Traditional Publishing, Self Publishing, and Vanity Presses: My Take On Things

This post, from S.L. Armstrong, originally appeared on her blog on 11/28/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.

The announcement last week by Harlequin regarding their partnership with Author Solutions, Inc. (owner of iUniverse and exLibris) to create a new imprint called Horizons has thrown a new log onto an old controversy: the highly charged debate between traditionally published authors and their self-published counterparts. You see, Horizons is intended to be a “self-publishing” arm of Harlequin’s company, and the virtual uproar has sent digital shockwaves through the internet.

But the disagreement isn’t over Harlequin’s decision. Blog entries from both sides are decidedly negative regarding this move, because of the clumsy way Harlequin has gone about it, specifically, their intent to steer rejected authors to their pay-for-play method, and their implication that sufficiently successful titles in this line could be picked up on contract by other Harlequin imprints. (Outcry from the Romance, Mystery, and Science Fiction Writers Associations over this has since prompted Harlequin to remove their name from the line — they’ve rechristened it DellArte Press.) Instead, the announcement has merely been the catalyst in renewing the ongoing argument between the two differing publishing models.

You may have noticed I put “self-publishing” in quotes above. This is because, interestingly enough, what has reignited the war of words between traditionally published authors and self-published authors is a business model that is neither one. DellArte Press, like the other services owned by Author Solutions, belong to a third category called vanity publishing. This middle-ground combined the worst aspects of both models, and the benefits of neither. And yet, though both sides agree on this salient point, it nevertheless brings them head-to-head on virtually every other aspect of the industry. The arguments have, as usual, degenerated from discussions on the relative merits of differing business models to disparaging generalizations of self-published authors as talentless hacks and traditionally published authors as cookie-cutter sellouts.

I have made the decision to forego the traditional publishing model in favor of the self-publishing one, and I want to take some time to outline why I have chosen this way. But first, I think it’s important that we all get our terms straight, because the biggest thing that I have noticed among recent blog entries (particularly those by traditionally published authors) is the tendency to conflate self-publishing with vanity publishing. Whether this is intentional or accidental, I can’t say, but I think it’s time the distinction is laid out.

So, What Are We Talking About Here?

When we talk about the “traditional” publishing model, what we’re talking about is the process by which an aspiring author submits their manuscript to various agents, negotiating the sea of rejection letters until one agent agrees to represent the writer. That agent then shops out the manuscript to various large publishing houses until one of them agrees to purchase the rights for the book. The writer is given a contract, possibly an advance on future royalties, and the book — after revisions by editors working for the publishing house — is printed in large numbers and made available to major booksellers around the country.

By contrast, a “self” publishing model removes both the agent and the publishing house, allowing the author to work directly with the printer to have their book printed. I’ll go into more detail regarding the benefits and drawbacks of this method through the course of this entry, but it’s easy to see at the very least that this is, in many ways, an “easier” path to publication than the traditional model.

In between these two is the “vanity” model. A vanity publisher is a company between the author and the printer that facilitates (for an often substantial fee) the relationship between those two entities. Vanity publishers generally offer many of the same services of a traditional publishing house, e.g., editing services or cover art design, but only if the author purchases them for additional fees beyond their initial investment for the publishing of the book itself. This is the model that Author Solutions uses for all of its subsidiary companies, DellArte Press included.

Further confusing matters, there is the term “small press” or “independent press”. For most intents and purposes, these companies are the same as the traditional model, but the exact line that distinguishes them from a large publishing house is less than clear, especially given that many of these independent presses began as businesses intended only to self-publish the works of those who started them.

Finally, there seems to be some distinction being made in some recent blog entries between the term “published” and the term “printed”, specifically the statement that self-published books aren’t “published”, just “printed”. As I don’t understand what is meant by separating the two terms, and the blog entry in question failed to elaborate, I will be using them interchangeably.

Self-Publishing Objections — Overruled

Now that I’ve set down the terminology as I understand it, and how I’ll be using it, what I want to do is examine some of the most repeated objections that traditionally published authors have given recently when coming down against self-publishers and offer rebuttals to demonstrate the conflation of self and vanity publishing that I have noticed.

