The State of the Publishing Industry
The line between traditional and indie publishing continues to blur as major houses develop self-publishing imprints. It makes sense from a business standpoint; self-publishing companies are making a lot of money, while traditional publishers have seen their revenue declining. Businesses, like wildebeest in search of a watering hole, follow the money. Here are a few that have cropped up over the last four years:
- In 2011, Penguin started a hybrid community/publishing wing for genre fiction called “Book Country.” It encouraged writers to share their manuscripts with beta readers and then purchase a publishing package. Earlier this year, Penguin lowered the cost of those packages, making them some of the cheapest on this list, and pledged to revamp its community support to make the website less buggy.
- Harlequin’s self-publishing arm launched in 2009, first under the imprint “Harlequin Horizons” and then as “Dellarte Press” after the Romance Writers of America threatened to pull Harlequin from its list of approved publishers. The RWA, like many writer’s unions, requires authors to have sold manuscripts to “approved” publishers in order to earn membership. Removing Harlequin from that list would also have prevented any its books, self-published or otherwise, from being considered for RWA awards.
- Simon & Schuster opened its own self-publishing branch in late 2012. Archway Publishing is on the premium end of the spectrum, with publishing packages ranging from $2000 to $14000 dollars. If you read the FAQ on their website, you’ll notice that your book won’t be edited, designed, marketed, or published by anyone at S&S; it’s all done by a third-party company, Author Solutions.
- Several niche presses have sprung up, including Thomas Nelson’s Christian self-publishing wing, WestBow Press; Guideposts’ “Inspiring Voices”; Hay House’s “Balboa Press,” a self-help/new-age spirituality imprint; and Abbott Press, a division of Writer’s Digest dedicated for literary fiction self-publishing.
What do all of these imprints have in common? They’re all affiliated Author Solutions…and that’s a bad thing for writers.
More Like Author Problems, Amiright?
Author Solutions, which was purchased by Pearson, the parent company of Penguin, in mid-2012 for $116 million dollars, makes most of its money from selling publishing packages to authors. Their umbrella covers a number of divisions, including book publishing arms such as iUniverse and Xlibris. Their packages range anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to well over $10,000.
Let’s take a look at the least expensive package offered by iUniverse. You can, of course, add on al a carte editorial, web design, and marketing services to this basic package, but for $899, you get this:
- One-on-One Author Support
- Non-exclusive contracts
- Volume book discount for authors
- Custom Cover
- ISBN Assignment
- Worldwide Book Distribution
- Author Learning Center (12 Months)
- Digital Formatting and Distribution (eBook)
- Copyright Registration
- 3 Free Softcover Books
- 10 Bookstubs
- 25 Image Insertions
To put it bluntly, this is a total rip-off. I’m sorry if you’re someone who has paid cash money to these people, but the vast majority of “services” they offer can be found for free elsewhere. The non-exclusive contract, author book discount, distribution, ISBN, and customer service support are all free at Createspace. You can learn how to format your book online–it’s really much easier than you think. (I’ll even teach ya for free!)
One of the most egregious business practices on the list is the copyright registration. iUniverse charges $175 for the a la carte service. But if you register it yourself with the government, guess what? It’s only $35. Moreover, you don’t actually need to register. According to the US Copyright Office, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Basically, as soon as you write it down, it’s copyrighted. You can pay to register your copyright if you want to, or if you’re afraid of getting sued for some reason, but it’s not necessary.
The only things of real value in this package are the custom cover design and the “bookstubs,” but even those are wildly overpriced. Freelance graphic designers aren’t that hard to find, and you’ll pay far less than $900 for a top-of-the-line custom cover. While you’re making friends with a freelancer, get them to design a business card with your book cover on the front and your contact info/website/QR code on the back. That’s basically all a “bookstub” is, and you’ll want way more than 20 of them to hand out. You can get a thousand double-sided business cards printed at Overnight Prints for about $35.
Author Solutions, despite it’s complicated web of subsidiaries and seemingly endless strata of pricing tiers, has a very simple business model: get writers to pay lots of money upfront to see their books in print. Whether through naivety or vanity, writers are falling for it. Before ponying up your savings, do yourself a favor and Google “Author Solutions Scam” or “Author Solutions Complaints.” The chances of earning back your investment are minuscule, and, given the staggering number of horror stories from duped authors, the likelihood of regretting your decision is high. There are countless tales of poor-to-absent customer service, murky royalty reporting, and high-pressure sales tactics.
It’s a bum rap for writers, but it’s a great move for publishing houses. Not only do they get to farm out the work of editing, designing, and publishing books to someone else, but instead of paying advances to the writers, the authors will actually pay them for the privilege. And then, should any books actually gain traction, the publishing company can cherry pick those titles and offer a proper book deal.
So What Should You Pay For?
There are some things that you’ll need to spend money on to get a polished, professional product on the market. A cover designer and a proofreader/editor are the most important investments you can make. Shop around, ask to see samples and portfolios, and make sure you understand the level of service you’re paying for. If you want an editor–someone who will look at your work for continuity and style–don’t pay for a proofreader, who will only look at the spelling and grammar of your manuscript. If you want a complicated cover with custom graphics or multiple stock photos, be prepared to pay extra.
Setting up a blog or a Facebook fan page is free, but you should consider buying a unique domain for your website. You should also pay a graphic artist to design business cards for you. Get a thousand printed and hand them out like candy. I’m skeptical about paying for reviews. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly both offer paid reviews for indie authors, but the prices are pretty steep. You’re probably better off courting bloggers, offering cool giveaways, or, best of all, writing more books.
For all you starry-eyed writers out there dreaming of six-figure book deals and royalty checks, it’s time to wake up.
Hard Truth #1: You won’t make much money. Most advances for first-time fiction writers are between $5-10K. (Check out this collection of data from Brenda Hiatt.) The vast majority of books don’t earn out their advance, meaning that you’ll never receive royalties. Even if you’re smart and self-publish without any upfront costs, your royalties will still be less than you want them to be. I received my W2s from Amazon a few days ago, and let’s just say that my royalties from July to December were in the triple digits, yo.
Hard Truth #2: The work doesn’t end once you finish writing your book; in fact, it’s just beginning. If you self-publish, you’ll have to hustle to get your book noticed in the rapidly expanding sea of titles. Paying a company to handle the work for you isn’t a guarantee of success. Hell, landing a publishing contract isn’t exactly a golden ticket, either. Chances are you’ll be doing at least some of your own publicity even if you get a book deal with a major publisher.
Hard Truth #3: You’ll be lucky to sell more than a hundred copies of your book. Check out these depressing statistics from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. The average self-published book sells 100 copies or fewer. In a 2007 interview, Lulu founder Bob Young said, “A publishing house dreams of having 10 authors selling a million books each. Lulu wants a million authors selling 100 books each.” In this business model, the publishing companies are less interested in seeing your book sell than in selling you products.
Hard Truth #4: You’ll probably give up. I’m not gonna lie; the monthly sales figures for my book have been disappointing and discouraging. I worked so hard and made so little money that sometimes I feel like giving up. I probably would give up, except I keep having ideas. Like the poems in Charles Bukowski’s “Tough Company,” I’m stalked by ideas for characters and scenes and plots.
poems like gunslingers
sit around and shoot holes in my windows
chew on my toilet paper
read the race results
take the phone off the hook.
–From “Tough Company”
You’ve got to keep writing and publishing and hustling. You’ve got to write good books that people want to read, and you have to find those people and get your books in their hands. Even if you never make enough money to quit your day job, you have to write. You have to do it, because otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your life being haunted by all the books you didn’t finish.