’re the adults in the room.

  • Eric, I think you have been right for the past quarter-century. And I’m sure there were times when you felt lonely as hell. Johnny-come-latelies such as myself owe a huge debt of gratitude for what you, Henry Baum, Mark Coker, Leigh K. Cunningham, and all the other cutting-edge pioneers have done for us.

    • Actually, Ron, I never felt lonely. I felt independent, able to fend for myself in a world filled with people whose judgement I questioned and acumen I could not respect.

      • Eric, I’m glad to hear that. I still owe you and the others.

  • Henry, so glad to find another voice of reason.

    I’ll weigh in on the Smashwords-Agent development.

    “Agents” as a class of people are not the enemy. Some agents are wed to the old model. A growing number are embracing the changes encouraging their authors to use self-publishing.

    My agent encouraged me to self-publish my debut novel when the 7 editors she’d submitted to didn’t respond within 10 months. SHe has a half-dozen people on her list who have self-published something. A short, a novella, a shelved novel. Why? Because she understands the value of the “buzz” writers get from having their stuff out there. We worked out a launch plan that included a free short first, a 99 cent short collection next, and the novel third. She plans to use this activity as a means to market the second manuscript.

    So some agents get it. They’d better, or a lot of them will be doing something else!


    • Pete, you might not want to divulge all of the details of your relationship with your agent, but I’d like to know more specifically what the new agents assisting self-publishing or independent writers do and how they get paid. If they assist with the marketing, as yours seems to do, I’d be interested. If they primarily make a manuscript ready for Smashwords and Amazon’s KDP and CreateSpace, well I can bore myself to death doing that myself or lay out a few bucks here and there for others to do it. In any event, I hope the agent route works for you.

  • Hi Henry. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and hope you’re making good progress on your days off. I too am using these four days off to work on a project – so I can relate. But, I saw your post in my google alerts and had to read.

    I’m with you. I don’t really understand the uproar. Everyone welcomed Lulu like it was the second coming of christ but Penguin makes the same offer (more or less) and they’re villified for it.

    It makes no sense to me…

  • “Penguin’s just looking for a way to make money on formatting, not looking for new writers to market.”

    It’s tempting to think so, Harry, taking some of their statements at face value. However, this is from my blog of a few days ago (at http://www.bridgetmckenna.com/1/post/2011/11/dont-be-the-fish.html)

    “…David Shanks, Penguin Group USA’s CEO, has publicly stated that they consider Book Country their “farm team.” “The lifeblood of any publisher is finding new talent,” he says in an interview with Rich Fahle at this year’s Digital Book World. “…we’ll start to look seriously at those people and say ‘Aha! here’s our new crop of potential best-selling authors.’”…”

    “…those people…” refers to those writers on Book Country who are top rated by their peers, as is made clear a few moments before in the interview.

    So the division is perhaps not as clear-cut as it seems.

    • Hemingway famously observed that every writer needs a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. Shanks’s horseshit allusion to stocking a farm team confirms Hemingway’s warning. What professional team with a farm system requires its tyros to pay to play?

  • Bridget, Penguin might say that, but why do we have to believe they’re telling the truth? Believe me, I’m not opposed to anybody paying Penguin for the services they offer. But it’s also good to do one’s homework and keep an open mind, as you appear to be doing.

    • My point was that Penguin claims on the one hand that Book Country is a publishing service, separate from Penguin Group USA. Legally, it is. Many are defending Penguin’s so-called self-publishing operation because, as Harry says above, they’re “…just looking for a way to make money on formatting.”

      Their CEO’s public remarks at Digital Book World suggest to me that they don’t mind at all if inexperienced writers think they’re being considered Penguin’s “farm team” (Penguin Group CEO David Shank’s exact words).

      If you have as much experience with traditional publishing as I do, you know better than to believe Penguin is actually looking for new authors among the hopefuls at Book Country. That makes me suppose they’re deliberately misleading writers who don’t know any better.

      Hope that’s clearer, Ron 🙂