First of all is the statement that if an aspiring author doesn’t get a string of rejection letters, they have no impetus to improve their writing, and therefore, the work they produce is of inferior quality. Setting aside the simple fact that the average rejection letter is a generic form letter that offers no suggestions for improvement, the implication of this statement is that being rejected by agents is the only way to know that one’s writing could use work. This ignores the existence of writing workshops and critique groups, which many authors on both sides of the debate are members of.

I won’t deny that there are plenty of non-traditionally published works that are of a significantly less polished quality than others, but I suspect that the vast majority of those are coming out of vanity presses and not true self-publishers. My reasoning for this is that a self-published author has more invested in the work — business license, purchasing and registering ISBNs, etc — and, as a result, is less likely to be satisfied with a book that is not of high quality than perhaps a vanity published author who does not have to put in the additional overhead just to get a book in print.

Following from the idea that non-traditionally published books are lower quality is the oft-quoted statistic from traditionally published authors that “self-published books on average sell only x books”, where ‘x’ varies between 75 and 200 depending on how vehemently the author is speaking against self-publishing. I’ve done some research on this and have traced the source of this number back to an article that cites sales figures from iUniverse for 2005. Not only is this several years old, during which time the self-publishing industry has grown by orders of magnitude, but iUniverse is a vanity publisher, and so the numbers are completely meaningless when discussing self publishing. A true self publisher is a separate business entity, not affliated with an existing press, so it’s impossible to get any true sense of those numbers by polling vanity presses.

And the number isn’t really representative even when talking about vanity presses, either. The assumption from the traditional side is that anyone who publishes wants to sell huge numbers of books, and in vanity publishing, that’s not necessarily the case. Someone who wants to collect the faded handwritten recipes from their grandmother into a more permanent form that they can pass down the family is not trying to become a best-selling author, but the quoted statistic uses that single printing to bring down the average of those who are trying to have a modest career in writing. The reported sales also don’t take into account author-bought copies, so an author who purchases 200 copies of their book and sells them by hand through a personal website or at a convention doesn’t have those 200 copies added into the reported sales figures, but the books aren’t any less sold. But I digress.

The next most popular objection to self-publishing by traditional authors is that self-publishers don’t have the agreements with booksellers that big publishing houses do, so a self-published author won’t see their book on the shelf. And this is both absolutely true, and completely meaningless. With a large portion of book sales being done through online retailers like Amazon, seeing a book on a shelf isn’t the only way to find it anymore. Besides which, the online sales market has prompted cutbacks in many brick-and-mortar stores, causing them to reduce their inventory. As a result, many midlist authors aren’t likely to have their books shelved either.

Now, when called on these objections, many traditionally published authors — at least, of late — have responded with a statement that they are only trying to protect aspiring writers from being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous business model. Granted, this could be a valid concern when talking about vanity publishing. The marketing pitch from those companies is designed to make their products seem attractive, just the same as the marketing pitch for any other product or service that exists. Including traditional publishing houses.

But an informed consumer weighs the pros and cons of all options. It’s not the place of these other authors to insert themselves into the process. If an author wants to rush into a choice without doing research, then they have that right. Same as if they want to buy a timeshare, invest in penny stocks, or put their trust in holistic medicine. And this is the reason why using this argument against self-publishing is useless. Because true self-publishers who have had to go through all the trouble of setting things up for themselves have clearly done their research and decided on this as the best option for them. This isn’t something you can simply stumble into, or something that one can enter into blindly because of some marketing pitch on a website somewhere. Traditional publishing, on the other hand, is based on a business model that moves the nuts and bolts of the decision-making out of the hands of the author themselves and into the agent’s, leaving more than one traditionally published author in the dark about exactly how their royalties are calcuated, the fine print regarding which copyrights they have and don’t have, and a thousand other little provisos in their contracts that were negotiated for on their behalf by someone who wants a piece of the pie as well.

Then, finally, with other avenues exhausted and the debate progressing beyond polite conversation, some traditionally published authors will fall back on the personal attack: “Self published authors aren’t real writers anyway. If they were, they could get signed with a publisher like I did.” Now, ordinarily, this sort of blatant ad hominem doesn’t require a response, but I want to examine it a moment anyway. I’m not a follower of the music industry, but from my outsider point of view, I don’t recall ever hearing musicians signed to large labels disparaging independent artists as not “real” musicians. Nor do small business owners generally take flack from larger ones about being too “talentless” to work for a bigger company. So why would a traditionally published author want to use that sort of argument? I have my pet theories, but anything I list here will end up with me being flamed into a cinder by authors denying it and pointing out my obvious bias, so I won’t elaborate. Suffice it to say that I don’t buy this any more than I buy any of the other objections thus far.

Editors At The Gate

In response to the uproar against self publishing (which, as I’ve noted, is more an uproar against vanity publishing), those self-publishers have pointed out several flaws they perceive in the traditional publishing model. And while authors who choose that route, or the ones who have weighed in recently, clearly feel that the benefits overshadow the flaws, I feel it’s important to point those flaws out as well.

First of all is what has been called the “Gatekeeper Mentality”. This is the idea that a small number of individuals are in control of what makes it to the masses. In this case, that small number is the agents and editors. Traditionally published authors say that this helps the industry by weeding out the undesirables and ensuring only quality works make it out to the bookstores. However, my main objection to this is that publishers don’t pick books that they think people will like, they pick books that they think they can make a profit on. A publishing house is a business, and that means they’re concerned with the bottom line. There are plenty of examples of agents and publishers turning down perfectly good and enjoyable books because they didn’t believe they could make a profit selling them. That’s not ensuring quality; that’s padding their bottom line.

It makes publishers hesitant to take risks or branch out into areas that aren’t already established markets, and agents hesitant to represent authors that write books outside of “acceptable” subject matters that are proven money makers. That’s not to say that there aren’t agents and editors who won’t ever take a chance on something new, but they are rare. And if such a risky book does do a decent bit of business, you can guarantee that the next year, there’ll be thirty different derivatives of that theme on the shelf until the market is flooded. Meanwhile, tons of good books languish in slush piles and rejection bins because they aren’t part of the current hot trend. It doesn’t mean they aren’t quality or that they won’t sell, just that they may not sell as well, so they are passed over in favor of something more profitable.

Publishers don’t put out books as a public service. They do it because they want to make money. And they make a lot of money, especially when compared to the author whose work they’re publishing. With author royalties averaging between 6-8 percent of the net profit, and agents taking away a further 15 percent of that, it can take two to three years for most midlist authors to earn back their advance — if they ever do. The publisher, on the other hand, is netting 10-15 times as much as the author, and for what? Midlist authors, even those who have been around for a few years, rarely get any significant amount of the publisher’s promotion budget. Bookstores won’t make the investment in shelf space for an untried author either, so the author is left having to do the work of promoting their book themselves through conventions, websites, and blogs. And yet, even after doing the majority of the work, they still only get the barest percentage of the profit.

Which is not to say that the publishers do nothing. It’s just that the things they do, more often than not, are designed to remove all creative control from the author. Most authors, especially starting out, get no say in their cover art, internal layout, back-of-the-book blurb, or anything else to do with the physical look and feel of the book. Editors employed by the publisher get the final say on cuts and content to be certain that nothing that could hurt their sales might make it through to print. And since only something considered profitable would make it to this point anyway, an author trying to make it in the traditional world doesn’t even have full control over their subject, having to write “what will sell” instead of what they want to write if they expect to keep their contracts current and those advances coming.

“Some Books Don’t Deserve To Be Published”

So, given all that the publisher takes away from the author in terms of control and money, why do the authors continue to throw themselves at the feet of the publishers? From what I’ve seen in the recent spate of blog entries, I have to say it’s because of the sense of elitism that the publishers manage to foster in the authors. By creating this gatekeeper model, they are saying to the author that they are somehow “better” than the scores of aspiring writers that were passed over. And though to the publisher “better” means “more profitable for us”, the authors themselves seem to get a different message and think this means they are simply better and have the right to push their ideas on others.

Ideas like the one starting this section, which I have seen verbatim in a recent blog entry by a traditionally published author, are what I’m talking about. And that single word ‘deserve’ is what gives me pause. Some books are badly written, with poor grammar and spelling. Some have wooden, one-dimensional characters or confusing and unengaging plotlines. Some have subject matter some might consider offensive or simply in poor taste. And there are examples of every one of them sitting on a bookstore shelf somewhere right now. Agents and publishers aren’t in the business of deciding what “deserves” to be published. That’s more the purview of totalitarian regimes and goverment-run media conglomerates. Publishers want to make money, and they select books and authors that will make them money. That is their only criterion. Money, not merit.

And speaking of money, it’s not the only reason people write. A lot of the criticism levelled at self-publishers by traditionally published authors has to do with statements to the effect of “you’ll never make any money that way” or “authors don’t pay, they get paid”. To the second statement, I say if giving over 90 percent of your profits to someone else doesn’t count as paying, I don’t know what does. But as far as the first, it’s important to understand that not everyone has the same goals. Like many small business owners, self publishers generally have no aspirations to become millionaire success stories. They just want to do something they love, share it with the world, and if they can make a modest living at it, that’s a bonus. Self publishing gives them the freedom to write what they want without contractual restrictions or fear of being dropped for being less than stellarly successful, and it allows them to cater to readers that are otherwise not served by what the large houses are pushing out.

The existence of these untapped niche markets is another reason why the traditional publishing model shouldn’t be the only game in town. Because there are people out there who don’t want to read twenty variations of the same story just because it’s popular this month. And no amount of having traditionally published authors pointing at the New York Times Bestseller List is going to change that. Yes, some people will buy what’s available, and some of those books will be bought more often. But that doesn’t provide proof that there isn’t a market for something new anymore than the existence of the Billboard charts means there’s no place for the independent artist. Besides which, bestseller lists, particularly high profile ones like the NYT, are often self-perpetuating. A moderately successful book makes it onto the list, and then many people who wouldn’t have looked at it otherwise buy it only because it’s on a bestseller list, thereby boosting the numbers and pushing it further up the list. It says nothing about how “good” or “enjoyable” a book is, only that it’s been bought a large number of times. It’s entirely possible that a majority of the people who bought the book read it and hated it, but that’s not reflected in the bestseller list because its concern stops at the point of sale.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that on more than one occasion, the same authors putting down self-publishing in the most vehement terms will — often in the same blog entry — announce that self-publishing is “okay for some things” and even add that they “may consider self publishing a future project”. Which just sounds to me like the publishing equivalent of “See? I’m not homophobic; I have a gay friend!” Considering that the “some things” that they allow that self-publishing is “okay” for are usually non-fiction such as memoirs, diaries, or hobby books (for which model trains are for some reason given very frequently as an example), it’s more of a “you stay over there, and I’ll stay over here, and we’ll get along fine” attitude. In other words, things that don’t compete with the fiction that they write are fine, as though reading were a zero-sum game and any self-published book bought means one less book they’re capable of selling.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Self-publishing isn’t a threat to traditional publishing. But in a world where people can call in and vote for who should be the next big thing in music, a guy making Twitter posts of amusing shit his dad says can get a TV deal with CBS, and a chubby kid swinging a toy lightsaber can get a golden ticket to internet infamy, there is a growing culture of democratised entertainment. Rather than being forced to rely on the opinions of a few key people at the top of the industries as to what will line their already swollen wallets that much further, more and more people are beginning to feel that they — as the consumers of the media — should be the ones to decide what is good or not. And the only way that can happen is if they have the access to make the choices themselves without the interference of a profiteering gatekeeper.

Self-publishing and vanity publishing are two growing options to bring new content to people looking to discover the latest secret and be the ones who bring it to their friends. These are the people who relentlessly follow the new underground band from club to club, telling all their friends about them, helping to grow the fan base, and then abandoning them when they’re signed to a big label because they got so popular as to be noticed. In short, not everyone wants to be told what they’re supposed to like just because “everybody” liked it last week.

But, of course, some people do. And there’s room in the world for both.

And just to be clear, since some of these traditionally published authors claim that no self-publishers are saying it: I do not condone what Harlequin did, nor am I a proponent of vanity publishing in general. However, neither do I condemn the practice because if people want to throw money away into unscrupulous business models, they have that right. If they didn’t, Ron Popeil would be bankrupt right now.

Tomorrow there will be another, much shorter, post about vanity and self publishing, but I’ve been working on this for four days now and I need to set it aside now.

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